With a resurgent Saturday Night Live providing weekly catharsis for a politically obsessed America, Emmy-winning Kate McKinnon has hit a new level of fame. It’s also taught her just how personal the political can be.
If journalists played it straight with movie stars, they’d call it an interrogation not an interview. It’d be conducted at a police station—some grimy, windowless room at the back, cramped and full of the hot stink of fear and funk. After bouncing the star off a wall or two, ignoring the pitiful pleas for a phone call, a lawyer, a mommy, the journalist would shine a light in those pretty, pretty eyes, and start grilling. What did you have to do to get your big break? How long do you think you can turn the trick, keep the public interested, huh? Who are you sleeping with? Who are you sleeping with? Who are you sleeping with?
O.K., maybe I’m overstating the case. I’m not, however, mis-stating it. Encounters between movie stars and the journalists who cover them are edgy, deeply. They are, by their very nature, transactional: the journalist offers the star, usually with a new project or venture to promote, exposure; the star offers the journalist revelation, a couple of juicy details with which to titillate readers. Use and be used, give and take, a mutual hustle and the way of the world. Couldn’t be clearer, right? Where things get murky is in the trappings. The interview is made to look like the opposite of what it is: a friendly social interaction. The star and I always meet at a restaurant—the garden terrace at the Chateau Marmont or the Clement at the Peninsula—almost always for lunch. There’s conversation (one-sided, but still) and an attentive waiter and imported mineral water and a salad of wild arugula, locally grown, and it’s easy to forget that our interests are at odds and that the relationship is, at heart, antagonistic.
Only I couldn’t forget with Kate McKinnon, the Emmy-winning Saturday Night Live mainstay (S.N.L. is the venture she’s currently promoting, Season 43, set to premiere on September 30), perhaps the most gifted of a gifted generation of young comics, her flair for mimicry and slapstick allowing her to create characters and impressions that are both spookily exact and totally off the wall. Mind you, I’m not proposing that Kate herself is antagonistic. She isn’t. In fact, her niceness is as pronounced, extreme, and undeniable as her talent—it’s the quality of hers you’re struck by first.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
CAT CLASS, CAT STYLE
Let me set the scene: it’s a Friday afternoon, hot, every face, every object, with that sweaty, New-York-in-the-summer shine to it. Kate and I are meeting for lunch, naturally, and she’s suggested a place in the East Village. I can’t say the name because I promised Kate I wouldn’t. (It’s a best-kept secret, only it wouldn’t be if I blabbed, is the idea.) Technically it’s a restaurant, though “restaurant” seems like too highfalutin a term to convey its essence. “Hole-in-the-wall” might be nearer the mark, “dump” nearer still: linoleum floor, laminated menus, Asian-y pop music on the speakers (“Asian-y” is as close as I’ll get to giving away its identity—see, Kate, I didn’t break my word), ceiling fan moving the thick, soupy air around some without cooling it any. Yet the food is as good as the ambience is bad, as I will soon discover when a guy, a waiter I assume though he’s in street clothes, flings on the table first Kate’s dish and then, following a discreet dick adjustment, mine.
Kate arrives on time to the minute. I’m early, so I have a chance to observe her as she enters. She’s dressed down. Movie stars are typically dressed down for these occasions. (Another reason they’re deceptive: people come costumed as though it’s playtime, not work.) But Kate isn’t dressed movie-star down, i.e., the kind of down that’s flattering to the figure and still involves the application of a not inconsiderable amount of makeup, i.e., a stylist-approved, camera-ready kind of down. Kate’s dressed real-person down, i.e., badly: oversize T-shirt and pants that aren’t quite sweat but close enough; sneakered feet; face cosmetics-free; hair in a ponytail, or, rather, what would be a ponytail if she hadn’t failed to tug the hair all the way through the elastic, leaving it in a sort of ponytail-bun limbo.
