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'You're Never Too Old To Screw Up': Keegan-Michael Key On 'Friends From College'

In <em>Friends From College</em>, Keegan-Michael Key plays an author who has moved to New York with his wife, where they're both reunited with old college friends.
David Lee
In Friends From College, Keegan-Michael Key plays an author who has moved to New York with his wife, where they're both reunited with old college friends.

You might remember Keegan-Michael Key as the fast-talking, quick-moving comedian on the award-winning Comedy Central sketch show Key and Peele. The show aired for five seasons before Key and his former co-star, Jordan Peele, ended it (in its prime) to move on to other projects. But Key and Peele's characters transcended beyond the show. Key went viral after he appeared as Luther, President Obama's anger translator, at the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner, proving he had both comedic and acting chops.

Now Key is starring in the upcoming Netflix dramedy Friends From College. It's about a group of Harvard grads (played by Key, Cobie Smulders, Fred Savage and others) who reunite in New York City more than 20 years after they've graduated. Key tells NPR that the show is about continuing to make mistakes even in your 40s, but not necessarily learning from them. "One of the mottos of our show is, 'You're never too old to screw up, and you're never too old to be childish.' "

Key is self-deprecating and philosophical, and he has a tongue-in-cheek attitude about life. He says didn't expect to make it in the entertainment industry, and he attributes his current success to a lot of luck. "I stumbled up into this, because I was doing everything in my power to get in my way."

Interview Highlights

On the difference between making mistakes in your 40s versus in your 20s

[In our 40s,] we're thinking more about the mistakes we're making, yet perhaps we don't have the tools to change the mistakes. That's the thing that's hard about being in your 40s.

Now, when you're in your 20s, we're all just blissful idiots. Sometimes it's fun to just be an idiot and say, "This is what the world is, and this is how the world works." And we don't know anything. And then when you start to have a little more perspective on the world and you're looking at it, you kind of go, "Oh gosh, what is wrong with me? Why don't I change?"

On never believing he deserved success, and how that reflects a broader American tendency

I'm from the Midwest, so I always assumed: Well, I have to think badly of myself, because that's being humble. And where I'm from, you get points for being humble and you get an extra special big house in heaven. That's the rule, right? Now, you have these dirty dreams in the back of your mind: ... What if there was the first black James Bond, and it was me? You're going to hell. You're never allowed to dream that big.

So I was completely prepared to be poor, ... very happy and fulfilled artistically, but poor. And that's fine, because it's what I deserve. Kelly, if I'm anything, I'm a good Catholic. It's not just Catholicism, it's America: We still live with these puritanical underpinnings that you're supposed to stay in your lane. And I really believe there are millions of people in this country going, "I can't do that. Who do I think I am?"

On his dream of playing Horatio in Hamlet, and how it's finally happening

My styles [acting] teacher in graduate school, I said, "I mean, Horatio is such a great guy, and I'd like to play that role, and it's very consistent." And he goes, "That doesn't make any sense, you should play Hamlet." And I'm like, "Well, why would I want to play Hamlet?" And he's goes, "You're sexy, you're funny, you're dynamic on stage. You should play Hamlet." ... No. God no. Absolutely not. I don't want to be No. 1 on the call sheet!

And that has haunted me. And what's so funny, it's like now I don't have an excuse anymore because one of the hottest directors on and off Broadway has offered me the role of Horatio in Hamlet. So now what can I do? ... I painted myself into a corner. The only way to get out of the room is to play bigger roles.

On the kinds of stories he wants to tell, and the work of his former writing partner Jordan Peele

I want to make movies and pieces of television and pieces of art that crack everyone's assumptions. It's just: Tell an effective story so that some militia member who lives in Idaho goes, "I'd feel that way if that happened to my kid." ...

My partner [Jordan Peele] has done I think a wonderful job [with Get Out,] ... what ostensibly is a social-horror movie. That's what Jordan made. And so the film itself, Get Out, is so exhilarating and exciting and novel that people went to go see it in droves. And it's still making a social point.

I would like to either pick up the mantle or stand next to my partner and hold the torch as we, you know, run into the Olympic arena of this society and discourse. Because aren't we losing, Kelly, discourse? It's black or it's white, and that's not the way the world works. We live in a gray world, and I want to tell gray stories.

Melissa Gray edited this interview for broadcast, and Nicole Cohen edited it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
Anjuli Sastry (she/her) is a producer on It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders and a 2021 Nieman Journalism Foundation Visiting Fellow. During her Nieman fellowship in spring 2021, Sastry created, hosted and produced the audio and video series Where We Come From. The series tells the stories of immigrant communities of color through a personal and historical lens.
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