In six seasons on Saturday Night Live, Kate McKinnon has established herself as a comedic force: an Emmy-winning, character-creating powerhouse who instills every Hillary, RBG, Ellen, Justin—and even Kellyanne—with both hilarity and heart. A year after her wonderfully wacky performance in Ghostbusters, the Long Island native and Columbia grad issolidifying her movie-star stripes opposite Scarlett Johansson (and Zoë Kravitz! And Ilana Glazer! And Jillian Bell!) in this summer’s insanely funny bachelorette-party comedy, Rough Night. On the occasion of her second ELLE cover, McKinnon, 33, spoke with SNL superalum Tina Fey about career idols, Leslie Jones, and the j-word (okay, fine, we’ll tell you: It’s joy).
Tina Fey: Hello?
Kate McKinnon: Fey?
TF: Hey, who is this?
KM: I don’t know anymore. I can’t keep track.
TF: It’s Tuesday, right? Have you written anything yet?
KM: I sure was in the room while a sketch was being written.
TF: It’s a little hard, Tuesday night is.
KM: I’m not even a writer, oh my God. They’ve got it the worst.
TF: Yeah, they do. I forget, and then I talk to you, and it brings me back. I’ve found that I’d get these weird things that would only happen at SNL, where I’ll be like, “If I come out of the subway to the right and take this stairwell, my sketch will get on.” I’ve never had that before or after in my life. Do you have that?
KM: No. I just have very specific Tuesday night dreams, where I’m just writing all night in my sleep.
TF: We’re going to talk about comedy, and someone’s recording it. This will be the longest I’ve ever gotten to talk to you, Kate. Even on Sisters, there wasn’t a lot of time to —
KM: No, you were a busy woman, and I was busy being trapped there.
TF: It was smelly. Remember how bad it smelled?
KM: The problem with the party movies is you just have to sit in the party for months.
TF: Yeah. You sit in your own filth for months. Let’s talk about political characters, Kate! How extensively do you follow politics in real life?
KM: I wasn’t a newspaper person until I got hired here. You have to get ideas from somewhere, and when the election began, I began reading [the New York Times]. Now it’s an everyday thing. When we’re off, I try not to do it as much because you want to have a moment of joy.
TF: It’s kind of stressful and all-consuming. When you play a person like Kellyanne Conway, what are the advantages of building a character off that person, as opposed to a common character?
KM: It’s much easier for me to do an impression of someone real, because you and the audience begin with a baseline understanding of this person’s life. And then if you subvert that in any way, it’s a little comedy surprise. That does the bulk of the work for you.
TF: You have a common language with the audience. They know who this is, how they sound, and what we believe them to be. And if you tweak that at all —
KM: That equals comedy. Even with an original character, it should be someone people recognize from the ether. That’s harder to make. It’s easier to watch a bunch of YouTube videos of someone. I don’t know how the show was produced before YouTube.
TF: I’ll tell you: I’m so old now that when I started at SNL, the research department was an incomplete set of encyclopedias.
KM: Oh my God!
TF: We didn’t have the Internet my first year. If you had to write an impression, you had to go to a woman named Karen and say, “Karen, can we get some videotapes of Hillary Clinton so that so-and-so, our guest star, can learn the impression?” She would come to you 36 hours later and bring you a VHS tape, and then you would find that it was all B-roll, and Hillary never spoke on it. And then you would go back….
KM: Oh my God!
TF: It’s crazy. How did anyone do anything?
KM: I find that we’re just texting each other pitches all Saturday to nail stuff down.
TF: You had to chase everybody down or send the pages to find someone to be like, “What about this?” Hopefully this is mostly an article about how old I am — but we didn’t have phones with us! Do you take your phone with you for blocking? Tell the truth.
KM: I do 80 percent of the time. Sometimes I say, “I’m going to be with my colleagues. I’m going to be here. I’m going to ask them about what’s new in their lives.” Even if I have my phone in my pocket. It’s an escape.
