You know him perhaps best as one half of the comedy duo and TV series Key & Peele, but Keegan-Michael Key has struck out on his own as an acclaimed actor and voice talent. He’s been especially busy with the latter, lending his voice to two high-profile Disney releases: Toy Story 4 (where he and Jordan Peele teamed as the carnival prizes Ducky and Bunny) and now The Lion King, where he portrays Kamari, one of the two sinister/silly henchmen (along with comedian Eric Andre) of hyena leader Shenzi (Florence Kasumba).
The Lion King is, of course, the CG-created, photorealistic (not live-action) remake of the original 1994 traditionally animated Disney classic, in which young cub Simba (voiced by JD McCrary and Donald Glover), exiled after the death of his father, pride king Mufasa (James Earl Jones), at the hands of his malevolent uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), must decide whether he wants to return and claim his rightful place as the true ruler of the Pride Lands.
Key and Andre’s Kamari and Azizi are reinventions of the hyena characters from the original film, where they were named Banzai and Ed. While the creatures certainly still have a strong dose of humor in their characterizations, they’ve been revamped to fit the more naturalistic esthetic of this film and come across as much more of a threat to Simba, his family and the pride.
We spoke with Key about creating the new character, seeing the entire movie for the first time at its world premiere, working with director Jon Favreau and more, including his participation in the upcoming Netflix series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.
Den of Geek: Was last night the first time you saw the movie?
Keegan-Michael Key: Yes, it’s the first time I saw a single frame of the film. I shouldn’t say that, that’s not literally true. Of course during the process of making the film I saw unrendered images. I saw everything, it ran the whole gamut, anything from storyboards to unrendered movement footage. But seeing the whole thing cinematically on a screen, in its aspect ratio, really watching the film, first time, yeah.
What’s the experience like for you?
Well, I love it because then I feel like I’m more part of the audience and also, the movie happens in real time for me. Movies get stretched out when you’ve seen them before. That’ll be my experience in London. That’s when I’ll start spying on the audience and looking around and going, “Are they going to react to this like that?” So I got to have a very organic and pure cinematic experience last night with an audience which was really great.
Are you taken out of that when you see your character or hear your voice coming on?
For 23 years, my heart starts beating right before my first line. Because especially with voice over, you’re a little more divorced from the experience and again, depending on the filmmaker, in live action films sometimes you do your thing and they send you away to your chair. Sometimes directors are very effusive and they want you to come and look at the playback. In voiceover very often they sometimes will play it back for you: “Okay, this is what you sounded like. I want to stay in this world.” Favreau is very organic. In fact, he does a lot of takes with his eyes closed. He has a bottle of water in his hand and he walks around. He paces and his eyes are closed and then he’ll stop and he doesn’t really want you hearing it, he wants to just keep the flow moving and let him discern later what’s right dynamically.
So I feel like in this one I got nervous because I was so detached from it. I was like, “Oh God, I hope this works. Tonally, I hope we found the balance we were looking for,” and all that.
What are the creative satisfactions of doing voice work?
Now, the typical answer is, you get to chew the scenery. The typical answer is you get to go to 11. That’s the typical answer because I’m trying to match the over-the-top energy of a cartoon character. You know, eyes that are as big as his whole head, a super skinny body and really long arms that actually drag on the ground. How do you characterize that? You’ll never be asked to do that in real life unless it’s a huge makeup movie. I guess if you were doing a Guillermo Del Toro film you’d have to augment the way that you’re performing. So, that’s typically my answer. There’s almost more fun to be had.
With The Lion King, because of the intensity of the photorealism, I was actually asked to kind of pull myself open a little bit and just Keegan-ize it. Jon was like, “Just you. Just you and your rhythms, and your rhythms with Eric, that’s what I’m looking for. That’s all I’m looking for. I don’t need any English on the ball.” So, that was exhilarating in its own way because I’ve not approached voiceover like this.
So then all of a sudden it’s turning into a traditional acting exercise, and I think that’s culminated in Lion King where Eric and I were literally moving around in the space. We had two different sets of mics on us so we could move through an actual physical space, and Jon would sometimes look at us and sometimes not. So, it’s been really exciting for me. I’ve been watching this evolution in my voiceover work and it’s been fantastic.
