Interview: ‘Keanu’ Stars Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele and Jason Mitchell on Race, Comedy, Kittens, and the Future

Madison Gallup ’18/ Emertainment Monthly TV Editor

Method Man, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key and Jason Mitchell. Photo Credit:

Keanu, the first feature film from the popular comedy duo Key & Peele, revolves around an adorable kitten who is stolen from Rell (Jordan Peele) by a violent group of drug dealers- led by the infamous Cheddar (Method Man). With the help of his cousin Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) they must attempt to get Keanu back. In addition to being a love letter to some of the classic thrillers Key and Peele grew up with, Keanu delves into gender and race expectations- all while providing one laugh after another. Emertainment Monthly had the opportunity to be a part of a conference call with the two stars of the film, Key and Peele, as well as Jason Mitchell who- in addition to gaining attention for his portrayal of Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton– plays Bud, one of the hilarious members of Cheddar’s crew. Check out both interviews below.

Jason Mitchell Interview: 

Emertainment Monthly: Does your character have a more fleshed out back story than what audience get to see in the film?

Jason Mitchell: For sure. Absolutely, because I think like gang world in general is something that’s really deep rooted in people, and it’s something that is such a funny stereotype that people have. In the film, it was important to really show the way two worlds collide so, with a lot of back story, it really, really helps.

Tiffany Haddish and Jason Mitchell in Keanu. Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

The movie is set in Louisiana. How crazy is it that you’re from Louisiana and you’ve been shooting this film. Now that this film was coming out, what does this do for your career? I know that you just started so how crazy is it from your perspective- from your point of life right now- how do you reflect on all these things passing to you now?

JM: You know, it’s so crazy because I was actually living in L.A. like in full grind mode at that time when I got the role. And I came home to New Orleans on per diem and really living the acting life you know, and my whole family and my friends and everybody, they really started to see it. Because Compton, like I said, Compton hadn’t come out yet so they just looking at me like, “Wow! Like you really changed everything for yourself, you know.” That was the first time everybody could really see it and say like, “Damn, this is still really working, you know.” So, it just made the whole city proud you know, and I’m super happy about it.

You gained a lot of positive attention from critics and audiences for your portrayal of Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton.

JM: Yes.

What do you want people who discovered you in that movie to take a way from your performance in Keanu?

JM: I want people to see that I’m really a contender no matter what, what you know, what form it might come in because even though I do play like two different gangster roles, one of them is all about comedic timing and the other one is just a, a full-blown drama, you know. So, one of them already got to un-peel my onion and show all the different things that I could do, but, in this, I could show a whole different side and really show that I can last in that comic world you know.

With this talented and funny cast, what was the most fun moment on set or a weird moment that happened on set?

JM: Keegan had a really, really, really good Billy Bob Thornton impression here. And when we shoot at night, we go from sundown to sunup, so it comes a point where it’s like four in the morning and everybody’s completely delirious and then Keegan’s in the background doing Billy Bob Thorton impressions. This is how we’d get through the night.

Jason Mitchell and Keegan-Michael Key in Keanu. Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

How is this movie different from other films you’ve been in and like how’s the production different?

JM: Well, for one, I’ve never been in something that was such a passion project for somebody. Because, true enough, Straight Outta Compton was a passion project for some people, but it was such a vast amount of people. That is slightly different. It takes a little bit of the charm away from you. Peter Atencio and Jordan and Key, they have like a bond because they been working together so long. But this is their first feature film. So, it’s such a passion project for these guys. Coming into this has just been a pleasure because, when people love things, they really love them, you know what I mean? Like, on one hand it could start raining outside and everybody could run and cover their own head and hide under tents, but this is the type of project where if it would rain everybody would use their body to cover the camera, if that makes sense. It’s just special to be around people, like, in the midst of that type of you know, in, in the midst of that type of love. So it was cool.

What the difference between being on onset of Keanu as opposed to being onset of Straight Outta Compton? What was the vibe like, what was the difference?

