Jordan Peele, Half of 'Key & Peele,' Imagines Comedies Like Scary Movies
Jordan Peele calls me from the back of a car on the way to the airport because that's what you do when you're an actor living in Los Angeles -- especially if you've lived there for more than a decade and only got your driver's license four years ago.
Calling from the back of an Uber headed to the airport might be the most Hollywood thing ever, but Peele's earned the right to be an Important Hollywood Person -- with his comedy partner Keegan-Michael Key, he turned his Comedy Central sketch-comedy show Key & Peele into an award-winning phenomenon. And today, his car's racing to LAX to fly to New York City, where he'll promote Keanu, his and Key's first movie. Like Key & Peele, Keanu, about two friends who put on their best gangster faces to retrieve a stolen kitten, riffs on pop culture and racial identity in the name of absurdity.
The movie's a passion project for Peele (he wrote the script, too) -- everything he's learned from watching movies and living life, snowballed into one action comedy. He was happy to dig into Keanu and his career in our conversation:
You're originally from New York. What do you miss the most?
I lived there for 18 years. I get back there about four times a year. No matter how much you know New York and explore New York, there's always something more to find. There's always a new street to uncover. I just love that. I love the quiet moments. In New York, there are these little areas that aren't hustling and bustling all of the time.
What did you discover about New York that you only found because you left?
In Midtown, there are a couple places where you can get street meat, like halal food. There are a couple of those stands that I never ventured when I was living there. I always assumed they were...
Exactly. The hygiene rating would not be up to snuff. I've gone back there and stayed at hotels in Midtown, and for a late-night snack, there's nothing like a good, dirty bag of food.
Who is your favorite Keanu? I can name one.
There's Keanu Reeves, [although] "Keanu," of course, means "cool breeze" in Hawaiian. But, no, that was a part of it. When you have a name like Keanu or Sigourney or Seal or Cher or Oprah, that only belongs to one person. There's an iconic element to it. We were definitely looking for a face for this movie that was iconic in a way that was bigger than Key & Peele, bigger than the show we had built. It all just kind of worked. I remember it was all in a couple of moments, we figured out we needed something with some heart that would take us through and justify why these guys are doing this. It just came to me like a lightning bolt. A kitten named Keanu.
Have you met Keanu Reeves?
No, I have not met him. The closest I've come to him is through this movie. He's been responding to questions about it himself. I know he's seen the trailer and enjoyed it. So much so that we did get him involved. A lot of people don't realize, but we did get him involved in the movie in a way that I won't spoil. That's as close as I've been. Apparently, he's gone on the record saying, "Those guys are wacky."
New Twitter bio, right there.
That's a good quote. I'll take wacky.
What could you do in a movie that you couldn't do in a sketch-comedy show? Key & Peele featured taboo-breaking sketches with serious scope, so what did you need a movie to accomplish?
The reason we love movies is because going to a theater and watching a movie with a bunch of people, whether it's comedy or horror or action, is a collaborative experience. We come from theater. We did a lot of live comedy. We're used to being in a room where when there's a laugh, it's a laugh. It's contagious, and the whole audience gets it. It's just different laughing alone than it is laughing with a group of people. Watching the movie in a theater is just a special, special gift. I think it's a movie to be enjoyed in the theater. And it's a movie about movies.
You guys spent a few years developing and writing the movie. Do you prefer honing comedy over a longer time, or can the funny go stale on the Hollywood timeline?
I think the two-to-three-year process of coming up with an idea is probably pretty standard for a movie, actually. This was something where Alex Rubin, the co-writer, another Key & Peele writer, and a guy I've collaborated with on a couple of screenplays, we wanted to make our dream comedy, and we wanted to make a movie that could be a Key & Peele vehicle as well.
We were fortunate enough to sit on this for a couple of years, continue to develop it as Key & Peele was growing in popularity. Whereas often in the industry, you'll pitch a movie and maybe it'll get bought off the pitch, and then you'll write the script, and you'll get notes, and you'll kind of figure it out with a production company or studio's involvement. This one, we were fortunate enough to already have the screenplay done, and [the studio] fell in love with the script and was very insistent that we make the movie we wanted to make, which is not your average studio comedy. It really is something that makes us laugh first, and hopefully everyone else.
There's a chance.
I've got a good feeling.
Considering all the tinkering, what was one of the last gags you incorporated into the script?
There's a lot that happened on set, obviously, from improvisation, but I think one of the last twists was adding the element of [Key's character] Clarence being a team builder and ultimately applying that to us training the gang. That whole scene where we're going around the gang and it's like, "Alright, say your name and say two things about yourself" -- his team-building skills. That was a pretty late element that I added just [to be] funny, and for a little bit of clarity at how these guys' area of expertise helps them in this situation.
