‘Keanu’ stars chat up kitty film — surrounded by cats
by Bill Zwecker
It was unclear exactly how many cats were running around free at the TreeHouse shelter on North Ashland Avenue the other day, but as far as Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele were concerned it was exactly the right number.
“It reminds me — to a certain degree — of what we had going on on the ‘Keanu’ set,” said Peele, talking about their new film (opening Friday).
Key nodded vigorously about that. “Whatever we didn’t know about cats, we sure learned a thing or two about them making this movie. Like today, we had lots of kittens around us on that set. Something we did learn was that certain cats have different dispositions and do different things,” said Key, as his partner on the long-running “Key & Peele” sketch comedy TV series chimed in.
“Yeah, there are running cats and there are sitting, chillin’-in-your-lap cats. And, there are jumping cats,” Peele said just as a black and white frisky feline leaped from one of the actors’ chairs to another.
“Another thing I learned real fast was the importance of these,” added Peele — holding out a kitty treat, just before a happy cat snarfed it down. “I came to realize these things could be helpful, but not always. … Before we shot ‘Keanu,’ I thought having a kitten in a scene would be like having another prop there.
“But no, that’s another actor — that’s another performer, who has his own agenda.”
Key agreed. “We very quickly learned that those cats were other actors who would be sucking up a lot of real estate around us — no matter what the scene entailed. … And, trust me those cats were chewing up the scenery — literally!”
Interestingly, as long as Key and Peele have been professional partners, Key had no idea Peele was quietly co-writing the script for “Keanu” (with their “Key & Peele” show writer Alex Rubens), until Peele asked him to come to a reading of the new script.
“Obviously, I clicked with it immediately and knew we just had to do it,” said Key. Their onscreen characters of Rell (Peele) and Clarence (Key) are “versions of ourselves, but times five,” he said with a laugh. “Seriously, they really are stripped-down versions of ourselves, without all the wacky makeup and costumes and fake teeth that we use on the TV show. … This film is a way for us to re-introduce ourself to our audience.”
In the film, Clarence and Rell are cousins who live in the city but are not exactly what you’d call savvy about the rougher edges of urban life. Rell is an artist whose beloved cat, Keanu, is his favorite model. When the kitty is kidnapped, the two straight-arrow cousins are forced to pretend to be vicious killers in order to infiltrate a tough street gang to recapture the cat.
Both the movie and the star cat share a name with a more seasoned movie star, one known for “The Matrix” and “John Wick.”
“It means ‘cool breeze’ in Hawaiian,” said Key, “But we also understand Keanu Reeves approves of the trailer, which his sister sent over to him. He reportedly said, ‘This looks good,’ ” said Key slipping into his own version of a Reeves impression. “So we’re happy about that,” said the actor.
Asked if they were concerned their film and it’s depiction of gang members might be criticized for stereotyping of urban life in America, both Key and Peele denied that was their intention.
“Far from it,” said Key. “Whatever messages audiences glean from this film, I hope they simply see it as a fish-out-of-water story. It’s really about two guys desperately trying to save something that they love — which happens to be this little cat.”
For Peele, “It’s a film about people having to go into a very different cultural situation — one they are not comfortable with — in order to make things happen for themselves. It could be about people of any race or ethnicity. This film is definitely not about race.”
For the film’s director, the actors chose Peter Atencio, who previously helmed some 50 episodes of “Key & Peele.” “We do have a shorthand between the three of us,” said Key. “When moments [on the film’s set] got very fluid and things seemed a bit crazy, us knowing each other was very helpful.”
Peele laughed as he noted, “Our TV show is so hard to direct. It’s like prepping a dozen short films every week — plus already thinking ahead to the show for the next week. I think directing ‘Keanu’ was kind of like a break for Peter — a little like a vacation from doing our [TV] show!”