Switching up the script: Keegan-Michael Key

By / Cover stories / Featured / October 1, 2018

The Second City alum reinvents himself — yet again — as a sci-fi movie star.

Keegan-Michael Key has been extra active lately. He spent the past year running, jumping, squatting and even dodging bullets. Turns out it was all in a day’s work, as the actor and onetime Chicagaoan filmed his new sci-fi/action movie, “The Predator,” now in theaters. “I insisted on doing as many of my own stunts as they let me,” says Key.

“The Predator,” Shane Black’s sequel to the 1987 original, is just one part of the rebirth the Detroit native has been feeling lately. Some of it is work related, as he recently made his Broadway debut in Steve Martin’s play “Meteor Shower,” and is now voicing the hyena Kamari in Jon Favreau’s upcoming Disney animated feature “The Lion King.” Other parts are personal; this past spring, Key married producer Elisa Pugliese, whom he lives with in Tribeca.

Looking at his career so far, it’s obvious that Key is up for new adventures, and the biggest one of his career just might have been at Second City in Chicago. As a cast member at the venue’s e.t.c. stage from 2001 to 2005, the actor quickly became a critical favorite after being recruited from the comedy institution’s Detroit mainstage.

“I was thrilled. It was everything I wanted,” remembers Key. He describes a “great sense of joy” at being lured to Chicago. But shortly after he arrived, a life-changing event happened. “Three-quarters of our new show was finished and ready to go into previews. Everything was smooth and the world was lovely. But I woke up on a Tuesday to find out a plane had run into the World Trade Center.”

Key, director Joshua Funk, and the rest of the cast (which also featured notable comedians Jack McBrayer and TJ Jagodowski) had to pivot — fast. “We were America’s temple of satire. Now everything was in disarray and we clearly had to go in another direction,” says Key. “I remember the producer emeritus at the time, Joyce Sloane, saying this moment was worse than any other, even the Vietnam War or Kennedy assassination, for launching a show. But that we would figure it out.”

And they did. After cancelling a few performances, and spending the first night cleaning the theater in what Key calls “grief behavior,” they were able to reset. What came out of it was the retooled show “Holy War, Batman!” that not only launched Key as the next big thing, but cemented Second City as the ultimate place to find the funny, even during extreme heartache.

“I remember getting on the stage having flop sweat and thinking people would throw beer bottles at us,” says Key. But the opposite happened: the laughter was “cathartic.” Especially during a scene in which Key, who is biracial, played a Pakistani cabdriver overcompensating his love for America on an awkward ride with two Caucasian passengers.

In “The Predator,” Key is part of a ragtag crew of ex-soldiers tasked with eliminating the alien. In his role, Key gets to blend action and drama with his signature comedy.

Kelly Leonard, then Second City’s executive vice president, recalls Key as “a bolt of lightning onstage.” He also remembers how the actor opened up so much in a time of fear. “He is so out there but makes himself available for everyone. It’s rare you find someone that technically proficient and also so overwhelmingly kind,” says Leonard.

After Second City, Key became a household name performing on “Mad TV” with Jordan Peele, with whom he later teamed up with for five seasons of Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele.” The show earned a total of 15 Emmy nominations and won the 2016 Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series.

Working as an ensemble and getting continual feedback from friends and directors has helped Key refine his craft. “I prefer the collaborative process,” he says. “You won’t catch me being a standup or one-man show. It’s not my forte. If you’re in a vacuum you have to have unique confidence. All hail those people; Jordan Peele is one of them — he can sit back in solitary activity.”

Still, Key continues to surprise, especially when showing his serious side. While receiving his master of fine arts in theater from Pennsylvania State University, he studied and performed all the classics, including Ibsen and Molière. “I now have this desire for a homecoming,” he says. “It’s interesting because I have these hybrid projects surfacing.” One is “The Predator,” in which Key plays a PTSD-suffering veteran tasked with pursuing alien invaders. Another is the Netflix series “Friends From College,” which just wrapped its second season and features Key as a respected but financially struggling writer.

In the summer of 2017, Key portrayed Horatio in Sam Gold’s production of “Hamlet” at the Public Theater in New York. A surprise perhaps to those familiar with his comedic chops, but Key knew that side of him had always been ready to make itself known. “I’m at an interesting place. I’m looking for projects that bridge dramatically dark and broad comedy,” he says. “And we’re moving the ship in that direction.”


Keegan’s Chicago

For Keegan-Michael Key, the years in which he lived here (2001 to 2005) felt like “another lifetime.” Yet the places he loved to hang out at are not only still standing — they’re local institutions.


Maggiano’s on Clark Street: A relaxed Italian spot with heaping plates of pasta and family-style sides.

516 N. Clark; Maggianos.com


Lou Malnati’s: It’s all about deep-dish pizza made extra cheesy — just the way Chicagoans like it.

Locations citywide; Loumalnatis.com


Touhy Park: Key used to walk his dog in this Rogers Park green space, located by his then-home near the Jarvis Red Line stop.

7348 N. Paulina; Chicagoparkdistrict.com


Grant Park: “It sounds touristy, but I love it,” says Key of the sprawling, fountain-studded park.

337 E. Randolph; Chicagoparkdistrict.com


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