TF: It’s an addiction. It’s an epidemic. But you don’t do social media, right?
KM: No, I do not.
TF: You and I have that in common.
KM: You don’t?
TF: I don’t tweet. No, man.
KM: Did you ever think about it?
TF: No, not really. If I had a joke, I’d save it for something else. I couldn’t just waste it on that. What are your feelings about that?
KM: I’m kind of shy. The way in which I prefer to communicate is in a character. If I’m speaking out loud, it’s in dulcet tones. Often people can’t hear what I’m saying, and I have to repeat myself.
TF: Another thing we have in common! But yeah, you’re a quiet person. I would describe you as enigmatic.
KM: Interesting! Wow. It’s working.
TF: You’re either enigmatic, or just so dumb and trying to hide it.
KM: Now you know my trick. I just can’t make heads or tails of anything!
TF: But the Twitter thing is, for me: Why would you open yourself up for people to just scream at you?
KM: It’s that, but it’s also that I don’t know what I would say. Even when Facebook came out when I was in college, I never posted anything that wasn’t “Come to my UCB show, please. Or else it’ll have to be canceled.” It just never occurred to me.
TF: Maybe you like to present a more finished product — a character. You enjoy one-sided conversation.
TF: Do you get nervous before an SNL show, and if so, how do you handle it?
KM: I no longer get light-headed-and-can’t see-the-cue-card nervous, which happened to me a few times.
TF: Was that the first year?
KM: Yes. Luckily that’s dissipated. I get nervous that I’m going to hurt someone’s feelings. But I also think I’ll mess up.
TF: I don’t think you do. I think you know that you’re the Iceman. You strike me as a person who’s well rehearsed. You have to be well rehearsed to be ready to be loose.
KM: Exactly. But I get nervous that the clock is ticking down. If you can’t figure out the essence of a person in those six days, then you have failed.
TF: What is it like working with the following people: Leslie Jones?
KM: I’m struggling to find words that are flattering enough. She’s simply the most unique, surprising, and gifted comedic live wire that I know. There’s a freedom about her that I really learn from.
TF: I think live wire is a good word for what it is, because her presence in something electrifies it. Lorne [Michaels] sometimes talks about the feeling of danger. With Leslie, I don’t know quite what will happen, but I know I’m interested.
KM: There’s no sense that she’s tamping anything down, or second-guessing anything. It’s barreling out of her, and it’s just so real, and raw, and hilarious.
TF: You’re never going to watch and be like, Oh, Leslie seems tired.
KM: She’s an incredibly sweet and generous person. I love her to death.
TF: Melissa McCarthy? Your nemesis.
KM: Oh my God. Well, you know, I saw Bridesmaids and was like, Ooof, I’ll never get there. I’ll never be able to create a character that is so new. That kind of character comes about once in a generation. I really put her on a pedestal.
TF: The Sean Spicer stuff is, for me: If we haven’t already concluded the conversation about whether women are funny, surely that ended it. Because, goddamn it — there’s a precision, right? A verbal precision. Also, like, precision to earn abandon: knowing that she’s in control of it-but also she’s going to pick up that podium and run people over. You have to really drive the bus to handle all of that. Now, present company excluded, which women in the history of SNL did you admire growing up?
KM: Well, I began watching in the Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon, and Ana Gasteyer years. Were you there in ’95, ’96?
TF: I came in ’97.
KM: That, to me, was the era of the classic, beautiful character sketch. I couldn’t believe how big they were, and how real they felt, and how grounded in sweetness and genuine longing they were. Like [the characters] Mary Katherine Gallagher or Collette Reardon, women who weren’t doing great but were plucky and kind of thought they were doing great.
TF: Do you have a favorite sketch from back in the day?
KM: The Christmas special where Mary Katherine is the Little Drummer Boy and Whitney Houston is the beautiful student, Jennifer, who has her solo. Rosie O’Donnell is like, Make way for Jennifer. Jennifer is going to do her solo. And Mary Katherine wanted to be friends with her. Just watching a person who’s not doing that great, juxtaposed with watching what a person ought to be in any given situation — but you end up wanting to smack the normal person and have lunch with the weirdo.
