With the final season of their hit sketch comedy show Key & Peele ending last season, the film Keanu serves as a pseudo-reunion for comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Key, 45, and Peele, 37, met at Second City in Chicago, and then went on to star on MadTV together.
Hoping to claim some of the success Amy Schumer enjoyed in her TV-to-film transition with Trainwreck last summer, Keanu is the debut film for Key & Peele (if you ignore 2012’s Wanderlust, in which they both played minor roles). In the film, the comedians disguise themselves as drug dealers to seek out their stolen kitten.
NBN sat down to speak with the duo, as well as co-star Jason Mitchell (last seen as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton), to discuss code-switching, screenwriting and Sigmund Freud.
NBN: Not to talk about respectability politics at 9 a.m., but Keanu deals a lot with the idea of code-switching, is that correct?
Keegan-Michael Key: That’s correct!
NBN: How does the film approach the question of what it means to be Black in America?
Jason Mitchell: Oooooooooooooohhh.
Key: He’s not even playing. He came right around to it – blah blah blah blah bam! I think something that we talked about a lot, being African-American is not a monolithic experience. And I think it’s important that everybody should understand that on all levels, for all races of people, is that you’re gonna get different gradations of humans no matter how much melanin you have in your skin. And so that’s been a thing that we’ve explored a lot in the movie. You have two cultural experiences happening at once. It’s not about “Oh, there they are: Black people.” It’s not ‘skin culture.’ It’s just ‘culture culture culture culture.’ And people trying to work with each other in a culture, or people making assumptions about somebody else and what they think they must mean. All you have to do is say a word, “I’m this.” And then all you can do then is prove that you’re that. You know what I mean? People go, “Oh, you say you’re that? Then show me that you’re that.”
Jordan Peele: It’s also a ‘fish out of water’ comedy. It’s two African-American men thrown into a genre we see in a lot of ‘Black’ movies. We’re thrown into New Jack City. We’re thrown into The Wire. And we have no business being in these movies. And I think part of that is exploring why is the genre and the crime genre and the gang violence genre, why is that how we’ve told the story of the African-American experience almost exclusively? So that’s a big part of it.
NBN: Let’s take Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book Save the Cat.
NBN: Was that at all part of the process in making the film?
Peele: There’s a little bit of satirical shout-out in the movie, but I think the theory behind the book is really part of what inspired the idea. Look, you have to have something precious. You have to have characters that you are morally in sync with. The beauty of the kitten in this movie is, “How do you get two guys to elect to put themselves in harm’s way and have it be believable?” I think no matter who you are it seems like a ridiculous premise. “Oh, they went to ‘gang land’ to save their kitten.” But to be honest, I think 90 percent of the people with pets – maybe more – if your cat or your dog is in trouble, and the police can’t do anything about it, you’re going in there…I would take a bullet for them. Because that’s my job. And so that’s relatable. And one of the most important things, if you have something crazy going on, if you have the heightened situation, you have to ground it. And so what Keanu did is both ground the movie and bring joy to it. It brings a juxtaposition with the violence.
Key: I mean, a pet is like a child. Except that a pet loves you unconditionally.
Mitchell: Right, right, you don’t need an allowance or any of that.
Peele: Maybe your pet loves you unconditionally, but my pet has terms.
NBN: As Sigmund Freud once said…
Mitchell: Oh man…
Key: He’s not playing, from Blake Snyder to Sigmund Freud.
NBN: That’s right! Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar … what I’m trying to get at here is how much of an inspiration was Keanu Reeves in the movie and will we potentially see a K. Reeves cameo?
Peele: There’s always potential. There’s always potential.
Key: That’s life! That’s the potential of life. Anything could happen.
Peele: I think it started as a cigar. We named the kitten Keanu just because any name that only has one association is hilarious to me.
Key: The next movie we’re gonna make is a dog movie called Cher.
Peele: But when I think it all comes down to it, Keanu is the perfect spirit animal for this movie. He represents everything we love about movies. The spectacle: something can be huge and something can be simple at the same time. The movie takes place in Los Angeles, it’s the Hollywood cat. It’s an action movie but it’s also funny. The spirit of Keanu Reeves is in this movie.
Keanu opens nationwide Friday, April 29.