'You're Never Too Old To Screw Up': Keegan-Michael Key On 'Friends From College'

Jul 13, 2017
Originally published on July 13, 2017 10:58 pm

You might remember Keegan-Michael Key as the fast-talking, quick-moving comedian on the award-winning Comedy Central sketch show Key and Peele. The show aired for five seasons before Key and his former co-star, Jordan Peele, ended it (in its prime) to move on to other projects. But Key and Peele's characters transcended beyond the show. Key went viral after he appeared as Luther, President Obama's anger translator, at the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner, proving he had both comedic and acting chops.

Now Key is starring in the upcoming Netflix dramedy Friends From College. It's about a group of Harvard grads (played by Key, Cobie Smulders, Fred Savage and others) who reunite in New York City more than 20 years after they've graduated. Key tells NPR that the show is about continuing to make mistakes even in your 40s, but not necessarily learning from them. "One of the mottos of our show is, 'You're never too old to screw up, and you're never too old to be childish.' "

Key is self-deprecating and philosophical, and he has a tongue-in-cheek attitude about life. He says didn't expect to make it in the entertainment industry, and he attributes his current success to a lot of luck. "I stumbled up into this, because I was doing everything in my power to get in my way."


Interview Highlights

On the difference between making mistakes in your 40s versus in your 20s

[In our 40s,] we're thinking more about the mistakes we're making, yet perhaps we don't have the tools to change the mistakes. That's the thing that's hard about being in your 40s.

Now, when you're in your 20s, we're all just blissful idiots. Sometimes it's fun to just be an idiot and say, "This is what the world is, and this is how the world works." And we don't know anything. And then when you start to have a little more perspective on the world and you're looking at it, you kind of go, "Oh gosh, what is wrong with me? Why don't I change?"

On never believing he deserved success, and how that reflects a broader American tendency

I'm from the Midwest, so I always assumed: Well, I have to think badly of myself, because that's being humble. And where I'm from, you get points for being humble and you get an extra special big house in heaven. That's the rule, right? Now, you have these dirty dreams in the back of your mind: ... What if there was the first black James Bond, and it was me? You're going to hell. You're never allowed to dream that big.

So I was completely prepared to be poor, ... very happy and fulfilled artistically, but poor. And that's fine, because it's what I deserve. Kelly, if I'm anything, I'm a good Catholic. It's not just Catholicism, it's America: We still live with these puritanical underpinnings that you're supposed to stay in your lane. And I really believe there are millions of people in this country going, "I can't do that. Who do I think I am?"

On his dream of playing Horatio in Hamlet, and how it's finally happening

My styles [acting] teacher in graduate school, I said, "I mean, Horatio is such a great guy, and I'd like to play that role, and it's very consistent." And he goes, "That doesn't make any sense, you should play Hamlet." And I'm like, "Well, why would I want to play Hamlet?" And he's goes, "You're sexy, you're funny, you're dynamic on stage. You should play Hamlet." ... No. God no. Absolutely not. I don't want to be No. 1 on the call sheet!

And that has haunted me. And what's so funny, it's like now I don't have an excuse anymore because one of the hottest directors on and off Broadway has offered me the role of Horatio in Hamlet. So now what can I do? ... I painted myself into a corner. The only way to get out of the room is to play bigger roles.

On the kinds of stories he wants to tell, and the work of his former writing partner Jordan Peele

I want to make movies and pieces of television and pieces of art that crack everyone's assumptions. It's just: Tell an effective story so that some militia member who lives in Idaho goes, "I'd feel that way if that happened to my kid." ...

My partner [Jordan Peele] has done I think a wonderful job [with Get Out,] ... what ostensibly is a social-horror movie. That's what Jordan made. And so the film itself, Get Out, is so exhilarating and exciting and novel that people went to go see it in droves. And it's still making a social point.

I would like to either pick up the mantle or stand next to my partner and hold the torch as we, you know, run into the Olympic arena of this society and discourse. Because aren't we losing, Kelly, discourse? It's black or it's white, and that's not the way the world works. We live in a gray world, and I want to tell gray stories.

Melissa Gray edited this interview for broadcast, and Nicole Cohen edited it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

There's this great recurring sketch from the Comedy Central show "Key And Peele" where Jordan Peele plays President Obama and Keegan-Michael Key plays his alter ego, the guy who's actually allowed to say what Obama thinks. He's called the anger translator.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KEY AND PEELE")

JORDAN PEELE: (As Barack Obama) Governor Romney, in the recent debate I laid out the inconsistencies in your stated beliefs.