As quickly as I’m struck by how un-vain she is, I’m struck by how much she has to be vain about. She’s very pretty: small-bodied and full-lipped with cat eyes—pale blue and almond-shaped and slanting—tawny skin and hair, dimples she can twitch into existence without even smiling. She’s 33 but appears younger, a few years out of college. I’d watched hours of footage of her in preparation for this encounter yet had somehow missed her great good looks. Not that she photographs poorly. It’s just that in most scenes she’s impersonating a woman far, far older than she (Debette Goldry, legend of the silver screen, a fictional creation) or a woman far older (the all-too-real Betsy DeVos) or a man (Robert Durst) or a boy-man (Justin Bieber). And her face is rarely in repose. She’s often stretching it in some crazy, rubbery way, thrusting out her jaw, baring her teeth.
And it isn’t only Kate’s eyes that are feline; it’s her manner as well. I don’t mean to suggest that she’s aloof or self-regarding in that cat style. Quite the contrary, in fact. As we sit down, she asks me questions and, after it’s revealed that I have two small boys, requests a picture, and actually looks when I produce it. But she has a cat’s sensitivity and suspiciousness, is nerved up as a cat is nerved up. It’s almost as if she’s equipped with a pair of invisible whiskers, and the moment those whiskers come into contact with something wrong—the tape recorder I slide onto the table, for example, the felt-tip pen I uncap and place at a diagonal on a stenographer’s notebook—she starts to back away on soft, padded paws. And it’s immediately apparent to me that I’m going to have to approach her slowly, carefully, no false moves, and that even the slowest, most careful and false-move-free approach might not work. She could still get spooked, run off.
And as I’m having this thought, and as my stomach is twisting in response to it, another one occurs to me: how newly famous she is. Or not newly famous, exactly. She became a featured player on S.N.L. in 2012, a full cast member in 2013, and was an audience favorite straightaway. But newly super-famous. The reason, Donald Trump. Kate is, of course, the show’s Hillary Clinton, Trump’s once and future nemesis, though the loathing between Kate’s Hillary and Alec Baldwin’s Trump is so intense, instinctive, and visceral it’s almost arousing, it’s almost love—you just know the two never stop thinking about each other. She’s his hate interest. (Question: Were we too freaked out and pissed off to notice that the 2016 presidential election was the greatest battle-of-the-sexes screwball farce of the modern era, the blackest romantic comedy of them all? That Clinton and Trump were a surreal, gonzo version of Hepburn and Tracy? Hepburn and Tracy as re-interpreted by David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino? Trump’s nearing the end of his first year as our El Número Uno Commander in Chief and he still can’t shut up about the woman he defeated back in November, gets this wistful look in his eye whenever he calls her by her pet name, Crooked Hillary. It’s as if the old Rodgers and Hart tune were running in his head on a loop. The sleepless nights / The daily fights . . . I wish I were in love again.)
Kate is not S.N.L.’s only Hillary. Jan Hooks took the initial shot, memorably playing the then First Lady as a simmering cauldron of barely suppressed resentment (“I happen to be the co-president of the United States”). There was also Amy Poehler’s Hillary: Obama’s rival, a brittle, chilly bluestocking whose will to power had been thwarted one too many times and whose smile had become so wooden you could rap your knuckles on it for luck. Kate’s Hillary, however, blows them all away. Kate’s Hillary has her hard-driving bitch side to be sure, but mostly she’s the world’s worst combination—half schoolmarm, half princess—who knows she’s the world’s worst combination, keenly feels her lack of flash and charisma, of the common touch, the qualities possessed in such abundance by her mate and Obama, even by Trump, yet is steady and decent and true, and wants to do good—oh, how she wants to do good!—though is stymied in her attempts because regular folk plain don’t cotton to her, are looking for any excuse to go in another direction. There’s pathos in Kate’s Hillary. You laugh at her, but you feel for her, too. And the sketch that Kate and Hillary did together, Kate as Hillary, Hillary as a seen-it-all barkeep named Val, was, I thought, Hillary’s best moment of the entire election, certainly her warmest. As Val she was relaxed, loose, funny, natural—everything she wasn’t and perhaps couldn’t be on the campaign trail. Last season’s co-head writer Chris Kelly: “The real Hillary was very game. We showed her the script, and we assumed that she, or any presidential candidate, would have notes or try to be open but still secretly have a bunch of things they didn’t want to make fun of. She read it and laughed and was like, ‘O.K.’ ” Says Kate, “Hillary has great timing.”
