It’s the day before Thanksgiving and I’m sitting in a downtown hotel waiting to interview the biggest movie star I’ve ever met. Like on purpose, met.
Okay, the only movie star I’ve ever met that wasn’t chowing on nachos in a convention green room between meet and greets. This isn’t the same vibe at all.
Keegan Michal Key was in town accepting the high honor of co-Grand Marshal in the America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in Detroit, and also see the Lions beat the Vikings for Thanksgiving. At a super chic location after croissants and coffee and tea, he talked about his upcoming film, Why Him?, also starring James Franco, Bryan Cranston, and Zoey Deutch. This was a homecoming of sorts.
In Why Him?, Key plays Gustav, a hyper organized Man Friday to pathologically unfocused software genius, Laird Mayhew (James Franco). Part camp counselor to the practical and down to earth Fleming Family, he acts as the lubricant between them and the impulsive Laird, who has some wild news to share. The first thing about Gustav that catches your attention is his accent. Key said, “It was very important to me that he was (switches to smooth German accent) like this high German person that’s supposed to act very educated and been to Sorbonne and been to University of Paris and been to all these kids of schools. I wanted him to have a refined French feeling to him but still be German.” During the first table read Gustav popped out as a little more manic than the director envisioned, so Key reeled him in. “It was a lot of fun. How often does an African American Man get to make a movie where he gets to play a German who knows martial arts. You kind of have to say yes to that role.”
Why Him? isn’t anything like a comedic Martin-Lewis vehicle where the laughs are often physical, but there are some elaborate gags requiring a high pain thresh hold and it’s unexpected. You cringe while you laugh. I had to know, do actors invest a large chunk of their investment portfolios in painkillers? “The majority of the fighting, all of the fighting, is me. The prep was a maybe a couple of weeks before I started training with the choreography.” There are tackles, slick hand to hand fighting, and lots of running. Getting hurt is part of the job. “With me, it’s always glass. You’re flying through the air and doing flips and stuff and falling down hard and none of that makes any difference and then you lean [on the thing] and you just get cut by glass.”
He’s in demand these days – Keanu (2016), Don’t Think Twice (2016), and lots of voice work – Archer, Storks (2016), American Dad, and he’s not able to do every project. Choosing roles is critical. The variety of the role was the initial draw. “The comedy, and working with people of different stripes of comedy was something I wanted to do. But I also wanted to learn. I wanted to do these stunts, I wanted to do the fighting. If someone said you get to play a modern day ‘Cato’ from the Pink Panther movies, I’m not saying no to that. And then I get to play character which is what I enjoy, so having the strange hair, and having an accent, I like all of that outside/in stuff. And that was what attracted me to saying, ‘alright, can we shove this into the schedule someplace?’ and it worked out.”
It didn’t hurt he’d heard great things about director, John Hamburg. “I’d heard that John was super collaborative, and he was. I had a 17-day shoot that turned into a 42-day shoot. The variety of the performance, being able to do kind of a little more hyper-real-over-the-top performance. It’s all the stuff I like to do and haven’t been able to do in a while.”
With dynamic characters and great fellow actors, there would be unexpected moments in the filming. A large tank with a moose created an unplanned wave pool. The scene itself was expected – the physics of the water, however, was not. Hamburg and crew planned for a complete different outcome, “and then we were all surfing on these couches because the water pushed all of the furniture back. It was really quite an amazing moment. It’s really fun when you see here’s this one event that’s about to take place and we’re all super interested.”
Keegan-Michael Key is also a part of a talented crew that narrates Historically Black, a podcast presented by the Washington Post to coincide with the opening of the Smithsonian African American Museum in Washington, D.C. The first episode focused on the use of human computers, specifically the “Colored Computers”, by NASA and their complicated and necessary roles in shooting American Astronauts into space and bringing them back. While he’s unclear on the cultural impact of the podcast specifically, he acknowledged the ripple effect and how the fact that a movie like Hidden Figures (2016) is getting made at all. “I think what’s good is that we can launch an idea in someone’s mind where they can think, ‘huh, I didn’t even know I could make a movie about that.’ I think it’s the power of cinema. Cinema can evoke emotion, but cinema teaches, and to me almost that’s the most important thing. I think that’s the impact it will have. Because, well it didn’t make a 60 million dollars or did enough of the right people see it – it will ripple.”
What does he wish he’d known when he was college age that he’s found out now? “I wish I had known that you have to figure out what makes you happy. Progress is perfection. There’s not a destination called ‘Perfection’. That way lies madness. I’ll admit, a part of me goes, ‘Oh an Emmy – that’s a destination.’ No. It’s simply a chapter in the book. That’s the thing I wish I had known – it’s all process. And I’ve learned that you have to be able to find fulfillment in this moment. If you can start doing that in your 20s, you’re just going tot have an easier life. Otherwise what are you supposed to do? Once you get to the top of Everest, then what are you supposed to do? Were you happy on the way to the top? That’s the part you have to cling to. It’s the experience of it. That’s what I wish I had learned.”
Why Him? is Rated R and opens in theaters December 23, 2016.