There’s no doubting that Keegan-Michael Key is a funny guy, as he’s proven on the Emmy-winning Comedy Central sketch series Key & Peele and with scene-stealing roles in everything from Pitch Perfect 2 to the first season of Fargo on FX.
But after Key & Peele came to an end in 2015, Key says he purposefully sought out work that would take him as far away from the sketch comedy world, which, also thanks to his years on MadTV, had defined much of his career up until that point. “I felt like we had done almost as much as we could do with the form,” he tells ET, and he was ready to set his career on a new course with roles that tapped into his classical training.
The first sign of that transition came in 2016 with Don’t Think Twice, a dramedy about standup comedians, and then a leading role as Ethan on Netflix’s Friends From College. But it was his return to theater in this summer’s Off-Broadway production of Hamlet with Oscar Isaac and his Broadway debut in Steve Martin’s Meteor Shower that really set his post-Key & Peele work apart.
It’s been on stage, he says, where he’s really been able to tap into his roots and stretch unused muscles. “Hamlet was a real boot camp for me, pulling those memories and those techniques back to the forefront. It was really quite exciting and rejuvenating, in a manner of speaking.”
In the Public Theater production of the Shakespeare classic directed by Sam Gold, Key played Horatio, bringing new life (and humor) to the character often regarded as just the “friend of Hamlet.” Playing off an idea from Isaac, the two reimagined Horatio and Hamlet’s backstory, making the two not best friends but rather associates, allowing for their relationship to evolve onstage as Horatio earns Hamlet’s trust and confidence.
“There was a nice arc for the character throughout the piece, which was interesting,” he says. “I was extremely pleased with the production at large, and also with what I was allowed to do, got to do and also what I was instructed to do.”
What followed were positive reviews, with many applauding the comic relief he brought to the stage, and the opportunity to fulfill a dream of making his Broadway debut. Actually, a “dream deferred,” he says, one that was put off as he found success on TV. “I never thought, ever, I was going to make it to Broadway.”
In Meteor Shower, which opened on Nov. 29 at the Booth Theatre, Key plays the bombastic and assertive Gerald opposite Amy Schumer, also making her Broadway debut, Laura Benanti and Jeremy Shamos. The four play two couples who come together one night to watch the meteor showers over Ojai, California.
Unlike Hamlet, the Steve Martin play is a sprint, playing out in one act that runs just over 80 minutes and with little to no breaks for each of its four stars, who volley scenes and jokes back and forth like a tennis match.
“The thing I’m enjoying about being on stage right now is the other three people I’m on stage with,” Key says. “I think that because it’s only the four of us and there aren’t a lot of breaks, I get to spend a great deal of time on stage, living and performing and reacting. It’s such a daring, naked experience.”
For Key, what really sets his work in 2017 apart from everything he’s done before is that he doesn’t have the same control or autonomy over these characters that he had in the past. “When you have control of what you want to do, you might sometimes stay safer than one might see. You don’t stretch yourself as much,” he says, whereas his work on Friends From College, Hamlet and Meteor Shower have seen him step into someone else’s creation and pushed him beyond “the bag of tricks I know.”
In fact, he’s exploring parts of himself that are “closer to who I wish I would be or can be as opposed to sitting back in the pool of the familiar.” These roles, he also points out, are not “completely and utterly wacky,” unlike, say, his now-infamous character Luther, the anger translator to Barack Obama.
Reflecting on the past year, Key says his screen and stage work has been liberating, much in the same way the success of Get Out has been for his former comedy partner, Jordan Peele. This year has seen both men find success outside of Key & Peele -- and on their own. “For both of us, our dreams are coming true,” Key says. “Key & Peele was a very lovely surprise [but] we got out while the getting was good, from a comedic point of view. There is a landscape that is so bizarre right now. I think comedy is trying to find its compass, it's trying to find its way to comedic true north and it can't. We can't because there's this enormous magnet right next to our compass called Donald Trump.”
What’s scary to Key is that the fictional world of Get Out is something that he thinks Trump would consider if real. “If someone told Donald Trump that he could make that a law, he would think about it. We have gone from the blind to the ridiculous,” he says, happy to not to be on the air in the current political climate that’s followed the 2016 presidential election.
“Jordan and I, we both feel profoundly satisfied with regard to what happened in that part of our life,” Key continues, adding: “I have to say, both of our cups runneth over. They really do.”
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