Kate actually says very little else about Hillary, not because she has little else to say but because she gets too overwhelmed to say it. She tears up when she recalls tearing up when she viewed the presidential debates with Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, another co-head writer from last season, in preparation for devising those weeks’ cold opens. Schneider: “Kate and Chris and I would meet at the 30 Rock offices or we’d pick one of our apartments. I watched as a writer of a satire comedy show, and so I saw everything through the lens of, Can I make fun of that? But I also watched as a woman and I was concerned. I saw some of the attitudes taken towards Hillary—the nasty-woman comment. And I can understand why Kate would get emotional about that.” Though Kate’s Hillary is, obviously, not Hillary Hillary, there is a kind of fusion going on between impersonator and the human being whose skin, soul, and mind the impersonator is inhabiting. To do her job as well as she does, empathy is essential, which means she must stay open and raw where the rest of us—we nonperformers—are hard and self-protective. Psychologically it’s a dangerous place to be. Kate: “I love doing impressions of politicians because the task is always to imagine the private lives of these people whose job it is to project an image of staunch, unflinching leadership and grace, and that’s just not how human beings, in their heart of hearts, work. In doing that for Hillary Clinton, who I admire so much, I started to feel very close to her, just trying to imagine her inner life.” She necessarily takes it personally.
HILLARY, ET AL.
Let’s talk now about Kate’s other impressions. (An F.Y.I.: Kate’s speaking voice is soft, very. The only times I don’t have to lean in to catch it are when she’s doing an impression, at which point self-consciousness disappears because she is no longer herself and thus unthinkingly turns up the volume, and when she’s telling me something she regards as important, and to both make me laugh and to make sure I don’t fuck it up, she yells the words directly into my recorder’s ear. To me, sotto voce, “My most frequent collaborators at S.N.L. are the incredibly gifted writers,” and then to my recorder, in stereophonic sound, “CHRIS KELLY AND SARAH SCHNEIDER!”) A touchstone for Kate is Molly Shannon’s Mary Katherine Gallagher, the Catholic schoolgirl who’s rough on décor and who sniffs her armpit-dipped fingers when she’s nervous: “Mary Katherine is crashing into tables and doing a little dance, and yet she’s so real at the same time. You have to love her so much because she’s a person who’s trying to connect, but is thwarted by everything about who she is. I can relate to that.” It’s the generosity of spirit Shannon brought to the character that Kate responded to, and she brings that same spirit to whomever she’s representing. Says Lorne Michaels, “Kate can embody a character and bring it to life and make it funny. But there’s also always something empathetic about her characters. And although the writing might not be kind, she is. That’s her genius. You can’t make the audience fall in love with a character you don’t like.”
Kate has begun appearing in big roles in major feature films, most notably in last year’s all-female Ghostbusters reboot, which if it did nothing else served to remind us how weird people can still be about women (the outrage on social media that Columbia Pictures had the gall to remake this towering achievement of cinematic expression with cootie-ridden girls—e-e-e-e-e-u-u-u-u-w!—was as amusing as it was depressing), and this year’s bachelorette-party-gone-bad comedy Rough Night. Kate shines in both, but the movies feel slightly beside the point. Maybe because what she’s doing on S.N.L. feels so essential. There’s the pure political theater of her Hillary, of course. Yet there’s also her Elizabeth Warren, her Kellyanne Conway, her Jeff Sessions. Season 42 of S.N.L. had more eyeballs fastened on it than any season since Season 19 (1993-94), and received more Emmy nominations than any season ever, including for Kate and Baldwin, both of whom would win. Election years can often mean a ratings bounce for the show, only this time that bounce went sky-high and didn’t come back to earth, even after the contest was decided.