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: (As Luther) OK, governor - I'm going to tell you - Governor Romney, why are you smiling while you're getting your ass kicked? Are we debating or are you trying to sell me a Lexus?

MCEVERS: Key and Peele have both moved on to other things. For Keegan-Michael Key, one of those things is starring in a new Netflix show called "Friends From College." It's a dramedy (ph) with an ensemble cast. And when I talked to Key about the show and about his career, he started by telling me how "Friends From College" is about making mistakes even in your 40s, but not necessarily learning from them.

KEY: One of the mottos of our show is that you're never too old to screw up. And you're never too old to be childish. We're thinking more about the mistakes we're making, yet perhaps we don't have the tools to change the mistakes. That's the thing that's hard about being in your 40s. Now, when you're in your 20s, we're all just blissful idiots. And sometimes it's fun to just be an idiot and say, this is what the world is and this is how the world works. And we don't know anything. And then when you start to have a little more perspective on the world and you're looking at it, you kind of go, oh, gosh, what is wrong with me? Why don't I change? And there's a lot of that struggle happening.

MCEVERS: Let's listen to a little bit. In this scene, one of the friends in the friend group, Marianne, is thanking your character - his name's Ethan - for taking her rabbit Anastasia to the vet. But what she doesn't know is that you have accidently killed her rabbit and...

KEY: Yes.

MCEVERS: ...Replaced it with a look-alike rabbit. Let's just listen real quick.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE")

JAE SUH PARK: (As Marianne) She's acting really lethargic.

KEY: (As Ethan) The vet gave her Vicodin.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Bunny Vicodin.

KEY: (As Ethan) Yep. And he said that might make her drowsy.

PARK: (As Marianne) Oh, I wish they hadn't done that. I hate Big Pharma.

KEY: (As Ethan) Horrible.

PARK: (As Marianne) Thanks so much for taking care of her today.

KEY: (As Ethan) You're welcome.

PARK: (As Marianne) You're a really good guy, Ethan.

KEY: (As Ethan) No, no, no.

PARK: (As Marianne) You're the best.

KEY: (As Ethan) I am not the best. I am...

PARK: (As Marianne) You're the best.

KEY: (As Ethan) ...Literally the worst.

MCEVERS: You're like, I am literally...

KEY: Literally the worst. Yeah.

MCEVERS: ...The worst. Right. This is...

KEY: And I'm using the word literally correctly (laughter).

MCEVERS: Exactly. I'm literally the worst. So you're saying having these characters be so bad is a way to explore agency in your 40s, like, this idea that you can be bad but, like, you now have the tools to fix that. And so the question hanging over these characters of, like, are they going to get better, that that's what's driving this?

KEY: That's - yes. And I think that's part of what makes it exciting. There is a self-awareness. That's the twist of the show. And it's what makes it more delightfully excruciating.

MCEVERS: So your 40s have been very good for you. You said...

KEY: Professionally.

MCEVERS: Yeah, OK.

KEY: Professionally they've been good (laughter).

MCEVERS: Oh, OK. So now we're splitting it up.

KEY: Yeah.

MCEVERS: But let's talk about professionally. Obviously you did this hugely popular show, "Key And Peele." You did it for five seasons. You stopped, you know, when you wanted to. You were at the peak. You've been getting some interesting acting roles since then. And you said you never thought you would be doing this well. I mean, what was it? Like, what's the special sauce? Like, is it luck? Do you just have, like, a really good manager? Like, how has it all come about?

KEY: And now I give you the most unexciting answer of all time.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

KEY: It's all of those things.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

KEY: I just never - I'm from the Midwest. So I always assumed, well, I have to think badly of myself because that's being humble. And where I'm from, you get points for being humble and you get an extra special big house in heaven. That's the rule, right? Now, you have these dirty dreams in the back of your mind that you're not supposed to really obey. You're not allowed to have those dreams.

MCEVERS: Right.

KEY: But what if there was the first black James Bond and it was me? You're going to hell. You're never allowed to dream that big.

MCEVERS: Just way too proud.