In that scene, your character boasts that he saw Blair Witch Project on opening night, before anyone knew it was real. Did that come from a real place?
Yeah, that's one of those things where it's like I feel like everybody did. It's kind of part of the campaign. They put that one out and told everyone it was real, and I feel like everybody thinks they're the only one that saw it that way. Paranormal Activity had a similar thing. But yes, I did. I did. I saw one of those very many early screenings.
Your movie-buff character's getting over a serious breakup. Did the real Jordan Peele also weep on his couch while surrounded by pop-culture ephemera at some point in his life?
We've all had our heart broken. I certainly have. I get pretty intense and pretty serious about what steps I'm going to take to rectify the wrongs. That's kind of your classic comedian's long-term MO. And I remember my teenage angsty days, I would watch Interview with the Vampire. I'd go to [New York City's] Ziegfeld Theater and I watched it five, six times. The Neil Jordan movie. I'm a huge horror buff. I remember that one kind of opened up a little bit of the forlorn gothic vampire kid in me.
People may be surprised to know you just made your own horror movie.
I did. I directed one. I'm editing it right now. I'm very happy with it. I love the writing and directing so much. I enjoy acting, but there's something about being able to write and direct and surround yourself with people who are dedicated to making your vision come together. People good enough to take your vision and make it even better than you saw it. It's just such a rewarding process. Very, very tough. Hardest thing I've ever had to do.
How close are scaring people and making them laugh?
They're very similar art forms. Horror and comedy are both based on timing. They're both based on taking an absurd notion and grounding it. I've done so much with comedy, and I've laughed so much in my career, that I'm at a place where finding a movie that really scares the shit out of me is a very special, sacred find. Both laughter and fear are compelling emotions, or reactions to emotions. When you experience them through art, it forces you to look inward, and it teaches you something about yourself and hopefully about society at large. They're very similar, but I'm really fascinated by the art of scaring people.
What was the last movie that scared the shit out of you?
The last one that really freaked me out was Under the Skin. Also The Babadook. That was one. Really, really, really classic. I loved it.
You can definitely see elements of The Babadook in Keanu.
Of course. [Like when] the Babadook shows up in Keanu.
There is a scary aspect of Keanu, the idea of expected identity. It's a racial conversation you often touched on in Key & Peele. Have you encountered thinly veiled "act blacker" notes during your time in Hollywood?
Yeah. You hear it many different coded ways. "OK, let's get the tough version. Let's get the urban version. Do it a little bit more street this time." That's a very, very, very common thing in the industry. The reason this movie is a satire on the industry is that it's a couple of characters that aren't street enter into the heightened world of gangland, guys like [Keegan and me], who are real people, who fear death and have a soft spot for pets. How movie fans would fare in these heightened worlds of the cinema genres.
Part of the satire is that there hasn't really been guys like us allowed to be the leads of action movies or action comedies or crime comedy. You just wouldn't have us in there, and we wouldn't be in those movies. With our first opportunity to make a movie, we wanted to make something iconic, where all of a sudden you have a couple guys who aren't "street" but have a very certain special set of skills, which is the ability to adapt in the environment and do the code-switching thing.
Have you ever been up for roles in straightforward action movies?
None of the specific ones we talk about, but there have been a couple of action-movie auditions. If an African-American is in an action movie, we're either the baddest ass on the team, The Rock or Ice Cube, or the guy who maintains Hans Gruber's computer system. There's no in-between. Maybe we could also be the wisecracking best friend. There's this feeling like, "OK, I'll never be an action star. I'll never be in an action movie."
I think that about Game of Thrones. Kids must dream of being in these fantasy shows and movies, but Hollywood pictures the genre as predominantly white.
That's right! There are many worlds of film like that. In anything medieval, it almost feels like, "Gosh. That's a made-up world. How can there be no black people? How can that be a rule?"
They locked the one black guy in Game of Thrones up in a safe.
The prison system rearing its ugly head.
Now I feel bad. If you're on a flight tonight, you're going to miss the Game of Thrones premiere.
[And] I'm a fan. I have to admit, I am a couple behind in last season. My lady and I, it's been hard to get ourselves in the same place at the same time and in the mood to go back there. We have a little bit of catching up to do, so I'm still a couple weeks away from the premiere.
You've inevitably been spoiled.
"Is Jon Snow alive?" is permanently fixed in my mind. The one that got away.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Matt Patches is Thrillist’s Entertainment editor. He previously wrote for Grantland, Esquire.com, Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Guardian. Find him on Twitter: @misterpatches.