Sneak Attacks with Gustav: A Conversation with Award Winning Actor Keegan-Michael Key
Keegan-Michael Key is an Award-winning actor best known for his role as co-creator and star of Comedy Central sketch series “Key and Peele.” The critically-acclaimed show came to a close in September 2015 after five hit seasons, and won the 2016 Primetime Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Sketch Series.
Born in Southfield, Michigan and raised in Detroit, Key joined the cast of “MadTV” in 2004, auditioning alongside his future comic partner Jordan Peele. Key began a tenure that ran more than 100 episodes, and displayed the true range of his comic ability.
Since breaking through with “MadTV,” Key has appeared on the big screen in films such as Role Models, Due Date, Just Go With It, Wanderlust, and Horrible Bosses 2. He voiced Frank the Foreman in The Lego® Movie, and was also seen in Vacation and Tomorrowland: A World Beyond.
Earlier this year, Key played a lead role in Keanu alongside Peele, a film he also produced. He lent his vocal talents to The Angry Birds Movie and Storks. He was most recently seen in Mike Birbiglia’s improv dramedy Don’t Think Twice as Jack, a departure into more dramatic work that earned him rave reviews.
In Why Him? from director John Hamburg, Key plays Gustav, the eccentric estate manager of the luxury home owned by James Franco’s Laird. From the film’s set in Los Angeles, Key explains more.
Who is Gustav?
Gustav is what I think one would consider a Renaissance Man. He’s German by birth, or so we think. He certainly has a German accent, but there are a couple of changes in there that you’re like, “What is he, from South Africa? Where is this guy from?” Laird’s character would say that Gustav is a king of all trades. It’s like, how can you know about how to chiffonade food as well as conduct a choir as well as know two different types of Kung Fu, as well as hold your breath, free dive and build a hang glider out of garbage bags? It’s like he just can do anything.
And he’s an expert in facial hair, too.
Oh, yeah, he’s got this great, this brand-new hipster look. I have to, of course, give all the credit to my makeup artist who is really an amazing, artisan, and puts this hair on every single day, and you would never know. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me, “Is that real? Is that real?” I’m like, “Well, it’s real hair. I just didn’t grow it.”
Are you inspired to try?
Oh, no. [laughs] I know quite a few people in my life who’d be a little perturbed if I was walking around with this look, but it gives me inspiration to dream about it, you know? But I can’t even actually physically grow hair in this configuration. I’m not the most hirsute of men.
Gustav gets to be lots of different things, as you say. Is it fun to explore all his different sides?
That was a big part of why I wanted to do the piece, and we are having a great time getting to explore many different emotional facets of Gustav in the same day. There are even moments that we haven’t shot yet, that we are going to explore very soon, where there’s a softer side to Gustav. There’s a more sensitive side to Gustav because he’s also Laird’s spiritual guide and spiritual leader and his self-improvement person as well.
I think Gustav sees the entire estate – the entire compound – as an extension of Laird, so if we take care of the lawn, and take care of the animals, and take care of the house and the plaster and the concrete and the fireplace, that’s also taking care of Laird. He’s just decided he’s at a place in his life now where it’s time for him to dive into this other person and do everything he can. He sees the light in Laird and he just wants to take all the layers off so the light can really, really shine.
How have you found that relationship with James?
It’s funny, James and I, we didn’t know each other very well, and from the first moment we met in John’s office, it’s been amazing because actually we just started riffing and riffing. We both have an improv background. We come from different worlds, but both of us have the same eagerness and openness to each other.
And I was actually discussing it with John today. It’s been a privilege to work with James, and it’s funny because it’s, “Action!” and we turn it on. It’s there, and I don’t even know how to describe the magic that it is, but it’s been wonderful. It’s been wonderful.
It seems like everyone in the cast comes from different schools of comedy.
Right, and things that you wouldn’t think of occur to another person and they say, “Why wouldn’t you just do it like this?” And you’re like, “Oh god, I never thought of that,” so it’s been a very ecumenical experience. Everybody has really been giving their best and giving what their background is and what their history is. I think it’s a really good point to see how all the styles are blending together.
What do you love about working on comedy?
The energy that’s required of a human to do drama is, well, is significant and taxing, to say the least. There’s also added pressure, isn’t there, which one of the nightmares for an actor is always, “This is the close-up. I gotta cry,” and so you’re off remembering horrible things from your past and you come back. And there are some actors who have this ability to turn it off and turn it on and you wish everybody could do that, that everybody was like that, you know? That you just had the skill to say, “Let’s joke around over here la, la, la, talk about farts,” and then “Oh, my baby!”
Bryan is one of those people. He is definitely one of those people. It’s been interesting to be with him. I’m a dramatic actor who hasn’t done drama in a very long time, and I’m trying to find those moments because, you know, the grass is always greener. You’re always kind of seeking out the thing that you’re not doing at that time, so I think it’s a nice welcome change for Bryan.
Was there design to moving into comedy, or was it just something that you became known for and got offered?
It just happened that way. I mean I often say to people, “I’m a classically trained actor who went on a 19-year detour into comedy.” I don’t know if you’ve heard the old adage, “How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans,” and that’s what happened to me. Things went into this other direction, and there seemed to be a natural momentum, so I decided to just stay on the surfboard and ride that momentum.
What I was really interested in doing was learning more about this aspect of our art – the comedic aspect of our art – and the more I learned, the more I kept on getting jobs in that arena, which gave me more of an opportunity to learn so I kept on doing that and kept on doing that, and it’s been wonderful. Comedy’s been a wonderful companion to be on this journey with, and not that I’ll ever say goodbye to comedy, but it’s just time to make a little bit of a transition right now.
Of course now you can pull the drama ace from your sleeve and shock everyone that knows you for comedy with an Oscar-worthy dramatic role…
From your lips to God’s ears. [laughs] Yeah, and what’s happening right now in the transition is I’m finding interesting parts that I’d like to play that’ll have a little bit – a dash – of drama here, very comedic there, then I don’t know it goes fifty-fifty or whatever the case may be.
Why Him? is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Monday May 1, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment