Kate McKinnon on Analyzing Hillary Clinton, the Genius of Zach Galifianakis, and Dirty Furniture

Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Kate McKinnon has had quite a summer. She was the breakout star of Ghostbusters, offering a beloved, deeply strange performance. Then she won a freaking Emmy for her performance on Saturday Night Live last season, an award only three other cast members (Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, and Dana Carvey) won while on the show. But now she has to go back to work! SNL returns this week, and after Monday’s truly crazy presidential debate, her performance as Hillary Clinton is hotly anticipated. (She’s probably practicing that shimmy right now.) Meanwhile, she’s out promoting Masterminds, the delayed, hilarious comedy she appears in alongside the likes of Kristen Wiig, Zach Galifianakis, and Leslie Jones. McKinnon took some time this week to talk about her Hillary impression, working with her idol, and the state of her couch.

How did you watch the debate? Anything about it inspire you?
I was watching it with Chris Kelly, Sarah Schneider, and Bryan Tucker, the head writers, and we were just there with our notebooks out, each jotting down little things that struck us. I was paying particular attention to what Hillary said, her reaction shots, things like that, and just trying to imagine her inner experience.

In general, is there a phrase or a word or a gesture that is your way into doing the impression?
It keeps changing depending on how the campaign goes, but generally, she has a slight Midwestern bent in a few of her words, and backstage I’ll say a couple of sentences like that to get into it. And her laugh is very distinctive, so I will do that walking through the halls. Then I’m ready to go.

I assume you’d like Hillary to win. When working on sketches about her, then, do you feel any internal conflict about how you’re approaching the impersonation?
It’s hard to write a comedy sketch. We all try to focus on what the gist of the event is and what we want to say about it. But anything I do, I try to have maximum empathy and understanding — just really think about where a person is coming from.

I interviewed SNL co-head writer Chris Kelly recently and we talked about the difference of writing a pre-taped and a live sketch. How do you approach them differently as a performer?
The pre-tapes are just sort of like making a movie. A little movie in 12 hours. But the live sketches you have to straddle this weird dichotomy: You’re playing to a big house that you need to elicit laughter from and also you’re playing to an intimate screen in someone’s bedroom. Or, I don’t know, maybe they’re in the living room. Maybe they’re on a treadmill. I don’t know where they are. Anyway, it’s this strange thing to modulate. It’s something I have to consider anew for each sketch.

Before the live show, do you get to see how your performances look onscreen?
Often, yes. They tape all of the rehearsals, so we can go to a computer and watch for something where I’m confused about the level. I can see if something is coming off too big or not big enough. And I’ll watch it after the directors respond to see what I can do differently.

How do the especially physical sketches go during table reads? So much of the laugher is in the action.
For certain sketches, like dancing stuff, people get up and dance. It’s hard because it’s a very packed room and there’s only three, four feet of space to demonstrate what you’re thinking of doing. Or like for gross kissing, the first time I did that sketch, [the script] just said, “They kiss and it’s gross,” and that was left to the imagination. So, the next time I did it, it was pretty clear what it might end up being.

It wasn’t until rehearsal then, when you decided how you were going to kiss him?
It was just something that happened in the heat of the moment. The first time I did it, it was with Louis C.K. and there was just this gross synergy where I felt it appropriate to lick his forehead. But usually the physical stuff gets worked out in rehearsal and you just have faith that you’ll come up with something good.

You have done a few of these sketches. Do you have a favorite of the gross kissings?
I could no sooner choose a star in the heavens.

This weekend Masterminds premieres. The scene where you and Zach are posing for wedding photos is nuts. What was that day like?
It’s hard not to be the straight man when Zach Galifianakis is there. He’s such a delightfully bizarre creature. Everything he does is so surprising. He’s such a live wire. It’s just so exciting to watch. He was improvising the craziest, most inventive, beautiful choices. I could only marvel at it. I’m glad I got one or two jokes in when he’s in the room. It’s kind of a miracle.

Speaking of miracles, you have that fight scene with Kristen Wiig in the movie. In general, what did Kristen mean for you, as an aspiring comedian to now when you get to create comedy with her?
Kristen to me was like the greatest sketch comedian. I don’t want to discount other people that I have admired for decades, but with her, I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe she’s real and she does what she does.” I held her on such a pedestal — a much-deserved and real pedestal that she still occupies in my brain.

So there was a little bit of cognitive dissonance to work with her on this and then Ghostbusters. Now I consider her a dear friend. I’ve gotten to know her as a person and not just as a beacon of brilliance, and she’s just very nice and down-to-earth and everything out of her mouth is the funniest, wackiest thing you’ve ever heard. She will always occupy that space for me. I will always look up to her.

Speaking of Ghostbusters, Paul Feig seemed to imply that your character was originally written to be queer. Did you play her with that intention? 
The character ended up meaning different things to different people, but I wanted her to be a sort of a beacon to anyone who felt different, in any way. I think it accomplished that and I’m happy for that.

One last question: We’re around the same age, and I’ve noticed that as I get older, I’m developing a lot of random new interests. For example, I’ve become really into World War I. Are you experiencing the same thing now that you’re in your 30s?
I have always had eclectic obsessions: astrophysics, music theory, the Mongol empire and its history, and the history of the Silk Road, to name a few. I did just start getting home delivery of the newspaper and that feels like the most grown-up thing I could have done. Also, I need to get my couch cleaned. I’ve never had a couch that needed to be cleaned or learned how to couch-clean in general. That feels too grown-up.

I feel like you just assume, like, “Yeah, I’ll just get rid of this couch before it would ever be too dirty.”
It’s made of hair. My couch is made of cat’s hair. The cushions have been obscured and it’s made of salt-and-pepper fur. I can’t have visitors. I can’t ask people to sit on that couch because they become implicated in the furriness of it and they’re walking around and it’s not fair to people.

Kate McKinnon on Hillary, SNL, and Masterminds