Funny Girl

Kate McKinnon Is the Future of ‘Saturday Night Live’

Spoofing everyone from Ellen to Ann Romney, Kate McKinnon has proved she may be the funniest cast member on SNL. A talk with the star more than confirms she’s ready for prime time.

11.21.13 10:45 AM ET

When I open the door to the Saturday Night Live green room at 30 Rock, Kate McKinnon is reclined on the sofa, as if waiting for Leonardo DiCaprio to paint her like one of his French Girls. She tosses her hair. “Why, hello,” she purrs.

It would’ve been an epically hilarious way to meet the breakout Saturday Night Live star—had I not ruined the bit 10 minutes before. After handing over my ID to the 30 Rock security guards at visitor check-in, I looked to my left to see a petite blonde wrapped in a wool trench coat with gorgeous, big blue eyes, which were staring at me in horror. “You weren’t supposed to see me now, like this,” she says. “I was going to get here before you, put on makeup, and really wow you when you walked in.”

So I gave her a 10 minute head start before heading up to the green room, where, in the fashion we’ve become so accustomed to week after week on SNL, Kate McKinnon sold the hell out of her lady-in-waiting bit. Kate McKinnon, you see, commits.

The 29-year-old Long Island native arrived at famed Studio 8H in April 2012 amid an unusual flurry of press for a new Saturday Night Live cast member. In a rare move, she was inserted into the cast mid-season, making her debut with just five episodes remaining. Not only was she the only new cast member added at the time, but it happened to also be the last five episodes in the tenures of Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg, sharpening the focus of the spotlight on her as the future of the show.

There was also much ado about the fact that McKinnon, a veteran of LOGO’s The Big Gay Sketch Show, was gay, something that, while true, was about as good of a barometer of her comedy talents as the fact that her name was “Kate.” (“I’m very private,” sums up her reaction to that coverage.) With one-and-a-half seasons under her belt, now much ado is being made about a far more relevant fact: Kate McKinnon is damned funny, and maybe even—perhaps definitely even—the most talented cast member on the show.

Hailing her as the most promising SNL star, The Los Angeles Times said that McKinnon “has the fearless chops to carry on the legacy of the departed Kristen Wiig.” Forbes branded her one of their “30 Under 30” in entertainment, targeting her potential to be one of the next “great female comedians.” The Backlot demanded that SNL “take Kate McKinnon off the bench,” while Buzzfeed summed our feelings up about the star thusly: “19 Reasons Kate McKinnon Is a Gift to Us All.”

A graduate of Columbia University and veteran of the hallowed Upright Citizens Brigade improv theater, McKinnon made a strong first impression on the show, co-headlining (rare for a first-timer) a sketch with host Sofia Vergara in which she played Penelope Cruz attempting to list the complicated chemical ingredients in a shampoo she’s hocking. The impression was flawless, in that she was absolutely impossible to understand.

More practically perfect impressions followed, including a head-turning doppelganger take on Ellen DeGeneres, as well a Chris Farley-esque commitment to nailing the joke. For proof, one only need watch her bar kissing sketch with Louis C.K. Soon, her sketches began going viral, be it her delirious, inspired Ann Romney (with the most delightful pronunciation of “Beyoncé” ever) or her recent Obamacare-skewering turn as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

With enthusiasm for McKinnon’s effortless scene-stealing of each week’s SNL episode only building—who’d have thought anyone could get you to laugh so hard at German Chancellor Angela Merkel—what better time to sidle up next to McKinnon on that plush 30 Rock couch and discuss just what it’s like to be the coolest person on the coolest show on TV.

So many comedians count SNL as their ultimate dream job. Was that always the case for you, too?

Yes, it definitely was. But, I’m Capricorn, so I’m very pragmatic. When I was on The Big Gay Sketch Show I thought, well, this is going well now, but then when it’s over I’ll just be a barista. So I thought that there’s such a slim chance I’d get on SNL because they hire so few people, I had totally given up on it. Then I moved to L.A. for a brief time and I wanted to pursue being on a sitcom.

Were you ever close to being cast in a pilot?

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No. (Laughs.) None at all. Absolutely not.

You said you “had totally given up on it.” So getting cast on SNL was something you were actively pursuing? How did you get the audition?

It’s sort of nebulous and mysterious, and I still don’t quite know. I sent in audition tapes for a few years, through my manager, to no avail whatsoever. I had moved to L.A. and gotten a little bit of traction there, and I think my manager parlayed that into an audition. But it’s all very mysterious. Go figure that I had to leave New York for six months to get the big New York audition.

The biggest New York audition. How do you decide what to do for an audition as big as this?

