Keegan-Michael Key Wanted to Be Jason Bourne (but Ended Up Doing Shakespeare)
The Key and Peele funny man talks about his career pivot to New York City theater, on and off-Broadway.
Luther, Hingle McCringleberry, Mr. Garvey, the valet guy…
The man behind all of these uniquely hilarious characters is Keegan-Michael Key, one half of famed comedy duo Key and Peele. After a remarkably successful 19-year career in sketch comedy, the Shakespearean trained actor has returned to his roots; right now, as Horatio in Sam Gold's production of Hamlet at the Public Theater off-Broadway. And this fall, Key will make his Broadway debut co-starring in Steve Martin's new play, Meteor Shower, alongside Amy Schumer, Laura Benanti, and Alan Tudyk.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did the opportunity to make your New York City stage debut in Hamlet come to you?
A lot of it was my girlfriend (producer and director Elisa Pugliese) asking me what I wanted to do as I was moving forward in my career. I thought, what I'd really like to do is be Jason Bourne and do Shakespeare. I spoke with my theatrical agent in New York City and started pursuing a meeting with the director Sam Gold. Sam and I started meeting about once a month and kept a dialogue open. Last April, I got an email from Sam offering me the role of Horatio in Hamlet. I'm just thrilled because we're seeing eye-to-eye artistically on a lot of things, so it really worked out perfectly.
Has Hamlet lived up to your expectations of performing Shakespeare professionally?
It has overall been a complete revelation. Once the mystique is gone, the New York City theater community feels small and quite similar to the comedy sub-community I've been a part of for the last 19 years. The warm support from audiences has been really lovely. Also, the way that the rehearsal process and the production have happened has felt simultaneously like a homecoming, but also very experimental and bold. It's exceeded all of my expectations. To be in this Hamlet, which is certainly unlike any Hamlet I've seen or anything I've ever generated in my imagination, is beyond thrilling.
In the show, you have a lengthy death scene. How was that developed?
One day, Sam said he wanted me to do the Dumb-Show, and I assumed he wanted me to do it because of my skill set. He didn't give me any notes or direction, so I got on the table and started goofing around. He responded positively and told me to do whatever I want. He really gave me a blank canvas, as compared to the curtain speech at the beginning of the play, which he sculpted and directed much more. Right now, it's honed to a place where on any given night, it's anywhere between 2:12 and 2:40 minutes long. It's really fascinating to me how time stretches and undulates when you're onstage. I came up with a laundry list of eight to 12 moves, and from those moves I'll pick four a night, depending on how devilish I'm feeling. The Dumb-Show is something Sam has never given me a note about, because he wants it to be as organic as possible.
Hamlet is quite a physically taxing show. How have your kept up your stamina during the run?
Physically, I've been trying to eat better. There's definitely a moratorium on junk food for the time being. I have a portable steamer in my dressing room, so Oscar Isaac and I are constantly steaming and downing Manuka honey. It's been a very athletic production. I've been very fortunate in that I haven't lost my voice or had any particularly horrible performances where I feel like I don't have any power or range. My warmups before the show are extremely beneficial. I should probably be on more vocal rest, though. [laughs]
You will be making your Broadway debut this fall in Steve Martin's new play, Meteor Shower. Has witnessing a successful comedian write his own Broadway show inspired to write one of your own?
For a first Broadway show, you can't do much better than a Steve Martin comedy with Amy Schumer, Laura Benanti, and Alan Tudyk. Writing my own show isn't really on my radar right now. It may be further down the line, but right now I'm really enjoying being an interpretive artist. That's where my passion lies at the moment. Hopefully, some muse taps me on the forehead sometime and says, "Hey, I've got something you should put on paper," but that's not the direction I'm heading right now.
Before your success on MADtv and Comedy Central with Key and Peele, you cofounded a theater company in Detroit called Planet Ant. How did you become involved with it?
I got home from graduate school and started working on an independent film with some college friends. We shot the majority of the film at this old coffee house. In order to pay off the credit card debt from the movie, we rearranged the coffee house as a performance space and produced two plays, Marsha Norman's Getting Out and a Chilean play called The Praying Mantis. The owner of the coffee house, who is a true patron of the arts, decided to turn it into a theater company. We ripped out all the booths, we sold the bar, and turned it into a 70-seat black box theater. At the time it opened, I was working at the Second City in Detroit. We were doing straight plays at Planet Ant, but then the improvisers began integrating themselves into the community. That's really how Planet Ant found its mission. When we used to put together a season, it would mostly consist of licensed plays and maybe a few devised works. Now, it's completely flipped. I don't have as much time to spend at the theater now, but when I'm home I always stop by to see how it's grown. It's something I'm really proud of.
All right, last one. If you could be in one production with Jordan Peele, what would it be?
I'd probably want to do some kind of two-man, vaudevillian-style variety show. Somebody did ask us to write a musical of [Key and Peele sketch] Negrotown, and that'd be fun if we figured out who the protagonists are. Given the Key and Peele of it all, whatever the next collaboration for us is, it has to be something nobody's ever seen.