JM: Well, for one, jokes and jokes and jokes and bits, and bits, and bits, and bits because these guys are super funny guys. Everybody is a super laughing group, you know what I mean? The only problem was it was like super, super, super hot [in New Orleans]. But you know, Straight Outta Compton, it was such a booming production, you know what I mean? Like they had people. We had like 60 and 70 and 80 and 3,700 extras and stuff like that. so it was just so big. But with Keanu, it was just a tight crew of people, and we would go to set and have a great day, and then leave set and go kill at some restaurant, you know what I mean? Like we were all into the karaoke and everything. It was really cool.

Now that Keanu is happening, what is your next project?

JM: Well, I just got finished with Kong: Skull Island, and I also just got finished with this movie called Barry about Obama, that should be really, really cool. And I just booked this movie called  Mudbound also so, I’ll be going into that. So, you’ll see me on the screen three or four times coming up here so, I’m not sleeping at all…

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele Interview: 

EM: This film seemed like an opportunity to further explore some of the themes in your show. For example many of the most hilarious moments within Keanu appeared to be influenced by your sketch “White Sounding Black Guys.” Are there certain topics, drawn from your personal experiences, that you consider the most important to address in your work?

Jordan Peele: You know, I think the most important for us is always the material that we haven’t seen anywhere else. And so, I think the reason we were drawn to the topic of race and culture and masculinity often is because it’s fertile ground to be nurtured around with. You sort of need somebody to take those things on, and I think when we first started our show we realized that was part of our purpose and our voice.

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele in Keanu. Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

What’s next after Keanu? What other topics do you want to touch on in a film format?

JP: We haven’t even really explored it a lot yet, but you know, we’ve got some ideas. There’s lot of things happening in the world right now. We deal with things like class and how people are being affected by wage discrimination. That’s one thing that we might be working on now. There are science fiction concepts that might be worked on. We’re talking about AI, things in that realm. You know, there’s so many things that we haven’t really huddled up yet and discuss exactly where we want to go next. And there’s also lots of personal projects apart from each other as well as with each other. So, I think, once Keanu comes out, we’ll be able to kind of have a Pow-Wow and figure out what’s next for us.

You guys seems to have a big sense of the action genre, because you guys have spoofed it a lot in your shows. What inspired you to incorporate those aspects into your first feature film?

JP: Those are some of our favorite, basically, our favorite genre. And you know, I don’t think that there’s anybody, but certainly any comedian, out there who doesn’t secretly wished they were either a famous musician or an action star. And so, this movie is about wish fulfillment. Obviously it’s about saving this kitten, but along the way, these characters, Rell and Clarence get to enter this high stakes world that they dreamed about when they watch action films. That’s very similar to Keegan and myself in real life. You know we just want to be badass. Everybody wants to do that.

When you were making this film, what aspects did you consider to make it appeal both to the fans of your show and the people who maybe aren’t familiar with your television work?

Keegan-Michael Key: Well, I think it’s no accident that a kitten would be the central character in the piece, because everybody loves a kitten. And there’s a certain amount of strategy in calling the kitten Keanu. Me and Jordan were just sitting and it kind of just came to him, which makes sense. But also, the thing is, that name is iconic. So, hopefully, that name being connected with that kitten will make the name doubly iconic. So, when you think of the name Keanu, it makes you think of two things as opposed to one thing. If you’re in the international community, you certainly know who Keanu Reeves is, but you may not know who Key and Peele are. So, our hope is that, when you see that name it, in a manner of speaking, is kind of that best foot forward, and then you get to learn about the comedy of Key & Peele once you’ve, you know, stepped through the door. So there’s a bit of marketing wizzardy going on there.

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele in Keanu. Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

What’s the biggest change that you guys have to go through going from the show with just small clips?

JP: The biggest change we had to go through is really how we approach every scene because in the show, every scene is a sketch. In this movie, we have to really think about what happened right before the scene, and think about where the scene is going afterward. And so, it just becomes a different pace and process. And you can’t go as crazy as fast, at least in this style movie, we like to make you begin to believe this journey that these characters are going on is actually real. The biggest change is having to look at the big picture, the entire time.

