For nearly two weeks in September, the Toronto International Film Festival turns the semi-bustling but perfectly pleasant city of Toronto into “Hollywood North.” It’s not unusual for celebrities from all genres to just, say, pop into the local Tim Horton’s for a cup of delicious coffee, which causes just the commotion you’d think it would.
But Keegan-Michael Key’s presence, while carrying just as much weight of celebrity as any other, is much more calming. The 49-year-old actor and comedian is in town to promote his role in Netflix’s Dolemite Is My Name. Based in part on the story of Rudy Ray Moore — perfectly depicted by Eddie Murphy, who is earning rave reviews for his depiction of the creator of the Blaxploitation legend — Key assumes the role of Jerry Jones, a nerdy playwright with a Barack Obama-like inflection and a social justice commitment commissioned by Moore to solidify his ideas about Dolemite.
Key, however, said that this inflection was unintentional… sort of. “Having listened to Jerry talk, there’s an affectation that he had,” he said, exclusively, to BET.com. “It was very literate. He was trying to come across as a man of letters. So I was really going for a bit of a cross between Barack and Billy Dee Williams. Also, I was making a real effort to drop my vocal register a bit. You see, Jerry was a trained Shakespearean actor — and I’m a trained Shakespearean actor — and we kinda want people to know that.”
Key’s commitment to remaining “true to life” as far as Jerry Jones is concerned goes in direct contrast to what Jones’ surviving family had to say about the film. Gloria Gunn, who is Jones’ daughter, said that she was wary about her father’s depiction in the film, and has been trying to secure his legacy (he died in 2012) with little success.
Netflix’s response, on the other hand, makes clear that they consulted with many of the film’s original cast and crew — including Jones — obtained all rights and clearances, and remained true to the spirit of the original film.
However, based on the audience’s response to the film, Netflix seems to have pulled it off successfully: Key and Murphy are just two of an all-star comedy lineup that includes Titus Burruss (who plays Theodore Toney), Craig Robinson (Ben Taylor), Mike Epps (Jimmy Lynch) and Chris Rock (Daddy Fatts). Rapper T.I. makes a hilarious cameo as a disinterested movie executive, as does Snoop Dogg, who plays a snarky DJ. Legendary stage and television actor Ron Cephas-Jones — whose recent success as William Hill on This Is Us has introduced him to a whole new generation of fans — plays one of the most important roles in the film as the homeless man who first tells Moore the story of Dolemite. Even comedic bad girl Luenell delivers a tour de force performance as Moore’s aunt and one of the original patrons of the Dolemite film.
With all these comedians in the lineup, it’s no wonder that Wesley Snipes’ role as Dolemite’s hesitant director seems to fall flat in comparison. And Key acknowledges that he went onto a set and got a “tennis match” on his hands. “I felt like I was in good stead, and I felt like I had an opportunity to give as good as I was getting,” he said. “When there’s an improvisational spirit in a project, it becomes infectious. Even people who are not trained improvisors — or who don’t have a background in improvisation — will find that it’s like catching fire. Eddie Murphy is one of the greatest screen improvisors of all time — and what a great opportunity, in this film, to be jumping disciplines. I relished sitting in the middle of all of this. The spirit of Rudy was there, to be sure.”
But there’s another, more serious undertone to the Dolemite Is My Name film, one that doesn’t go unnoticed by Key and the other cast members. Put simply, the more things change, the more they stay the same — Black actors then, as they do now, have more difficulty getting cast in films (especially as top-billed leads) than their white counterparts; Black directors are often either shunned by Hollywood completely, put into a “niche” category, or side-swiped by their white counterparts, leaving Black stories to be told in an inauthentic voice. And while, certainly, things have gotten better in recent times, society still has a long way to go.
While Key’s former Key and Peele counterpart addressed these issues of race to great adeptness and with a lot less improvisational comedy — thus earning him an Oscar — Key not only seems to be content with his station in life, he supports Jordan Peele in his endeavors. “My partner made a $5 million movie that made almost $300 million, and its lead was an African-British man. So, the arguments against casting Black actors are crumbling. But when there’s a lot of money at stake, people have a tendency to say, ‘Well, we don’t want to experiment here.’ It’s intrinsic to the human experience, though, that we embrace specific bias and confirmation bias — I mean, hello! We have a Black superhero movie! Stan Lee was writing those characters for 60 years!”
Though Key is, certainly, enjoying his success in the comedic world — as he has for many years — he’s recently expressed a desire to branch out into other areas of the film industry. Key says that he’s not received resistance from casting directors. If anything, they seem more surprised that he was actually interested in diversifying his portfolio.
And that, then, answers the question of what’s next for Keegan-Michael Key. “In December, I’m shooting a movie with Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, and Ariana Grande will also be starring. It’s a Netflix project, and it’s a musical called Prom, which is a cinematic adaptation of the Broadway show of the same name,” he said. “It’s a leading man role, but it’s something where I get to do other things I really enjoy, like singing and dancing. Now is as good a time as ever to do this, and I’m very lucky to be able to grow as a person, and as an actor.”
Dolemite Is My Name premieres on October 25 on Netflix.
Photo Credit: Netflix