Somewhere beneath her panoply of personas is the real Kate McKinnon. For as long as Saturday Night Live’s most beloved star has been in our lives, she has retained an air of mystery that serves her well the other six days of the week—and when vanishing into the madcap characters that have made her a fan favorite since she started on the show in 2012. Behind every funhouse-mirror weirdo she creates, there’s the girl who grew up on Long Island, impersonating teachers to fit in with her classmates. For every go-for-the-jugular political impression she nails, there’s the 35-year-old openly gay New Yorker, who brought her feminist streak to roles in Ghostbusters (2016), Rough Night (2017), and The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018). And for every Emmy-earning (she has two), zeitgeist-capturing, show-stopping portrayal of Hillary Clinton—or Ms. Rafferty, the unhinged victim of an alien abduction—there’s the everyday woman who likes to sprinkle cumin on her avocado toast and who would prefer to be home with her cat, Nino. In celebration of our 50th year, in an issue devoted to ripping off a half-century of the magazine’s archives, we photographed McKinnon, who will next appear in the Fox News drama Bombshell, and then as Elizabeth Holmes in an upcoming Hulu series, in homage to some of our most iconic images. For the interview, it only made sense to have the master of impersonation answer questions from a whole cast of (very famous) characters.
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: Do you listen to certain songs to pump you up for certain characters?
KATE MCKINNON: That’s a great question. Not specific ones for specific characters, but I have taken to dancing in between our dress rehearsal and our live show, because it helps me let off some steam. There’s this little nook in this sort of abandoned hallway where I kind of go crazy, dancing with my headphones on. I try not to be seen, but sometimes it’s inevitable. People don’t know what I’m doing, or why. The song I have been dancing to all year happens to be your song “Filthy.”
SCARLETT JOHANSSON: What is one of your favorite childhood memories?
MCKINNON: I grew up in a town on Long Island, and there was a little beach on it. I loved the ocean so much, and I loved to pick up little snails, find little dead crabs, and pore over the fruits of the sea that had been left on the beach. One day I was so excited, because I had found a piece of what I assumed was white seaweed. I thought, “Wow, I’m an intrepid explorer and I’ve identified a new species of sea plant. I’m incredible.” I ran over to my mom and I was like, “Mom, look! It’s white seaweed!” She was like, “Why don’t you put that piece of white seaweed back in the water, or better yet, throw it in the garbage?” Because it turns out it was a condom, and I didn’t know what a condom was. I thought, “Why doesn’t she want me to have this white seaweed? She’s afraid of the unknown, I guess.”
ALEC BALDWIN: If you were sentenced to life in prison, who would your ideal cellmate be?
MCKINNON: My sister. She’s my best friend, we’ve never had a fight, and we understand when one of us needs to take an hour or eight alone. We’re very much the same, so it would just sort of be like being alone in the best way.
ELLEN DEGENERES: What are your three favorite things about me?
MCKINNON: Over the course of appearing on your show over the years, you have given me my best blazers, shirts, and sneakers. I always leave with a little Ellen DeGeneres–brand parting gift. Then, obviously, there’s your unbridled courage, which has paved the way for me and countless other people to be who they are. I owe you my life in that respect. And then there’s the lengths to which you’ll go for your cats, which rivals my own.
MARGOT ROBBIE: If you could go back and play any character from any film in history, who would it be and why?
MCKINNON: It would be Willy Wonka, because I once tried to rock a purple velveteen blazer at school, but you can’t get away with that without a top hat and without owning a chocolate factory where children get murdered.
ILANA GLAZER: Who was your favorite teacher—grade school, college, comedy, or otherwise?
MCKINNON: I have to say Seth Meyers and the rest of the SNL writing staff. Just being in the room, hearing them pitch, hearing them craft, hearing them fix bits that weren’t working, watching them fix the shots on a sketch—these are skills I didn’t have at all before I arrived there. I have absorbed some of them by osmosis, by the sheer volume of time I’ve spent with the smartest people in the world. That’s an education that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. It’s completely irreplaceable, so I am most grateful to them.
