After the end of their Comedy Central show Key & Peele, sketch comedy superstars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele could have written themselves a check to do anything. Their successful comedy show tackled race, politics and contemporary American life with a specific and unique perspective that few others on television could match, and it took the comedy landscape by storm. You couldn’t escape their “East/West College Bowl” sketches if you tried.
The duo decided to follow their enormous success by starring in their first feature length film, Keanu. The film is about two nerds, Rell (Peele) and Clarence (Key), whose cat, Keanu, is stolen. To retrieve him, they must try to blend into the gangster underground of Los Angeles. It’s an odd premise, for sure, but it’s perfectly in sync with the duo’s, as well as Key & Peele and Keanu director Peter Atencio’s, deep love of genre conventions and with the conversations that their show had about black masculinity.
And it’s Keanu that brought The Emory Wheel to the Clermont Lounge April 13, where Key, Peele and co-stars Method Man (Clifford Smith), of Wu-Tang Clan fame, and Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton) discussed the film, storytelling in comedy and what it means to each of them to be a black man in America.
Q: Pitch Keanu to college students. Why pay to see Keanu in theaters when we’re strapped for cash already?
Jordan Peele: The movie — it’s crazy. If you partake in the smokey-smokey treats, you should get in the front row of this film. 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, it’s got Nia Long in it. Jason Mitchell is in this movie.
We didn’t go the studio and pitch this or anything. We wrote our favorite movie, and we 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: You’re not [going to] see a movie like this. It’s got the right amount of weird and the right amount of convention. You’ll get everything you need to get out of the cinematic experience but it’s also … branded differently from anything you’ve seen. So, you can go see another movie which is paint-by-numbers, by a studio, or you can go see our movie, which has a different feel to it.
Q: What was your inspiration for the script?
Peele: The inspiration for the script was all the movies we’ve grown up loving. We’re huge cinephiles. We’re in this era now where I’m not seeing a lot of movies I like. And I wanted to do a shoutout to movies like True Romance —
Key: Raising Arizona.
Peele: ¡Three Amigos!, Thelma & Louise —
Method Man: Fritz the Cat.
Peele: Beverly Hills Cop. There’s this great era of movies that I feel is dead. People aren’t combining the best parts of action and the best parts of comedy and putting heart in to create something new, and that’s what this was.
Key: That’s the thing, you’ve gotta be able to see there’s a tone [in this movie] that we don’t see anymore. The tone is this “It’s really really hysterical, but the bullets are real.” We don’t see that anymore. Everybody is winking at the movie, and we wanted to make a movie that’s grounded and crazy at the same time. And we feel good about that! We feel like that’s what we achieved.
That’s why we want young people to see it, because that’s how they used to make movies. One of my favorite movies of all time is a movie called Midnight Run with Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin, and it’s the perfect example of this kind of movie where you’re laughing hard. [You’re laughing] out loud throughout the movie, but when people get punched or get hit, they’re scared, and the pain is real. And I want you guys to be able to see these kind of movies. It’s that thing where you go, “Well, 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.
Q: What was the biggest challenge moving from a sketch comedy show to a feature? [You’re] going from holding people’s attention for a few minutes to damn near two hours.
Peele: I think it’s what you just said. You can’t go so crazy so fast that you lose the story and lose what people are gonna relate to and like in the characters.
Key: It becomes a plot issue. I’ve gotta make sure the story that goes from point A to point Z [is] … captivating. When you talk about the blurb, “Why should we got see a movie about two guys who are trying to save a cat?” Well, because every part of that plot is solid. You can string all the funny stuff you want along the way, but you have to make sure that plot is solid.
With a sketch, sometimes they 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 just making sure the architecture is solid for the house; then you can put any kind of wood or paint on it on the outside that you want. That’s the challenge. With this story, if you took all the funny parts out, would it still be interesting? Yes? Okay, then let’s stack funny on top of it.
Q: What do you think the role of comedy is in the modern landscape as opposed to “back then?”
Key: I suppose “back then,” people … were just like, “Well, in a movie you have to tell a story.” That’s the rule. Then the question is when was the transition where people were like, “If we just act goofy all the time, we’ll be fine.” It’s like, “No, no, no, that’s what humans do. We’ve been telling each other stories for thousands of years.” The story has to be intact.
[With] regard to the role of comedy, if you want to make some kind of social statement, you have to do it through [storytelling]. You don’t want people just giving speeches in the middle of the movie. Does this movie make social comments? Yes, it does.
Peele: We like to steer into difficult areas. Real life tragedy, hard things to deal with and sad things, we like to steer into that and bring comedy into it because it helps promote conversations about these things, and it brings release. We’re making a movie that deals with an epidemic of crime, of black-on-black violence, the stereotypes in Hollywood —
Key: What does it mean to be black? Am I less black than you are? It’s starting to deconstruct the word “black.” You’ll go, “He kinda black.” Do you mean culturally he’s from a lower-class neighborhood, that he’s working class or that he’s white collar? I can hail a cab and be black and white collar and still have the cab go past me. Are you blacker because you’re poorer? Or blacker because you’re richer? And what does that mean? That’s something that we’ve always explored in the show. The African-American experience is not a monolith. It’s a mosaic.
Q: What does this film say about the experience of being a black man in America?
Jason Mitchell: For me, it shows the same race in different forms of culture. These are guys who are like most people in the [working] world who 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’re having a real experience with life. Then they get a culture shock when they get the experience of getting thrown into this gangland of colour like The Wire.
And 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 [the film] has a lot of juxtaposition, but none of it is about race. And 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, they don’t just help people put things in perspective, because we’re all the people and we all have different cultures that we grew up in and we all relate to them differently. It’s a little bit of both worlds.
Method Man: I think the black experience is different — there’s different kinds of black. The same way there’s different kinds of white. Except for us, it’s more like the rougher and tougher you are — we feel like if you’re not hood enough, you’re not black. You can look at someone — let’s take Sammy Davis Jr., for instance. A lot of black people would look at him and say, “No, he’s not black” or “No, he’s not black enough.” And I don’t know what that even means.
But there is this line in the sand, where there’s these kind of blacks and there’s these kind of blacks. Each side feels like the other isn’t black enough, which is crazy to me. From the perspective of another race, looking from the outside, it’s like, “All y’all motherfuckers is black.”
Q: After this film, what are your plans for the future?
Key: We’ve talked about working together again. We don’t know exactly what the next project will be. Hopefully, it opens up a bit of freedom so we can do whatever we want to do. Jordan’s been working on this other thing, this horror movie.
Peele: I’m directing and writing, and I love that. We’ll always come back together and do another Key and Peele joint at some point.
Method Man: We aint’ doing shit. This is their movie. I’m looking forward to what’s next for them. Some duos are put together, and some feel like they’re born together and those dudes have that on lock. It feels like they were meant to be together.
Mitchell: I’m more blessed than anything to be in the presence of these guys in such a passion project for them, you know what I mean? You have movies that you work on that are super huge budgets, and they’re more lackadaisical and the relationships aren’t that good or whatever it may be. But when you have guys who are really, really passionate about what they do, you want to work like that. That’s how you come up with gold. That’s how things come out amazing. I didn’t even really see myself being able to have the opportunity to do a comedy right after [Straight Outta Compton], and they walked me right [through] the door.
Method Man: We developed some real relationships. These guys are my [friends] now.
Key: Hopefully, it’ll afford us the opportunity to do other varied things. I want to get back to my roots because I’m a theater actor. I want to get back to doing theater and more drama. I want to use my degree and do some Shakespeare. But I’m pursuing more dramatic work in my career and I want to do that right now.