She is SNL’s resident pop genius, a performer who can make Hillary Clinton seem warm and vulnerable and Jeff Sessions seem (almost) relatable. GQ goes behind the scenes to see the sketch-comedy master in her element.
Kate McKinnon was walking across New York City, alone, with Hillary Clinton’s voice in her ears. It was the fall of 2017, and she was listening to the audiobook of Clinton’s memoir What Happened, read aloud by Clinton herself. This was leisure, not business—though she had spent plenty of hours studying the inflections of Clinton’s voice in order to master it for Saturday Night Live. “I walk and I listen,” McKinnon told me when we met up this spring. “That’s my free time. That’s my whole life.” With Clinton, she said, her hope was to create an impression that articulated “the tension between her ambition and really wanting to do something in the world, the self-sacrifice and the self-censure that it takes to do that.”
McKinnon’s recurring characters on SNL have that same mix of hard and soft edges, from Sheila Sovage, the drunk trying to hook up before last call, to Ms. Rafferty, the hard-bitten survivor of an alien abduction. But it’s her impressions of real people that have produced some of her most unforgettable moments on-screen. In addition to Clinton, she’s played Justin Bieber, Kellyanne Conway, Ellen DeGeneres, Robert Durst, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Angela Merkel, Robert Mueller, Jeff Sessions, and dozens more.
Even when she’s poking fun at her subjects—which is always—she imbues them with an empathy bordering on love. “That’s the name of the game,” she said. “You can’t be judging someone as you’re embodying them. You have to find the point of connection—something you find delightful. Even if you’re intending to skewer someone, you also have to find something that you truly like about them. If you’re mean, it ain’t fun to watch. And if it ain’t fun to watch, they turn off the TV.”
There have been moments when that embodiment—to adopt the word that McKinnon frequently uses to describe her impressions—seemed almost to overwhelm her. The week after the 2016 presidential election, as Clinton, she sang a version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for SNL‘s “cold open,” the sketch that kicks off the show, that nearly brought her to tears.
The original plan that night was for each of the female cast members to talk to the camera, one by one, about how she felt after Donald Trump’s victory, culminating in McKinnon singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The prop people went so far as to procure a white piano for her to play. But late in the week, producer Lorne Michaels told me, he decided that approach was too partisan. “In the end, we’re a comedy show,” he said. “You can’t forget that.”
Instead, Michaels suggested that McKinnon sing “Hallelujah,” solo. “I think she was conflicted about that,” he recalled, “because she was very supportive of it being a group thing.” But if anyone could represent the whole cast in a way they could be proud of, Michaels said, it was McKinnon: “There are very few people who can do this kind of work on the level that she does. It’s genius.”
McKinnon remembered feeling nervous. “I knew the half of the country that was happy with what happened would not like it, and I don’t like to alienate anybody. But I also just had such an earnest desire to show people how I was feeling—a visceral desire to communicate.”
As the song ended that night, she turned to the camera, her eyes shining, and said, “I’m not giving up, and neither should you. Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”
“It was so loaded,” Aidy Bryant, a fellow cast member and close friend, said of the performance. “She was alone, truly alone out there with the eyes of America on her. And the most amazing feat was that she was equally Kate and equally Hillary. I totally saw my friend performing and the person I had hoped would be president.”
Flash forward ten months. McKinnon was on foot, walking and listening, when she heard Clinton narrate her own description of that moment: “[McKinnon] sat at a grand piano and played ‘Hallelujah,’ the hauntingly beautiful song by Leonard Cohen, who had died a few days before. As she sang, it seemed like she was fighting back tears. Listening, so was I.”
McKinnon stopped on the sidewalk, overcome. For months, she told me, she had felt an emotional attachment to Clinton but believed it had to be one-sided—“because she wasn’t doing research on me and trying to get inside my head and write from my perspective.” Now she knew Clinton felt the attachment, too.
“The whole reason that I like doing this is because I want to talk to people,” McKinnon said. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but my voice is quite soft, and I speak slowly, and I feel it’s easier for me to talk to people through the medium of sketch comedy. Ironically, if I’m in a wig, that’s my unadulterated self.” So to discover that she and Clinton had had a moment of connection, even just through a television screen, was deeply moving. Reliving that moment, she paused and swallowed hard. “That’s why I get out of bed.”
