It’s 10 a.m. on a weekday and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are cuddling kittens on the stage of a fancy strip club off Northwest Highway. The small felines have been brought to The Lodge by no-kill shelter Operation Kindness as a surprise for the comedians, who are in Dallas to promote Keanu. The movie — in theaters Friday, April 29 — marks the duo's transition to the big screen from their ultra-popular sketch-comedy show for Comedy Central, Key & Peele, which aired its final episode last fall.
In Keanu, co-written by Peele and Key & Peele veteran Alex Rubens, Peele’s character Rell adopts a kitten to soothe his broken heart, but the cat, Keanu, is promptly napped by gangsters, sending Rell and his cousin Clarence (Key) on a quest to steal Keanu back. This requires a lot of puffing up for the George Michael-loving, Shark Tank-watching cousins, who end up embedded in a dangerous drug ring based out of a Los Angeles strip club called Hot Party Vixens, aka “HPV.” With its wood paneling, animal heads, plush armchairs and breakfast buffet replete with smoked salmon and capers, The Lodge bears little resemblance to the club in the very funny film, but that connection nevertheless explains their choice of location to hold court.
Key and Peele's film debut has been eagerly anticipated, and for good reason. They met on the set of MADtv, and when their own show launched on Comedy Central it earned the network its best ratings in several years. In 2015, Key & Peele won a Peabody Award for the way it boldly and hilariously confronts some of our country's most pressing, racially charged issues. Keanu is by all means a light-hearted film, but in it, too, racial stereotypes are a prominent theme. Its creators' gracefulness at wrapping up important messages in entertainment with wide appeal is why they are such a marvel, and it has even won them fans in the White House.
Last year, Key appeared at the White House Correspondents' Dinner alongside President Barack Obama as his Key & Peele character Luther — Obama’s “anger translator" — after the president spoke highly of the comedians' work. When you’ve worked with Barry, where else is there to go? To Fearing's at the Ritz apparently. We talked with Key and Peele about Keanu, their comedy philosophy and Donald Trump, and they also mentioned that the buffalo steak they had there the night before was delicious.
Dallas Observer: First of all, I just want to refer to the fact that we’re at The Lodge right now. At each stop on your tour have you been hitting strip clubs?
Key: Just a couple of stops. It’s a fun thing.
Peele: This is by far the nicest.
Key: Yeah, I don’t frequent strip clubs, but I imagine they’re not as well-appointed as this. This seems to be extra nice, somehow.
DO: Keanu is the first Key & Peele feature film. What were you guys most excited to do with the film format that perhaps you hadn’t been able to do on TV?
Peele: Just develop the characters really. With the show, it’s sketch. So we’re doing two, sometimes three characters a day. To be able to get to that next level of depth as far as the characters’ journey … it’s a very new thing for me and it was fun.
Key: Also, from a technical standpoint, I think with a film and there being one long narrative it’s great, but also the fact that you can immerse yourself in the story without any kind of interruptions, whereas in television if there’s profanity there’s going to be censoring, and that may or may not take you out of the experience you’re having. You’re in this milieu, the lights are down, and nothing’s going to stop you.
DO: How many ideas did you toss around before deciding this would be the script that takes Key & Peele into movie theaters?
Peele: We wrote this script while we were writing Key & Peele. We knew we wanted to have something coming out of Key & Peele, a script that would be ready. So we basically wrote our favorite movie that didn’t exist yet. The idea was that at some point, somebody is going to want a Key & Peele movie. Let’s give them our sort of dream project, something that probably wouldn’t be made unless there was some interest in another piece of it, that being Key & Peele. It all kind of unfolded like that, so it really worked out. It wasn’t a lot of debate. It was what we call a spec script that one of our friends and writers, Alex Rubens, and myself wrote in the middle of season two.
DO: There are so many meme-worthy animals you could have chosen as the central figure. How did Keanu become a cat?
Key: It’s a little strategic. What happens on the Internet every day? How many millions of cat videos are watched every day? Clearly cats resonate with people and we’ve got the numbers to prove it. But also there’s a sensibility about a cat, especially a kitten. Somehow they’re more destructible. Puppies seem indestructible, and somehow a kitten feels like it could really be in peril. Maybe chicks, baby chickens, come in at a close second. But there’s not really anything on earth that’s more adorable than a kitten. And also the tool of the cat is that it helps with the juxtaposition. Comedy is always a clash of context or juxtaposition. So you’ve got this gritty, dirty, dangerous, thug-life thing happening and then you’ve got the most adorable, fluffy, soft creature in the world.
DO: What was the most fun scene in the movie to shoot?
Peele: The scenes where we first go into Hot Party Vixens and we come face to face with Tiffanny Havish and Jason Mitchell and they bring us to Method Man, those scenes were particularly fun. That’s where you get the bread and butter of what this story is about. It’s a couple of guys who are fish out of water who are adapting and doing sometimes a good job, sometimes not a good job at toughening up and looking hard. And in those scenes we did a lot of improvisation and it went kind of crazy before it came back. It was just one of those things where everybody cracks everybody up at some point.
Key: We were at the strip club for quite some time and I thought it was a lot of fun because the background people, the extras, were terrific. Very often there was a sense that we were really having a party. There was lots of footage shot in lots of interestings ways. Very often the cameras would be kind of out of the way. And it just felt like a bunch of people sitting around having a good time, interacting with each other. And I think it comes across really well in the movie. I remember Peter [Atencio, the director] even talking about it. Saying we want it to look like people at a club, we don’t want it to look like a movie club or a set that was built a certain way to get really fancy shots. It just looks like a bunch of people having a great time.
Peele: It’s that midpoint in the movie where we start to become kind of seduced by the lifestyle and so we wanted to make sure that after painting the scary side of gang life we also hit on the allure of being in the crime world and what’s often painted in movies and music videos. Every guy has this weird dream of somehow being in a crime movie where they can’t actually get hurt.
DO: To hit on the improvisation you were talking about, is there a moment in time you can point to where you first realized that you could improvise really well with one another and that it was something you could build a career out of?
Peele: We’re both trained improvisers and anybody who’s trained in improv is supposed to have the same language. But when we started on MADtv, the first thing we wrote together were the superstitious basketball players. We did a really choreographed piece, but in those sketches, the banter between these choreographed dance numbers that we would do would start to have this one-upmanship thing going on where we would kinda see how far between the two of us we can push the energy.
Key: Yeah, I’d say about 10, 11 years ago. I was going to say the same thing. We did probably six or seven of these sketches. And I think probably by the third sketch we got our stride in regard to going, “Oh, I can figure out things about my character simply by improvising with him.” And that was always fascinating. That they grew.
DO: Does that language evolve over time?
Key: Oh yeah, it becomes even more specific. For us it’s almost like calling football plays. But the interesting part is that it’s calling football plays psychically to each other. I can watch him start something and go, "Oh, I know what he’s doing here. He’s doing some version of bit number 16." But it’s not that technical. It’s just that we know each other’s patterns and we have shared patterns. It’s a real pick up, finish each other’s sentences kind of thing.
DO: That seems like a more intimate relationship than you would have even with a significant other in some cases.
Key: It’s true cause there’s a sense of security about it that you have with this person. And the fact that we both kind of lay our heads down at the altar of the funny or the altar of the comedy. We’re both just high priests who serve this god. And we know our job, so we do our job. There’s a security in that too. But in the midst of all that we still have the opportunity to grow and explore. Yeah, we have a very, very special relationship.
What about what you’re working on next? I heard you’re both working with Judd Apatow on a project.
Peele: Yeah that is something we started a couple of years ago, sitting down and developing. It’s one of those things where Hollywood things take time. There’s a lot of projects, we had our show going on and this movie going on, so it’s something we look forward to developing.
