Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Jason Mitchell, and Method Man Talk 'Keanu'

Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Jason Mitchell, and Method Man Talk 'Keanu'

Keanu stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, better known as the duo behind the Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele, as they attempt to rescue their adorable kitten from the clutches of a notorious gang leader (Clifford Smith aka Method Man) and his henchmen (Jason Mitchell). The stars of the films stopped by Atlanta to visit the infamous Clermont Lounge stripclub, where we sat down with them to talk about making the film, comedy, and working together.


SF: Why should people see Keanu in theatres?

Jordan Peele (JP): Look, the movie is crazy, first of all. If you partake in the smokey smokey treats, you should get in the front row of the film. It’s crazy! If you don’t, we’ll still take you through. It’s got heart; it’s got a kitten in a do-rag. It’s got Method Man in it. You got Nia Long in it. Jason Mitchell is in this movie. Basically we made our favorite movie, and we didn’t go to the studio and pitch this or anything. We wrote our favorite movie and waited for them to come to us and say, “We need this movie.” You can guarantee it’s our heart and soul, and we put everything into this.


Keegan-Michael Key (KMK): You’re not going to see a movie like this. It’s got the right amount of weird to it and the right amount of convention to it so that you’ll get everything you need to get out of the cinematic experience. But it’s also branded so differently than anything you’ve seen. So you can go see another movie that’s paint-by-numbers by a studio or you can come see our movie, which has a different feel to it. I guarantee it.


SF: What was your inspiration for writing the script?

JP: The inspiration for the script was all the movies we’ve grown up loving. We’re huge cinephiles. I feel like we’re in this era now where I’m not seeing a lot of movies that I like. I wanted to do a shout out to movies like True Romance. Movies like Raising Arizona, Three Amigos, Beverly Hills Cop. There’s this great era of movies that I feel like it’s dead. People aren’t combining the best parts of action and the best parts of comedy and putting heart in there all in one to create something new. So that’s what this was.


KMK: That’s the thing. You got to be able to see there’s a tone we don’t see anymore. And the tone is this; it’s really, really hysterical but the bullets are real. And we don’t see that anymore. Everybody’s winking at the movie, and we wanted to make a movie that was grounded and crazy at the same time. We feel good about that. We feel like that’s what we achieved. And we want you young people to see it, because that’s how they used to make movies.


One of my favorite movies of all time is Midnight Run with Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin, and it’s the perfect example of this movie where you’re laughing hard, out loud, throughout the movie, but when people get punched or hit they’re scared. The pain is real. I want you guys to be able to see these kinda movies. It’s that thing we go, “Why don’t they make them like they used to?” Well why don’t we make them like they used to? There was nothing wrong with how those movies were made.


SF: Talk about George Michael and how you got the cast to buy into the concept.

JP: One of the best scenes in the movie, you can see it in the trailer, Keegan’s character is a big George Michael fan. He’s pretending to be a thug so he can not get shot in the wrong neighborhood, basically. We’re on this run together, and he’s sitting there waiting outside with these three members of a gang who are looking through his music like, “Ummm.” This is one of my favorite scenes. Jason is hilarious in it. Jason, you were killing me. By the way, you hit him hard, too. Like seven times in a row.


KMK: The first two takes, there was no acting.


JP: You asked how we got the actors to by in because by the end of the scene everybody is singing George Michael in the van. Jason, did you enjoy that music? Were you a George Michael fan before that?


Jason Mitchell (JM): I was not. I highly respect him, but yeah, I wasn’t exactly a George Michael fan. But they had a lot of things that Keegan’s character told my character that made me jump on board with it. Things I can relate to like fatherhood and different things like that. Losing friends and things we could really relate to as a gang. And we’re like, “Wow, George Michael a real Nigga.” So we just went with it, and it was great. It turned out really funny.



SF: Coming from a sketch comedy background, what was the biggest challenge creatively from holding people’s attention for a few minutes on TV to near two hours in a movie theater?
JP: It’s really what you just said. That’s the hard thing. I think the thing is you can’t go so crazy, so fast that you lose the story and lose what people are going to relate to and like the characters.