It’s such a great cast, did guys had any hands in the casting?

JP: I would say very much hands on. It was really important to us as the producers to find a mixture of people who can handle the humor of the film without winking at it and without being conscious of it. And I think the best way to do that is to find a really fantastic actor, whether they’d be a dramatic actor or a comedic actor. So those are the qualifications that we put forth to the cast and directors. The director of course, we have worked with intimately for the last five years. He certainly felt the same way we did. So, it was a matter of just being as involved as we could to make sure we had the right actors to help us create the tone of the film that we needed.

What do you hope that students will take aways from watching this movie?

JP: Oh, you know, what we want from anybody that watches our material or our movies is to get a bunch of good laughs. I mean, you know, we’re comedians first and foremost so when we’re making comedy, we’re trying to essentially crack each other up first. If it’s something that makes us both laugh then we present it to the world. So, you know, our message is simple. It’s sometimes you want to walk into the movie theater and forget the rest of the world. Forget the problems of your life. Go have crazy time with Key and Peele, see some fun violence, see some cute kittens, and see some ridiculous comedy. Hopefully, you know, that will resonate with everybody because really at the end of the day, funny is funny.

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele in Keanu. Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

You guys do so well with social commentary on television, what made you want to bring that for the first time in your own feature film?

KK: There was a passion, certainly on Jordan’s part, to make a movie finally. I think the show is doing pretty well and the show was rolling right along. And so, Jordan and one of our writers, Alex Ruben, said, “You know, maybe we should have a Key & Peele movie at the ready so if anybody comes calling, you know, we’d have something to present to them.” And something that we have been passionate about our whole lives are action films, and especially action films in that very interesting genre that existed in the 80s and 90s where you had an action movie with lots and lots of laughs in it. Or sometimes, you had a comedy that has a good deal of action or violence in it. And there was a real great tone to movies when we were growing up, that we wanted to celebrate and that’s kind of where they started, you know, where Jordan and Alex started. So, I think the social commentary is just kind of something we do because we just write based on how we see the world. And so, it’s going to find its way into our stories, into our sketches, into this film because we do not really, frankly, know any other way to be.

How is the writing dynamic between the two of you and how do you decide what you’re going to put out there?

JP: You know, it’s interesting from you know, our show, we have to come up with so much material and any sketch could be written a number of different ways. It could be one of us writing it, it could be a one of our writers writing it, it could be something that is just a sketch that is a specific passion to Keegan and I. This movie, it was written by myself and another one of the Key & Peele writers, Alex Rubens. But I think all-in-all there’s this, this overall understanding that we’re you know, we’re always writing towards the same end which is to create something that’s in Keegan and my voice. A good amount of the writing process even happens when we’re improvising and just messing around with it. So, it’s very un-regimented. It’s very free.

You guys all ready touched on the marketing to the movie and some of the posters are spoofs of recent popular movies so, I was just wondering if you guys had any say on those or what your thoughts are?

KK: We did have some say in it yes, I mean, I think that it was an idea that I think Warner Brothers could see what the spirit of the movie was and that the movie has. The movie is a homage to a particular genre of films, so they thought it would be great to kind of put forth the spoof posters which they’ve done a really remarkable job at. And it’s been wonderful to have that piece, something that’s representing the movie just people seem to really be getting a kick out of on social media. And we’re really happy that was part of the campaign. I want some of those as posters in my home so, it’s really, it’s been a lot of fun.

JP: Yes. There’s a calendar in the movie of Keanu in the different action movies. A big part of the satire is that, you know, Keegan and I, and guys like Keegan and I, have never been, you know, the leads of an action movie. So, you know, Keanu is a symbol for, for Key & Peele in this movie and us being able to step into this genre that we wouldn’t have been in if we didn’t… if we didn’t write it.

This interview has been condensed from its original form. Keanu is now in theaters everywhere. Check out Emertainment Monthly’s review of Keanu here


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