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Keegan-Michael Key: Obama's anger translator wouldn't survive Trump's presidency

The "Key & Peele" star opens up about the right to protest and his new Netflix series "Friends from College."
Friends from College
Annie Parisse and Keegan-Michael Key star in "Friends from College." Photo by Barbara Nitke / Netflix

Life after graduation gets pretty messy for Keegan-Michael Key and the rest of the stars of Netflix's new comedy series "Friends from College."

The "Key & Peele" star plays a Harvard educated author named Ethan who's struggling to keep his literary career and marriage together after moving back to New York City with his wife Lisa, played by "How I Met Your Mother" actress Cobie Smulders. While the couple finds some comfort being surrounded by their old classmates again, things get complicated thanks to Ethan's lengthy affair with their mutual friend Sam (Annie Parisse).

"The affair is something that’s been existing in his life for such a long time that, I think Ethan and Sam don’t even realize they’re really having an affair until they move back to New York City," Key says. "All of a sudden, the proximity of all of them living around each other makes them realize what they’ve been doing. They’re trying so hard to stop, [but] they have this kind of animal magnetism to each other."

Check out what else the 46-year-old actor had to say about his new show, his thoughts on the "Julius Caesar" play controversy and how President Barack Obama's anger translator Luther is doing under the Donald Trump administration.

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Ethan and his pals greet each other in a hilariously strange way. Did you and your actual college friends have any weird rituals or games?

We would go places and then pretend to speak in a foreign language. We’d make up a foreign language and we would speak in a foreign language that sounded like, I guess Czechoslovakian, something kind of eastern European.

We would just try to see if we could make people at restaurants murmur about us. Like, “That guy’s black and that girl’s white. They’re speaking a different language. Are they from the Netherlands? Where are they from?” You wanted to see if you could make other people talk about you. That’s what theater nerds do when they go to college.

What advice would you give college kids today who’re preparing to become adults and enter the working world?

I’m still learning this lesson myself, but one thing I would say is any time you think you need to speak, think for five seconds before you speak. I guarantee you, 75 percent of the time you’ll realize you didn’t have to talk.

A very wise person once said to me, “When you speak, you’re already saying something you know. But when you listen, you actually have the opportunity to learn something new.” There’s two components. The other one is this: 90 percent of what you think is the most important thing, is not. It just isn’t. Nothing is as dangerous or as scary as our mind makes it out to be.

You filmed several scenes for "Friends from College" at Harvard University. What was it like being around all those Ivy League kids in Cambridge?

I think Cambridge is kind of a magical place. It’s one of those places I’ve always wanted to visit. When you want to visit Rome, or the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the London Bridge, going to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa – Cambridge is one of those places.

To be there in the fall and to be able to experience it, it feels more collegiate than any other college I’ve ever been to. You think of Harvard as this bucolic, collegiate place, but actually, Cambridge isn’t that far from Boston. It’s still city vibe, which I wasn’t expecting as much, which is pretty cool.

What compelled you to show support for Harvard’s cafeteria workers who were on strike during your visit?

I’m from Detroit, so I’m from a working class town with a lot of union and labor ties. There aren’t many things that are more American than the ability and the right to strike for a fair wage, for you to be compensated for the work that you do. It’s something that sits deep in my heart.

My whole life, I’ve been surrounded by United Auto workers, AFL-CIO and I’m a proud member of the Screen Actors Guild and Actors’ Equity, so as a person who gets my health care through my union and stuff like that, it’s an idea that can become quickly present in my mind. That’s why I thought it was the appropriate thing to do to support them.

You’re doing a production of “Hamlet” in New York. Fans probably shouldn’t expect any “Julius Caesar”/Donald Trump controversies, right?

It’s interesting the “Julius Caesar” [controversy]. Everyone has a right to protest. [But] I take a little bit of umbrage because I would like people to understand exactly what they’re protesting.

First of all, [this is] not the first time a president has been depicted as Julius Caesar. Second of all, Julius Caesar was very, very popular with the Roman people. It was the other people in power around him that assassinated him.  It wasn’t a wholesale decision to just assassinate him, and by the way, the lesson of the play is that the people who assassinated him were the greedy people who were opportunistic, and they are the ones who get punished at the end of the play.

The problem is, you jumped on stage and decided to protest, so you didn’t see the play. You didn’t actually see what the play was about. I encourage everybody – liberal, conservative, everybody – to feel free to protest, because we still get to do that in this country. But at least be informed. Keep your mouth shut, get all the facts and then talk. 

If your “Key & Peele” character Luther was still on the job as Obama’s anger translator, how mad would he be at the current administration?

Oh, Luther had a heart attack about four weeks ago. No, Luther is in critical condition in the hospital with tubes coming out of his body. Actually, Luther’s body was found on the street the other day in a bloody mess. His head was found completely exploded about seven blocks away. Luther would not have been able to handle this. Thank God the president’s retired.

 
 
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