TF: If you could have joined any previous cast, or iteration of a cast, where would you have jumped in? What era?
KM: That’s tough. This might sound like flattery, but I would have jumped in when you were head writer.
TF: [In a silly voice] Oh, thank you. Because of the quality of the writing and the strong voice. Your strong voice. Thank you, Kate. [Normal voice] Those were good times. Amy [Poehler] and Rachel [Dratch] and I over lapped with Ana and Molly, and then by the end of it we had [Kristen] Wiig. So that was a good stretch. And Maya [Rudolph].
KM: Holy crap. The greats, baby!
TF: The greats. All dead now, myself included. If someone were to play you, like the character on SNL, who would play you?
KM: Well, my new colleague Melissa Villasenor in New York does a wonderful impression of me that she did on the show. But also, I’d like Aidy [Bryant] to do it. Because I think Aidy knows me the best.
TF: What’s the best perk of being famous?
KM: I don’t worry about feeding my cat.
TF: Yup. Cats with money. Have you allowed yourself to have a nice apartment yet?
KM: I have an apartment that I enjoy. It has a floor and a couch, but I cannot see them. Because of hair from the cat. He just tosses it off. He doesn’t want the hair that is on him.
TF: I’d die in your apartment. I’m allergic.
KM: But do you like cats?
TF: Yeah. I like their aloofness.
KM: You have to earn whatever you get. And when you get it, it feels 10 times better.
Scarlett Johansson on Kate:
“Kate is a discreet person; she’s never so outrageous unless she’s performing. She’s kind of like a cat. Sometimes she’s a little skittish, sometimes she’s perched expectantly on the couch, sometimes she rolls over and lets you scratch under her chin and belly.”
TF: The next thing I wanted to ask is, where do you go on vacation? But I feel like you should lie because you don’t want people to follow you on vacation.
KM: I kind of go on vacation in between the rooms of my apartment.
TF: You do staycation?
KM: Yeah. Like, I’ll go to the living room, and then to my bedroom, and then to the bathroom….
TF: Before you know it, three weeks have gone by. What were you like as a kid? Were you a quiet kid?
KM: Um, yes. So quiet. Pathologically quiet.
TF: Where did you grow up?
KM: Long Island.
TF: That’s what I mean by enigmatic. If someone had put a gun to my head and said, “Where do you think Kate McKinnon grew up?,” I would not have one guess. I would say Maine, or St. Louis, or —
KM: That’s so cool!
TF: I would not have a guess.
TF: Grew up in an oil rig. Do you have siblings?
KM: I have a sister. My dearest friend.
TF: Are you close in age to your sister?
KM: It’s a five-year difference.
TF: That’s like my daughters. Are you the older or the younger?
KM: Older. It’s a good difference. Yes, I was quiet until I started doing impressions of teachers in different accents. And for some reason, the volume of my voice was able to be normal if I was talking in someone else’s voice. Made kind of a habit of that.
TF: Did you imitate people from movies when you were a kid?
KM: Yes. I watched the same movies over and over. My sister and I would only communicate using quotes from the movies. The Producers was big. For some reason, we watched The Secret Garden — that came out in the early ‘9os — 10,ooo times. Guffman 10,000 times.
TF: I assumed everyone was like that, but maybe there are people in the world who don’t communicate exclusively with lines from movies. I spent at least a year trying to talk like Sissy Spacek from Coal Miner’s Daughter. I was 10 years old. I wasn’t, like, in a dorm.
KM: Is it distinctive? I ought to look it up.
TF: Oh my God, you’ll love it. It’s so distinctive. Wait a minute! Pause right now, and watch it real quick. She won the Oscar. It’s such a great movie, but it is superquotable. The next time I see you, I’m going to come up to you, and I’m going to say, “The more bologna I eat, the hornier I get.” And you’re going to know what I’m talking about. That’s your assignment. It’s a good one. You’re going to want to talk like that.
