‘Keanu': Talking Kittens and George Michael on the Set of Key and Peele’s First Film
by Haleigh Foutch
It’s a sweltering day in New Orleans, I’m standing across the street from a silver sedan crashed into the flourishing front yard of a suburban home, I’m shaking hands with hip hop legend Method Man, ie Clifford Smith, and he’s trying to tell me his name is Jesse. I know that it is not. Turns out giving fake names is kind of his thing. Welcome to the set of Keanu, it’s a good place to be.
The first feature film from Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the eponymous creators of the hugely popular sketch comedy series, Key and Peele, Keanu stars Key as Clarence and Peele as Rell, two straight-laced cousins living in Los Angeles. When Rell’s beloved kitten, Keanu, is catnapped, the white wine spritzer-drinking, seafoam green hoodie-wearing bourgeois pair have to impersonate ruthless killers in order to infiltrate a street gang and bring the beloved furball home. There’s just one problem — Keanu’s so damn cute that everybody wants him, and the fight for custody leads to an all-out gang war
For their feature film debut, the comedic duo re-teamed director Peter Atencio, who helmed all 53 episodes of Key and Peele, and screenwriter Alex Rubens (another Key and Peele veteran who co-wrote the script with Peele), and lined up an impressive supporting cast including Luis Guzman, Nia Long, Will Forte, Method Man, Tiffany Haddish, Rob Huebel, Darrell Britt-Gibson, and Straight Outta Compton standout Jason Mitchell.
The New Orleans neighborhood is doubling for South Pasadena, where one of the film’s climactic set pieces takes place. Time and time again, the silver car crashes into the lawn, a stuntman flying out the window. In the process, a number of cast and crew members come up to introduce themselves. I’ve been lucky enough to visit a lot of cool sets over the last few years, but Keanu‘s is one of the most impressive, not for splendor or scale — it’s just a domestic residence after all — but for the pervasive positivity and excitement that seems to extend to every cast and crew member. A quality that becomes even more evident when I join a pair of other journalists to chat with Atencio and the cast over lunch.
Peele describes Keanu as “a love letter to movies,” and that will manifest itself in an extra adorable way when Rell, who Peele describes as a movie buff, stages a series of movie-inspired photo shoots for a Keanu calendar. (A concept that was put to great use earlier this year when Warner Bros. released a series of Keanu posters inspired by the Academy Awards nominees). You can also expect an abundance of cinematic references throughout.
In fact, the film was almost called “New Jack Kitty” at one point. “I went to sleep one night and an angel came to my bed and said, “No, save the puns for the next movie’,” Peele said with a laugh. But the New Jack City influence will still be felt in the film, as well as about fifteen other “big, fun LA crime thriller type movies,” as Atencio described them, including True Romance, Heat, and Razing Arizona. The movie buff angle is also partially responsible for the decision to name the titular kitten Keanu. That, and it’s just funny. “Keanu is one of those names — it’s funny because it only belongs to one person. Any name like that, like Sigourney or fucking Joaquin, is automatically funny to me,” Peele explained. “He’s the leading man. He’s the Hollywood kitten. He’s the hero. He’s the one. So that’s why Keanu was chosen, ultimately.”
Of course, in the case of Keanu, “leading man” really means “a bunch of leading furbabies,” as there are many Keanus, each trained for a specific task. “Not only do we direct cats, we direct different cats to do different things,” Key explained. Indeed, there were cats trained to run from point A to point B, cats trained to scratch at ropes, and cats trained to cuddle all day, every day. “The cat who seems to have won out the most was the one who’s allowed to sit in Method Man’s arms and sleep,” said Key, “There’s a cat that’s been trained to sit in Method Man’s arms and cuddle.” (For the record, yes, I met one of the Keanu kittens, and yes, it was so cute I almost passed out.)
Indeed, they had to bring in a second set of kittens because the first litter was getting too big midway through production. “I made a lovely pair of boots out of the first set of cats,” joked Atencio, who moved his own cat out to New Orleans for the shoot. “I can’t hang out with cats all day and not have my cat when I go home. That would be weird.”
Watching Key, Peele and Atencio interact, it’s easy to see why they would want to parlay the success of their sketch series into a film career. They bounce off each other easily, finishing one another’s thoughts, and share an excitement for the task at hand. After the 300+ sketches they created for Key and Peele (and the ones the duo performed together on Mad TV), the team was ready for a new challenge.
“As rewarding as sketch is, it’s a grind,” said Key. “It’s very difficult to learn lines and be able to sit in a character the way you want to when you literally finish a sketch and have to flip into something new. To be able to explore the different facets of a singular character is something that’s attractive to both of us.” Peele added, “I think the next challenge for us is exciting, and that is — what can we make if we are stringing these scenes together and letting the story build, letting each scene be informed by what happened before it.”
“The sketches that always were the most fun were the ones that told a little story and it was always a little frustrating to finish it and be like, ‘Ah, I kind of wish we could live in that world for a little longer and keep hanging out with those characters.’ To be able to tell a full narrative is just a lot more fun,” said Atencio.
Lucky for audiences, that narrative revolves around a super snuggly kitten, and it’s backed by a soundtrack packed with George Michael jams. “Part of Clarence’s character is that he likes really, pardon the term, he likes really white music, and George Michael is an example of very white music that is also very awesome and very good,” Peele explained. “We wanted to give Clarence something that he had to justify for the gang, why he’s listening to this music, but also something that would make an awesome soundtrack for the movie Keanu.”
When writing the script, Peele and Rubens considered some other “really white music” including the dulcet tones of Paul Simon, but ultimately George Michael won out, and that might just be for the best. “Since we’ve been making this movie, I’ve been listening to nothing but George Michael and the most fucking hardcore strip club rap music and it’s the best combination of music,” said Atencio, ”It makes me feel sexy all the time.” Key added, “You forget, and then you’re like “George Michael is a badass. This song is fucking sweet!”
“When we got George Michael to say yes to the movie, it was an amazing moment because you realize in one moment you’ve just gone from a question mark to a soundtrack that you know everybody loves,” said Peele, and that universal appeal extends to most of what they’re trying to do with Keanu, which they enthusiastically agree is the perfect date movie. After all, between Key and Peele’s subversive, inimitable comedy, Atencio’s eye for making the absurd read as authentic, and the film’s undeniably endearing elements, what’s not to like? Or as Key succinctly summed it up, “That music and a kitten? They’re trying to singlehandedly turn it into a five quadrant movie, which doesn’t even exist!”