On a Saturday in April, McKinnon invited me to see her in her natural habitat, Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center, where SNL is filmed. When I arrived, the place smelled strongly of Magic Markers as four assistants methodically inked 1,000 cue cards. A run-through of that night’s cold open would start in 30 minutes. The full dress rehearsal would be a few hours later. There was a lot of adrenaline in the air.
I stuck my head into a room that had a shelf full of life-size foam heads holding wigs for the guest host (tonight: Chadwick Boseman) and every member of the cast. I checked out the spot where Michaels would perch during dress rehearsal, gauging how much laughter each sketch produced (he would eliminate two or three sketches before the show went live). Heading down a narrow hallway, I nearly collided with McKinnon. She was wearing a T-shirt and sweats, her blonde hair pinned tight to her head, wig-ready. She said hello, but her blue eyes flashed in a way that signaled she couldn’t stop to talk.
“I often run around on Saturdays saying, ‘Oh, my God, this is like a sporting event,’ ” she had warned me earlier. “I’ve never watched a sporting event, but I think it’s that kind of mentality—really physical and mental focus for 12 hours or so. There is, quite literally, a clock ticking down throughout the day. It’s scary. And thrilling. You know: Are we going to win, or not?”
McKinnon shares an office with Bryant, where they spend most Tuesdays writing sketches. “We sit there in silence and then share the vicissitudes of our lives and then seamlessly go back to being silent together,” McKinnon said. Everyone who works with McKinnon raves about her deftness as a comedy writer. “Kate is always, always, always fighting to make something better. Make a joke funnier. Make a sketch sharper,” said Chris Kelly, a former head writer for the show. “She is constantly writing, right up until and during the live show. She’ll run up to you in the hall with a crumpled-up little script, just covered in pitches.”
On Wednesdays, the cast gathers for the table read of that week’s sketches; Thursdays are for shooting pre-taped sketches and some rehearsals; Fridays are usually when “Weekend Update” and the host’s monologue get written and also when other sketches, overtaken by the Trump news cycle, get revised. (“It didn’t used to be that way,” said writer Kent Sublette. “In the Obama years, if we wrote a cold open on Wednesday, it would usually stick.” But in the Trump era, “every five seconds there’s some crazy thing that you have to address.”)
Saturdays are a full-on sprint to the finish: sketch rehearsals all day, an 8 P.M. dress rehearsal, followed by an all-cast meeting in Michaels’s office to tweak what isn’t working, and then, at 11:30 P.M., it’s “Live! From New York!…” and the show begins. The night I visited, McKinnon appeared in the cold open and five other sketches, plus she helped warm up the audience before the show, singing backup for Kenan Thompson’s off-air rendition of “Gimme Some Lovin’.” (And this was a light night for her.) When the show wraps, everyone is so revved up that sleep will be impossible. “That’s what the afterparty is for,” said McKinnon, who typically gets home around 4 or 5 A.M.
Sunday is her one day off, when, she said, “I’m suddenly thrust back into my physical reality.” Since she’s spent the rest of her week “in this metaphysical ‘What are we going to say and how are we going to say it?’ plane,” the transition can be jarring. “I wake up when I wake up,” she said. Then, her “big outing” is usually a trip to the grocery store, where “the big question is ‘Will there be an avocado that I can use that morning, or will I have to wait for it to ripen?’ ” Perhaps she will clean up the litter that her cat—a rescue named Nino that she often refers to as “my son”—has spilled into the hallway. “Sometimes,” she continued, “I can get it together to vacuum the rug.”
If it sounds a bit hermit-like, that’s because it is. If she does go out, “it’s because I’ve been beckoned to show up for something for one of my friends. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t.” And this can be a problem, comedically speaking. Sometimes, she said, “on Monday morning, I’ll say, ‘What did I do? Did I live at all in the last week? Did I experience anything, other than something that I saw on Netflix, and can I make a joke out of it?’ ” Often the answer is no. “It’s by accident that I live,” McKinnon said. “I try sometimes to live just so I’ll have something to say.”
In at least one respect, McKinnon is exaggerating how uneventful her home life is: She likes to paint, though the fumes from the oil pigments quickly fill her one-bedroom Upper East Side apartment and make breathing “toxic.” For years she painted portraits, but now she does only still lifes with “as much photo-realism as I can muster, which is not,” she said with a huge sigh, “nearly as much as some other people can muster.”
