The title subject of "Keanu" is a kitten, and why you are reading the rest of this article instead of hustling to your nearest multiplex is beyond me. I first saw the movie at its rowdy South by Southwest midnight premiere in March, and even though initial reviews were mixed, there is so much to love about Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele's first joint big-screen venture.
Key and Peele, who ended their popular Comedy Central sketch series last September, star as Clarence and Rell, cousins who infiltrate a Los Angeles drug ring that has seized their new feline friend. Clarence and Rell's ideal weekend includes seeing a Liam Neeson action movie and jamming out to George Michael. But to retrieve little Keanu, they must get through a gangster named Cheddar (Method Man) who operates out of a seedy strip club. In an effort to fit in, the tight-knit duo adopt a performative version of stereotypical, hyper-masculine blackness. "Keanu," then, becomes a rather subversive comedy about race from the same guys who gave us Obama's anger translator.
The Huffington Post had a quick phone conversation with Key and Peele last week to discuss "Keanu," which Peele co-wrote with Alex Ruebens and Peter Atencio directed.
Now that "Key & Peele" is in the rearview mirror, do you ever regret ending the show when you did, given how much comedic fodder this presidential election has provided?
Peele: It’s funny -- it’s kind of good to be out of the political fray because having to pay attention to all of that is really draining. Some people thrive on it. I myself don’t. I find it so frustrating when there’s people that are in control, or going to be in control, who -- I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s just frustrating.
Key: You mean politically it’s frustrating for you?
Peele: Yes, it frustrates me so much and it can occupy my mind 24/7 if I don’t escape from it.
Key: Comically, you really have to dig in. You really have to analyze and observe. And in turn you’re saying, “I don’t want to do that because people are making me upset.”
Peele: This is a country where the individual has power, but it doesn’t always feel like that.
Key: No, it doesn’t.
Are there any sketches you’ve thought of that you wish you had a platform for?
Key: I don't think so. As you just mentioned that, it’s a little bit in the rearview mirror. The focus has been so much on “Keanu” right now, but also on the projects that we’re moving forward with. Also, the interesting thing is, given the stuff that we did politically on the show, it was very focused. It mostly manifested through Obama and Luther. There are candidates at this particular moment in time that definitely don’t need an anger translator. I don’t know about you, Jordan, but there’s nothing that comes to my mind in thinking about what I would do. It’s truly stranger than fiction, in this particular case.
Peele: Even when we did our show, we would tend to try and make sketches that would still be funny in a couple of years.
Key: Or 20 years.
Peele: Or 20 years. It’s what we call evergreen things. It would be less about responding to the thing that Trump said this week, as opposed to making sure that when someone watches us in 10 years they still get it.
Key: I mean, maybe if we were going to do something, we might play a character in a sketch who was a blowhard and who was making promises just based on the whims of the public that day. You’re getting that archetypal character, but we wouldn’t call that character Donald Trump. Then hopefully you’d say, “Aha, there’s a perfect example of that type of politician who will exist ad infinitum.”
Even though neither of you directed “Keanu,” it is clearly your baby. After making this movie and running your own show for so many years, you’re also moving on to other people’s projects. Is it hard to relinquish control?
Peele: We might have slightly different responses to this. I love writing and directing, so I think ultimately the control is something that I long for more of. I’ve got a lot of stories that I’ve been sitting on and a lot of projects I feel I can realize now.
Key: And for me, because my training and my background is as an actor, I relish interpreting other people’s work. I don’t need to be the coach of the team; I just want to be the best player on the team for the coach, which might just be a people-pleasing quality that I have as a human. But, for me, it’s a sense of being able to collaborate with people, mostly Jordan because we speak the same language. When I offer advice, it’s only that I want to have clarity. To say to another producer or a director or a fellow actor, “I don’t understand this,” or, “If we did that, would this make more sense?” -- that’s kind of my modus operandi. My hope is that it’s always a dual activity. It’s for me, the actor, to clarify how to play the character better and bring the character to life better, and then also to make the project as clear as it can be. So Jordan is right. We have different desires within the industry, but we love working together. That’s the thing.
What was your familiarity with underground drug rings and seedy strip clubs before "Keanu"?
Peele: That’s a good question. You’ll notice that we wanted our characters to play in the world of underground crime and seedy strip clubs as represented in film and TV. In essence, this movie is a commentary on pop culture and how stereotypes and genre tropes have fed us.
Key: Right, you’re watching the characters, and it’s a lack of actual research. For the characters, who are very much like us, the quote-unquote research they’ve done is the movies they’ve seen. So they’re only acting within the stereotypes that they know. Peter did a brilliant thing as a director by making the reality of the movie as real as possible. That’s why you cast someone as Method Man, so that everyone was real to life and we are putting too much into it because of what our characters saw in the movies.
Did you always know George Michael would be your stereotypical white-people music?
Peele: We did bat around some other names. There are a lot of great stereotypical white artists out there.
Key: I think the reason we fell on the right one -- and George was the best possible choice -- was that as white as he may be, he has a lot of soul. He’s the one artist that you can hook your gang members with realistically. There is so much soul and rhythm to that man.
Peele: He’s a rebel.
Key: He is a rebel! Yeah!
Peele: And an outsider and a bad boy too.
Who were some of the other names you considered?
Peele: There were quite a few. We had Simon and Garfunkel.
Key: Billy Joel.
Peele: Yep, yep.
Key: Cat Stevens.
Peele: Yep, Cat Stevens. But we figured with a name like Yusuf Islam, it would be too black.
Key: George Michael was definitely the sweet spot.
Peele: We also talked about Phil Collins. We talked about Sting, even.
Who’s your favorite pop-culture cat?
Key: Well, from me being a child of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, I would probably have to say Garfield. He would be my favorite cat. He was so huge.
Peele: We’re also both fans of Jonsey, the cat from “Alien.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.