I picked what I thought were the best of what I’ve done over years and years of performing. So I picked five impressions and three characters. Penelope Cruz. Sally Field. Temple Grandin. Shit … who else? Tabatha Coffey, from Tabatha’s Salon Takeover. And … oh, who the hell else? I don’t remember.

Was the audition on the SNL stage?

It’s on the stage. They put you up in this hotel across the street and then call you that day and say when to come in. You go in and get hair and makeup done. It’s the best my hair ever looked. Then you just do it.

Was Lorne there?

Yes, he was there.

Was he laughing? 
I don’t know if he, in particular, was laughing, but I could sense nebulous laughter coming from this table of darkened faces, which was encouraging.

How’d you feel when you left?

I felt that rare feeling of, like, I couldn’t have done any better. Because I did prepare very extensively. I usually just wing it, but I figure if there was ever a time to not wing it, it would be this. So I was proud of myself. I told myself, there’s no way you’re getting this job, but at least you won’t hate yourself for the rest of your life because you, like, blew it. So that was good. And then they came in and asked me to stick around for the weekend to meet Lorne.

Was that scary?

It was scary. I idolize him. His opinion has mattered to me for my whole life, because I’ve been a fan of the show forever. So it was like meeting some sort of father figure, whose approval you always wanted. That was intense.

What did you talk about?

He shared theories about television—he has so many theories about television that are genius. And I was silent, and uninteresting.

Where were you when you got the call that you got the job?

It was two weeks later and I was back in L.A. and walking around. I had this dream in my head of if I got hired by SNL what that moment would be like. And I dreamed that I would, like, collapse on the sidewalk and cry to the heavens. I got this call, and it didn’t happen naturally. But I did it anyway because I wanted to have that moment. So I did collapse. But, again, it was with the consciousness of, like, “I should do this right now.”

Then came the shouting from the roof tops?

I called my agents and my manager, who I’m very close with, because it felt like a team effort, and they were thrilled. Then I called my mom, who lives in Sea Cliff, and told her that I was coming in. We both rejoiced, because it was not good that I lived across the country. But I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone for like a month.

I feel like I’d get a T-shirt made that said, “I Was Just Cast on SNL” and then wear it to the biggest intersection in New York City. How do you keep something like that a secret?

I figured that at some point people would find out.

You joined at the tail end of a season that was already going on. What was it like to be thrust into that in such unusual circumstances, with the machine already in high gear?

It was wild because it was Kristen Wiig’s last five episodes, Andy Samberg’s last five episodes, there was a lot of turmoil—not professional turmoil, just that there was about to be a big changeup. I had no idea what was going on, or how to function in the environment. Usually when people are hired, they’re hired with a bunch of people. So I didn’t have anyone to turn to and be like, “What the fuck’s going on? I’m so scared. What do I do?” But in a sense it was good because it was just me.

Who was the host on your first episode?

Sofia Vergara. So my first day of work was going to pitch ideas to her.

Did you have ideas to pitch to her?

I had one idea. It was the Penelope Cruz idea. Quite a first day of work activity. You just are really tossed into the pool. It’s shocking.

What’s it like going live for the first time? What was your mindset right before that Penelope Cruz sketch aired?

I was terrified all week. Then the moment came and I was somehow relaxed. The stakes are so high that you sort of have to pretend that it’s not going on. I likened it to if you’re on a freeway and you have to change lanes, you look, but there still could be a car coming. At some point, though, you just have to do it and switch lanes. But you could die! So I thought, well, I could vomit or I could fart or I could just be bad. Anything could happen. But I can’t run away at this point. I can’t leave the studio, so I’ll just do it and see what happens.

When you started was when Kristen Wiig was leaving, who was at that point carrying the show. There was a lot of handwringing in the press over who would be “the new Kristen Wiig,” and a lot of people thought your hiring at that time meant you were being groomed for that. Was there the same anxiety inside the walls of 30 Rock as there was in the press?

I’m not sure what they were thinking behind closed doors. But I felt pressure in myself, just because I idolized Kristen Wiig and I just wanted to be like her. Just a sketch beast, you know? But I think what has emerged is that all of the women are so strong that there doesn’t seem to be one female face of the show. I’m so happy to be a part of this generation, because that’s an exciting development.

Is there a sketch or bit you were most excited to get on air?

I loved the Spanish painter lady, with the monkey painting. That was, I think, my favorite to do.

How do those Weekend Update talking head segments come about, particularly when it’s something as random as the Spanish painter lady?

Well that story had unfolded over the summer and I remember seeing it and thinking, like, I love this woman. Someone should be this woman. It might as well be me. I had this wacky Italian voice floating around in my head because I had done some voice-over audition where I had to do it. So I just mashed it together. This writer named Brian Tucker and I wrote it together, and it didn’t get on! But then she was back in the news so we asked to please do it, and then it happened.

