Despite possessing some of most acclaimed and beloved comedic chops in modern pop culture, stepping into the role of Murray The Mummy in Hotel Transylvania 2 was a bit of a struggle for Keegan Michael Key.
Of course, the star of “Mad TV” and “Key & Peele” was always going to be able to bring the funny. But he had to make sure that he mirrored the work of his predecessor CeeLo Green, as well as honoring director Genndy Tartakovsky’s vision, too.
But as a veteran vocal performer on animated films, next year’s “The Lion King” marks his seventh such effort, Key was easily able to overcome this hurdle. I recently had the chance to sit down with Keegan Michael Key, who talked me through reprising the role for “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” and why he keeps on returning to the genre.
This is your seventh animated voice role, what is the appeal?
The big appeal of doing them is that you are allowed to be more broad. Part of it is you don’t censor yourself. Because really there is no-one watching you. Usually there is only 6 or 7 people in the room, there are no cameras, and you can really go for it. The reason you are encouraged to really go for it, and to go more broad so to speak, is because the cartoon is always going to look beyond human, bigger than human, bigger than life. The characteristics of the character on the page that has been drawn is going to seem more broad, and so you want to match the animation. It is the interesting thing about cartoons, right. Because in the 30s they started to make cartoons with The Three Stooges and they were getting hit in the head, falling off a cliff, getting blow up with dynamite and not dying, and you just couldn’t do that in a real movie. So there’s always going to be this extra push to make your voice match the character and the broadness of the world.
What’s the sort of direction that you get?
To be quite frank, seldom does anyone have to tell me to go bigger. If anything there are times when I would just go for it on a take. There are other times when I just try something and then just say to Genndy, ‘How was that?’ And he would say, ‘That was good for levels.’ Because we need to levels. Just on the off chance when he is editing a scene together he will go, ‘I am going to use take 6, where Keegan is a little subtler. That works for this moment.’ Part of that broadness I was talking about is peaks and valleys. You want to have peaks and valleys. The fun challenge to me is in this broad, crazy voice that I am doing, which is completely devoid of my real voice, I still have an opportunity to go, ‘Now how can I make this really silly voice, how can I imbue it with a lot of truth. A lot of subtly. And still come across as the character.’ And that for me is the fun as an actor. You get to have a fun time dialing everything in, and while there are peaks and valleys, you still make the character consistent.
For me, the "Hotel Transylvania" franchise really stands out because it does feel like the older animated films - like the Road Runner and Chuck Jones stuff.
I actually absolutely agree that they have this Chuck Jones, Walter Lantz, Tex Avery quality about them. There is a certain amount of schmaltz to the characters, and I mean that in a positive way. In certain parts of the film they are even doing vaudeville bits. And with Adam Sandler doing the voice of Drac it moves into that direction. I love the silent classics, I am a big fan of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin. Those people really appeal to me. And there’s a real visual fun, a lot of physical fun that happens in this movie and these movies in general. I think all cinema has been affected by YouTube in a way. And what I mean by that is that even in animated work nowadays you are looking for this verisimilitude that only YouTube videos offer us. Because there is a difference between me actually slipping on a banana peel. And me slipping on a banana peel while someone films me. So everything in American cinema is moving to this realistic verisimilitude. While I think at Sony, and with the Hotel Transylvania films in particular, they are staying in this old classic direction. Because they are going, ‘Well there are these old zany, wacky things that you can only do with animation. So let’s take advantage of that.’
What were your discussions with Genndy originally then, what were you looking to achieve with the film?
I think there were 2 things that we were always looking to achieve. For me, I am a big fan of clarity. I constantly ask, ‘Am I Keegan the actor having a little too much fun and showing off for the sake of myself? Or am I doing something that adds to the story they are trying to tell? The thematic story of the film they are trying to tell?’ I am trying to make sure that any accents or enhancements I provide are only helping the audience engage into the story more. Sometimes Genndy would tell me the opposite and allow me to invent songs and go off and then we sculpt the scene or joke as we go. But I am always trying to honor the text of the story. Even a story that is this broad and wonderful and fun and zany and colorful. But there is still this lovely message about equality and seeing people for who they are and understanding that people from the same walks of life might be going through something that you are going through. It is really terrific. I wanted lend my efforts and talents to that.
You make it sound very creatively fulfilling.
It is actually very creatively fulfilling. There are usually about 6 people there. There’s the engineer, doing the recording, a couple of producers, Genndy, who in this case is the writer and director, and then sometimes another writer will wander in. Which is something I welcome. Because if I have a line or an idea, everyone is always open to it. And they will let me try it. So if someone laughs in the room, you might have just struck gold. Then you add two more takes of it for the edit. It is always satisfying to see which parts are included that we collaborated on. It is a nice little tennis match, where you go, ‘I could do this.’ And then he goes, ‘Yeah, then you could add this.’ The whole room is a buzz with ideas.
Is it one of those weird feelings where you’re like, ‘That was creatively fulfilling, but I don’t feel like I have done a day’s work.’
It is funny you say that, because sometimes you really do feel like that. You kind of walk away going, ‘Was that too much fun?’ I’ve sometimes been scheduled for 4 hours and we have done it in 2 and a half, but that’s because it also helps when you are not reluctant. If you really just flow with the ideas. In the second film, what I really wanted to hone in on was the voice. I remember in the first few sessions of Hotel Transylvania 2 me and Genndy took as much time as we needed to get the voice right, to make it reminiscent enough to the voice used in the first movie, but still made sure it had its own flair. I think we found it. It took us a while. But it was time well spent. I feel like when I leave, especially with this last movie, which was a real pleasure, because I got caught in the groove. At first I was like, ‘Where are we again? What are we doing? Oh, here we are. I am in the pocket now.’ And Genndy is really good at describing exactly what is happening in that scene. Which is why it was really helpful for him to be the writer and the director. He knows exactly what he wants. It is nice for him to go, ‘OK, give me exactly what I want. Then let’s expand it a little bit and play around with it.’ It gives you a certain amount of autonomy in the process. In this process, I have never walked away thinking I should have done it a different way. Sometimes you can find the positive by going to the negative first. You go the furthest out regions of the solar system. And you go, ‘I know it is not that. Let’s move back and move back and move back - oh there it is.’ So it can be, ‘It wasn’t 1. And it wasn’t 6, 362. It was 72.’ Sometimes it can be like a boomerang effect. I go all the way out to the weirdest to come back to where you need me. Some days it takes longer. Sometimes it takes shorter. Sometimes it is a grand. But that variety is part of what makes it such exciting work. If it gets too particular or too specific I can start to overthink it.
“Hotel Transylvania 3” is released into cinemas on Friday.