Why Kate McKinnon Is the Ghostbusters Breakout

Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) in Columbia Pictures' GHOSTBUSTERS.
Photo: Hopper Stone/Sony

Sight unseen, Paul Feig’s new lady-led reboot of Ghostbusters has inspired tons of online chatter, but once the movie makes its way into theaters this Friday, the only thing people will be able to talk about is Kate McKinnon. The 32-year-old Saturday Night Live standout is the most GIF-able Ghostbuster by far, stealing scenes as the group’s off-kilter inventor Jillian Holtzmann. Adorned by yellow goggle-glasses and a swoosh of Egon-like hair that practically demands, “Draw me on Tumblr,” Holtzmann takes so much evident pleasure from ghostbusting that it even leaves her three colleagues a little shook. Early reviews have cited McKinnon’s performance as the standout, and while some critics are baffled by her weird energy, there’s no denying its impact. New York Times critic Manohla Dargis put it most succinctly when she tweeted a picture of McKinnon as Holtzmann and captioned it in all caps: “HER.”

The remarkable thing is that on paper, it wouldn’t appear that McKinnon has much to do. The other three Ghostbusters — paranormal experts Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), as well as street-smart subway worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) — all have actual character arcs, and each proves to be a crucial plot-mover. Holtzmann, on the other hand, is mostly consigned to reaction shots and non sequiturs. No matter: McKinnon makes a banquet of them. While the other ‘busters dither and debate their commitment to the ghost-hunting cause, Holtzmann is usually ten steps ahead, unleashing nuclear-grade whoop-ass on some antagonistic spirit. Nearly everything turns her on, including dangerous weaponry and her fellow Ghostbusters, and her free-floating sexual swagger is likely to inspire ardor from the audience, too: From the moment Holtzmann sizes up Wiig’s character with a casually flirtatious “Come here often?” it becomes clear that McKinnon will soon topple Ruby Rose as America’s favorite soft butch.

“Most great comedy people like to live on the edge,” Feig told Vulture this week, “but Kate lives about ten feet past the edge, suspended in midair with no parachute.” That’s a fitting image, since there’s a Looney Tunes quality to McKinnon’s performance where she’s seemingly unbound by the rules of the movie: At one point while ghostbusting, Holtzmann makes like Bugs Bunny and manifests a can of Pringles out of thin air just so she can land a comic punch line with her crunch. (Later, she refers to the chips lustily as “salty parabolas.”) Feig even saves her a slow-mo set piece where Holtzmann takes out an entire cadre of spirits with some paranormal pistol whips, then, satisfied, licks her smoking ghost-guns for good measure. “She embraces the danger zone,” Feig says of Holtzmann, a commendation that applies to his star, too.

According to Feig, Ghostbusters was actually assembled around McKinnon’s unusual presence. “We had fun writing the Holtzmann character, but it was really one of those things where you go, ‘Wow, we’ve got to get somebody who is a glorious weirdo,’” Feig said. “Kate was honestly the first person I decided was gonna be in the cast, because I needed to make sure I could get four very distinct comedic personalities who would not overlap with each other but would still mesh. So once I had her as the first building block, I could build from there.” Though they’d been introduced before at Saturday Night Live after-parties, Feig was quickly bowled over when McKinnon came in to meet for the part. “She adopted this kind of crazy physicality,” he said. “It wasn’t so much even what she was saying as it was how she was hunched down in her seat with her legs spread apart. She put one foot on the table and had this ‘ready to take on the world’ kind of attitude. I just knew she had to be in this movie.”

Hollywood is quickly catching on, too. After several seasons of standout moments on Saturday Night Live — including one memorable alien-abduction sketch where she cracked up her co-star Ryan Gosling — McKinnon is being courted for most big-screen studio comedies. In February, she joined Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston in Office Christmas Party, and in April, the hot spec Women in Business sold with McKinnon, Emma Stone, and Jillian Bell set to topline. A solo starring role could be next, but McKinnon will get the television equivalent of it this fall when Saturday Night Live returns with her version of Hillary Clinton front and center. The question is whether the suddenly hot McKinnon will stay with the show long enough to follow Clinton into her presumed presidency.

But if we can’t anticipate McKinnon’s next move, that feels fitting, too. “Kate’s just spectacular, and what’s so great about her is that you never know what’s gonna come out,” Feig told us. “We could be in the middle of a scene and she’ll do something that makes you say, ‘Why did you just do that? That’s crazy!’ And then, when you make it into the editing room, you realize it was fantastic.” Feig has worked with his fair share of top-tier comic talents, but with McKinnon, he feels that the sky is the limit: “She’s just one of the most inventive comedic actresses I’ve ever met.”