Do you like those Weekend Update bits?

They’re my favorite.

You can tell. Not that you look like you don’t like other things. But you can tell that you relish that screen time.

Maybe it’s because I did so many one-woman shows that I’m just used to doing monologues. I don’t know. They’re just so much fun for me, especially playing off Seth or Cecily.

What else have you enjoyed doing?

I really loved doing—I’ve done it twice—the woman who makes out with the man at the bar in a gross way. I did it with Louis C.K. and Vince Vaughn. I love gross kissing. I think it’s the most fun thing to do. I wrote those with a writer named Paula Pell, who’s a genius. Just coming up with the disgusting things that she says and then actually choreographing the monstrous kissing was so fun.

Is there a sketch that in the week after it aired you got a palpable sense of the attention it was getting, that it was going viral? The first thing that comes to my mind is when you played Ann Romney on Weekend Update…

Yeah, I guess with Ann Romney. Anything political people end up paying attention to it.

Ellen, too, maybe. Just because it was so spot-on.

Well, thank you. I guess a lot of people watched it when I went on her show.

That interview on Ellen was adorable. How was that? Did you get to chat with her before or after?

It was the best. Wild. I didn’t get to talk to her before. I actually met her for the first time on air. And afterwards my goal was to establish some sort of rapport, to talk about her horses or something that was just about how much I loved her.

So what did you say?

“I love you. Thank you for everything. You mean so much to me. Wow. Thank you for this day. You’re amazing.” And she was very kind. I get starstruck by women who I truly idolize, such as her and Kristen Wiig.

Do you remember the first time you got to do the “Live, from New York, it’s Saturday night!” opening?

Yes. I was playing Martha Raddatz when she moderated one of the vice-presidential debates last year.

What was that like? I imagine that there’s getting on the show, there’s getting a sketch on air, and then there’s saying that iconic line as the next big moment.

Yes. Everyone saves the cue card from their first time. I have mine in my office. That was another level of, wow, I work at SNL. I can’t believe it. I still can’t believe it. But yes, it’s a feeling of having arrived on another step of whatever staircase it is.

How do you feel about the attention you get from being on SNL? Do you get stopped on the street?

Sometimes. It’s the best job in the world because there’s really no other job as an actor where you can be thinking of something on Tuesday and then be doing it on Saturday. I’m just trying to get better at writing and performing. The learning is intense, and that’s the best part of it. I feel like I’m just learning so much. Getting recognized on the street is fine, but I never really wanted to be famous. I just wanted to have mastered the art of sketch comedy.

But now that you are famous, how do you feel about everything that comes along with that—the intrigue in your personal life, the headlines, etc.?

It’s fine. There are some perks, for instance. I met my favorite contestant from RuPaul’s Drag Race, Jinx, and she knew who I was. And that was, like, thank God for this job. Because if I didn’t, she would’ve just signed my program and moved on. But we took a picture and she was excited to meet me and I was dying to meet her. Perks like that.

Do you remember watching SNL when the show first came on your radar?

Yes. Definitely. My parents would always do bits from it. They’d say [adopts a high-pitched sing-song], “Oh, nooooooo,” and I’d be like, why are you saying that? I just thought they made it up. My mom would do Roseanne Rosannadanna and I didn’t know what. I just thought they made them up. And then they told me it was from a show and they’d let me stay up to watch it.

Who was the cast?

It was Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon. I was so obsessed with the cheerleaders and Mary Katherine Gallagher and everything Will Ferrell did. I taped it every week and transcribed the sketches and watched them back. I still have a lot of them memorized. So in my mind, those are the classic SNL sketches.

Which host was the most fun to work with?

They’re all pretty great. It was crazy to have Louis C.K. come because I’m such a rabid fan of his. Kerry Washington was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Also, Miley was so great.

People were so surprised that she was good on the show, which was confusing. She’s a sitcom-trained actress and fearless enough to stick her tongue in a buttcrack at the VMAs. Why would anyone be surprised that she’s good on SNL?

I sensed before she came that she would be extremely kind and a consummate professional. And she just was. She seems to have such a sense of herself. It’s just so professional. I wish I could text her and stuff, but I didn’t get her phone number. Just, like, pictures of cats.

Everyone’s been calling this a transition season, because of the exits of veteran cast members and so many new people this year. Do you have a sense of that?

Oh, I can’t tell. I’m just trying to figure out how to write a good sketch. There’s a lot of, like, who’s going to step into what role, or what new roles are going to be created, or what’s everyone’s place on the show? I think we’re still figuring that out. But mostly my concern is when do I get to do a Scottish accent.