Somehow S.N.L. has managed to locate the center of a culture that’s without one, that’s increasingly fractured. Over the last 18 months or so, politics has become the national obsession, what’s pushing us together as a country even as it’s driving us apart. And to end each week with S.N.L.,releasing the pent-up anger and frustration and fear and anxiety with laughter, is cathartic. This, too: the eerily symbiotic relationship that has developed between S.N.L. and the White House. S.N.L. watches the White House in order to satirize it; the White House watches the satirization and then offers notes. Trump tweeted after the October 15, 2016, episode, “Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks.” And yet Trump seems beyond influenced by it, seems haunted. Am I nuts or has Trump, since Baldwin debuted hisTrump, squinted harder, pooched out his bottom lip farther? (Observes Baldwin, “He makes this face like he’s snarling and about to leap at you, like he’s in a production of Cats.”) And though purists will argue that Anthony Atamanuik’s Trump or John Di Domenico’s are the more nuanced and artful, it’s Baldwin’s that’s captured the public imagination. Scrambled the imagination, as well. In February, El Nacional, a newspaper in the Dominican Republic, printed a photograph of Baldwin as Trump believing it was Trump. Says Baldwin, “My thought was that if I did a good impression of Trump it would be dull. So I ran towards this idea that I’m going to do a horrific caricature. When you’re doing an impression, you can suggest the voice, or the way the guy looks, but you’ve really got to think of who he is, and get that right, and I think I did. In terms of the media, I’m Trump now. He’s not even Trump anymore—I am.”
Baldwin has considered running for office in the future. I want to propose the ultimate comedic reversal of fortune: Trump, driven so crazy by Baldwin’s Trump, forfeits the presidency to escape it (other contributing factors include the Russia thing, the special-counsel thing, the wee-wee tape thing); Baldwin, having played POTUS on TV, is elected to play POTUS in life, Kate’s Hillary his V.P.; Trump, a two-time S.N.L. host, is recruited by that shrewd barnstormer Lorne Michaels to become the show’s Baldwin. We’re in a world now where such a scenario is, if not plausible, possible.
FOR PUBLIC CONSUMPTION
Kate and I start with her professional life, and we stay there for a long time, and we’re doing all right, are cooking with gas, in fact, even if we do encounter the occasional bump in the road. For instance, when I ask her about a dinner she had with Hillary at Orso in late winter (Peter Biskind, a Vanity Faircontributing editor, just happened to be at the restaurant that night: “Most of the diners stood up and there was gaping and scattered applause. And there were lots of what I assume were Secret Service men and they followed Hillary when she went downstairs to the john”), her eyes begin to skitter and jump. I immediately cast around for a less sensitive topic, though I hadn’t realized that one was sensitive.
And we continue to do O.K. when I jolt the conversation onto another track, inquire about her family and early career. She grew up on Long Island, Mom a social worker, Dad an architect. Kate was, to her parents’ delight, an arty kid, and a natural cutup. Mel Brooks was a household god. “We watched The Producers once a week.” So was Christopher Guest. (Kate is, with the exception of Kristen Wiig, the biggest female star to come out of S.N.L. since Tina Fey, and the comparisons between her and her predecessor are both legion and inevitable. They are also, in my opinion, inaccurate. Fey, a former S.N.L. head writer, is brilliant, incisive, withheld, in charge; whether or not she’s technically running the show, she’s running the show; and she’s always Tina Fey, even when she’s, say, Sarah Palin. Kate, though equally brilliant, is brilliant in an entirely different way. She’s a softer, sweeter comic presence, and more anarchic, open to a manic impulse or the zigzagging energy coming off the performers around her, and she disappears into the identity she’s assuming at that moment. And it’s Guest repertory player Catherine O’Hara, she of the elastic face and bugaboo stare and oddball characters who believe they’re perfectly normal, to whom Kate bears the strongest resemblance.) Kate attended Columbia University, where she was part of the Varsity Show, a satirical look at campus life, and whose alumni, incidentally, include Rodgers and Hart. Senior year she went on an audition for a sketch series on Logo and got the job, which gave her the misimpression that breaking into showbiz was easy. “I learned quickly that that was a major fluke and then didn’t get paid again for a long time.” Eventually she landed at the Upright Citizens Brigade, and from there it was on to S.N.L.
