One recent Sunday morning, Kate McKinnon was leaning over the remnants of a sliced banana and trying not to cry. The banana was to help with the bruising she'd gotten on the set of a bachelorette-party-gone-wrong film, tentatively titled Rock That Body. "It's with Scarlett Johansson. Do you know of her?" McKinnon deadpans. "I've been doing some pratfalls." The crying was because I'd just innocently mentioned that, God willing, come January, she may very well be the first woman in Saturday Night Live's history to play the president of the United States. Suddenly, she's bending over the banana and holding her face in her hands. "It's really – " she falters. "I had not thought about it in those terms until this moment. Not my involvement in it, but just – what's that moment gonna be like? How hard are we gonna cry? I could cry just thinking about how hard we're gonna cry when it happens."
For a minute, she does just that. Then, apropos of nothing, she tries to balance a spoon on her nose.
Which is just about right. Playing into a character's well of emotions – and the defenses they might use to hide them – has become McKinnon's hallmark since she first landed on SNL, in 2012, with her Katharine Hepburn-ish voice, her cat eyes and her ability to out-weird pretty much everyone else. "I try to have a bit of swagger, but I have what my friends call Ratatouille hands, which are like tiny little appendages," she says, morphing her hands into rat claws and then spreading her fingers out for me to see. "I'm a small woman. So that juxtaposition of two disparate traits is something I relate to deeply – and I think it's the essence of any comedic character."
It's this juxtaposition that has driven some of McKinnon's most famous impersonations on SNL: Angela Merkel, trying to hide her schoolgirl crush on President Obama behind her buttoned-up Germanness, and fretting that the NSA is tapping her "tiny e-mails" ("You call zeez, uh, texts"); Justin Bieber as a slightly chagrined man-child who seems, endearingly, to be constantly prepping for a selfie; and, yes, Hillary Clinton as a woman who can't quite manage to keep the lid on her seething ambition to make good and do good.
That, too, is not such a foreign concept to McKinnon. The oldest daughter of an architect and a social worker, she grew up on Long Island, a self-professed "theater kid" who auditioned to play the fifth-grade "queen of reading week" with a British accent. "It occurred to me that might add to the characterization of the queen," she says. "I think the genesis of my entire life, probably, was the smiles I elicited doing this British accent. I've been chasing that dragon ever since."
She started watching SNL when she was 12, at her dad's prompting, and co-founded a musical improv comedy group called Tea Party as an undergrad at Columbia University. During her senior year, she went to an open call for The Big Gay Sketch Show, and booked the part. "And I thought, 'Well, this will be easy,' " McKinnon says. " 'I can just be a comedian.' And then, after the 25th audition I didn't get, I thought, 'Oh, no, this is not going to be easy.' "
Like many Saturday Night Live stars, she performed with the Upright Citizens Brigade ("I think I did end up doing about 10,000 hours") before submitting a tape to SNL and getting called in for an audition. "I remember a friend of mine getting hired as a writer, like, two years before I got on it," McKinnon says, "and I was shaking, physically shaking with the mere proximity of knowing someone who worked there. It was my specific dream, but I had really made peace with the fact that it wasn't gonna happen for me, and that's OK." When she found out she'd made it – and in doing so, became the first openly lesbian cast member in the history of the show – she (obviously) cried.
Now, sitting in the booth of a diner under the shadow of Penn Station in New York, wearing sneakers, a messy bun and clothes she could very well have slept in ("No one would suspect that this disgusting ragamuffin is an actress"), McKinnon's in town long enough to get fitted for a dress to wear to this year's Emmys; she'll go on to win for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series, having come up short three times prior ("Last year, I believe it went to Lin-Manuel Miranda, so it's OK, it's fine"). Later tonight, after catching a train to Southampton, Long Island, she's scheduled to meet Johansson and other Rock That Body co-stars for a nightcap ("We have bonded; there is a real sort of middle-school sleepover-party theme going on"), then it's back on set tomorrow, possibly perfecting her pratfalls. And in a few days, she'll head into SNL's new season – her sixth – which, she says, still makes her feel like a schoolgirl starting the fall semester. "I always buy new pens and notebooks at Staples," she says with a grin.
All of which means that McKinnon, at 32, is well on her way to having the breakout trajectory – from TV to film to world domination – that we've come to expect from the series' most talented cast members. This fall, she's starring in Masterminds, a heist-caper film featuring a veritable who's-who of comedy: Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis and Kristen Wiig. "It was scary," McKinnon says. "You know, I was doing scenes with Zach Galifianakis, who's one of my heroes. I want to do a good job. It requires a level of obsession, and minor torture."
But her fate was probably sealed on the set of Paul Feig's all-female Ghostbusters, in which the actor's madcap performance as the crew's unflappable nuclear engineer, Holtzmann, almost stole the show (The New York Times' Manohla Dargis tweeted a picture of McKinnon's character with the simple tag line "HER"). "It felt like such a monumental thing to be doing action not in a catsuit," McKinnon says.
That the hallowed tan jumpsuit should grace the feminine form, however, was too much for the Internet trolls, who made their displeasure known before the reboot was even released. McKinnon's co-star and SNL pal Leslie Jones was particularly targeted on Twitter – "OK, I have been called apes, sent pics of their asses, even got a pic with semen on my face," she summed up in a tweet – leading the social network's CEO to ban multiple users from the site. "It was fucked, just fucked," McKinnon says. "But I was more heartened by the progress that had been demonstrated by the green-lighting of the movie in the first place than by people's reaction to it. I don't think the reaction outshone the fact that it was produced. I think it was a true milestone. When has a true milestone sailed by without people's hateful attention?"
This, of course, brings us back to Hillary. When McKinnon learned that she would take the reins from Amy Poehler to play the presidential candidate, "I freaked out at the enormity of the task, yes," she says. "It really gets ratcheted up another notch when politics is involved." Not only did she have Poehler's "iconic and wonderful" characterization to live up to and differentiate from, McKinnon also had to figure out how to lampoon a woman she respected, someone she has publicly supported. "Progress, real progress, makes me cry harder than anything," she says, "when the world itself grows."
The version of Clinton that she and the SNL writers developed, honed over the past year and a half, is a sort of "after-hours" Hillary, caught in moments of not-always-flattering honesty. In fact, the most relatable that Clinton has been throughout her whole campaign may very well be the six minutes she spent playing a bartender to McKinnon's Hillary last season, poking fun at herself while keeping the drinks coming. "I feel very close not only to the real Hillary," McKinnon says, "but also to this Hillary character we've created."
Before performing that scene, McKinnon had never met Clinton, and didn't know how the candidate would take her portrayal. "Here's a person who's effecting change on a worldwide stage, and my job is doing voices," she says of the encounter. "Why are we in the same room? This doesn't seem right, but there we were." Luckily, Clinton was more than game to play along. "She was just so grand, but also so warm and sincere," McKinnon says. "And her timing was great."