How Kate McKinnon Uses Comedy to Cope With Her Social Anxiety

Kate McKinnon is one of six creative leaders in comedy honored for Variety‘s 2021 Power of Women. For more, click here.

Kate McKinnon is exceedingly uninhibited, unselfconscious and brazen in her spot-on, wacky impressions of everyone from Robert Durst, Betsy DeVos and Justin Bieber to Dr. Anthony Fauci, Jeff Sessions and Rudy Giuliani. It makes it somewhat surprising that the Emmy-winning “Saturday Night Live” star is quite the opposite offstage.

“People are often confused when they meet me because I’m soft-spoken and pensive. I am extraordinarily introverted,” says McKinnon.

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Sophy Holland for Variety

The comedian actually began speaking in character voices at age 10 to relieve her social anxiety. “I found I was more easily able to communicate with people doing a funny voice,” she says, conceding, “I found it was a way to share joy and to bring a sense of fun and community in a way that I had trouble doing just in my own voice. I do have a personality, but I find it easier still in some ways to communicate in character.”

When McKinnon was cast in the 2016 remake of “Ghostbusters,” she asked director Paul Feig if she could use a Russian accent to make the comedy feel more familiar to her. He refused, insisting she must be herself. “I thought, ‘Well, which one?’ That for me is the hardest thing, but I’ve gotten more comfortable with it as the years have worn on.”

It came as no shock when the press-shy comedian declined Variety’s request for a Zoom interview. That said, during a 45-minute telephone conversation she sidestepped only one key question: How much longer did she foresee being a cast member on “SNL”? “Umm, gosh, it’s April. It’s early.” When pressed for a more definitive answer, she replied, “Honestly, no, I can’t. I’m sorry.”

McKinnon was, however, candid about other topics, including how she felt about the dramatic, highly emotional cold open she performed as presidential candidate Hillary Clinton right after she lost the 2016 election. On a darkened stage, she sat alone at a piano singing Leonard Cohen’s ballad “Hallelujah.”

“I have had a few moments in my life of a truly profound connection with an audience where I laid myself absolutely bare, and that was certainly one of them,” says McKinnon. “That was special for me because I felt for the people [for] whom that was a moment of pain; I got to talk to them. And that’s why I’m in this game.”

She got into the game by training in sketch comedy for eight years before joining “SNL” in 2012. McKinnon says the show’s “one-of-a-kind” platform allows her the immediacy of engaging with audiences on timely events as they’re unfolding. “SNL” was also incredibly cathartic for her during the pandemic, giving her a way get through the darkness. “Of all the seasons I worked on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ this one may have been my favorite because it helped me to feel less alone,” she acknowledges. “I felt a sense of communion with the audience in the studio and the audience at home.” Being able to “share in the ludicrousness and pain of what we were all going through made my year bearable. If I hadn’t been able to commune with people through a TV screen this year, I really would have been in bad shape.”

As an adolescent growing up in New York watching “SNL,” McKinnon says the comedians who influenced her career ambitions the most were Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri and Ana Gasteyer. “They were my absolute heroes. I watched their characters, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is what I have to do.’”

Once she joined the cast of “SNL” herself, McKinnon says she was bowled over by Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, whom she refers to as “the greats — all of them have been my mentors.”

Of all the impressions she has done, including a slew of political figures like Lindsey Graham, Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren and Kellyanne Conway, McKinnon has a hands-down favorite: Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “Because of the tidal wave of love and goodwill that I could feel emanating from the audience, and because she is so beloved and such a force for political change in our world, it felt so good to have that energy in the studio when I conjured that person. I loved her so much. She was the closest thing to a superhero.”

Audiences consider McKinnon to be “SNL’s” superhero and would hate to see her go anytime soon. When asked what her future holds, she says, “I have some special stuff up my sleeves, and basically what I want to do is play characters. I love my weirdos, and I would like to play my weirdos in different contexts, in more dramatic contexts or more narrative comedy contexts.”

Styling: Rebecca Grice/Forward Artists; Makeup: Cassandra Garcia/The Wall Group/Bobbi Brown; Hair: Joseph Maine/The Wall Group; Lead image, Suit: Etro; Earrings: Jennifer Fisher; Cover, suit: Gabriela Hearst; Top: St. John; Earrings: Jennifer Fisher