NOT FOR PUBLIC CONSUMPTION
I save the personal-life questions for last, as I always do. (This, by the way, is the portion of the interview that should be held at the Parker Center or 1 Police Plaza.) I’ve devised my own set of ethics and practices for this type of situation. For example, I’ll only use evidence legally admissible in court, i.e., details or items that the subject has let slip in other interviews, or that have appeared in other reputable publications or forums, i.e., no innuendo or gossip. In the case of Kate, who doesn’t have a Facebook page, doesn’t have a Twitter or Instagram account, I scanned her IMDB entry and saw that she spent three seasons on Logo’s The Big Gay Sketch Show. And then I bopped on over to YouTube, watched her already referenced S.N.L. pas de deux with Hillary, Hillary-as-Val-the-bartender congratulating Kate-as-Hillary on supporting same-sex marriage for so long, and Kate-as-Hillary shooting Hillary-as-Val a sharp glance and saying, “I could’ve supported it sooner,” the line getting a huge laugh because, as Wikipedia will tell you, Kate is S.N.L.’s first out lesbian cast member. Also on YouTube: a clip of her as the Celesbian guest of comic Julie Goldman, discussing her first kiss, with a girl—“[We] made out for eight hours. . . . I wore my retainer the entire time”—and her first crush, on Gillian Anderson: “[She’s] still my queen.” Kate brought girlfriend Jackie Abbott as her date to this year’s Emmys. All this information is but a Google search away. Which means her sexuality is in the public domain. Which means it’s fair game for the likes of me.
(An aside: is the movie-star profile a relic from a sweeter, more innocent time? The days of gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper acting as the sole conduit between dreamed-of icon and dreaming fan are long since over. Thanks to social media, celebrities are available now in a way they never were before. Why our celebrity president gives us access to seemingly every thought he has as he has it with the stream-of-consciousness monologue-orgy that is his Twitter feed. And the most modern of modern movie stars—as if the movie star can be modern, isn’t as much a relic as the profile of which he or she is the subject, the movie star a dinosaur compared to the reality star, a dinosaur with a walker compared to the YouTube star—is Jennifer Lawrence, who photobombs and trolls and takes selfies and says funny dumb shit in interviews and has Greta Garbo’s mystique except turned inside out. And then there’s TMZ, founded by Harvey Levin, “a festering boil on the anus of American media,” according to Baldwin, a favorite target of the Web site. And what about the hackers posting nude pictures of Scarlett Johansson, Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively? Can a reader be expected to forget all this when he or she opens a cover story in Vanity Fair or any other magazine? Pretend not to notice that the star is being shot with the linguistic equivalent of a filtered lens? As a society we’ve stepped through the Looking Glass and there’s no turning back.)
I clear my throat to signal a change in subject, and, as I do, I glance at Kate, see her face tense up as if she senses where I’m going. Instead of going there, asking her to tell me her coming-out story, which she already told Julie Goldman in their interview—conducted, admittedly, in 2008, well before she was famous, when anonymity guaranteed her privacy—I say, “You don’t want to talk about your personal life?” She gives a fast, nervous shake of the head. And, since I’m no cop and Kate’s certainly no criminal, I nod back. Then I lean across the table and switch off the tape recorder.