Culture

The longtime comedy god is making the leap to action hero.

Keegan-Michael Key Is Ready to Reintroduce Himself

Keegan-Michael Key is very good at being interviewed. He shows up to the diner in North Hollywood precisely at the pre-arranged time. He asks you how to pronounce your name, and then drops it into conversation sporadically to put you at ease. He makes eye contact. He laughs at your jokes, often out of courtesy. He has the common decency to be less intimidatingly tall than you’d pictured; in fact, you’re only an inch or two shorter than him at most. He’s thoughtful and engaged, if a little opaque.

It’s no surprise Key is comfortable in this setting. Twenty years into his career, he’s done these things a lot. At Key & Peele’s peak, when he and Jordan Peele were getting profiled in tandem constantly, Key was always described as more gregarious and sociable, the one more eager to please. And today, he’s got the added bonus of a home-court advantage: he used to eat at this diner all the time, back when he lived in the neighbourhood.

In his professional life, Key isn’t nearly as relaxed. That’s by design. After Key & Peele went off the air in 2015, he successfully avoided any post-success downturn—your Seinfeld curses, your après-Friends malaises—by throwing himself into a diverse range of work. He made his Broadway debut in a Steve Martin-penned play; starred in a couple of indies, like Mike Birbiglia’s criminally underseen Don’t Think Twice; and joined the Netflix dramedy Friends From College, which is set to drop its second season in early 2019. All of those projects were moderately successful, and all of them were right in Key’s wheelhouse—comedy-tinged ensembles, where he could alternately act as the rhythm section that binds the group together and the lead guitarist who shreds his solos. Now, though, he wants to get out of that wheelhouse.

A few years back, as Key & Peele wound down, Key’s then-girlfriend1—the producer and director Elisa Pugliese—asked him a simple question: “If you had no excuses about why you couldn’t do something, what would you want to do?” He waited a beat. “I would want to be Jason Bourne,” he said. “And I would want to do Shakespeare.”

“That pull to do something new is real,” he says to me now, “but the fear of leaving the comfort zone is also powerful. I’ve been taking baby steps into this new path. You’re looking through the forest going, ‘It’s a little hairy down there.’ But it was a little hairy when you started doing the comedy. Why would it be any different? I bet this wooded path opens up into a gorgeous clearing. You just have to work yourself up to it.”

To wit: Last summer, Key starred as Horatio in a production of Hamlet at New York’s Public Theater. Now he’s making moves towards that other action item,2 starting with a leading role in this month’s The Predator. At 47 years old, after three years of playing it relatively safe, Key is putting a stamp on the next chapter of his career. And, honestly, he’s a little nervous.

Maybe right now you’re scoffing at Key’s stated ambitions. Maybe you think he’s just another misguided comedian trying to go serious, that he needs to stay in his lane. And if that’s the case, well—first of all, you’re kind of an asshole, and you should fix that. But also, you have it backwards: this is what he’s wanted from the jump. Comedy was the detour he never saw coming.

In fact, when Key first began taking improv classes at Second City Detroit in 1997, he had to be dragged there by a couple of actor friends who knew he’d be a natural. “I was all, ‘How dare you! I’m a dramatic actor!’” He was hired to perform with the mainstage company within months, got a call up to the original Second City in Chicago four years later, and then landed a role on MADtv—alongside a fellow newcomer named Jordan Peele—in 2004. It’s not that he didn’t know he was funny, it just wasn’t supposed to be his path.

Before all that serendipity, he was a classically trained actor. Key has an MFA in theatre from Penn State. He spent three years falling in love with Eugene O’Neill and August Strindberg and Tennessee Williams, and like all drama students worth their berets, dreamt of someday doing the Bard on a big stage. So the Shakespeare stuff is easy enough to understand.