KMK: Yeah, absolutely. It becomes a plot issue. I’ve got to make sure that the story that goes from point A to point Z; that has to be captivating. When you talk about why we should we go see a movie about two guys who are trying to save a cat, every part of that plot we feel is solid. Then you can string all the funny stuff you want along the way, but just make sure that’s what’s solid. Whereas with a sketch, sometimes sketches have plots, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes a sketch is just let’s screw around a little bit, and then we’ll get out in three minutes. It’s making sure that the architecture for the house is solid, then you can put any kind of wood or paint on the outside you want. That’s the challenge. This whole story, if you took all the funny parts out, would it still be interesting? Yes. Okay, then let’s just stack funny on top of it.


SF: When writing the script, did you have Method Man in mind to play the bad guy?
Method Man (MM): Nope.


JP: He’s right. We had no idea who was going to do it. I was picturing New Jack City. In my head, we had Wesley Snipes in there, but I would never put Wesley Snipes because he’d probably smack me in the face.


KMK:: Absolutely to Cliff’s credit, he just took the role. He just walked in there. First of all, we [Keegan and Jordan] were both standing there screwing around. We know the script. He knew the lines. He knew every line that he had for the audition, which was about six pages long.


MM: No, nine pages.


KMK: Six scenes, nine pages. He has all the dialogue. My man just walked in the door like, “I got it, I’m ready, let’s go,” and we were both like, “Oh, okay.”


MM: And they both had scripts in their hand and I said, “Nuh-uh, we going to do this as a team. Ya’ll can’t use those.”


KMK: And, and he was early. That counts for something. But he just took the role. He was like, “This is mine. I’m going to do this.” When he left the room we were all like, “That just changed the game. Method Man just walked in here.” A lot of other choices just started falling by the wayside.


MM: I heard Key and Peele, and I was so right there. I couldn’t care less what the script was about, because I knew I was in good hands. For real.


JM: Same here. You got to respect guys who even take time out to go through that process with you. When I did my audition, when I walk into the room and see those guys already there fully ready to be funny with you and fully ready to dedicate all their time to make their project the best, you gotta love that. You got to come in and just gotta swing your bat. You ain’t even gotta go for the fence. Because those guys, they’ll swing for the fence for you. They’re going to do what it takes to make the project the best and you just got to come in and do your part.


MM: Just as dedicated, if not more, to bring their vision to life. I like to say that we were a glorified backdrop to what they were doing. We were there for a purpose, to push the story forward, but they were driving the car.


JP: By the way, I know this is turning into a lovefest, but these two guys are such good, professional actors. It’s really an honor to have guys of this caliber, of this experience level. I mean, Jason is going to win an Academy Award someday. Should have already. So to have these guys in this film giving us everything and grounding the project, making it feel like we’re in a real world, we couldn’t ask for anything more.


SF: When did you decide to move on from TV to film, or did you always plan on doing that?
KMK: I think we’ve always had that plan. Like we said earlier, we’re cinephiles. The thing that slingshotted us into this line of work in the first place was the passion that we felt from watching movies when we were younger. I think about sitting next to my father watching the delight on his face when I went to see Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Watching what that could do to an adult, I was like, “People can do that!?” I never thought I’d be able to do that because they’re wizards. Who gets to do that?


JP: Getting the opportunity is the hard part. That’s what took us 15 years to even get people interested enough to say, “You guys want to do a movie?” As soon as that happens we’re like, “Yep, we’ve been wanting to do a movie.”



SF: What do you think the role of comedy is nowadays compared to back when you were growing up?
KMK: I think back then people were just like, “Oh, in a movie you have to tell a story. That’s just the rule.” The question is when was the transition where people started going, “If we just act goofy all the time it’ll be fine.” And it’s like no, no no, that’s what’s humans do. We’ve been telling each other stories for thousands of years. The story has to be intact. In regard to the role of comedy, my thing is if you want to make some kind of social statement you have to do it through story. You don’t want people just giving speeches in the middle of the movie. And does this movie make social comments? Yes it does.


