Keegan-Michael Key is at last doing the one thing he’d always set out to do: Shakespeare. This summer, Key takes on the role of Horatio in Sam Gold’s anticipated vision for Hamlet at the Public Theater, starring Oscar Isaac in the title role. He serves as the devoutly loyal confidant to Shakespeare’s troubled prince—an unexpected pivot for an actor who has built a career on sketch comedy. (Key can also currently be seen on Season 3 of USA's Playing House.)
Except that 19 years ago, Key—who is one half of the popular Comedy Central series Key & Peele—was a young grad student with a “laser-focused” ambition: to perform the classics. “My plan was to do Shakespeare festivals for the rest of my life and work in regional theatres,” says Key. “I was 100 percent sure.”
After graduation he went home to Detroit to start a theatre company and direct a film, where he was offered a spot at Detroit’s Second City improv theatre. After four years, Key moved to Chicago to perform on Second City’s mainstage, where he was scouted for both Saturday Night Live and MADtv. He chose the latter, which introduced him to longtime comedic partner Jordan Peele in 2004.
In 2012, Comedy Central picked up their critically-acclaimed sketch comedy series Key & Peele. The show ran for three seasons, earning two Primetime Emmy Awards, as well as a Peabody Award for its satirical riffs on racial tensions in America. Even the White House took notice of his performance as Luther, President Obama’s “anger translator,” inviting Key to appear in character alongside the President at the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
When Key & Peele wrapped in 2015, Key was beginning to crave more dramatic roles—a yearning that was brought on, in large part, by working on Jill Soloway’s 2013 film Afternoon Delight.
“All of a sudden, the old juices started bubbling up,” he says. “I thought, ‘This hasn’t been in my life enough and I miss it so much.’ It was like an avalanche of feelings and nostalgia.”
Key began to put feelers out for theatrical roles in New York and Los Angeles, and before long was introduced to Gold—who happened to be a fan of Key & Peele. The two clicked immediately, and Gold offered him Hamlet via a personal email.
Despite not having done classic theatre in nearly two decades, Key isn’t so much nervous as he is relishing the experience.
“The immediacy of improvisation is intoxicating, but there’s an intimacy that you get that’s very different when you’re doing drama,” he says. “It just took me 19 years to find my favorite pair of jeans.”
(The entire Public Theater run of Hamlet is sold out. Click here for information on future ticket availability.)