Keegan-Michael Key takes on The Predator

From CNET Magazine: The comedian, actor and hard-core kung fu fan tries out some new moves.
Mark Mann

If he plays it right, Keegan-Michael Key, a funnyman best known as half of the comedy duo Key & Peele, will convince us he's action hero material. 

In September, he joins an ensemble cast in a reimagining of Predator, the classic sci-fi series that kicked off with Arnold Schwarzenegger up against an alien warrior testing his hunting skills on Earth.

But don't expect Key to be your average action hero. He's made a name for himself with his unusual comedic takes: His turn as a substitute high school teacher with an inner-city spin on pronouncing student names is a YouTube classic. So when it came time to do the action hero thing, he wanted to play someone who's flawed, emotional and even afraid.

Think Arnold Schwarzenegger in the original Predator, which Key saw as a kid 30 years ago. "It's one of the only films where Schwarzenegger plays a character where he's not completely in control, where you see him terrified," Key says. "It's one of his better performances in his entire oeuvre, if you will, because he chose a vulnerability you're not used to seeing."

That explains why, after stints voicing Murray the mummy in the Hotel Transylvania sequels, he was keen on doing The Predator with director Shane Black. 

Where the original pitted an elite band of soldiers against a foe armed with an iconic three-point laser targeting system, Key plays an ex-Marine who's part of a team that's more of "a dirty half dozen of burned-out soldiers suffering from PTSD" meets the Three Stooges. That means lots of action but also laughs — something the original definitely didn't have. You can watch The Predator trailer here

I talked with Key during our cover shoot in Los Angeles about making the shift from comedian to action hero. Here are excerpts from our conversations.

Why did you want to be in The Predator?
Two big reasons. One is that I'm making a change in my career right now. I've always been fascinated by action movies, thrillers, dramas, martial arts, gunplay — I've been a big James Bond fan, and I loved kung fu movies as a kid. And so to have the opportunity to be in a film like that — and sci-fi, I love sci-fi — I couldn't pass it up.

The second reason, which really sealed the deal, was that the film is co-written and directed by Shane Black of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang fame. He wrote Lethal Weapon. He wrote The Last Boy Scout. I mean, he invented the buddy cop film as we know it today. There was just no way I didn't want to be involved with that genius.

Not to say I'm gonna let go of the comedy — just that I want to dip my toe in these other waters.

So you wanted to be an action hero even as a kid?
Yeah, actually I did. My mother was a big James Bond fan and we loved to go see James Bond movies. And my friends, the kids I grew up with — there was a lot at the end of our block that had lots of overgrown plants in it — and we would play war in there. Back when you could run around the streets with toy guns and pull the triggers. It was definitely a different time. So I always had that, I don't know if it was a fantasy. There was something about trying to look cool and shooting guns. And as I got older, that didn't leave.  A lot of that enthusiasm and excitement was encapsulated in cinema. 

What other movies did you enjoy?  
I would go to my friend Dave's house and he'd fall asleep and I'd stay up to watch the Kung Fu Masterpiece Double Feature at 1 o'clock at night. Sometimes he'd watch half a movie with me. Kung fu movies are pretty light on plot — not the most well-written cinema you've ever seen — and he would just fall asleep. And I would do the same thing at my house. I would sneak downstairs when my parents were sleeping and turn on the TV. I just loved kung fu movies so much!  

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Mark Mann

Why did you like them?
As a kid, they were accessible to me because the plotlines were very simple. 

I was captivated by them. I didn't understand how they knew to do that, what the movement was. I loved the mythology of people who could touch a person and paralyze them or have like a mobile flying guillotine that would go into the air and then — zap! — shock people. It was so fanciful and it's also beautiful, because there's a balletic quality to certain martial arts.

As I got older, I studied it more and more. And what's so funny is, I never studied martial arts but I tried to do the moves I saw in the movies. And then they made The Karate Kid, and my head exploded because it was Americans doing it. So there was something about the excitement of it and the danger of it, and it was beautiful and it was violent and scary. It just hit me in all the right places emotionally. 

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Mark Mann

Why didn't you study the martial arts then?
My father, may he rest in peace, made a tragic misjudgment. He thought that if he'd let me practice martial arts, I would go on the school yard and start beating kids up. [But] martial arts would have probably taught me discipline and taught me that discretion is the better part of valor. So I never got into it. I just lived vicariously through it.

Who's your favorite kung fu actor?
Bruce Lee was kind of the pioneer. I'm also a really big Jet Li fan. I think Jet Li is quite a solid actor. I'm also a huge Jackie Chan fan. There's a comedic vibe that he brings to all of his work. He always performs in a very unabashed way. He loved Buster Keaton. He loved Gene Kelly. So there's a sense of frivolity and dance that you see in his work. It's highly choreographed. 

What did you think of Predator the first time you saw it?
I saw Predator in the movie theater. I would have been 15 or 16. I felt like there was a darkness to it. The first Predator was one of my first what I would call Game of Thrones experiences, where anybody could die at any time.

The other thing that impressed me — and I didn't know this until someone mentioned it to me recently — was that it's one of the only films where Schwarzenegger plays a character where he's not completely in control, where you see him terrified. And I thought that was really lovely. It's one of his better performances in his entire oeuvre, if you will, because he chose a vulnerability you're not used to seeing. 

There was something that made me feel more adult about watching that movie, watching him be scared and vulnerable. Watching him be scared seems legitimate considering the foe he was fighting. It made sense to me. There's this enormous 7½-foot creature that's close that he can't see. And there's a scene in the original where the predator picks him up, and you go, "No! Schwarzenegger is not the strongest person here." That really resonated with me.

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Key is the voice of Murray the mummy in the two most recent Hotel Transylvania movies. 

