Some actors can be aloof, easily distracted or unable to follow a script. But when they’re as cute as the fuzzy little kittens in the action comedy “Keanu,” it’s easy to forgive them.
The new movie from Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele follows nerdy friends Rell (Peele) and Clarence (Key) who find themselves getting immersed in a violent gang world to rescue the kitten Keanu that was stolen from Rell’s home.
amNewYork spoke with the duo, who rose to fame on their Comedy Central show “Key and Peele,” about the film, which comes out Friday.
Are you guys cat people?
Keegan-Michael Key: Yeah, we’re pet people more than anything. We like cats and dogs. Had a lot of cats growing up. We definitely have an affinity for cats.
Jordan Peele: I have a dog right now, who was definitely very jealous that I was working with cats. But this is a movie for pet lovers of all kinds because what would you not do for your pet?
My cat never listens to me. How did the cats in “Keanu” take to direction?
JP: It’s similar. They do not understand the English language, or choose not to.
KMK: It’s a little tricky. We have improv backgrounds, so we’re as ready as possible for a fellow actor to go off the rails and do something different. That’s kind of the charm of any of those cat or kitten videos — the sort of unpredictable, off balance moments that cats have. So we weren’t going to shy away from what the cats actually do their own, but at the same time, it’s not a prop, it’s a fellow actor who has needs ...
JP: And desires ...
KMK: And ideas. And a rider! Nothing but brown cat nip!
What were some of the unpredictable things the cats did?
JP: If they’re not comfortable with you yet, they’ll tend to try, when you’re holding them, they’ll tend to try and climb on your shoulders.
KMK: They’ll want to get to the highest point, which is the interesting dichotomy about cats. They can’t get down, but they try to get to the highest point. And also, cats, like dogs too, have shiny object syndrome. There are times when a cat is supposed to be looking right at Jordan and you can see the cat go, “What was that?” That was a glint of light, cat. A glint of light.
JP: One noise at the other side of the room and that cat is done for.
How did “Key & Peele” prep you for the jump to the big screen?
KMK: A lot of it is that it helps the structure. You know that in a sketch, it has to have a beginning, a middle and an end, the characters have to have a point of view, they should have a history with each other. The only difference is that in a sketch, you can go crazy. In a sketch, you can go to outer space, or you can end up exploding, spontaneously combusting. You can do all those things in a sketch. But at least it helps us, because in a scene, even though every scene lends itself to the theme of the movie, it’s supposed to be helping tell the story of the movie. You still want every scene to stand on its own. So the sketch part helps in that way, that each scene is its own little movie that’s helping a bigger movie known as “Keanu.”
The world knows you guys are great comedic forces. How was the transition to action heroes?
JP: It’s hard to imagine that people will take us seriously as action heroes, but that is part of the dream. This movie is wish fulfillment for the characters in a way that they get to enter the heightened world of the movies, almost, as you see in the scene where they just watched the Liam Neeson movie and they’re debating who’s harder. Everybody that’s into action movies or comics or television, we all kind of want that and feel like, “You know what? In the clutch, I’d probably be pretty good with a gun,” or something like that. That was true for the characters, but it’s also true for us. This is wish fulfillment. What does an action movie look like if we’re the stars of it?
KMK: The story of the film forces them to be action heroes. Hopefully, that’s what allows the transition to feel real. We didn’t just go and jump in and make a movie that way. The way that the movie unfolds makes Rell and Clarence prepare themselves to do whatever they can. They prepare themselves to do whatever they can to get Keanu back. So they just are in a situation where they have to be action heroes. They had no choice.
How did you take to the physicality of the role?
KMK: I love it, because I’m a physical person, I’m an athlete and I like to play sports and stuff. I kind of feel like I’m really doing work when I do it, and it’s not hard to start sweating when you’re in New Orleans in June.
JP: There’s no issue there.
KMK: So much of the really strenuous stuff is done by our stuntmen. There’s things that I asked to do and they’re like, “No, you don’t get to do that. You do not get to do that, we have insurance policies on you, buddy.”
JP: The most uncomfortable we were was when we’re tied to those chairs and we had to scream all day and all night. You forget that your vocal chords are muscles that need to be worked out or you’re going to wear them out. That was exhausting.
What do you think this film has to say about identity and how people fit into society?
JP: I think the film is as much a commentary on cinema, and how we categorize and label and stereotype people in movies as anything else. As we may have pointed out, Keegan and I have no business being in an action movie.
KMK: So says Hollywood.
JP: We had to invent a comedic voice to get ourselves into this world. So it’s no mistake that we surrounded ourselves with the tropes from cinema and stereotypical characters bumping up against our pretty realistic depictions of ourselves.
KMK: I think that it just shows that our experience is still an African American experience. Our experience is still authentic. It’s still African American. The African American experience is not a monolith. There’s a spectrum, like there is in any other culture.
You guys are surrounded by a great supporting cast with Will Forte, Luis Guzmán, Method Man and Tiffany Haddish. Were those people you had in mind when writing the film?
JP: We didn’t have anyone in mind when we wrote it. These were all either great auditions or people we were thrilled [about] when they showed interest. Tiffany [Haddish] was a completely new discovery for us. She’s been doing stand-up for a while and it’s amazing and obviously she’s on “The Carmichael Show.” When she came in, we realized there was no one else even close to Hi-C. We really think this is going to be a star-making performance for her because she’s a one-of-a-kind.
Jordan, your character does photo shoots with the cat in different classic movie scenes. If you could remake any movie with cats, which would it be?
KMK: I’d do “101 Kittens.” That works. ... I want to see a movie that would be absolute and complete utter chaos.
JP: Um-hmm, that’s a good one. I would like to see something like “The Matrix,” where you have all the crazy action and Kung-Fu. Make it hard for the special effects artists.