SETH MEYERS: When did you feel the most joy performing?
MCKINNON: My favorite thing is to do a “Weekend Update” desk character, because you’re really connected to the audience who are right there. You’re out in front talking to them, but in character. I also feel so connected to the dude next to me, which used to be you and is now Colin [Jost]. You’re both such good dudes, and you’re so generous in how you laugh along with what me or anyone else is doing. I just feel buoyed by it and by your generosity and impeccable timing. It’s sort of like floating, really. It really does feel like that.
CATHERINE O’HARA: I’m not normally a conspiracy theorist, but am I the only person who suspects Elizabeth Holmes may have gotten too close to reinventing the business of blood testing, thus rendering the current business extinct, and needed to be wiped out herself? What’s your take on this oddly captivating woman, and how do you approach getting inside her head?
MCKINNON: For her, I read the book and I listened to the podcast, and I’ve been obsessively watching any footage available to me. From the moment I saw her, I felt like I got her and I understood how hard it must be for her to connect with people, given her whole deal. I can relate to that. I’m approaching it from that place. Whenever I have to do an impression of anybody, I study them and figure out the way in which I am the same as them and go from there. But the essence of it, which is figuring out what they want and what’s getting in their way, is how I approach any character.
BILL HADER: Do you remember me laughing at your SNL audition?
MCKINNON: If you want to do sketch comedy, the SNL audition is the moment that your entire existence has been building toward, and it lasts five minutes. Everything you’ve ever done is just building toward those five minutes, so the stakes are the highest they could possibly be. But the answer is no, because I formed no memories during those five minutes. My mind had left and was off watching Catfish while my body just performed the movements that I practiced. I was not in the room. I don’t remember sounds or shapes, so I have no idea. It was like a tribunal of people in the dark. I heard titters, but I had no idea who was in the room.
KATY PERRY: When was the first time you thought to yourself, “Wait, I’m really funny”?
MCKINNON: I was pretty serious when I was a kid, and I was quiet and curious. And I was not the most popular fourth grader. I was in a class with fourth and fifth graders, and the fifth graders looked at me with distaste. Then one day, I just started doing an impression of one of our teachers. They laughed, and I thought, “Okay, I’m going to stay on this track. This is working for me.” Eliciting laughter like that is a way of creating shared recognition and appreciation for all of the funny things that happen in the world. The world is a gorgeous cornucopia of feels and vibes. I know I sound awful.
BILLY EICHNER: Would you ever do Broadway, and if so, is there an existing play or musical that you’d want to do?
MCKINNON: I love musical theater so much, but I have never really had the vocal chops to qualify for Broadway. But if I did suddenly get them, my dream role has always been Miss Hannigan in Annie. She’s awful, but she’s having fun with it.
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: If you could tell your high school–aged self one thing, what would it be?
MCKINNON: I had, and still have, a group of four best gal pals, and we used to go to the diner on Saturday nights. I would tell myself that the waiter is definitely hitting on you and all of your friends, and you should not be bringing him small gifts. We thought we just had a buddy, but it was something else.
CHARLIZE THERON: Which SNL character of yours do you identify with the most?
MCKINNON: I’d say Ms. Rafferty, the perpetual alien abductee. I, too, prefer bad restaurants, bad hotels, bad train rides, bad movies, and bad weather. I thrive in those environments. I feel alive.
SETH MACFARLANE: When you act in a movie, do you keep your money on you or do you leave it in the trailer?
MCKINNON: I’ve never had cash, and I never will. I don’t carry greenbacks because I like to pretend that I’m not spending money. I’m just swiping a card. It’s a transaction with a toy.
MILA KUNIS: Peanut butter and jelly or avocado toast?
MCKINNON: Avocado toast. What kind of question is that?