If you want to know where Keegan-Michael Key is headed with his career, just look at what he’s doing with his style. “I’ve been trying to subtle-ize,” says the actor, 48, of his wardrobe, “to add some subtlety and maybe even a little bit of inscrutability.” The same is true professionally, with Key pulling back on the outrageous characters he’s played in more than a decade of television sketch comedy on MADtv and Key & Peele and the comic roles he’s had since, in which, he says, “I’m usually the crazy person.”
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Case in point: He’s in the midst of filming Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of the Broadway musical The Prom, in which he plays a grounded, compassionate high-school principal—who, hello, also happens to be Meryl Streep’s love interest. “I haven’t really gotten my head around that,” Key says. “That means you get to be a wide receiver for Tom Brady! You get to prove theorems with Albert Einstein!” And in January, he’ll take on his most vulnerable role yet: playing himself. He’ll host the celebrity reboot of the game show Brain Games on National Geographic, as well as another hosting job he’s not yet at liberty to share. “I’m trying to be, metaphorically, a little more naked, and the hosting gigs are part of the evolution, because it’s just me talking,” he says. “Just Keegan.”
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That Keegan is a city guy who lives in Tribeca, in New York City, with his wife, Elle, a director and producer, and prefers room service to roughing it. He’s a classically trained dramatic actor and a voracious reader, currently immersing himself in neuroplasticity, Formula One racing, and American history.
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His own history begins in Detroit, born to a white mother and a black father, then adopted by a black father and a white mother. Shy and “angst ridden” as a child, Key came out of his shell when he fell in with the theater kids in high school. After earning a master’s in fine arts, he planned to spend his career on the Shakespeare festival circuit. Instead, Key discovered comedy, stumbling onto the Second City improv group, then joining the cast of MADtv in 2004 for six seasons, then starring with Jordan Peele in their eponymous, Emmy-winning Comedy Central series, producing 298 oft-quoted cinematic sketches over five seasons. (Fans still shout to Key on the street, quoting his Mr. Garvey character—the increasingly agitated substitute teacher who mispronounces the kids’ names, calling Aaron “A-A-ron!” and Denise “Dee-nice.”)
The series provided a turning point for Key when he realized he kept falling back on his go-to choice for comedy—and “my go-to choice is anger,” he says. Key began exploring alternate reactions and, yes, “subtle-izing” his work. He learned he could do less physically for the same result—with a turn of the head or just a raised eyebrow—and he’s been refining his choices ever since. “The strategy is to bet on yourself,” he says. “I did it with Key & Peele, so why shouldn’t I do it again?”
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