At her suggestion, we met at a Manhattan museum, the Frick Collection, which she said she first visited on a field trip from her Long Island high school. “Am I being recorded?” she whispered into my digital recorder as we maneuvered through the nearly silent crowd. No one noticed McKinnon: Her hair was pulled back and she wore black jeans, a denim button-down over a white T-shirt, black tennies, and nerdy black-framed glasses. It was a mild, rainy day, and the galleries were toasty warm, but the way she carried herself—arms crossed in front of her, her fingers jammed high into her armpits—brought to mind a tiny, frostbitten Arctic explorer attempting to thaw her own digits.
She was amused, she said, that she had brought an interviewer to a place where—oops!—it felt rude to make any sound, let alone talk. Not that anyone had shushed us. “Let the record show that everyone’s being very respectful,” she said, her lips just millimeters from my microphone. “Probably we’re going to walk out of here in a little bit.”
But there was something she wanted to show me first: an oil painting, circa 1440 or so, of the Virgin Mary, the baby Jesus, a couple of saints, and a kneeling monk. “These Dutch Renaissance painters!” she exclaimed. “Why were they able to produce such exquisite, immaculate detail in the drapery, but they couldn’t get the head sizes right?” I saw her point: Every noggin was either too big or too small relative to its body. “The heads are crazy weird,” McKinnon said. “It drives me wild!”
With that, she ushered me to an exit, and we stepped into the rain, huddling under a tiny umbrella that McKinnon held overhead. This took some doing, as I am half a foot taller than her not quite five feet four inches, but she insisted, graciously, because I had a notebook and pen to wield. She steered me uptown toward the Carlyle Hotel (“The Carlyle will take care of us!”), and we began to talk about her childhood, as the elder of two daughters in a comedy-loving family, and specifically about her childhood obsessions, which included watching, recording, and then meticulously transcribing the dialogue of two iconic TV shows: SNL and The X-Files.
Her interest in SNL needs no explanation. Her father, an architect, was a huge fan, which helped, but also those were the Cheri Oteri/Molly Shannon/Ana Gasteyer years, and McKinnon admired them so much it hurt. (When McKinnon was 26, Oteri would hire her to do an episode of the 2010 web series Life Coach; meeting her, the younger comedian said, was “like the universe cracked open.”) The X-Files, meanwhile, was the perfect melding of horror and science, she told me, with soliloquies on faith and meaning thrown in for good measure. When I told her that I’d read that she had dressed up as Agent Scully for one Halloween, winning a costume competition, she confirmed it: “Trench coat, business suit, red wig cut into a bob.”
When she was 12, McKinnon has said, it was her “physiological reaction” to Gillian Anderson’s Scully that made her realize she was gay. A few years later, McKinnon told one interviewer, she came out to her mother, a parent educator, who responded: “Fine, love it. Whatever you want to be.”
She was a theater major at Columbia, where as a senior she was chosen to be a regular on The Big Gay Sketch Show, a Rosie O’Donnell-produced cable series aimed at an LGTBQ audience. “She was,” O’Donnell told me, “far and away the most talented person that we had in the cast.” The show ended after three seasons, and to eat, McKinnon held down a variety of odd jobs, including working as an “unsuccessful” telemarketer of SAT-prep classes.
It was during this period that she tried stand-up comedy precisely twice. The first time went okay, she said, but the second was one of the worst experiences of her life. After her two-and-a-half-minute set, a booker from the Aspen Comedy Festival told her, “You didn’t really do enough for me to evaluate whether I liked it, but what I did see I didn’t like.” McKinnon drowned her sorrows afterward at a Hooters and decided to stick with sketch comedy. She refers to the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City, where she was a regular in the late 2000s, as her comedy graduate school.
At her SNL audition, in 2012, she impersonated Penelope Cruz and Sally Field and was “highly prepared. I’m not usually highly prepared, but for that—the pinnacle of everything I’d been working for—I decided to be.” During the three weeks she waited to hear from Michaels, she stayed in her apartment and painted. “I still have the painting that I was trying to do,” she told me. “It remains unfinished.”
