When Keegan-Michael Key says he’s living a very charmed life, it’s easy to see why. Having broken out big time in the sketch series Key & Peele, which just ended its five-season run on Comedy Central, he’s been racking up credits in TV shows like Fargo, Parks & Recreation and movies like Pitch Perfect 2 and Keanu.
His latest flick, Mike Birbiglia’s dramedy Don’t Think Twice, tracks what happens to an improv comedy group when one member gets the TV sketch show opportunity that all of them covet. Key plays the ambitious Jack, who’s romantically involved with troupe member Sam (Gillian Jacobs). And as both a veteran of the Detroit and Chicago Second City troupes and six seasons of MADtv, he’s more than familiar with the subject matter of the movie, which just opened in New York, hits Los Angeles next weekend and elsewhere thereafter.
Recently nominated for Emmys for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series and as part of the writing team for Key & Peele and also for Outstanding Character Voiceover Performance for the animated Crackle.com series SuperMansion, Key, 45, talked with us about his big breaks, various roles and what might become of his best-known Key & Peele character…
“Sixth or seventh grade, junior high, 11 or 12, I was making the kids at school laugh, in the parking lot and during recess. I was impersonating bits that Eddie Murphy did on Saturday Night Live, imitating Robin Williams as Mork, trying to do my best Fonzie impression. You start with impersonation and individuality grows from that…”
First of all, congratulations on your Emmy nominations!
Thank you so much. It’s quite humbling. I certainly wasn’t expecting it and I appreciate the honor. The great challenge of our work is that it’s a delightful puzzle you have to figure out. It nourishes your mind and that’s wonderful in and of itself. To be recognized on top of that is just tremendous.
As a veteran of Second City and MADtv, you’re familiar with the world Don’t Think Twice depicts.
Yes. Reading the script was like reading a bizarro kind of autobiography. Some of the moments felt amazingly accurate and familiar. The part about the group hanging out and the real camaraderie, I relate to very much. It really resonates with me.
What about jealousy following your breakout success—did you experience that?
Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention but I didn’t experience a lot of the bitterness or sensitivity from other people. Anyone who performs on stage with Second City, somewhere in the back of their mind thinks that someone from Saturday Night Live or MADtv is going to come. But for me, the process became a reward in and of itself. So when they came scouting it was a nice surprise but I wasn’t expecting it. Jack is described as “stealthily ambitious,” and that’s unfamiliar to me. When I was at Second City, the only thing that mattered to me was that the audience laughed every night. I would like to think I didn’t showboat like Jack did.
Why end Key & Peele when you had a good thing going—was it just time to move on?
Yeah. Jordan is finding a lot of joy and fulfillment in being behind the camera, being a director, producer and writer. There’s no bad blood between us, not at all. I’m so looking forward to his horror movie Get Out, which is coming out in 2017. That’s his passion. He’s quite the horror connoisseur and I think he’s going to revolutionize the genre.
You’ve done a lot of animation voices, in The Lego Movie, The Angry Birds Movie, Bob’s Burgers, Archer—and you have the movie Storks coming up. What do you like about doing them?
Storks comes out in September. Jordan and I play the main antagonists—there may be more than two, and we’re playing all of them. I really enjoy voiceover. It’s so much fun. It’s one place you’re allowed to overact. You can take it to a ten or eleven and they can fit the animated character to it. You can let out all the stops.
When did you know you were funny?
My mother used to tell me I was funny but that doesn’t count. Sixth or seventh grade, junior high, 11 or 12, I was making the kids at school laugh, in the parking lot and during recess. You start with impersonation and individuality grows from that. I was impersonating bits that Eddie Murphy did on Saturday Night Live, imitating Robin Williams as Mork, trying to do [my] best Fonzie impression. I’m from Detroit so by the time I was in junior high, the school was 90 percent black so everybody was doing impersonations of Pryor and Eddie Murphy. My parents loved comedy—All in the Family, Jonathan Winters. I became a Jonathan Winters fan from Mork and Mindy.
Going forward, what kind of career do you envision?
Someone like Jeff Daniels has a very healthy television, film and theater career, which has always been my greatest dream. I went to school for theater, that’s always been my home and my first love. Right now doing film and theater is where it’s at for me.
Which directors do you want to work with?
I’d love to see how Spike Lee is on set. I think he makes magical movies. Luc Besson, I really enjoy his films. David O. Russell, I hear he’s a great actors’ director. [Steven] Soderbergh, Wes Anderson—people who have a style of their own but really focus on performance. I had the opportunity to work with Brad Byrd on Tomorrowland and it was a terrific experience, and I’d like to work with him and Elizabeth Banks again. There are directors whose work is always quality like Ron Howard and Lawrence Kasdan, and also people we haven’t discovered yet who might provide me with the best artistic experiences of my life.
With President Obama on his way out of the White House, what happens to your character Luther?
We are going to miss him very much. He’s the reason we had a show, the reason we have Key & Peele. If Obama needs Luther on the lecture circuit, I’m available!