CS Interview: Keegan-Michael Key on His Personal Connection to Lion King
Keegan-Michael Key chats exclusively with ComingSoon.net about putting a new twist on The Lion King hyenas with Eric Andre, adding to his animated character arsenal and a progress update on his next Jordan Peele collaboration Wendell and Wild.
The Lion King is a timeless film and to see it in this new medium is a completely different experience. Can you tell me about going in and creating the character of Kamari–was there anything from your experience of the original animated film, like a memory or a feeling, that you wanted to honor?
Keegan-Michael Key: The thing that inspired me from the original film was the scene where Simba is out by the water and he sees his reflection and Rafiki tries explaining to him that ‘he’s inside of you’– here’s Mufasa and you see Mufasa’s face in the clouds. It’s a very nice touch in this new version where it’s just the one moment where the crack of lighting outlines it for just a moment and then it goes away. In the original film given where I was in my life at the time, that was resonated with me the most was this sense of duty to his father. I had just lost my father at that time so it was very, very resonant for me.
Was seeing this recent version with your family impactful in a new way because you’re in it?
Keegan-Michael Key: I saw it with my wife, I cried a couple of times while seeing it. I cry in movies, I think of movies as being a source of catharsis for us. My wife leaned over to me and held my hand and she told me that she was proud of me and in that moment it made me feel so honored to be a part of this tradition. When I was young I felt like I lived in an era where nothing special was going to happen. Not in my era, there’s not going to be anything that’s gonna be traditions from my era.
This is a tradition.
This is an iconic piece of cinema that was created in my lifetime. To have the opportunity to have been involved with Toy Story 4 and The Lion King in the same year with those two teams of people and to be asked to be one of the people that’s going to help uphold an American Tradition? It’s mind-boggling.
The Hyenas in the animated version were played by comedy greats of that time and now we have you and Eric Andre taking over the darkly humorous duo of Kamari and Azizi. Did you get to record together and create backstories or was a lot improv’d in the recording sessions?
Keegan-Michael Key: The most off-the-cuff thing was us meeting and sitting with Jon Favreau. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of comedy and we’re both comedy nerds in that way. So picking comedy duos during sessions, literally, we would say things like ‘What do you want here? A little more Abbott and Costello? Stan and Ollie?” and he’d say, “I want a little Stan and Ollie here and Abbott and Costello here” to conjure up in our minds what the dynamic would be so that Eric and I would have the opportunity to exist in this comedy duo world. The most fun part of the sessions, the most dynamic part of the sessions was when Jon would say–“I need A and we are going to end with D” like he would direct action plot. “You can do whatever you want with B and C but I need A and I need D” and that was fun because it was a really great challenge. Sometimes he’d say “Get closer to Keegan, get more in his personal space–we recorded together–in a big black room. We were in a big black room and we would move around as if we were rehearsing a scene for a play. From that, we gleaned all the stuff that Jon wanted to use to illustrate the dynamic of Azizi and Kamari and in subsequent sessions, he’d pull what he wanted. It was as if Jon was watching us do an improvised sketch and then cataloging in his mind, the pieces that he wants, the moments that he wants.
That’s amazing! And you’ve worked with such amazing animation directors like Genndy Tartakovsky on the Hotel Transylvania films, Lord and Miller on LEGO–
Keegan-Michael Key: –And Nick Stoller on Storks, Josh Cooley who directed Toy Story 4 is a genius, Louis Leterrier on the Dark Crystal. It’s really fantastic, I’m very fortunate.
I love your enthusiasm for animation, all the choices you’ve made with roles in the genre and where you want to go creatively. I do want to ask about your upcoming stop-motion project with Henry Selick and Jordan Peele, Wendell and Wild, at what stage are y’all in with the film and when can we expect to see it hit screens. I’m very excited, I want to see it now.
Keegan Michael-Key: It looks like it will probably be early 2021 or late 2020. It’s a stop motion so it’s a different thing. We are still in the embryonic stages of that piece. Henry has been busy writing it. Jordan and I came in and did a separate session way-way early. Similar to working in the room with Eric, only just against static at recording booths, sitting looking across at Jordan and it’s lots of ideas flowing, cutting each other off to keep that organic feeling. That usually ends up on the cutting room floor as you find the voices and you want a little refinement–some rhythm. We spent a good deal of time with an initial scene that Henry wrote discovering the characters and the framework of the scene. And then he uses that as inspiration to keep writing.
It’s stuff like that, that really attracts me to voice-over–that people are moving in this direction of discovery and not being as precise. Let’s thank Disney for that, let’s thank Robin Williams. We’ve heard gorgeous sonorous voices through the years that know how to do syntax. One of the great voices is, of course, Mark Hamil, there’s a new generation thanks to Williams that allows us to be as organic as we want.
Can you share if there’s any way your approach changes depending on the medium that you’re working in?
Keegan-Michael Key: I felt it was very important to Jon to show us as close as he could what this photorealism was going to look like. For me the approach is, I look at a character like ‘this character has stubby little legs, and his eyes take up half of his body. How do I meet that? How do I get there? Oh, I am allowed to go over the top to get there and the director will pull me back. I try different voices in the middle of a take–does it surprise the director and knock them or does it surprise and please? Should we change the voice of the character altogether? But with this, it was really opening myself up and being as vulnerable as I could be and bringing as much Keegan to the character. Jon was really encouraging me to put less English on the ball. If you see Toy Story 4, you can’t tell I’m Ducky–nobody knows that’s me.
Ducky and Bunny were terrifying!
Keegan-Michael Key: –They had some aggression problems! Whereas here, it’s stripping everything away and putting the stamp of who Keegan is. Just me and Eric interacting with each other is what Jon wanted. It was a lovely experience because I am not used to doing that.
Get your tickets to The Lion King by clicking here!