SNL’s Kate McKinnon takes comedy to new heights

She talks to herself, does interviews in an Australian accent and has surreal run-ins with croissants. Are the crazed but lovable characters she plays really so far from her true self?
SNL’s Kate McKinnon takes comedy to new heights

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Photography Martin Schoeller

A trickle of rain-slicked figures enters a Manhattan lunch spot, each of them a potential Kate McKinnon. The white-hot talent from Saturday Night Live, whose virtuoso impressions have effectively quadrupled the cast she joined in 2012, is not so easy to pick out when she’s being herself. Finally, a younger, scruffier version of Kellyanne Conway walks through the door. Mystery solved. 

McKinnon is far more than the breakout star of SNL (and, in 2016, its first Emmy-winning cast member in 23 years). In each of the three dozen or so real or imagined characters she plays on the show, she demonstrates the note-perfect mimicry of a savant, then cranks it up for a few minutes of crazy that enters the national discourse by Sunday morning. Her scathingly funny Hillary Clinton not only played on widespread impressions of the politician, but also helped to shape them. 

McKinnon’s impact on the big screen is on its way to becoming just as significant. In last year’s all-female reboot of Ghostbusters, she stole every scene. In this month’s raunchy Rough Night (June 16), she plays oddball Australian bestie to co-star Scarlett Johansson’s wilding-out bachelorette, in a film that will surely generate some of the more quotable (and—be warned—unprintable) lines of the year. 

Offscreen, however, the 33-year-old manages to fly under the radar, and this is all her own doing. She is an intensely private, self-effacing person who has always been more at ease talking in voices other than her own. She has no social media profile and rarely discusses her personal life. Her dress sense, meanwhile, falls somewhere between “smart-casual” and “pragmatic”—terms she soon clarifies to mean “rags. I dress in rags.” 

That’s an overstatement, but not a massive one. Today, she looks dressed for NYPD plainclothes duty: black parka with a light spray of cat hair, sleepwalker-casual sweatpants, a gray knit cap and black zippered hoodie. With a quick wave at the door, she walks briskly to the table and sets down a formidable pair of headphones and a safety-orange rubberized iPhone. “It’s just a waterproof case my friend got me,” she says. “Because I dropped it in the toilet.” She sits, removes her cap and fixes me with a level blue gaze. 

“You look great!” I say.

You look great? Seriously? What is this, an interview or a date? But McKinnon, with her full lips, honey-blonde hair and wide blue-agate eyes, does look great, like a 1960s Euro film bombshell. “You mean I look rested?” she replies, one eyebrow raised. And then: “Are you kidding me?!”

After a gut-plunging second, McKinnon explains that this last comment was aimed at her Fitbit rather than me. “My heart rate’s up,” she says with a pout, holding up the screen and adding in a boo-boo voice, “Ninety-four.” 

Such are the perils of finding yourself in Kate McKinnon’s Peculiarity Field. Onscreen, she has a rare, disruptive charisma that critics are still struggling to define. Her work draws from a skill set that’s almost unfair: a forensic eye for detail, a baseline empathy for difficult people and the ear of a trained musician. Like all great impressionists, she’ll pick up on a mannerism or theme and blow it up out of proportion—only McKinnon takes it farther than most. Her Gumpified Jeff Sessions is a work of genius.  

There are moments when McKinnon moves beyond parody and into pathos, as with her recent iterations of Hillary Clinton. Where Amy Poehler’s SNL impressions of the politician had been relatively restrained, McKinnon gave her an infectious, power-mad zeal: “I will rise from the ashes like a phoenix—nay, like a Hillary Clinton!” raged her candidate-gone-wild, a lambent stare radiating lust for the highest office. 

Last fall, McKinnon’s more freewheeling Clinton culminated in the most singular opening sequence in SNL’s 40-year history. In an episode just after the election, she sat alone at a grand piano, in a cream-colored pantsuit, and sang a moving rendition of Leonard Cohen’s elegy “Hallelujah.” Then, turning tear-brimmed eyes to the camera, she delivered the distinctly unfunny line: “I’m not giving up. And neither should you.” McKinnon describes the performance as “the most real and myself I’ve ever been.”



 

Born in 1984, McKinnon grew up in sea Cliff, Long Island, the eldest of two daughters of a social-worker mom and architect dad (who died when she was in her teens). A theater and music nerd almost from the time she could walk, by junior high she was learning to play piano and cello, a fact that she was keen to share with her schoolmates. “I loudly proclaimed my love of classical music,” she says. “Something I now look back on and want to smack myself.” 

She recalls watching her father work—“I’d go to his office and watch him draw. I thought it was beautiful”—but his biggest influence was encouraging her to watch Saturday Night Live. Only she didn’t just watch it. She taped sketches, transcribed them, then re-watched them with text in hand. She also studied the films of Christopher Guest and Mel Brooks. She guesses that she’s seen Robin Hood: Men in Tights “upwards of 50 times.”

Other than a tendency to wear costumes to school, McKinnon’s early years fall well within the range of suburban-American normal. She was even a Girl Scout, though she dropped out around seventh grade. “The troop sort of disbanded,” she says. 

A theater major at Columbia, she co-founded various improv and musical-comedy groups, performed in stage productions and perpetrated baroquely orchestrated public pranks with the squad Prangstgrüp. 