Sony Pictures Animation

What can you tell us about the new movie?
There's been an aggressive gag order [laughs] so let me see what I can share that's vague yet still informative. Thomas Jane and I are ex-Marines and we are in a group with Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes and Alfie Allen. In the midst of this adventure, they adopt this scientist, Olivia Munn, who happens to be working on revolutionary tech and on finding alien life.

We become a kind of dirty half dozen of burned-out soldiers suffering from PTSD. Shane Black sent us a memo that was quite poetically written prior to shooting, and the gist of the memo was, "I want a bunch of knights — a bunch of knights who were rejects from the Round Table — knocking the rust off their armor and going back into battle." 

It's not about a bunch of heroes that are at the top of the game. It's about people who have been through life and are at the end of their careers. And for them to pick up their mantle again is part of the excitement of the film. What else can I share? There's quite a lot of humor. The beginning of the movie is like you're watching six stooges. And it was really a riot, I mean an absolute riot to do.

So this isn't a retelling of Predator so much as a reimagining?
Reimagining is a good word. What we're doing is a chapter of a larger story that we could call The Predator Universe. There are five movies in the Predator canon, and this will be the sixth. You could watch them in any order you want because they all exist in their own right. 

Some of the cast of The Predator. From left to right: Alfie Allen, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Augusto Aguilera, Boyd Holbrook and Trevante Rhodes. 

Fox Entertainment Group

You mentioned you'd like to be in a new movie where you're a spy. What can you say about that?
It's in its developmental stage, so there's almost nothing I can say about it. I just want it to have some real human feeling — like I want the bullets to be real. What I mean by that is I don't want it to be a Roger Moore Bond film, where you know 100 percent he's not going to get hurt, as opposed to a [Pierce] Brosnan or [Daniel] Craig Bond film, where you know he won't die, but he could.

I'm a big fan of the Jason Bourne series. There's a verisimilitude to those movies where you feel like the person could die at any time, or at least get injured. And when they get injured, the consequences are real. I want it to be very layered and have a lot of humanity to it. I'm working on it with a writer right now.

What was your favorite piece of tech when you were a kid?
I loved my watch. It was after my parents divorced, my dad remarried and he gave me a really great calculator watch. I had to be 13 or 14. I remember when I figured out how to set the alarm on the watch. The alarm played Mozart, which made me feel extremely adult.

So the alarm would go off and you'd hear this nice kind of crisp "don, don, don, don, don, don, don." [laughs] The buttons were not very functional. I have small fingers, but they weren't very finger-friendly and they would also get stuck. Like, you'd press a button and then it would kind of come up sideways. 

I'll always remember that watch because it seemed practical. I have a little calculator watch that CNET very graciously gave me as a gift. I got a little verklempt when I opened it.

What's your relationship with tech today?
If I'm writing, I will ask my assistant to give me a script on paper and I'll make the notes with a pen. My fiancee finally got me into using an Apple pen and a program called GoodReader on my iPad so I can feel like I'm writing on a piece of paper. I guess I'm just that age. I have a Kindle, but I like holding books. I'm very tactile.

You have a Tesla, though, and told me a funny story about letting it down.
I have a 2015 Model S70. It's like an iPad with wheels. I wanted to try to help the environment.

I was in a transitional period where I couldn't charge the Tesla as I usually do. And I took a 110 [volt], 14-gauge garden-variety extension cord and plugged it into someone's wall in their house and ran it down the window. I plugged it into another extension cord and then plugged it into the adapter for the Tesla. It sat overnight and the next day I'm driving on the street, and the display screen in the car just turned off. The speedometer turned off and my mirror went thfft. And I'm like, OK, all right — as we're not OK. And then we called Tesla and they said, "What happened, what did you do? What? You plugged into the… no, no. Never! That makes it mad. Don't ever do that again."

So I want to apologize publicly to my Tesla. My Tesla's name is Electric Blue. I'm sorry, Blue. I'm very sorry that I kicked you in the rear like that. It will never happen again, I promise.

You don't have a lot of smart home tech, but you do have an Alexa smart speaker. How's that working for you?
I just talked to her! It's funny, I'll do it more when I'm by myself. I don't know why that is. I guess sometimes if you're feeling lonely you might just say, "Well, there's another entity here with me."

What tech would you like to see invented for you?
I'm a big sports fan. I love spectator sports. And I love the theater — I love performing in it and I love going to it. What I would love to see is the next step in our VR experiences. You mentioned that in the Olympics people could wear VR and stream a skier and move while the skier is moving. I just want to be a spectator. Is there a way I can cue in to a person? They'd get paid, or they'd start a service — or maybe I'd start the service. If I was going to go to a hockey game, I'd want to sit right in front of the glass. But I just want to have the experience that the spectators have, so if they're beating on the glass going "Get them!" I want to feel that in the mask but it wouldn't feel so foreign that it would make me sick.

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Mark Mann

Or if I desperately wanted to go see a play, I'd love to be able to put on VR, have a subscription and then get to sit in the third row, orchestra, fifth seat. I could just watch the play from home. 

I think there are also other more humanitarian applications. I call it empathetics. I think it's a good way to literally put yourself in another person's shoes. This is what it's like to be a homeless mother of two in Milwaukee, or live in Syria.

What tech do you wish hadn't been invented?
Here's what I don't like: those automatic walkways in airports. There's no need for them. They shouldn't exist. They're sneakily treacherous. If it was a mile long it would be worth it. When I'm with my fiancee and she gets on that thing and I walk next to her, we get there at the same time. And when the ramp ends, you've gotta jump over the [end plate].

I'm starting a movement against automatic walkways. I think it's a really important thing and we should all get on board with this. I'm pro-walk. I'm anti-walkway. I mean, walk the extra yard. It's not gonna kill you. 

This story appears in the summer 2018 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.