Key: We’ll be coming back to that soon.
Peele: There’s a Police Academy project, a Substitute Teacher project…
Key: Lots of stuff in the works. Jordan has just finished shooting a horror film that he directed and wrote.
Peele: It’s called Get Out. I’m editing it right now. It's a very different tone. It deals with race in a horror movie, which is something that hasn’t really been done since Night of the Living Dead and Candyman. It’s just very few and far between and it’s going to be a really, really cool, entertaining and creepy movie.
Key: And I’m promoting a movie now called Don’t Think Twice, by Mike Birbiglia, which is an indie-drama. That’s my roots. Drama is my roots. Thus far it feels like my entire career has been this 19-year detour into sketch-comedy. So I’m kinda coming back around onto the main road and doing more drama, and will continue to do more drama as we move forward.
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DO: Do you feel like having those roots in drama strengthens your comedy?
Key: Absolutely. Because if you have a degree in acting, the techniques apply to both drama and comedy. The most important thing of course is that a character doesn’t know they’re in comedy. A character doesn’t know they’re in a comedic movie. So when you have that training it allows you to not wink at that camera or it allows you to not push the joke too much. Because the character is just living in the given circumstances of their life. That’s all that’s happening to them. You try to let the writing — and Jordan and Alex’s writing is superb in this movie — you let the writing and the scenario take the lead, so what you need to do is just get on your surfboard, surf the wave, and the laughs will just come based on the situations the characters find themselves in. So yes, I think every comedic actor who does drama seems to do pretty well, but I see lots of dramatic actors who can move over to comedy very successfully cause they’re not just playing the joke, they’re living in the character's skin.
DO: A lot of your humor addresses issues of race. In the last few years, race relations in the U.S. have been pretty terrible. Do you have a philosophy about comedy’s responsibility to take on these issues?
Peele: Comedy is one of the greatest weapons we have against the evils and the horrors of the world. I love the fact that we live in a country where you can say what you want to say and that that’s encouraged and that’s part of the fabric of this country. With comedy, when you take some of these hard issues and these things that are politically correct or things that it’s hard to communicate about, and you deal with them in a way that makes everybody laugh, then we all get on the same page and I like to think that it furthers the discussion. That’s really why we do it. Besides the fact that we love laughter, we love that somebody can come home from a hard day’s work and get a laugh — that’s very rewarding.
Key: A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. If you giggle or laugh out loud then you must examine why you did it. So I think if you’re telling a joke about a liberal, a liberal should be able to go, “Ah yeah, that’s true.” And if you tell a joke about a conservative, a conservative should go, “No, yeah, that’s true. OK.”
Peele: But the challenge is, you’ve got to get the laugh. If you don’t get the laugh it doesn’t work.
Key: Stating the observation is not enough. The philosophy for us has always been: Make sure it works comedically first, then you can wrap something else around it. Sometimes the ideas come differently. Sometimes a political idea comes first, or a social idea comes first. Other times a comedic bit comes first and then you can couch that in something anthropological or social. There’s all kinds of different ways to Mecca.
Peele: Lenny Bruce said, “If you’re gonna tell the truth, you better get a laugh or they’ll kill you.”
Key: Yeah, that’s perfect. Cause if you don’t get a laugh, the next thing out of their mouth is, “Don’t preach to me.” It’s the difference between being didactic and hilarious.
DO: Are either of you endorsing any particular presidential candidate?
Peele: You know what, let’s see what unfolds. Deez Nuts has been saying some things that really resonate with both of us.
Key: We’re both thinking Deez Nuts might be the way to go.
Peele: No, I support … I don’t support Trump. Let’s just say that.
Key: Yeah, I think ultimately I’m going to support a person who might actually be able to get something done. Or has political experience. Does that work as a criteria? That they would have political experience? He’s like, “I’m doing politics! There’s politics in the TV business.” Oh boy.
Keanu hits theaters nationwide on Friday, April 29. For more info, visit keanumovie.com.