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With a Wink and a Toke

Over the course of her six-year stint on "Saturday Night Live," Ana Gasteyer created sketch comedy staples like NPR radio host Margaret Jo and middle-school music teacher Bobbie Moughan-Culp--that is, when she wasn't delivering deadly impersonations of Martha Stewart and Celine Dion. But having grown tired of the confining nature of sketch comedy, Gasteyer left the show in 2002. Unlike her SNL peers Jimmy Fallon (whose new movie "Fever Pitch" opens this weekend) and Will Ferrell (who is in, well, everything), Gasteyer has had a handful of smaller film roles, tending instead to stick to her on-stage roots. In 2003, she played Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl" at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and has more recently been sporadically performing her one-woman show, "Ana Gasteyer: Let It Rip! An Evening of Song," in New York and Los Angeles. She was also just cast as Elphaba in the Chicago production of "Wicked."

Gasteyer returns to the small screen this month in Showtime's campy satirical remake of the unintentionally hilarious and stunningly inaccurate 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film "Reefer Madness." She plays Mae, a drug pusher's moll with a heart of gold (and occasional black eye). The slapstick-kitschy flick lifts lines and plot twists from the original, recasting it as a musical with its tongue surgically implanted in cheek. It may not be for everyone, but it will have fans of the cult classic--and dorm-room stoners--giggling through their munchies. Gasteyer recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker about "Reefer Madness" and life after "SNL." Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: So I watched "Reefer Madness," as well as the original, which is hilarious.

Ana Gasteyer: I am totally impressed that you sat through the old one. That's a stinker. It is hilarious. It's so awful.

Do you think they thought it was good when they were making it?

It is my understanding from that the original creators of the film were a Christian church group. The actors had a minor sense of the irony about what was happening because they were Hollywood aspirant actors, but the actual filmmakers believed what they were doing, in the propaganda. The original Mae was this actress named Thelma White, who passed away last winter, and she actually attended the L.A. stage production and thought it was very funny and a send-up. And she indicated apparently that they knew it was a little OTT [over the top]. I'm sure they were all partiers themselves.

So did you do any method acting for this movie.

You know, it's not my bag, believe it or not.

Sure, I believe it.

You do? You know, I'm such a speed-up kind of gal and it's a slow-down kind of drug. That's what's so funny about it. They portray it like it's a speedball or cocaine, over-the-top crystal meth. I don't enjoy anything that renders me verbally useless.

There are some direct lines and scenes from the original that have ended up in this remake.

It definitely begins as a parody and turns into a musical. It's a little bit of both. That's what made it fun to perform: it covered a lot of territory from an acting standpoint and a comedy standpoint--between pure '30s dialect and parody and glamour. And frankly, the female characters in '30s films tend to be more exciting than a lot of what you see today. It's just fun to play these tortured archetypal heroines.

You did your own singing?

Oh yeah, we all did our own singing.

You were just cast in "Wicked." It sounds like life after "SNL" is going pretty well.

The first preview is June 24 in Chicago. Tickets went on sale yesterday; I was in Chicago and it actually really was exciting. I drove by and there was a line around the block. It was really cool. So far so good. I really put my mind to diversifying. Granted, sketch is an extremely diverse art form--you have to do something different every day--but I wanted to improve the more disciplined parts of what I do. Singing requires enormous discipline. I studied voice in college.

You even performed at Lilith Fair, didn't you?

I did, isn't that wild? I love that you know that. But not as me, as Cinder Calhoun, my folk-singer character.

Were you nervous at all leaving "Saturday Night Live"? The track record of people going on to have healthy long careers is spotty.

I wasn't because there isn't a track record for women so far. It's just unique to the performer and what they want to pursue. People say "whatever happened to blah-blah-blah?" But they aren't very aware. Some people can have a pretty vibrant life in the theater or they can have a voiceover career people don't know about. If it's not like the big-boy $20 million movie world, people seem to forget that there are a lot of other options in the arts. Besides that, I wasn't nervous about it. I was anxious to go on and grow and develop as an actor.

Also, just being on that show must take a real toll.

It definitely does. It's physically, emotionally exhausting, which is documented everywhere. More than that, depending on who you are, you come to a point where a three-to-five-minute container for my comedy or performing was starting to feel restrictive. To me it's logical that I jumped into theater, because I instantly dove into this situation where I can play one character over two-and-a-half-hour time every day for eight shows a week for a sustained period of time. You're kind of in suspended animation while you're on "SNL" because you're just generating a lot under pressure and in that context it's not always easy to garner new resources. You're pulling it off a lot.

You were even pregnant during your last season.

I was way pregnant my whole last season. She'll be 3 in June. So far she's a gypsy child. She has been everywhere and she is very open to the whole thing. She wears ruby slippers to sleep at night, so I thought it was a good sign.

Or a terrifying sign.

Either one, yeah. I don't know, it's a pretty good life we live, we actors. I wouldn't mind if she became one.

I have never heard an actor say that about their child.

I confess that I poached that from [comedienne] Andrea Martin, who I met doing a benefit. She's right. It's sort of this popular idea to roll our eyes and say "God I hope she doesn't become an actor." But we have such a great life! I've seen the whole country. I hang out with people who sing and dance. A former therapist of mine told me that people who sing every day are statistically happier. It's just a happy bunch of people, and it's a creative outlet and I wouldn't mind at all if that's what she wanted to do. I'm not going to push her into Pampers commercials, though.

NEWSWEEK recently did a Q&A with Gene Wilder who said that comedians are like needy children.

I would agree with that. "SNL" drew its own kind of damage. There's an amazing Herculean athletic discipline to comedy, it depends on the person. I do think that our era of "SNL" tended to draw a few more comedic actors than comedians, per se, so the crazy factor was slightly dissipated. But on the whole it's not the healthiest bunch of people. In the movie, we all were obsessed with "Young Frankenstein," we were all camp obsessed. It's funny that you talked to Gene Wilder, because our goal was to have it be somewhere between "Evita" and Mel Brooks. Hopefully we achieved it.

I did like it even though I really wasn't expecting to.

There's a little something for everyone. One of the things I feel proud about is that there's kind of something for the musical-theater lover and there's also something for the musical-theater cynic. You have to be pretty cognizant these days that there are a lot of people who find musicals corny. And because it's a modern take on an old, old movie, there's a little wink about what it's doing.

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