You and Eric getting to interact is also unusual — most of the time you’re in the vocal booth alone.
Yeah, and I’m very blessed that I got to do it twice in a row. I got to do it with Jordan in Toy Story 4, and Eric with this and they were crossing over each other. I’d be doing sessions for both around the same time so, it really was actually helpful. I was going to say, I was getting my chops back, but I was actually building my chops for this particular type of technique.
How much were you guys encouraged to go off script, to improvise, and how much do you think actually made it in there?
I’d say about 40% of what was improvised made it in. Let’s say I did four sessions, I’d say two of those four sessions we were encouraged to…Jon’s very structured. As organic as he is he’s also very structured. He has a very phenomenal improv pedigree. He did something that I really enjoyed which was, “Okay, you guys know the scene. Here’s A, here’s B. I need this line, and I need this line. Do whatever you want in the middle. Just get me to B, and then I’ll see if I can use it. I’ll see if I can salvage a moment, or we can redo that moment.”
Very often, and this is something that I enjoy as an actor, we’d get, “Let’s go from the top and do it again.” He didn’t want to piecemeal things. Again, there was this organic fluidity that he seemed to be going for and I think that he achieved. I think that Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan are outstanding in this film (as Timon and Pumbaa). Again, there’s this sense of just this little bit of frayed edge here and there because you’re looking at pollen in the air, and real mist, and a dung from a rabbit. It’s nature, it has frayed edges. A little bit of overlap and a little bit of drift. It has all that texture in it and I just think it was really terrific.
Your character, the hyena Kamari, is sort of reinvented from the original, who’s named Banzai.
Yes. Very much so. In the original it’s Shenzi, Banzai and Ed. And I get it, and I’m saying this in the most positive way, I get the schmaltz of it, of what the original was trying to do. I think also, we were at a different place in how we thought about children then, and it’s pre-internet. So, we’re in a world where we’re going, “Oh, I got to soften this and do that.” So there is a definite reinvention.
We have a little more history with each other. I think you get more of a sense of us. It’s pretty elementary. Ed never said words. Ed was like a hyena on methamphetamine, you know what I mean? So, you kind of…you have two hyenas who are kind of being silly and one that’s on crack. There’s not a lot of time for interpersonal dynamics. So I think that was something Jon was definitely interested in reworking from the ground up.
What was your initial experience of The Lion King?
I think I was in graduate school when it came out. I was either in graduate school or graduating college when it came out. I was in the midst of all my classical studies. So what initially resonated with me are all the parallels to Hamlet, and you realize sometimes the simplest story is the most profound story. Now, something can be simple, that doesn’t make it general. I feel like lots of people take lots of things from this story. What comes to me the most is this sense of destiny, and are you going to answer the clarion call of destiny?
I think to myself, am I answering it in my life? Even now at 48 I’ll go, “Am I answering it in my life?” Am I going to be a Simba or am I going to be the purest, newest version of Timon and Pumbaa? You see, there was a call to action and everybody answered it, and that happens in movies all the time. It doesn’t happen in real life all the time. So, I think it’s almost essential for the human experience to have experiences like The Lion King that can at least nudge you to say, what about the possibility of you moving forward and coming into the best of yourself?
And he does come into the best of himself. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Reykjavik, Madrid, Lagos, Washington D.C. It’s a film about the human condition.
What are you excited about doing next?
I’m really excited about seeing how Dark Crystal turns out, I finished all the work there. I’m also…I think I’m allowed to talk about this. I’m really excited about this movie I’m doing that’s coming out I believe in October with Eddie Murphy and Wesley Snipes called Dolemite is my Name. It’s about Rudy Ray Moore, the black exploitation filmmaker from the ’70’s. Real excited about that.
I’m also the narrator for Green Eggs & Ham. There’s a dramatized version of Green Eggs & Ham that’s going to be on Netflix and I’m doing that. I’ve done like six months of Netflix projects. And The Prom, which is this new musical that Ryan Murphy is directing and co-writing with me, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Ariana Grande, Andrew Reynolds and James Cordon. It’s going to be amazing, I really am looking forward to it.
So in other words you’re taking it easy?
(Laughs) Taking it easy for the next year.