Emmys 2014

08.19.14

'SNL' Star Kate McKinnon's Big, 'Awesome,' Emmy-Nominated Year

The SNL scene-stealer nabbed an Emmy nod for singing about penises and her impression of Angela Merkel. Now she’s on the hit Hulu series The Awesomes.

Every actor knows that there are tricks to landing an Emmy nomination. If a pregnancy storyline is written for your character, the birth episode is Emmy gold. A bout with a life-threatening—though not life-ending—illness is always good awards bait. When all that fails, ask the writers to pen you a scene where your meth-dealing former teacher suffers a psychological breakdown.

Or, if you’re Saturday Night Live’s newest breakout star, you sing a song about traveling the world in pursuit of penises and do an impression of a German chancellor who most of mainstream America has never heard of. Unconventional? Sure. But that’s why we love Kate McKinnon.

Since joining the venerable late-night sketch program in April 2012 amidst a flurry of expectations—she was, in a rare move, hired midseason and with no other new cast members—and unusual circumstances—it would be the last string of episodes for stars Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg—McKinnon has risen the ranks and become one of the series’ most popular and reliably funny stars. Now she has her first two Emmy nominations and an ever-rising profile (including a plum voice role in the new season of the Hulu hit The Awesomes) to prove it.

“Must we?” she asks in a faux-histrionic groan befitting one of her scene-stealing SNL characters when I bring up the fact that, in the course of two and a half short seasons on the program, McKinnon has become, as they say, a Very Big Deal.

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She’s just the fourth Not Ready for Primetime Player to score an acting Emmy nomination since the cast was forced to start submitting themselves in the supporting categories (where they compete against thesps from the likes of Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, and Girls) in 2008. She’s the first female cast member to be nominated since Kristen Wiig left the series, thus answering the “who will be the next Kristen Wiig?” question that followed the longtime SNL powerhouse out the Studio 8H door.

(McKinnon’s second Emmy nod came in the Original Song category, for her work penning the viral hit “(Do It On My) Twin Bed” with co-star Aidy Bryant and writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider.)

It might be fair to say that McKinnon, who can turn just three syllables of a Beyoncé impression into a comedy master class (you must watch), is ably stepping into Wiig’s quirky clown shoes.

‘I love to just get in the booth. Put some tracks down. I’m basically Rihanna.’

Before the start of this season, much hullaballoo was whipped up about how this would be a precarious rebuilding year for SNL, with stars Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and Jason Sudeikis leaving the show and six new performers (seven by the end of the season) joining the cast. But the rousing response to nearly everything McKinnon did this year—whether it’s play a cat lady in love with Charlize Theron or singlehandedly turn German Chancellor Angela Merkel into an unlikely folk hero—proved that the show still has solid comedic foundation to stand on.

Having settled into a pseudo-veteran status role (as veteran as someone who’s had a job for less than three years can really be), McKinnon is branching out of late-night, too. She was the best part of the indie comedy Intramural, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, and has booked supporting roles in two of next year’s most anticipated comedies: opposite Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in the comedy The Nest next year and as part of the top-notch comedy ensemble (including Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Zach Galifianakis, and Owen Wilson) in Loomis Fargo.

She’s also been in the recording booth—she jokingly likens herself to Rihanna—for the hit Hulu original series The Awesomes, an animated parody of sorts of ensemble superhero flicks like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy from Seth Meyers and Mike Shoemaker. Her character, a ratings-hungry TV producer with eyes on creating a reality show about The Awesomes’ Bad News Bears-esque band of heroes, first appears in the Hulu series’ Aug. 25 episode—fittingly the same day that McKinnon will be at L.A.’s Nokia Theatre for the Emmy Awards.

Ahead of McKinnon’s Big Monday, we chatted with her about her upcoming role in The Awesomes, her love of reality TV, and the episode of SNL she chose to submit for judging at this year’s Emmys.

So Seth Meyers, Taran Killam, Kenan Thompson, Bobby Moynihan, and Cecily Strong are already on The Awesomes. You’re joining the voice cast this year. Is it becoming part of the SNL contract that you do voices for this show in your downtime?

I don’t know! We recorded the dialogue in between rehearsal for the show. I love doing voice work more than anything. I love to just get in the booth. Put some tracks down. I’m basically Rihanna.

Seth Meyers created this show. I imagine he knows you pretty well. I know you’re doing a few voices this season. Did he write them with you in mind?

One of the characters I played was an uptight whackjob, so that was probably written for me. Another was a French weirdo, so maybe that was written for me as well. I played one main character this season and some side ones as well.

Yes, the reality TV producer is your big one. I know a lot of people consider reality TV producers to be the bottomfeeders of the earth. Personally, I consider them TV’s great heroes. Where do you stand on that debate?

I think they’re heroes. My favorite show on television of all time is The Bachelorette. Well, The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise. Basically my only goal left in life is to speak to someone who knows the real truth of how it is that producers get real people to say those things and to even feel those things. I don’t understand it. I’m on a personal mission to know.

Do you have a Bachelor-watching ritual?

My sister and I watch together and then there’s heavy, heavy discussion afterwards. And now there’s this whole meta element of, because it’s been on for so long. Why are they there? Are they there for the right reasons? Just trying to get those people’s motives is, for me, so fascinating. I just genuinely love the show.

Are you exclusively a Bachelor/Bachelorette fan? Or have you delved into the sprawling waters of spin-offs, like Dating Naked, maybe?

Oh no. I stick to the classics.

Were you a fan of superheroes when you were growing up?

No. Not at all. If Disney’s Robin Hood is a superhero, then yeah. In other words, no. It’s a world that I know little about.

It must be an interesting experience, then, to be around a group of people who are a little obsessed with that thing when you are uninitiated?

Yes. I spend a lot of time with Seth and with Bobby Moynihan and Taran and it’s like they have a whole language that I will never be able to understand. I never know what the hell they’re talking about.

I like that, with the way things are now in pop culture, you never really outgrow superheroes. There are comics and cartoons for when you’re younger, and more grown-up and adult-themed stuffed—whether it’s comedy like The Awesomes or darker stuff like The Dark Knightto grow up with.

I certainly think they’re ripe for parody. So I think that’s why The Awesomes works so well. It takes these tropes that we, as a culture, seem to love and spins them on their heads. Which is the brilliance of The Awesomes.

So I saw that you submitted the Anna Kendrick episode from SNL for Emmy consideration, which has two of my favorite moments of yours—the “Dongs All Over the World” video and an Angela Merkel Weekend Update appearance. Did you ever think that playing this German chancellor that most mainstream Americans have never heard of would lead to Emmy nominations?

Never in my wildest dreams. I didn’t even come up with the idea. It was a writer named Claire Mulaney. We were trying to think of a few characters and she said, “What about the German Chancellor, she’s involved with the NSA right now.” I thought, I love that idea, but no one else will love that idea. Who cares about the German Chancellor? But people are so taken with her whenever she does anything. Like, she shows up at the World Cup and on Facebook people post pictures of it and stuff. There is an inherently fun and sweet quality about her.

And then there’s your second nomination, for “(Do It On My) Twin Bed.” What was writing that like, because I imagine it was a blast.

It was so fun. Aidy and I wanted to do an all-girl music video, in the style of Pussycat Dolls. Chris and Sarah are geniuses, and they were like, “Well, it should be Christmas-themed, and it should be about when you go home and have to do it on your twin bed with your boyfriend and girlfriend when you go home. And it sort of wrote itself. I mean, we actually did the writing of it, but we were able to write it so, so fast, because it was such a great idea.