If you’re putting together ELLE’s first Women in Comedy Issue, the answer is clear: You’ll call Melissa McCarthy, who arrived like a comedic comet in 2011’s box office-busting Bridesmaids and has been banking huge hits, such as The Heat and Spy, ever since. You’ll pull the inimitable Kristen Wiig back from her recent (and glorious) dramatic orbit. You’ll add a pair of Saturday Night Live standouts: sly, slinky Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones, the in your-face dynamo Chris Rock has proclaimed “the funniest woman I know.” Now that you have your veritable dream team—one that’s uniting forces in Ghostbusters, the most anticipated comedy of the year—you’ll photograph them looking more chic than ever. But that’s not all: You’ll also round up 14 of the most audacious stand-ups currently selling out clubs across the country. Then, of course, you’ll talk with Tina Fey about her virtuosic band of Kimmy Schmidt stars. And finally, since brilliant, hilarious women—that’s you!—demand a wardrobe as sharp as they are, you’ll fill 20 pages with a sweeping preview of fall fashion: all of the rich ornamentation, quirky colors, and unexpected prints that define the coming season. So feast your eyes. As McCarthy told us, “The joy is palpable.”
Kate McKinnon has arrived at a turning point countless comedy hopefuls dream of. Will SNL’s breakout impersonator become the next Amy, Tina, or Kristen? Lizzy Goodman gets up close to clock it
About an hour into our lunch at a bustling Le Pain Qµotidien near the Saturday Night Live studios in midtown Manhattan, Kate McKinnon leans across the table and stage-whispers into my recorder: “This interview is a lot looser than I thought it was going to be.” Thanks to her affectionate but devastatingly on-point impressions of Justin Bieber, Ellen DeGeneres, and, of course, Hillary Clinton, McKinnon has, in her four years on SNL, established herself as the one you’d vote most likely to follow in the collective footsteps of Poehler, Fey, and Wiig. With several movies coming down the pike, including Ghostbusters, in which she’ll play scientist Jillian Holtzmann; December’s Jennifer Aniston-led Office Christmas Party; and the upcoming Scarlett Johansson bachelorette-party romp Rock That Body, McKinnon may well make that jump from girl-you’ve-seen-on-TV to Hollywood player before the year is out.
But on this cold spring morning, she’s feeling a little under the weather and is wearing a college student’s sweats-and-sneakers com bo (“I look so casual, they probably can’t see me“). Still, there’s little McKinnon could do to dampen her charisma. Aside from the obvious star attributes—big blue eyes, central casting good looks—she possesses the kind of physical dexterity that allows the best comics to fully embody and amplify their characters, from the B-boy hitch in Bieber’s gait to the cartoonish stiffness of Angela Merkel to Mrs. Clinton’s epic laugh. “I think with Kate, there’s just such an ease out there,” says SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels. “I know inside it’s more complicated than that“—he chuckles—”but she has that thing that is the secret to the show, which is making it look easy.” Her charm, by all accounts, is not easily turned off. Ghostbusters director Paul Feig describes her as “one of the most genuinely warm people. She’s like a cat—she touches you, she’s going to hug you; she’s just very tactile.”
McKinnon continues, pulling pieces of fennel out of my salad from across the table and popping them into her mouth between thoughts: “I wasn’t prepared for this level of candor, and I hope I’m not going to get in trouble.” To be clear, she has at this point revealed only that she grew up on Long Island, is 32, studied art history and theater at Columbia University, and recently decided to try on veganism—though she’s not sure she wants that last thing printed, “just because of the social embarrassment of having to say that I’m a vegan,” she says. When the waitress finally brings her chia muffin, McKinnon cuts the thing in half, wraps one piece in a napkin, and slips it into her bag like somebody’s grand mother, explaining, “This is my dessert.“
“She has such a star quality, but she’s a homebody,” says SNL writer Sarah Schneider. “For Christmas this year, we got her a giant sweater with a huge pouch on the front that her cat can go in,” adds Chris Kelly, Schneider’s writing partner. “The cat sits in the front of the sweater. That’s how I think of her.” Kelly first met McKinnon in 2008 when they were both involved with the Upright Citizens Brigade. Straight out of college, McKinnon had been cast as a regular on the Rosie O’Donnell-produced The Big Gay Sketch Show, which aired on the then-LGBT-focused network Logo and lasted three seasons. (McKinnon is one of the few openly gay SNL cast members in the show’s history.) When Big Gay Sketch Show was canceled, she did what struggling actors do: lived briefly in Los Angeles while auditioning and worked soul-crushing jobs in New York City. In McKinnon’s case, these included teaching (and telemarketing) SAT prep courses. “I really don’t like to ever ask anyone for anything or criticize anyone, so it was very hard for me to ask people to spend their money,” she recalls. “I don’t know if you can tell, I’m sort of a Wasp. I’m wearing pearls under this.”
McKinnon was raised by her mother, a social worker and parent educator with Scottish roots, and her father, an architect of German heritage. Waspy though they may have been, they were also creative role models. Her dad, who died when McKinnon was in high school, played the drums. “I know, hot, right?” she quips. They were also serious comedy nerds who watched Mel Brooks movies as a family and religiously tuned in to SNL. “It was just the way in which they both processed the universe, and we took it on,” says McKinnon, whose younger sister, Emily, is a stand-up comedian. Not that she needed much encouragement to live an irreverent life: After McKinnon returned from a family trip to Disney World as a kindergartner, her teacher called her mom, concerned that McKinnon had lost the ability to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. “I did wear a Peter Pan costume for a whole year,” she recalls. “It was just so comfortable.” McKinnon likes to think that in high school, she was “so uncool that I circled back to cool.” She took the hour-long train ride into the city a couple of times a year to see a Broadway show and attended, to her recollection, a single party.
McKinnon talks often about how her way into each character is affection, an approach Michaels has helped her hone. “If you’re editorializing, where you’re doing an impression of somebody but also signaling that you really dislike this person, it’s too many signals, and it’s not fun to watch,” Michaels says. “Kate does it with such a light touch.” If McKinnon doesn’t admire or relate to the person, she can’t pretend to be them. “It seems like she’s hard on herself, and that comes from a very earnest desire to do good, and I know I’m the same way,” the actress says of Hillary Clinton. But until McKinnon was cast as Ghostbusters‘ Holtzmann, a character that she says is closer to her actual self than any she’s played so far, she thought of her work as the by-product of some psycho logical dysfunction. “I used to think that I was covering up for something dark with in me,” she says. “For sketch comedians in particular, there is the kind of sadness that comes with being an overly observant person. If you’re observant, you’ll probably end up bummed out a lot of the time.” But she understands herself differently these days: “I came to a reckoning that [pretending to be other people] is in fact such a real, huge chunk of the way I communicate. I thought it was something I was putting on to disguise something else, but it’s not.” So, what she’s saying is that in real life McKinnon is, in fact, Justin Bieber? “That is what I am telling you, yes,” she says with a grin.