Keegan-Michael Key is having an impressive 2019.
He's starred in two of the highest-grossing movies of the year with "The Lion King" (voicing the hyena Kamari) and "Toy Story 4" (playing Ducky opposite his "Key & Peele" partner, Jordan Peele, as Bunny), and now he's in the acclaimed Netflix movie "Dolemite Is My Name" (currently available on Netflix).
In "Dolemite Is My Name," Key plays screenwriter Jerry Jones, the serious artist opposite the outrageous Rudy Ray Moore, played by Eddie Murphy. The movie chronicles Moore's quest to get his alter ego stage presence onto the big screen with the 1975 movie, "Dolemite," which became a blaxploitation classic.
Business Insider chatted with Key about the responsibility he felt playing a real-life person, which scene was his favorite to shoot, and how advice from his wife (producer Elisa Key) helped him work with Eddie Murphy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jason Guerrasio: First, we have to address the year you've had so far: "Toy Story 4," "The Lion King," now "Dolemite Is My Name."
Keegan-Michael Key: Yeah, it's coming up roses this year.
Guerrasio: Are you a reflective person? Do you allow yourself a moment to think back on your successes?
Key: I try to be like that. I attempt to be like that. But I don't often get to do it. I have really not stopped to smell the roses this year yet. Those releases have happened and I've been doing press for them while working on other TV shows and movies, so it has been a real hectic year. Which I guess I should count as a blessing.
Guerrasio: No. Keep it going. But in regards to "Dolemite," it sounds like in your youth you would pop in the VHS and watch it with friends. What grabbed you about the movie back then?
Key: The audacity of it. I didn't know what was happening. I was 19 or 20 when I first saw "Dolemite" and at that time in movies it was the early 1990s. People were spending a lot of money on production design. So even the bad movies, the lighting was great and there were A-list actors, but maybe there was really bad writing. Or you would have an A-list actor who wasn't terribly good but made money at the box office.
But then you see something as bare bones as "Dolemite." It's one thing to make an independent film, it's another thing to make "Dolemite." We did not know what we were witnessing. It was the first example in my life of good bad. You know what good bad is?
Guerrasio: Oh, you are talking to a "Mystery Science Theater 3000" fan, so yes.
Key: Bingo. So that was my first time of dipping my toe into what good bad was. And that's not just good bad, it's good bad, sublime. And the reason is because everything Rudy Ray Moore did he did in earnest. And I think there's a charm to that. He was flying blind making that movie. So for him to have finished it, gotten the post production done, and released it is a miracle. I had never seen anything like that.
Guerrasio: After I saw "Dolemite Is My Name," it so happened that "Dolemite" was available on Amazon Prime. So I watched it and there's a whole new appreciation for it after seeing you guys tell the backstory.
Key: I feel people who have seen "Dolemite" in the past will now be able to have the experience that I had when I showed it to my wife, which was you hit play and then you spend the whole movie looking at the other person. [Laughs.] How are they going to react to this?
Guerrasio: How did they come to you to play Jerry Jones?
Key: I had a meeting with ["Dolemite Is My Name" director] Craig Brewer and originally I asked if there was any chance I could play Jimmy Lynch [played by Mike Epps]. But he really wanted me to play Jerry. He did what everyone should do, and that's to speak to an actor's ego. [Laughs.] He was like, "You're very educated and I thought because you were so damn smart this is your role." And I was like, "I'm yours." But it was a blessing because he's one of the few characters you can have some source material on. He is in "The Long Goodbye," he was in "Mission: Impossible" and "The Brady Bunch" episodes, and the "Dolemite" sequels.
Guerrasio: Is this the first time you have ever played a real-life person?
Key: This is the first time on camera. It was a thrill. I have played biographical people on stage.
Guerrasio: Is there pressure in taking that on? Did you want to talk to his family?
Key: I got to meet Jerry Jones' daughter and son-in-law and grandsons and they very much enjoyed the film. That just gave me a big sigh of relief that I had the opportunity to showcase their father in a positive light.
Guerrasio: And the way you play the role, you are the straight man to Eddie's outlandish Rudy Ray Moore. Did you two discuss how that would work?
Key: It was more of it working on the page. A lot of it was showing up on set and letting the dynamic that both of us had independently created play out. That was a lot of fun because you get to act across one of the great masters of comedy. By the third scene I did with Eddie, I thought, "Why don't I play against his energy?" Against Rudy's excitement. I just wanted to have Jerry be grounded and have him be as much the opposite of Rudy. It was a tip my wife gave me, actually. I was working on it with her and she said, "I know you love Eddie, but don't get swept up in his energy. Play opposite that."
Guerrasio: I'm sure you were a pro on set, but there had to have been a freak-out moment that you were working across from Eddie Murphy.
Key: Absolutely. There were two acting jobs happening simultaneously. One is acting in the film, the other is acting like it's no big deal. [Laughs.] But Eddie would get down to work and that makes you focus. You're like, "Oh, right, we're here to work." So the gushing element starts to dissipate. It was amazing to work with him because every time he's just trying to make it better and better. And I was like, I'm going to start doing that. And when he improvises it's not as often as you think.
Guerrasio: Oh, interesting.
Key: When he does it, he's doing it for a purpose. I've been on plenty of projects where you can screw around with the material if you want. But this was not like that. It was a clinic in getting the comedy on camera but also being very mindful of what you were doing.
Guerrasio: What was your favorite scene to shoot?
Key: The one where Eddie and I are together talking about the script and he's talking about kung-fu and I ask, "You know karate?" And he says no. And I'll admit that's the scene I worked on the hardest. To be in that room and really breathe into life what Jerry was trying to accomplish. [In Jerry Jones voice] "We are going to write this script, and it's going to be great, man. We're going to do the best thing to get the word out to the community." And here's this other individual with him who is just vomiting out ideas that don't make any sense. Rudy is thinking about nothing but entertainment and Jerry is the complete opposite. And it was just me and Eddie. That was my favorite scene, by far.
Guerrasio: So going back to this great year you've had: Does that change the mindset of your career goals? Does the game plan of what you are forging become more ambitious?
Key: They have changed in regards to momentum, but there are definite goals that our team have that we are trying to meet. So there is nothing different there. I just feel like we knew which direction we were going, now it just feels like there has been a little more greasing of the rails. Hitting those goals may come sooner than we expected.