KM: I pulled up a picture, and I’m seeing the hat. I’m enjoying that.
TF: Yeah. It’s also a look. What if that just became your look in the next year? It would all trace back to this interview: “And she changed her look to be a young Loretta Lynn.” You were in something called Prangstrüp at Columbia?
KM: Oh, yup. It means “pranks group” in, I’m guessing, German. It was like, someone gets up in the middle of a lecture and starts singing a song. It was very cool, but it was a little nerve-racking to be in a real situation doing something like that.
TF: It seems like a victimless prank, though.
KM: Oh, yes! A precursor to flash mobs.
TF: Amy Poehler used to talk about in the early Upright Citizens Brigade TV-show days, they’d film pranks that were interactive with [unsuspecting] people and sort of messing with them. She hated doing it. My guess would be for you it’s sort of the same way.
KM: Actually, I did one of those man-on the-street things for an SNL skit last year, in character, and my heart was really pounding. I was like, “This is blurring the line between fiction and reality! I don’t know who I am anymore!” I ended up having 10-minute conversations with people as someone else. That’s a very weird feeling.
TF: Then they go, “Wait a minute. You’re not a real person.”
KM: They didn’t find out. They simply walked away.
TF: Wow. You’re going to hell. I heard an apocryphal story once that when Sacha Baron Cohen was making Borat, he passed out drunk from something — either drunk or got hit in the head — and became unconscious. But then woke up fully as Borat.
KM: That’s so crazy. Thank you for using the word apocryphal. It’s been a long time.
TF: Who was the last person that made you laugh so hard that you cried?
KM: My God. My sister was doing a bit the other day. And I was crying. It takes a village to get me there, but it can happen.
TF: Let’s see: Are you for or against bachelorette parties?
KM: Oh, well. I think it is a beautiful time for women to celebrate the duration of their friendship.
TF: So it sounds like — I think you’re for it.
KM: I wouldn’t want to go on one.
TF: But you think they should continue to exist. What’s your favorite thing to eat?
KM: I’m really breezing through these light ones, huh? How long ago did you have to get off the phone?
TF: Never. We live here now. Okay, what’s one career goal that you have?
KM: I’d like to hopefully remain a person who people find funny.
TF: Mm-hmm. To maintain a quality and a longevity. Slow and steady wins the race?
KM: I like providing joy, and I’d like to keep doing that. That’s my main career goal.
TF: That’s a valuable goal. This is my question: If you had to make a uniform for yourself — if you had to wear the same thing for the rest of your life — what would it be?
KM: A Hanes V-neck white T-shirt and mild fashion sweats. Mild being from H&M or under.
TF: So, some lightly fashionable sweats — that’s a good answer. Do you enjoy dressing up for red-carpet things and photo shoots?
KM: There’s something about it that I enjoy. There’s a facet of me that likes that level of fanciness. As long as in my real life, I can wear the mild fashion sweats.
TF: Exactly. I like it up to four times a year. Because it can be fun.
KM: To experience yourself in that context. Like, who would I be — I’m at this party? Who am I here? Is this me? Oh, okay.
TF: Is there a person whom you’ve met that you’ve really gone outside of your body like, “Oh, I’m talking to this person now!?”
KM: It’s happened so many times with hosts that it’s tough to say. I’ve now met every comedy hero I’ve ever had, basically. But the one meet that truly knocked me onto my ass was A. J. McLean and Kevin Richardson of the Backstreet Boys at the fortieth anniversary of SNL. Because in my friend group in middle school, they absolutely controlled the weather. There was nothing to think about or worth aspiring to other than to be in the room with them. And to see them just as men in a room was very strange. Paul McCartney as well.
