Keegan-Michael Key is laughing. Hard. The kind of laugh that makes you want to join in because whatever it is he finds so funny, surely you will, too.
Key says he dreamed his whole entire life of being Billy Sims or Lynn Swann, but never got a chance to play football. So the idea that he garners fanboy love from NFL stars — including Von Miller and Michael Bennett — well, it tickles him.
See, about seven years ago Key — along with his then-comedic partner Jordan Peele — created what’s become a timeless funny take on the sometimes Afrocentric and other times simply creative names that some black football players may have for their Key & Peele show on Comedy Central. That sketch has nearly 53 million views on YouTube alone and one of the characters, Hingle McCringleberry, had made numerous “live” appearances.
And years later, it sticks.
“It is surreal to have these young men know me … my work is the closest I can get to emulate being an athlete,” Key said. “So there’s this really wonderful kind of synergy, this imaginistic — Made up that word! — this imaginistic synergy that I get to have with the players. And they all have really wonderful, rich senses of huge potential. Yes, for lack of a better way of putting it, yes, they do. They fanboy.”
But perhaps — just perhaps — they’re also taken by the growth in Key’s visibility in Hollywood? Because four years after Key & Peele went off the air, he’s everywhere. Sometimes he’s the funny guy as in Playing With Fire, which stars former wrestler John Cena and opens on Friday. And sometimes he plays it straight, as he does as playwright Jerry Jones in Netflix’s much-lauded Dolemite Is My Name.
Or is it his voice work? This past summer he voiced one of those menacing hyenas in Disney’s $1.65 billion blockbuster The Lion King. He also voiced Ducky in Toy Story 4, which has topped $1 billion at the box office.
Point is, Key, 48, is killing it.
“I think the ship is starting to turn a little bit,” he said. “A career is not like a little tiny sailboat, it’s a big aircraft carrier, so it takes a while to kind of start moving in different directions. But I believe it. I believe that people are starting to view me that way.
“I think that a hundred percent people are starting to see it. I’m playing the emotional fulcrum and the kind of solid, strong, straight man role in this musical [The Prom] I’m about to shoot with Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman and James Cordon. That’s being directed by Ryan Murphy, which is going to be one of the biggest things I’ve ever done in my career.”
He takes a pause and lets it sink in. Because that’s major.
“I am overwhelmingly excited about it. And I’ve seen that there’s a little shift in the way I’ve been cast and that’s all very intentional,” he said. “When I first met my wife [actress, producer and director Elisa Pugliese] and before we were married, we worked together. Key & Peele was finishing. She said to me, ‘What is it that you’d like to do next? And if you had no barriers, if there’s no story about why you couldn’t do what you wanted to do, what would you want to do?’ ”
The answer was serious drama, maybe even Shakespeare, and action movies like the Jason Bourne series. “That’s what I want to do. There was a very precise direction that the team can focus on that. And we’ve been doing that for like the last two years.”
Key says he’s blessed that there’s been a steady stream of work. He’s juggling a lot.
He’s in postproduction for the films Jingle Jangle (which also stars Forest Whitaker and Phylicia Rashad), All The Bright Places (which stars Elle Fanning, Alexandra Shipp and Luke Wilson) and the highly anticipated stop-motion feature Wendell and Wild, which re-teams him with Peele, now an Oscar winner and one of the most talked about genre-shifting creatives in the industry. And if that’s not enough, Key also is working on a pair of TV hosting gigs. Up first is National Geographic’s Brain Games reboot, which premieres Dec. 1.
“It’s been a very focused thing that requires quite a lot of maintenance,” he said. “The biggest challenge is believing in yourself, because there are days when you have to go, ‘Oh, God, I could absolutely really slay this role. I feel like I could just kill this role!’ But it doesn’t serve my needs, it doesn’t serve my goals.
“So sometimes you get three or four projects come down the pipe and you go, ‘Ugh, it’s all broad, slapstick comedy.’ And you know that you could sit in your lane and be comfortable and really make people laugh really hard at that,” he said. “But you’re not stretching, you’re not moving, you’re not growing, not evolving. So sometimes there’s that sting when you say, ‘No, no, I’m going to better myself. … I’m going to say no to this project.’ You say no a few times … as you tried to disseminate the information about your wants and needs, people start to move in that direction with you. They kind of fall into the current, but that challenge is real and significant.”
He knows that most people see him as a sketch comedian. But just as sure as he’s challenging himself to evolve, he wants to challenge his viewership to join in that transformation as well.
“You get nervous that the only offers that are going to come are going to be the same. If I don’t take them, everyone’s going to stop asking and no one’s going to come back and no one’s going to come calling. And you have to face those fears. You have to take a deep breath and say, ‘There’s something that I want. There’s a desire that I have. What are the steps I need to take to achieve that desire?’ ”
Key pauses again. He’s connecting the dots of his career trajectory.
“I think it’s very serendipitous to have been in a project like Dolemite, because Rudy Ray Moore, the whole movie is pretty much a treatise on perseverance and not giving up on your dream,” he said of the game-changing comedian and his life story. “I have to say frankly it’s inspired me.”