If it’s his sudden lane change toward action heroism that seems peculiar, you need to go back and watch some Key & Peele. Nuzzled between the biting racial satires that earned the show a Peabody, the political riffs that landed Key the chance to perform on live television with President Obama, and all the other highly specific madness K&P excelled at, there was an endless stream of loving nods to ’80s and ’90s action flicks. Among the most overt was a fourth-season sketch called “Strike Force Eagle 3: The Reckoning,” a pitch-perfect B-movie homage in which Key inhabits a mulleted, near-wordless brute who snaps the necks of everyone in his path—including, by accident, the woman he’s there to save.

That affection for action films stretches all the way back to Key’s childhood in Detroit. Of course, most young boys love watching strong people fight other strong people, but for Key it was a little different. Key has, as he once told comedian Pete Holmes on a podcast, “a lot of parents.” The product of an affair, Key was adopted at birth by a couple that divorced when he was young; his adoptive father later remarried, and he grew close to his stepmother; at 25, he had a moving reunion with his biological mother. Through all of that upheaval, action movies were the one constant: Roger Moore’s Bond and the kung fu flicks that aired on late-night TV were his first loves. “I’m going back to my roots,” he says. “It’s what made me like acting in the first place.”

So yes, we all watched Bond movies growing up. We all dropkicked invisible bad guys in the backyard. But not all of us can speak fluently and at length about the genius of Martin Brest’s work in the 1980s, break down in exacting detail the psychology of John McClane or Neo. Key is a real student of this stuff, which is part of the reason he signed on to The Predator in the first place: he wanted the chance to work with writer-director Shane Black, the mind behind such genre-defining touchstones as Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, and more recent cult classics like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys. “It was a no-brainer,” Key says. “He created a genre. Created a genre.”

As you might expect, the kind of action heroes Key wants to portray are a little more nuanced and developed than his “Strike Force Eagle” meathead—or even the underwritten badasses from the original Predator. In this latest instalment, that’s exactly what Black gives him: “All of the people in this movie are struggling with internal scars, regrets from the past, in the midst of this larger story,” Key explains. “I want there to be flaws in the characters that I play, because people identify and resonate with that as much as anything else. Maybe you’re not diffusing a bomb, but there might be something in your life that’s overwhelming, that makes you feel adrift. The character feels that same way, just with higher stakes. You still have something to link into emotionally.”

But if he’s this passionate about action movies, you might be asking, why didn’t he ever try to do one sooner? “Fear,” he says bluntly. It wasn’t until the end of Key & Peele’s third season—when both men were afforded what Key modestly calls “a certain amount of agency in the industry”—that either ventured to even think about stretching their legs outside of sketch comedy. “Dare I think about doing a romantic comedy?” Key remembers asking himself. “Dare I explore being sexy? Being confident? Being the grounded force and not the clown in a project?” Peele, meanwhile, quietly began writing a long-envisioned passion project.

It was called Get Out.

There is a widely-circulated Instagram video from earlier this year of Key at an Oscars viewing party. The moment that Peele’s name is called for Best Original Screenplay, Key appears to lose all control of his lanky limbs and elastic features, as though he’d just been healed by Benny Hinn. He bounds up onto a chair, raises his arms in victory like Rocky at the end of every Rocky, and lets out a guttural roar. Then he hands out a series of juiced-up high fives to everyone in his immediate area and plants a passionate kiss on his fiancée’s lips. “I never doubted for a second that this would happen for Jordan,” Key tells me, grinning wistfully. “Never for a second. What I experienced on Oscar night was not surprise—it was just joy.” All of this to say, for you drama-obsessed reprobates out there, that there is not an ounce of jealousy or ill will or any kind of rift between Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.

But Get Out did prompt some soul-searching. The film was such a fully formed expression of Peele’s worldview that it forced Key to question who he is, exactly. “It’s something that I’ve been exploring a lot lately,” Key admits. “When and how do I reveal a new part of myself that’s more intensely personal? I’ve actually not done a lot of that. And when I have done it, it’s masked behind makeup and a camera and a character in another person’s story.”

I want there to be flaws in the characters I play, because people identify and resonate with that as much as anything else.