KEY: So I was completely prepared to be poor - very happy and fulfilled artistically, but poor. And that's fine 'cause it's what I deserve. Kelly, if I'm anything, I'm a good Catholic. It's not just Catholicism. It's America. We still live with these puritanical underpinnings that you're supposed to stay in your lane.

MCEVERS: Wow.

KEY: And I really believe there are millions of people in this country going, I can't do that. Who do I think I am?

MCEVERS: So you're, like, the worst - you'd, like, be the worst self-help book ever. It'd be like, don't...

KEY: I have three self-help books. They're called "Stay In The Lane"...

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

KEY: "Check The Speedometer" and "You Better Use Your Turn Signal." Those are my three books. The funny thing is all the information on the inside exactly is the same all three books.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: Just don't.

KEY: There's no expanding from it. Just don't. And that's the fourth book. Thanks for the title, Kelly.

MCEVERS: Wow. So then you're saying, then, that the answer to my original question is, like, it's a lot of luck.

KEY: A lot of luck. Oh, yeah, I stumbled up into this because I was doing everything in my power to get in my way.

MCEVERS: It's funny 'cause there's this moment I heard about that you were talking to an acting teacher and telling this acting teacher how you always wanted to play Horatio in "Hamlet." Can you tell me that story?

KEY: Yeah, my styles teacher in graduate school. I said, I mean, Horatio's such a great guy. And I'd like to play that role. And it's very consistent. And he goes, well, that doesn't make any sense. You should play Hamlet. And I'm like, well, why would I want to play Hamlet? And he goes, you're sexy. You're funny. You're dynamic on stage. You should play Hamlet.

MCEVERS: And you're like, nope (laughter).

KEY: No. God, no. No, absolutely not. I don't want to be number one on the call sheet. And that has haunted me. And what's so funny - it's like now I don't have an excuse anymore because one of the hottest directors on and off Broadway has offered me the role of Horatio in "Hamlet." So now what can I do, Kelly?

MCEVERS: Right.

KEY: I'm screwed now. I painted myself in the corner. The only way to get out of the room is to play bigger roles.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Yeah, exactly. You got your dream and you're, like, mid-40s. There's only - you know, you can only keep stumbling up.

KEY: I can only - (laughter) exactly. Exactly.

MCEVERS: We should just say you're playing Horatio in the production of "Hamlet" at the Public Theater in New York alongside Oscar Isaac.

KEY: Yes.

MCEVERS: You, of course, you know, came up during the time of Obama. We're obviously in a very different moment right now...

KEY: Yes, yes, very much so.

MCEVERS: ...Culturally. Given that, what kinds of things do you want to be making going forward? Do you want to be making things that are responding to this moment and the way it's different?

KEY: I do. But I think they don't have to be about this actual moment because there's something else happening underneath. And I want to make movies and pieces of television and pieces of art that crack everyone's assumptions. It's just tell an effective story so that some militia member who lives in Idaho goes, I'd feel that way if that happened to my kid. Now, you have to tell a story that makes the Idaho guy penetrate the story and not the people in the story. Well, those are black people. Nothing that happens to them is going to happen to me in my life. My partner has done, I think, a wonderful job. You're going to make what ostensibly is a social horror movie. That's what Jordan made.

MCEVERS: "Get Out," Jordan Peele's "Get Out."

KEY: And so the film itself, "Get Out," is so exhilarating and exciting and novel that people went to go see it in droves. And it's still making a social point. I would like to either pick up the mantle or stand next to my partner and hold the torch as we, you know, run into the Olympic arena (laughter) of this society and discourse because aren't we losing, Kelly, discourse? It's black or it's white. And that's not the way the world works. We live in a gray world. And I want to tell gray stories.

MCEVERS: Yeah. Ooh, that's the name of the book.

KEY: Gray stories.

MCEVERS: Gray stories (laughter). Sounds...

KEY: I'm going to - and it's going to - you know what I'm going to do?

MCEVERS: That actually sounds terrible. Like, I would never buy a book called "Gray Stories."

KEY: But what if you went into Barnes and Noble, Kelly, and it said G-R-E-Y-parentheses-T-parentheses, grey(t) (ph) stories? I know, you still wouldn't buy that book.

MCEVERS: Keegan-Michael Key, thank you so much.

KEY: Thank you.

MCEVERS: "Friends From College" premieres on Netflix tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICANO BATMAN'S "RIGHT OFF THE BACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.