There was never any doubt what McKinnon wanted to do with her life. After her 2006 graduation, she joined the cast of The Big Gay Sketch Show on Logo TV. Two years later, she started performing at the Upright Citizens Brigade, co-founded by Amy Poehler. By this time, a longstanding, vaguely OCD ritual had begun to bloom into something more significant. 

When McKinnon is alone on the street or the subway, she says, she talks and laughs to herself, at full volume. At such moments, she yields to a manic semi-fugue state that, to the casual observer, must look a bit nuts. She channels this tendency into her onscreen characters, who fall into the happy-crazy bracket rather than the muttering malcontent. “I know it’s always funner to watch someone who’s smiling, who’s enjoying life,” she says. “And if that person’s circumstances are odd in some way, I play it like they’re just having a ball anyway.”

A while back, McKinnon quipped that her showbiz career arose from the need to keep these public outbursts in check. “I didn’t want to be one of those people who’s always talking in accents in real life,” she said, “so I started doing sketch comedy.” The joke played well at the time, even though it wasn’t really a joke. “Oh, I was being honest,” McKinnon says now, enunciating crisply through a fixed jaw and a bite of chocolate croissant. 

Whatever the origins of her babushka news commentator Olya Povlatsky, cat-shelter volunteer Barbara DeDrew or aging actress Debette Goldry, McKinnon’s characters have made her a star. Having helped SNL’s ratings to hit a 12-year high, she has joined the circle of cast members who defined the show’s legacy. But McKinnon offers something new and pleasantly transgressive, even when she’s working firmly within the mainstream. 

After the release of Ghostbusters last year, McKinnon’s Dr. Jillian Holtzmann became an instant cult hit. With her sultry-geeky swagger and Tank Girl-meets-Furiosa style—jumpsuit, combat boots, goggles, bedraggled hair—Holtzmann became an unlikely heartthrob. In her first scene in the extended edition of the film, she introduces herself to Kristen Wiig’s character: “Holtzmann. Virgo. Avid skier. Gluten-full. And a hundred-percent jazzed to meet you.”

She’s being flirtatious here, but she’s doing it weirdly, like an alien who has picked up on aspects of human behavior—not all of them chosen well—in an effort to impersonate one.  McKinnon seems to like this idea. “That’s how I thought of it,” she says with a smile. 




Onscreen and off, McKinnon is very good with foreign accents and affectations. In Rough Night, she disappears so completely into her role she could easily be mistaken for some brash import from Down Under. “I was worried about doing it for an entire film,” she says of her accent. So she did what she always does: dug deep, listening to hours and hours of Australian podcasts, so much so that she became a kind of armchair expert in its culture—or, as she puts it, “I ended up learning about the latest [Australian] novels.” 

After a brief attempt to conduct the rest of the interview in an Aussie accent, McKinnon switches to flawless French. She attributes her preoccupation with language to being “a geography nut.” She also believes, to some degree at least, that geography is character. “While people who come from a certain place have unique personas of their own, there’s still something about being from this place that’s common to their psyche,” she says. “However small it is, it’s there in the way they speak.”

On paper, Rough Night is a post-Bridesmaids bacchanal with the requisite gals-gone-wild mishaps and female-empowering crudeness. But the crazed characters are so precisely drawn that they seem rooted in real life—and that, more than the squalid set-pieces, is what makes the film stand out. “You’ve seen people like this, but you haven’t seen them on screen before,” McKinnon says. “Which is, I think, the work of comedy: to take a thing that people recognize but hasn’t been written yet.”

One indelible example of such a character is Deenie, a.k.a. “Somebody’s Mom,” the TV critic on SNL’s “Weekend Update.” Kicking back behind a news desk, the silver-haired frump delivers capsule reviews of half-recalled soap operas while forking up bites of leftovers from an ever-present Tupperware container. McKinnon describes the role as one of her favorites. “I love her!”

Deenie is based on the real-life mother of SNL writer Paula Pell, “who’s the most genius, hilarious person I know,” says McKinnon. “My only addition was her eating from Tupperware.” She’s being modest here: The plastic container is key to Deenie’s character—evidence of a complete lack of self-consciousness, and a reflexive disregard for convention. Pell sent McKinnon a video of her mom watching a Deenie segment, laughing with joy. “That,” McKinnon says, “was my favorite thing that ever happened.”

If McKinnon’s array of eccentrics share a single defining characteristic, this is it—a blithe indifference to what others may think about their behavior. “It’s just more joyful to watch someone who should feel humiliated but it wouldn’t occur to them,” she says. She sees this quality most vividly in Will Ferrell’s characters, particularly the nude model Terrence Maddox: “So joyful. So confident. With absolutely no reason to be. I suppose I’m trying to achieve that myself.” 

At such moments, it can be difficult to determine if McKinnon is talking about herself or the people she plays. “I mean, they’re all odd,” she says at one point. “And, you know, I’m odd.”

Odd how?

“Well, you must be seeing some things that strike you as odd.”

Not floridly odd, I offer, then sit out a brief but painful silence.

“Oh,” McKinnon responds finally. “That’s … I guess … um … nice.”

With this, she sits bolt upright and remains frozen for several seconds. An intense focus fills her big blue eyes. Then, in a studied motion, she extends her right index finger, brings it around to touch the side of her nose, does the same with her other hand, then leans back in silence. 

What just happened?

“I was trying not to sneeze on your croissant.”

It’s a considerate gesture. And odd.