How Keegan-Michael Key Handles Nearly Four Hours of 'Hamlet' Off-Broadway

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Keegan-Michael Key

The comic of 'Key & Peele' fame tells THR about his Shakespearean training, onstage convulsing and special preparations involving his co-star, Oscar Isaac.

Keegan-Michael Key opens and closes The Public’s staging of Hamlet, first with a curtain speech that lightheartedly asks audience members to silence their phones and then with the final lines of the nearly four-hour production. Opposite Oscar Isaac, who plays the titular tormented Danish prince, “Key injects both aching tenderness and quiet nobility into Horatio's closing reflections,” reads The Hollywood Reporter’s review of the off-Broadway show, which runs through Sept. 3. “Those who roll up to see Key's celebrated comedy skills won't be disappointed — notably in an epic dumb-show death scene during which he doubles as one of the Players. But his ease with the verse and stirring sensitivity will be a revelation.”

The dramatic stage role might seem like a surprising choice for the comic of Key & Peele fame, also of the onscreen comedies Playing House and Friends From College. But Key goes Off Script to discuss his Shakespearean training, onstage convulsing and Isaac-centric preparations.

What makes someone who's known primarily for comedy want to do Shakespeare?

My background. I am a Shakespearean actor, and my entire career up to this point has pretty much been a 19-year detour into sketch comedy. I feel like Odysseus in the Odyssey. This has always been my dream — to do Shakespeare, to do the classics. I love [Eugene] O’Neill, Tennessee Williams; I'm a theater geek.

How has your lifestyle changed to manage this four-hour performance?

I eat Probar energy chews with yerba mate for caffeine. It's a shortcut — I could just have nutrition and exercise, but I take them every day and often find myself throwing a packet over the dressing room to Oscar. It’s no big deal; he only has 3,000 lines to say onstage. I’m trying to get more sleep, to no avail, and I make the effort, not always successfully, to be on vocal rest.

What’s your preshow ritual?

It’s funny — to get into the mood of the show, I ironically listen to a song called “The Death of Queen Jane,” which is on the soundtrack for Inside Llewyn Davis, so I am literally listening to Oscar sing when I am sitting two seats down from him. I am not getting enough Oscar. You can never get enough Oscar. He is just an extraordinary performer and a lovely human being. But it's a medieval song, so [it] takes me to where we are in the play.

What’s something special in your dressing room?

I change it from show to show, and sometimes it may take half a run to figure out what your totem for the show is. One of our castmembers is notorious for having an enormous fidget-spinner collection, so he bought everyone a fidget spinner. … And my new thing is a picture of Oscar Isaac’s son, his new baby boy wearing a black jumper that looks exactly like his costume and a little Yorick skull and a tiny little crown on his head. You want to jump out of the window, it is so cute.

One of your major moments sees you comically convulsing onstage — did you choreograph that?

Yeah, that one’s mine. What Sam [Gold, the director] said one day is, “I think we are going to have Keegan do the dumb show. What will happen is, this is going to take place, and they are going to sit down, and then you are going to get on the table and die.” And I’m like, “May I explore?” And he’s like, “You have carte blanche,” and I’m over here trying to add 10 minutes to the show! It’s anywhere between two minutes and three seconds to two minutes and 20 seconds — I’ve gotten it down to a science now. But every day or every few days, I try to keep my castmembers on their toes by adding something new or putting in an old hit, an old classic move. I don’t think there was ever a dumb show performed or executed that way in any production of Hamlet ever!

What do you do after a performance?

I’ve been eating after the show. Of course everyone likes eating dinner at 11 p.m., it's the New York way. … I am exhausted because I think about, “I screwed that word up, I should have done it better, I really like what you did tonight.” It's easy to do in Shakespeare because the language is sumptuous and thick and full and has several meanings, and you feel smarter just saying it.

Any favorite celebrity guests so far?

I don't have a favorite, but I’m so enamored by the people that come: Alan Cumming, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. They are theater heads, they are people that have done the classics. … They understand what it's like to be in the theater, the sense of camaraderie and focus and dedication.

Do you like to know when they’re in attendance?

I would rather be told later, but because of what I do at the beginning of the show, I’m screwed. I was like, ladies and gentleman, turn off your phone, Alan Cumming! Opening night was crazy — folks, welcome to opening night, James Bond! It's a little shocking, but it's good because I get to look at the audience. Every now and then, you’re doing a monologue and you look at the audience, and you say, that is the handsomest man I have ever seen in my life, is that a model? Is he famous? Who are these two people? Oh, that's my line!

What stage roles would you love to play?

I have always wanted to do — I did it in school — Love Labour’s Lost; a character named Boyet was really cool, and I think I would do a good take on him. I love Macbeth — a lot of people would play Macduff, but I would play Macbeth. And I would love to be in a production of almost anything Eugene O’Neill, like I would love to be in The Hairy Ape or Long Day’s Journey Into Night, another big old fat four-hour play. … I like a four-hour show. I like knowing that I’m going to see a play or musical, and it will be rotund because I like that, and for the price of a theater ticket, [the audience] is getting their money's worth.

But I am a classics guy. I wouldn't mind doing Ibsen, maybe being in a production of An Enemy of the People. I was talking to other folks about it, and James Franco was going to do it. It depends. The theater is a commitment, so any other project, you have to put aside or find a way to put the play off. … We’ll see what happens.

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