JP: We like to steer into difficult areas, real life tragedy, real life hard things to deal with, and the sad things. We steer into that and bring comedy to it because then it helps promote conversation about these things, and it gives people a little bit of release. Obviously we’re making a movie that deals with the epidemic of crime, on black-on-black violence, the stereotypes in Hollywood…


KMK: What does it mean to be black. Am I less black than you are? It’s starting to deconstruct the word ‘black.’ People go, “He kinda black.” Well do you mean culturally he’s from a lower class? That he’s working class? That he’s white collar? Because I can hail a cab and be black and be white collar and still have the cab go past me. It’s the weaving ins and outs. Are you blacker because you’re poorer or blacker because you’re richer? What does that mean? I think that’s something we’ve always explored in the show. The African American experience is not a monolith. It’s a mosaic.


SF: So what does this film say for you about the experience of being a black man in America?
JM: Well I know for me it show the same race in different forms of culture. These are guys who are like most people in the work world who just have real lives. They’re real people. They’re not gangbangers. They’re not shooting nobody. They got real life bank accounts, real jobs. They probably got a kid. They have a real experience with life. Then they get a culture shock by getting thrown into this gangland kinda like The Wire. Even though we’re black people and all of us are black, we still look at them differently because the culture is different. It goes to show you; it has a lot of juxtaposition in it, but none of it is about race. It’s good for especially black people to put the excuse aside of saying that we’re black, because we’ve had that on our back for so long that people try to use it as a crutch instead of something to empower themselves. Seeing films like this, it’ll just help people put things in perspective. We’re all people and we all have different cultures that we grew up to and we relate to them differently. It shows a little bit of both world.


MM: I think the black experience is different for different kinds of black. Same way there’s different kinds of white, except for us it’s more or less the rougher and tougher you are we feel like if you’re not hood enough you’re not black. We can look at someone like, let’s take Sammy Davis Jr. for instance. A lot of black people will look at him and say no he’s not black. Or he’s not black enough. I don’t know what that even means. But there is a line in the sand where there’s these kind of blacks and then there’s these kind of blacks. And each side feels like each side isn’t black enough, which is crazy to me because in the sense of the outside looking in from another race, all ya’ll are black. Period.


SF: When it came to writing the script, how did you come up with the story of saving a kitten?
JP: If we could take a premise that is already crazy and funny and has this juxtaposition, I knew that nobody could turn down a kitten in a do-rag so there’s a little bit of marketing there, but if you could take premise that everyone is like, “How would you pull that off? That sounds like the craziest movie.” If you can make that work and ground that and make that have an emotional story, then you can make a truly original film. I think that’s what this is.



SF: What was the process for filming the multiple kitten reenactment posters with Keanu?
JP: Those were so fun. That was kinda a little dream. Basically, I wrote that bit in there just so I could have one of the calendars at the end. It wasn’t even story related. It was amazing. We had all the dioramas in one room and we basically brought Keanu around and dressed him up in different things. It was one of the first things that we did in the movie.


SF: What was it like working with the studio? Did they have any stipulations or parameters to follow?
KMK: No. Bravo to New Line Cinema for just saying, “We really want it to be your guys’ thing.” Which is why I give kudos to them. Typically you’ll see a studio creep in and go, “it’s just another little element we need because the tracking numbers and the metrics say…” and they were just hands off. You can have a discussion about your gut. Don’t talk to me about metrics. It’s good to have when people say that they just don’t find it funny and I do find it funny. Now we can have a discussion. But when you go, “well the numbers are going to say…” No you don’t know what the numbers are going to say. This is going to be a unique experience, and people are going to want to come see this unique experience. One of our executive producers on Key & Peele, he’s one of the founding members of Upright Citizens Brigade and he used to say all the time that all you can do is your thing, walk your path, and when you turn around I guarantee you somebody will be following you. But when you try to make the path bigger sometimes you get caught in the construction.


Keanu opens in theaters nationwide on April 29, 2016.

Matt Rodriguez
Interview by Matt Rodriguez
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