When she was younger, she was chatty and confessional in interviews on friends’ web-only talk shows, but since she joined SNL, she’s become more protective of her personal life. (“The Internet. God, I hate it,” she told me. “Are you writing down ‘She hates the Internet’? Oh God. Oh no.”) Paraphrasing the comedian Sue Perkins, she told me her sexuality is “like the 40th-most interesting thing” about her. On SNL, she prefers to be playful about the issue. In one skit, she spoofed Jodie Foster’s speech at the 2013 Golden Globe Awards, which was intended as her coming out but fell confusingly short. “Here we go,” McKinnon-as-Foster intoned. “I am…gayyyyyme for anything. I’m just totally game for anything! Also, I am officially a Lez-lie Nielsen fan. I just thought you all should know that. And I am obsessed with girls. The show! I just love that show. So: Whooo!”
McKinnon told me, “I get criticized by people who know me the best for not sharing enough details about my day or my life. I am just quite an insular person, I guess.” When I asked her why she decided to stop talking publicly about her personal life, her response was solemn. “I need to think about this,” she said. I would have to wait 24 hours to get her answer.
At the Carlyle at last, McKinnon made fun of her decision to go to the Frick. “Remember when we were in the museum?” she asked. “That was unsustainable. It could have been a good idea. It was a bad idea. And I’ll take full credit for that.”
A waiter brought us two pots of chamomile tea. McKinnon took a sip, then spat it onto the crisp, white tablecloth. The spit take, she insisted, was unintentional: “I often spit to be funny, but that really was too hot, and it dribbled out, so I apologize.” A moment later, she became so entranced by a conversation at the next table that she couldn’t finish a sentence. It felt as though she were searching for anything to take the spotlight off herself.
I asked about the future. She’s appeared in several films—most notably last year’s Rough Night, an ensemble comedy with Scarlett Johansson, and the all-female Ghostbusters in 2016. In each of those films, McKinnon stole the show. (In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis called her Ghostbusterscharacter “a sublime nerd goddess.”) Still, the careers of some past SNL stars indicate there could be bumps in the road ahead. Sketch-comedy prowess doesn’t always translate to box-office gold, I said.
“I mean, I think about it,” she said. “There’s nothing concrete. All I know is that I do really love, apparently, going somewhere for two months and meeting 70 new people.” Making movies on location agrees with McKinnon: “It’s kind of [like] summer camp. You get really close to people really fast. I’m really close to everyone at SNL as well. But you know how you have school friends, and that’s, like, your core? But then there’s something about a camp friend, knowing that it’s finite—it’s so emotionally heightened? If I could go to summer camp for the rest of my life, that would be great.”
Her next film, The Spy Who Dumped Me, co-starring Mila Kunis, opens in August, and it pulls off something rare in commercial Hollywood: a female buddy picture in which the stars do more than merely bicker and fret over their relationships with men. The movie’s director and co-writer, Susanna Fogel, told me McKinnon helped hone the script.
As usual, McKinnon walks away with the film; at the screening I saw, all the big laughs came in reaction to her wonderfully weird delivery and brilliantly executed pratfalls. (The movie also has a memorable cameo from none other than Gillian Anderson.) Fogel said that McKinnon is someone who can “expand on everyone’s idea of what a movie star is and what a comedy star is and what a love interest is.”
Which brings us back, in a roundabout loop, to McKinnon’s decision to stop talking about her private life. By insisting on keeping mum, it’s as if she’s trying to expand the definition of a movie star, willing into existence a world in which performers don’t have to reveal their inner selves in order to publicize their work. The day after our tea at the Carlyle, I stopped by the photo shoot for this story, and she beckoned me over. “I’ve thought about your question,” she said. “I just… I decided in my mid-20s that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing personal details like I had in the previous few years. And I just have run with that ever since.”
We were standing in the hallway of a vast warehouse where she’d been asked to put on a glamorous gown, then impersonate a rock star, then have an iguana crawl up her leg. She’d been game throughout, donning costumes and striking poses. “The reason I was a horrible stand-up comedian,” she continued, “is that you must speak your utter truth with details—the realer and more gruesome, the better. And I just decided that I hated the feeling of doing that. I so much more loved the feeling of disappearing into a character that was saying what I wanted to say and came from my heart. But was not me.”