His foray into action might be the thing to get him there. “It’s just you and that gun in your hand,” he says. “It’s very naked.” But more than anything, Key wants to reveal himself through his choices. He wants a diverse career, one that stretches all of his muscles, that lives up to those of his idols—Gary Oldman; Peter Sellers; and Eddie Murphy, with whom he just began filming a new Netflix movie—without replicating them exactly.

“My wife is very good at encouraging me to think about what my path is going to look like, and not compare it to other people’s,” he says. “It may be a healthy thing for my old heroes to lose a little lustre. Peter Sellers once said something to the effect of, ‘I’m nothing.’3 He couldn’t wait to go to work everyday to escape his boring self and become someone interesting. I would like to look in the mirror every day and say, ‘Hey, you’re an interesting person. And you have a light to shine in the universe. You have something to offer the world.’”

I catch a glimpse of that essence—of the “real” Keegan-Michael Key, so to speak—right near the end of our conversation, when I ask him about his wedding, which had just gone down a few weeks prior in New York.

“It was the best wedding I’ve ever been to,” Key beams. Sure, what wedding isn’t, especially when it’s your own. But the Keys have a legitimate claim to that title. The reception was held in the glittering observatory atop One World Trade Center, a hundred stories above the sweeping expanse of the five boroughs. At one point, Key hopped onstage with the band to serenade his bride with a soulful rendition of “Tennessee Whiskey.” Paul Rudd and Taran Killam followed suit with Oasis’s “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” Oh, yeah, and then Questlove took over as DJ for the rest of the evening. Very casual.

Around 10:30 that night, a full three hours into the party, Key realized he hadn’t had a single drink. “But I felt intoxicated. I was drunk on joy, on happiness, on fulfillment. I’m 47 years old, I’ve experienced a lot of things, but I’ve never felt this way in my life. To be in a room where you know everyone and they love you and support you and want the best for you. I look out at the dancefloor, and my aunt-in-law—my new aunt—is dancing with my stepmother, who has her arms up in her wheelchair. It was such a joyous, joyous occasion. I wish I could express to you what that means. They’re just words you’re going to print two-dimensionally on a page—‘joyous occasion.’ But it was the perfect expression of what I needed to do and where I needed to do it at this point in my journey.”

I point out that he’s mentioned his wife over and over again throughout the interview, and that it feels—in the way that Peele was the partner he needed to break out—he’s found exactly the right person to help him usher in the next phase of his life.

“I have found…I have…” The surefooted baritone I’ve become accustomed to over the past hour suddenly begins to soften, trail off. For the first time this afternoon, Key is at a loss for words. He quivers, gathers himself for a moment, and then continues. “Sometimes, a year goes by very quickly, and sometimes years take what feel like five. Sometimes you can be…I’m a relatively young person, but sometimes it feels like I’ve been here for a hundred years. And not happy, fulfilling years.”

And that’s when the veneer breaks, and I see the little boy sneaking down after bedtime to watch kung fu on TV, the young graduate afraid he’s not funny, the wizened comedian tiptoeing carefully into dramatic roles.

He dabs at his cheeks with a napkin, breathes deep, makes one final push. “It’s…uh…it’s…very special. It’s very special. She’s extraordinary. She has taught me that you deserve to live a full life. A life where you are filled emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, professionally. You deserve it. Everyone deserves it.”

He excuses himself to the bathroom, and when he returns, he’s the composed professional once again. We pay for our drinks, and then wait in the lobby of the hotel next door for a car to come and take us to his Title photo shoot. The hotel walls are lined with signed photos of Hollywood icons: Daniel Day-Lewis, Gene Hackman, his new co-star Eddie Murphy. He gazes up at them intently, lost in silence, until it’s time to head back to work.

Photos: Ari Michelson
Styling: Evan Simonistch
Grooming: Suzy Diaz

References   [ + ]

1. And now-wife. But more on that later.
2. Pun intended.
3. Here’s the full quote: “As far as I’m aware, I’m nothing. I have no personality of my own whatsoever. I have no character to offer the public. When I look at myself I just see a person who strangely lacks what I consider to be the ingredients for a personality. If you asked me to play myself, I wouldn’t know what to do.”