If Kristen Wiig, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have carved out serious mainstream space for the modern female comic, then Kate McKinnon is making the most of that relatively new arena. Her hilarious Saturday Night Live pastiche on Justin Bieber in his Calvins comes second only to a pitch-perfect turn as Hillary Clinton – the latter so loved that Clinton should thank McKinnon for bolstering her campaign. Add to that a long list of laugh-out-loud characters including Ellen DeGeneres, Jane Lynch and a dance-happy Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and McKinnon is surely the Next Big Comedy Thing.
It’s been a fast ride. Just six years ago, she was working on Logo’s The Big Gay Sketch Show and in the trenches of the UCB Theater. But this year she snagged her fourth Emmy nom for SNL, co-hosted the Spirit Awards with Kumail Nanjiani and starred in the all-female Ghostbusters reboot alongside Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig – a move that set her household-name status in stone.
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“I don’t really know what to make of it,” McKinnon says of her suddenly grown star power. “It’s very strange.” She pauses. “It’s been a wonderful summer,” she says quietly, as though shocked herself.
Growing up in small-town upstate New York, McKinnon and her sister Emily Lynne–now a stand-up comic–made many video sketches for their family and friends, inventing elaborate characters in a foreshadowing of what was to come for them both. “I had a number of dreams,” McKinnon says of that time. “It always seemed so out of reach that I didn’t really dare dream it, but I did love doing wacky characters and I did think that was my best skill. I thought if I could find a way to do this and make any money then that would be ideal.”
McKinnon and Lynne’s co-working scenario later extended to the web series Notary Publix in 2015. The sisters’ comedy career choices are less surprising when McKinnon explains, “There was just a lot of comedy on the TV in the house, and my parents are both very funny. I was just never discouraged from doing something wacky like trying to be a comedian.” Of her fallback dream as a child, McKinnon says, seriously, “I was going to be a still-life oil painter and probably will return to that when they won’t have me anymore.”
McKinnon has previously said her zany Ghostbusters character Jillian Holtzman comes fairly close to her own personality. Was she joking? She was not. “You know I’ve been told I’m a little bit eccentric,” she laughs. “They wrote this character to be an eccentric tech nerd and I just wanted to make a character that was so weird but also so joyful that you could relate to her anyway.”
The Ghostbusters remake proved somewhat controversial in that it attracted something of a fanboy backlash. Those who were protective of the original male version conceived by SNL alums Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi did not warm to the idea of Leslie Jones, McCarthy, McKinnon and Wiig wielding their ghost-blasting guns in a newer, shinier format. But McKinnon brushes off the negative buzz, saying only, “We didn’t talk about it a lot while we were filming. It was just sort of an unfortunate thing that was there in the background. We just were having too much fun with each other to really dwell on it.”
But if Ghostbusters was McKinnon’s first go at blockbuster territory, it’s still her take on Hillary Clinton that cemented both industry and public respect for her comedy chops. Of meeting Clinton, who last year joined her on SNL in the role of bartender, McKinnon says, “She was very gracious and she said that she loved it. She was just very warm and sincere and a joy to be around and actually very funny, which was nice. I thought she did so great in the sketch.”
Does McKinnon feel she’s lending something important to politics? Is there a bigger gratification inherent in her Hillary role? “I mean I never even thought I would get a job in the entertainment industry,” she says. “And then to have one, and to have some small brush with greatness is beyond my wildest dreams. To be involved in any way in politics is just something I never, ever even dreamed of, and it has been so, yes, gratifying is the word, to even have some small part in, or a say about this very historic year.”
Despite the Hillary significance, it seems McKinnon won’t play favorites of her SNL characters. “It’s hard to pick,” she says. “I think of them like my little children.” The softness this statement implies seems like the real woman beneath the comedy. McKinnon’s quiet, hesitant responses to interview questions belie her boisterous on-screen work. In reality, she comes across as understated and self-deprecating, confessing to worrying a great deal about hurting anybody’s feelings with her SNL impressions. “It’s something I really grapple with throughout the week leading up to the show,” she says, “and so whatever makes it to air I’ve thought a lot about and done a lot of soul searching about already. To my knowledge there hasn’t been a ton of upset about something I’ve done, thank god. That would really upset me.”
Each character impression involves intense and careful preparation. For Bieber, for example, McKinnon watched “a lot of stuff until I found something that tickled me on a deep level. Like for him I found this one music video he did that I just got such a charge out of, so I copied a lot of the moves from that and that became the bulk of the impression.”
McKinnon’s star is set to rise only higher with three film projects currently in the offing. First up is Masterminds, the much-delayed Jared Hess comedy. “I wanted to do it because I was a huge Napoleon Dynamite fan,” McKinnon says. “I love Jared Hess’ movies. He’s such a weirdo and such a nice, funny guy.” She pauses thoughtfully, then adds kindly, “‘Weirdo’ I say in a celebratory way, not as weird as me.”
Then there’s the upcoming Office Christmas Party, a madcap romp in which McKinnon seems to be contractually attached to a hideous hand-knit sweater. “That was really a blast,” she says. “There was a scene that was shot in a car with Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman and Olivia Munn and I just looked at myself in this car with these people and I thought, what is my life? This is so cool. I can’t believe I’m here.”
McKinnon’s humility also extended to taking notes from her fellow actors. “Those two in particular,” she says, “Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston, were playing sort of straight man characters in this movie and I just would watch them and I didn’t understand how they were managing to be that funny. They are such good actors and just a slight movement of a tiny muscle in their face would just be the most hilarious thing. The level of subtlety and groundedness that they were doing was just blowing my mind. That was very instructive to watch up close.”
As we speak, McKinnon is about to start shooting the Lucia Aniello-directed Rock Your Body. (“In a couple weeks, baby!”) The film follows a Miami bachelorette party dogged by a dead male stripper. “It will be starring Scarlett Johansson,” McKinnon says. “She’s a new up-and-comer who you probably haven’t seen yet. And Ilana Glazer and Jillian Bell, and that’s going to be a damn blast.” Is she ready to get to work? “I’m never quite as prepared as I like to be or as I plan to be, but don’t tell them that.”
Despite rubbing shoulders on the big screen with the best in the business, McKinnon still cites SNL as her toughest gig to date. However, typically, she gives the most props to her co-workers. “I work with some of the funniest writers in the country,” she says. “They make it easy, but just to come up with 90 minutes of material a week is a feat and it’s a credit to all of my colleagues that that happens.”
Having achieved her biggest childhood dream, is anything on the bucket list left undone? “I just like playing unique characters that I love,” McKinnon says. “So I’d like to do that for as long as I can, as long as they’ll let me. Then after that I will pick up my paintbrush. It’s all fine.”
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