Keegan-Michael Key has one of the most recognizable faces in comedy. In the years since Key & Peele, the seminal sketch series he co-created with Jordan Peele, went off the air, he's appeared in movies like Horrible Bosses 2, Keanu, Dolemite Is My Name and The Bubble — to say nothing of his work in the movie musical space, which includes the upcoming Wonka.
Key has also become one of the most unrecognizable voices of comedy. He and Peele lent their voices to Ducky and Bunny in the Oscar-winning Toy Story 4 and to the titular demons in Wendell & Wild; Key also voiced Murray the Mummy in Hotel Transylvania, Bjornson the Cheesemonger in Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers, and Kamari the hyena and Honest John in Disney's remakes of The Lion King and Pinocchio, respectively.
"What I usually do is try to get some sense of what the character looks like. Because the thing about animation that I find very interesting is that the character is more than human. The character is usually exaggerated, so you have to do something to meet the character. Sometimes the character has an enormous head, or really huge eyes, or there's something about them that's more than superhuman," Key says. "So, you want to give it your all to match the look and the image of the character."
His latest animated role might be his most ambitious yet, voicing the mushroom person Toad in The Super Mario Bros. Movie. "You get to go wild trying to find where you and the character become one, as opposed to just playing a human being," says the actor. "That, to me, is always a lot of fun, because you get to do more stuff."
Perhaps counterintuitively, the movies that have made the biggest impact on Key are of the more dramatic variety. Below, he shares with A.frame five of his favorite films.
Directed by: David Lean | Written by: Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson
I saw Lawrence of Arabia at the Fox Theatre in Downtown Detroit when I was 13. I remember seeing that movie with my parents, on an enormous screen in a theater that used to be a cinema house back in the '20s, '30s and '40s. So, to be able to see a big David Lean epic on 70mm — I'll never forget seeing the shot of Omar Sharif way off in the distance. You see this dot all the way in the back, and that's Omar Sharif on the camel.
I had never seen anything like it. It was probably the first time in my life I realized, 'This is why we go to a movie theater.' It was the first thing that made me understand why we went to movie theaters. At that point in time, we weren't watching a lot of movies at home like we do now, because we have these big screen TVs. But I remember thinking to myself, 'I don't know if I'd ever want to watch Lawrence of Arabia any other way than on a big screen.' That's one of my big influences for enjoying cinema, or enjoying movies, is that they're tailor-made for this enormous experience.
Directed by: Martin Brest | Written by: George Gallo
Midnight Run was influential to me because I didn't know you could do comedy that way. There was something so real about the storyline, and there are set pieces that kind of stop the movie to do a little fun thing, but the comedy seemed completely integrated in the movie. And then, seeing one of my favorite actors, Robert De Niro, doing something that was comedic and, as far as I'm concerned, his best comedic role ever. There's no trying in it. The situations that Jack Walsh finds himself in are just intrinsically funny. And Charles Grodin is sublime in it. It's so dry, so human, so real. That movie absolutely blew my mind. Just blew my mind.
Directed by: Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski
The original Matrix is influential, to me, on a philosophical level, but also influential on a filmmaking level. I can't speak for anybody else, but when I saw the bullet time shot — when Keanu leans over and he dodges the first five bullets — and also earlier in the film, when we go around Trinity when she's up in the air before she kicks that cop in the chest, those moments must have been similar to when people saw The Jazz Singer. I don't want to put too fine a point on it, but I'm like, 'I'm sorry, what just happened? I can't believe... What did I just...'
Because even if you're not particularly aware of Hong Kong cinema and wire work, you had never seen anything like this before. This was something that had moved a step beyond, and it propelled different genres of film forward. It propelled the action film forward, it propelled the sci-fi film forward, and it propelled Hong Kong cinema forward in a movie that wasn't even made in Hong Kong. That's a movie that I can watch over and over again and still not get all of the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of the movie. And I've seen it well over 10 times. And still, I have not been able to completely immerse myself in everything that happens in that movie from a philosophical standpoint.
Directed by: Hal Ashby | Written by: Jerzy Kosinski
Being There is the opposite experience of Midnight Run. I guess it can be thought of as a dramedy, but to see Peter Sellers in that light was different for me. A couple of the movies on this list are about an actor doing something that's so different than what you're used to seeing them do. Because when you see the broad physical comedy that was in the Pink Panther movies, you weren't expecting a performance from Peter Sellers as lovely and subtle and with as much depth as Being There.
Also, as an adaptation, it let me learn how a movie can honor a book and still be this cinematic experience at the same time. Again, it has a philosophical bend to it. And the last shot of that movie is unbelievable. Just absolutely unbelievable.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese | Written by: Paul Schrader
Taxi Driver is another De Niro film. I would've seen it around the same time that I saw Lawrence of Arabia, and there's something so private and real and the opposite of Lawrence of Arabia in Taxi Driver. I've always seen Taxi Driver as a war film. And one thing that people seldom talk about, which is very interesting to me, is that it's a film about a guy who's disenfranchised. It's implied that he fought in the Vietnam War, and the movie actually references and talks about PTSD. We don't talk about that a lot, but there's so many paints that are used on the palette to paint that movie. It's a movie about racism. It's a movie about redemption. It's a movie about coming home and readapting into society. It's a failed romance. It is so many things.
I still can't explain all of the things that make that movie special to me. I was young and I remember I thought, 'This is the first film I have ever seen in my life.' It was not a movie. It wasn't The Aristocats, or Pete's Dragon, or a Disney movie. It wasn't even Star Wars. There is nothing cartoony about it. There is nothing broad about it. What's so exceptional is you find yourself living this man's private moments, and I think that's why it affected me so much. I had never seen a movie like it before.
Reporting by Tony Maccio