TF: Sure. Paul McCartney is always a given. But I know what you mean. “This person was always such a big deal to me” — those sneak up on you. One for me where I was “I’m so freaked right now!” was John McEnroe. As a kid I had the black Mac tennis racket, and I was like, “John McEnroe!”
KM: I didn’t have a Backstreet Boys poster, but my friends did. They were gods to us.
TF: Okay: We have this kind of word — association thing, where I’m just going to name people and then you say the first word or two that comes to your mind:
TF: Kristen Wiig.
KM: A little hand. Dooneese is one of the characters that blew me away. And as elegant and multifaceted as she is, that for me is the defining character.
TF: We talked about her, but Leslie Jones.
KM: There’s a maternal quality there. She’s always just wrapping me in her arms.
TF: Lorne Michaels.
TF: Scarlett Johansson.
KM: Strength. She’s just spiritually sturdy.
TF: I like that. Zoe Kravitz.
TF: That’s a good word. Jillian Bell.
KM: Oh my gosh. Funny. She’s just so funny.
TF: She’s really funny. Ilana Glazer.
TF: Firecracker. That’s a good word. I thought of one random question, which is: If you had to live in any other time period besides right now, when would you be?
KM: Ah, yes. I’m extremely drawn to the dress and architecture of the Victorian era. And yet, there were about 10 people who were having fun in the Victorian era. I guess I wouldn’t want to live there unless I was one of those 10…. It seemed like they were having fun in Meet Me in St. Louis. Or Pollyanna.
TF: Meet Me in St. Louis, that’s pretty good clothing — wise. You’re still in a corset, but you could have ice cream socials and stuff.
TF: You’re deeply into corsets?
KM: Well, there’s a uniform quality to the dresses. They’re not trying to sell anybody on anything. It’s, like, I am a woman, so I am in this garment. Everything is hidden. My back is very straight. My neck is stiff.
TF: And if you’re lucky, you might see my ankle. Well, Kate McKinnon, is there anything else that you just want to tell America about yourself or about comedy?
KM: That’s heavy. I love comedy so much. I love how it’s an expression of joy combined with a real idea that you want to say. I’m so inspired by joyful people with something that they want to say, such as you, Tina Fey.
TF: Well, thank you. There’s one question on here that I want to ask because it seems like an important one, which is, what is fueling your comedy right now?
KM: I’m just trying to put stuff onscreen that hasn’t been onscreen before, which is always what I think everyone is trying to do. I’m especially aware of it right now. What’s getting harder for me is to create specific people whom I haven’t seen before. There’s such a proliferation of brilliant comedy. It’s hard to plop something onscreen that hasn’t been hashed and rehashed. I’m like a little truffle pig looking for new, specific people.
TF: I have faith in you, Kate. You will continue to bring new and specific people to our comedy universe.
KM: Well, God bless you for saying that be cause if you’ve got any pitches, please e-mail them over to me.
TF: Here’s my pitch. You can have it this week. It’s a parody of Chicago Fire, but it’s just called Chicago Improv. And it takes it superseriously. That’s my gift to you. Okay, tell me a little bit about Rough Night and your character, Pippa.
KM: It was written by Lucia Aniello and Paul Downs, who work on Broad City as well. Lucia directed it, and Paul’s in it. They’re geniuses. I knew them from back in the day at UCB. They had written this character who was so funny. And Australian. I was nervous about that. I was like, “Can I make her American, please?” And they were like, “No, we think it’s important that she be Australian.” So I did my best with that.
TF: How did you figure out the accent?
KM: I listened to a bunch of Australian pod casts and did my best. I got very into what was happening in Australian literary circles. There’s one called No Filter that’s a wonderful discussion of culture. I rewatched Summer Heights High. And there’s this girl I knew once. The details of her life were mindbogglingly bizarre, and she was the single kindest, most genuine person I’ve ever known. I think it’s a fun juxtaposition.
TF: What was the shoot like?
KM: It was so freaking fun. We really like each other a lot. The friendship, the bonds, were real. I have a little picture of the five of us that I keep in my wallet.