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‘Ghostbusters': Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon’s magical solution for dealing with haters

Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon
Leslie Jones, left, and Kate McKinnon afraid of ghosts? Hardly! They star in the new “Ghostbusters.”
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon have a simple, devastatingly effective strategy for dealing with haters: self-acceptance. This may sound trite coming from some actors, but when Jones, a 6-foot tall, 48-year-old black woman, and McKinnon, a tiny, 32-year-old blond lesbian, tell you they have no room for judgment in their lives, they’re pretty persuasive.

“I know who I am,” Jones said in a recent joint interview with McKinnon to promote their new movie, “Ghostbusters.” “And I don’t care if you think I’m sexy.”

“I tried for a short time to be something I wasn’t, and had no success with it,” McKinnon said. “It’s a practical solution to just be yourself.”

Those self-acceptance muscles have gotten a heavy workout lately thanks to the groundswell of misogyny that greeted the arrival of “Ghostbusters,” which opens Friday. Director Paul Feig’s revamp of the 1984 supernatural comedy about a group of eccentric scientists who start a ghost-catching business in New York City has become an unlikely battleground in the gender wars, with aggrieved fans of the original waging an online campaign against the film for its casting of four women -- Jones, McKinnon, Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig -- in the lead roles.

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In the movie, which Feig co-wrote with Katie Dippold, Jones plays Patty Tolan, a New York subway worker who sees a ghost on the tracks, and brings her knowledge of the city and historical arcana to the Ghostbusters team. McKinnon is Jillian Holtzman, a nuclear engineer with a maniacal enthusiasm for ghost-killing gadgetry.

Even before they joined the cast of the film, Jones and McKinnon had already broken barriers in their careers at “Saturday Night Live.” In 2014, at age 47, Jones became the oldest person ever to join the show as a cast member; in 2012, McKinnon became its first openly lesbian cast member. Both women have played small supporting roles in other films -- McKinnon appeared in the Tina Fey and Amy Poehler comedy “Sisters,” and Jones was in Chris Rock’s “Top Five,” but “Ghostbusters” is a breakout opportunity for each.

On the film set and promotional tour for “Ghostbusters,” the two women are confidants and co-passengers on the notoriously bumpy trip from “SNL” to the big screen, which can result in movie stardom (Eddie Murphy, Chevy Chase, Will Ferrell) or the opposite (Chris Kattan, Dennis Miller, Tracy Morgan). McKinnon knows what Jones will order at a restaurant -- “Curry is not happening,” McKinnon said. Jones knows that McKinnon, an introvert, would prefer being at home with her cat, Nino, to most social events.

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On “SNL,” their comedy styles are completely distinct. McKinnon, who is also a member of the sketch group Upright Citizens Brigade, disappears into uncanny impressions, like an over-eager Hillary Clinton and a swaggy, slinking Justin Bieber. Jones, who has performed stand-up for nearly 30 years, delivers a defiantly honest, larger-than-life version of herself.

Those qualities come across in person as well. McKinnon is chameleonlike, occasionally drifting into a winking impression of an actor on a junket, as when she says of her cat, “I like to protect his privacy because he’s not here to speak for himself.”

Jones is candid to a point that sometimes surprises even her, as when she talks about how the death of her brother in 2009 affected her comedy.

“There was a time where I knew I was as funny as many dudes but I had people telling me, ‘You have to wear a dress onstage. You need to be more feminine,’” Jones said. “When my brother passed away… I made a decision that I might die soon, and if I die, I want people to know who I really am.”

McCarthy, McKinnon, Wiig and Jones in ‘Ghostbusters.’
McCarthy, McKinnon, Wiig and Jones in 'Ghostbusters.'
(Hopper Stone/Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures via AP )

The interview, part of a marathon of promotional appearances the women were doing in the run-up to the film, came at the end of a horrifying week in the U.S., in which two black men died at the hands of police and a sniper killed five police officers in Dallas. It was a disorienting time to be promoting a light-hearted movie with proton packs and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

“Our nation is just sad right now,” Jones said. “Everybody is just depressed. I feel the unhappiness of us.”

She lamented the lack of shared entertainment that might provide a release valve for cultural tensions, referencing the 1970s sitcoms she had loved as a kid.

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“Think about back in the day when we had Archie Bunker, ‘The Jeffersons,’” Jones said. “We had stuff to sit down and share and laugh at. The Internet has made it so we don’t have to sit together anymore. It’s so self-absorbed. No one has to talk to each other anymore, and people don’t realize that that is killing us.”

A Memphis, Tenn.-born Army brat, Jones went to high school in Lynwood and attended Chapman University on a basketball scholarship before transferring to Colorado State, with a major in communications and an eye on an acting career.

“I always thought I was gonna be an action hero,” Jones said. “I thought I’d be the female Wesley Snipes... cause of my height. But as the years kept passing, I thought, ‘Hmm, getting a little old. Not going to be jumping off those buildings.’”

If Jones has been a late bloomer professionally, McKinnon hit her mark early on. While growing up on Long Island and studying theater at Columbia University, she set “SNL” as her ultimate career goal, reaching it at age 28.

“I hope to be on ‘SNL’ as long as they’ll let me,” McKinnon said. “But I’ve come to enjoy film acting as well. Paul Feig gave me this incredible opportunity, and I really caught the bug.”

One of McKinnon’s favorite shows is “The Bachelor” and its offshoots, which she studies like a human behaviorist, trying to suss out the contestants’ motivations. As the women debated the dating franchise’s merits, they plotted what it might be like with Jones as the Bachelorette.

“You would eliminate 24 guys based on looks alone and then you would have one conversation with one guy and eliminate him because he’s stupid,” McKinnon said. “It would be ‘A Bachelorette Three-Day Special With Leslie Jones.’”

“And I’m not giving roses out,” Jones said. “I’m giving cactuses. If you accept this cactus, then you accept me.”

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rebecca.keegan@latimes.com

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