There is no longer “Key & Peele,” the razor-sharp Comedy Central sketch series that ended in September.
There are only Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the comic actors and writers who used the five seasons of that show to shine a satirical spotlight on racial stereotypes and injustice (not to mention the increasingly distinctive names of college football players).
And so the two men started pursuing their individual career paths.
A few months later, those paths have brought Key and Peele back together on their first movie, “Keanu,” which Warner Bros. will release on Friday.
In this comedy, they star as cousins in Los Angeles who take in an adorable kitten they name Keanu. (It can mean “cool breeze,” too, you know.) But, unaware that Keanu once belonged to a notorious drug lord, the straight-laced pair must navigate the city’s criminal underbelly to reclaim Keanu when he is stolen from them.
“Keanu,” which was written by Peele and Alex Rubens (a former “Key & Peele” writer) and directed by Peter Atencio, the “Key & Peele” director, preserves the goofy but socially conscious sensibility of that series. But it is also the comedy team’s first effort at telling a feature-length story, and an important moment to show that they, as well as a wider range of black actors, can carry motion pictures of their own.
Peele and Key came together in Los Angeles earlier this month to talk about “Keanu,” and, in these edited excerpts from a Skype interview, they discussed the changing dynamics of their collaboration, the challenges of making the movie and the superstar who participated in it, as well as one who remains just out of reach.
Q: You finished “Key & Peele” several months ago. What does it feel like now when you work together?
Key: It’s special when we get together now. Part of the juggling act is to make sure that people understand that we are a team, and at the same time, we are our own artists — but get tantalized, because we’re going to come back together.
Peele: It’s very exciting to see each other’s — I want to say side projects, now that is attachment — but to see each other’s other projects. We’re each other’s biggest cheerleaders.
Key: We text each other frequently.
Q: Where did the idea for “Keanu” come from?
Peele: It came from a lot of discussions that Keegan and I have had. We love a style of movie that we don’t see made very much anymore: action comedies that have heart and are, a certain amount, grounded.
Key: You’re laughing, but the bullets are real.
Peele: We love “Raising Arizona,” “True Romance,” “Midnight Run,” “Thelma & Louise.” Well, maybe that’s not a comedy. We love real-guy, ordinary incompetence in a heightened genre situation.
Q: Was it the same cat who played Keanu throughout the film?
Key: A bunch of cats. And different cats are trained differently: This cat has an aptitude for jumping or running. This cat has an aptitude for laying in your lap and purring. A couple of the cats were getting older, and they’d have to swap them out to keep them the same size. You know how it is in Hollywood. If you’re 14 weeks old, you’re out of the business.
Q: Though you’ve each played supporting roles in other people’s movies, were studios hesitant to make “Keanu” because you had no starring film credits?
Peele: You’ll hear a lot of Hollywood execs talk about: “You know, African-American-led movies don’t do well overseas. So you’re not going to see a lot of chances being taken.” There’s this excuse that people throw around. It helps perpetuate this notion that if a black person’s going to lead a movie, it has to be Will Smith or Denzel (Washington).
Key: It’s a specious argument to say, “Well, our numbers say this.” If the movie is of quality and has some kind of universal appeal, it should work in Thailand and Iceland and Nigeria and Israel.
Peele: It’s an industry that hasn’t taken the time to build stars of different types. I hope that this movie helps show that there is an incredible market for movies with people of color.
Q: There’s a running idea in “Keanu” about black men who don’t fit traditional stereotypes having to navigate a world of stereotypical characters. Is that drawn in any way from your real-life experiences?
Peele: Part of it is a commentary on the lack of representation in movies. Certainly, there’s an overwhelming amount of stereotypes in movies. We’ve placed ourselves in a more typical world of Hollywood stereotypes.
Key: African-American culture’s not a monolith. You could take 56 pictures, and there’s one picture where you make this face (contorts his features), and that’s the picture they pick.
“He loves to make that face!” No, dude, you didn’t look at the other 55 pictures. If we’re black nerds, we write from a point of view being black nerds. But we’re still African-American. In my life, it’s been frustrating when someone says, “You’re not black enough.” And I’m going: I’m black enough to not get that cab you also didn’t get. They didn’t pick me up either.
Q: What if you get criticized, that the drug dealers and gang members in the film are themselves cliches?
Peele: That’s kind of the point of the movie.
Key: You have to set up a stereotype to knock it down.
Peele: We wouldn’t have made it very far if we worried about how people would be offended.
Q: Have you decided what your next joint project will be?
Key: We haven’t talked about it yet. We’re just seeing what happens organically. We’re on this kind of Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder model right now, which is, go off and do your thing. ... We spend time together, so something will come up. We have discussed you directing me in a movie. Or writing and me producing, me being in it and him not.
Peele: What do you mean?
Key: Me starring in a big blockbuster action movie.
Peele: I never said I wouldn’t be in it.
Key: Maybe you play a small cameo in it. Like Cheech Marin as the bartender in “Desperado.”
Peele: We have some things to talk about, obviously.