Keegan-Michael Key Reveals His 'The Predator' Character's Biggest Weapon [Set Visit Interview]

If the thought of Keegan-Michael Key, one of the funniest men alive, spouting Shane Black dialogue appeals to you...well, make sure The Predator is on your radar.

We visited the Vancouver set of the latest film in the alien hunter series last year and Key was as fast and funny in-person as you'd hope. But even while he brought the laughs, the actor made it clear that his soldier character is no joke: he's going to give the Predator a challenge.

Note: This interview was conducted in a press conference format with other assembled journalists.

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So, what can you tell us about your character?

My character's name is Coyle. He's in a band of vets who have seen their fair share of horrific things and who all are suffering from some degree of PTSD.

These are "the Loonies"?

Yes, this is The Loonies. I'm one of The Loonies. I'm actually the bigmouth of The Loonies. Everyone deals with their trauma in a special way. Coyle's is that he's chock full of one-liners, which is a Shane Black specialty, right? He's kind of the maidenhead on the front of the crazy ship.

Most of the guys in the group are from the Army, but he and Thomas Jane's character, Baxly, are Marines, so they're buddy-buddy, but they're also inexorably linked to each other because of a horrible tragedy that took place during the first gulf war that Coyle is responsible for, and Baxly and his crew were the recipients of this horror.  Somehow, through some events that mentioned in the movie, you see they have a much deeper relationship, but it's a militaristic, macho relationship. "Fuck you, shut up. You piece of shit. You told that joke again? Go to hell. You never got laid," which is just them saying "I love you, I love you, I love you" to each other over and over again in their own sick, twisted, psychologically maladjusted way.

Fred Dekker, the writer, said he wanted to flip everything from the first movie. In the first movie there's this sense of this extremely capable, cocksure team and we're the exact opposite. We're people who doubt the veracity of our own existence and how we move through it. We're broken, we're scared, and we're thrust into this position. Shane said he found a lot of that very interesting. It's like someone took a sheet off a bunch of cowboys, blew the dust off and then smacked them in the ass and get them out in the action. There's an inner hero in all of them that comes forth by necessity.

I may be making an assumption based on your work in Key and Peele, but my guess is you're a big movie nerd...

Yes, yes.

So did little boy Keegan-Michael Key ever imagine he'd be in a Predator movie?

Oh, God. If you told child me that I'd grow up to be in a Predator movie, I would have fainted and had a contusion and wouldn't have been able to be an actor. No, I'm one of those kids...I'm right in the pocket. I was 16 when Predator came out...is that right?

It was 1987.

Yes, I was 16. I could not have ever seen myself here. I would have been in a malaise...a malaise of ecstasy for 25 years until I was in this movie. It really is one of the greatest moments of my career because it's a transitional moment for my career. I'm a dramatic actor, I'm a Shakespearean actor, and being able to come home in a way...there's twists and turns and this is one of those grand twists. The boat is turning around and part of it is this production.

Is this jacket you're wearing part of the costume?

Yes, Tish Monaghan came down to LA and she and I had a blast putting him together. So, I said I want a version of Travis Bickle's jacket from Taxi Driver. That's what I want Coyle to wear, and I want it to have a Great Santini feel to it, which is that it's not his jacket. It's his father's jacket, from the Vietnam War, and as you'll see, half the jacket has vet material from Desert Shield and half has vet material from Vietnam.

He also wears his father's Army ring even though he wasn't in the Army, he was in the Marine Corps. My favorite part is that he has his work shirt – he works at a cold storage plant – and she said, "Oh, we'll put your name tag under you dad's name tag!" So, the costume's kind of a living museum, a tapestry, pardon the pun, of him and his father's relationship.

They get in this Winnebago...that's how these guys get armed to the teeth, they go into this Winnebago –

As you do.

Yes, you walk into a Winnebago and there's always tons of weapons around. He also wears a Shemagh. In my mind he wears a Shemagh because he wasn't allowed to wear one in Desert Shield. So every piece of wardrobe is really informative to who he is. He lives this pedestrian life now as a guy who runs a forklift in cold storage and he's probably not allowed to spend a good deal of time around weapons. That's been very helpful. It depends on the project, but sometimes I'm an inside out guy. This is a very Olivier thing. This is a very outside in project.

Could you talk about your character's relationship with Boyd Holbrook's character in this movie and how you become embroiled in fighting a Predator?

We get involved in that he's thrust into our lives...that's the other thing that happens! The reason that we're all convened is because we're all on a bus being sent someplace because we had misbehaved during our group therapy session. We're all in group therapy together. [The reason why] is not in the movie, but I'll tell you now: For about five weeks we've been complaining about how shitty the coffee is. They've been in group therapy to help with their PTSD and sense of regret and everything. Every week somebody complains about the coffee. This week, Nettles complains about the coffee. Next week, Baxley complains about the coffee and then they have a mutiny. They get in a fight with some guys and they get shackled and put on a bus to be taken some place to be detained, and Boyd's character just happens to be thrown on the same bus and the rest is history. That's the flashpoint of the story. He becomes the ad hoc hero. He becomes the person we all kind of look to. Trevante [Rhodes]'s character is the leader of our broken group and now we've got a new leader who has just waltzed onto the bus of misfit toys, you know?

And this is the one you have a little bit of history with?

No. None of us in our group of any knowledge of Boyd prior to him walking onto the bus. We've all been living our lives, living in our little twisted reality together, and then he walks onto our bus with what's going to be the next story of our lives.

How quickly does Coyle accept the reality that aliens and Predators exist?

Begrudgingly soon. He hates it and doesn't want it to be real. The other thing is Baxley, his cohort, gets to gloat. Baxley is a UFO theorist, so he's like "Aliens, told ya." He kind of has to come to the realization relatively soon, because once they're threatening and coming at you, you just start shooting. Being a Marine, you don't have a choice. It's gotta be "get some" – there is no going home. He accepts it almost immediately.

In these types of "men on a mission" films, everybody usually has a unique skillset. What is Coyle's unique skill?

We have two pilots and a demolition guy...I think more than anything, [Coyle's] weapon is just kind of a brash attitude. He has a very jarhead mentality. "Okay, fuck it. So they're aliens. [Machine gun sound]." They're grunts. He and Baxley are infantrymen, whereas the other men in the group are special forces guys, SF guys. They're the kind of tobacco-chewing, blood-spitting, eat-bullets-for-breakfast guys.

Infantryman laden themselves with weapons, unlike the special forces guys. The special forces guys are like "This is what I use. I can also kill you with a paperclip." There's an elegance about them. Coyle and Baxley are kind of like feral animals in a way, with a smartass attitude.

the predator cast

Then how does he feel about the Predator walking in who is kind of the equivalent...a wild animal who is also a soldier?

He's a very disengaged person. He tells jokes to get by. That's part of his pathos: that he tells joke to get through life. I say it quite a few times in the film...he has a very "look at this guy" attitude about a humanoid from another galaxy. (laughs) You know what I mean? You know people like that? They're never fully engaged because of some trauma. He's never fully engaged. He's always standing a little outside of himself so he doesn't have to deal with his own pain. So he's like "I guess we're doing this. I guess these seven foot Dreadlocked dudes are real."

He pretends like he takes everything with a grain of salt, but there are a couple of times in the film where the seams come loose a little bit. I'm very thankful to Shane for giving these guys a little bit of humanity. There's something deliciously two-dimensional about the characters in the original film and I think there's going to be something deliciously three-dimensional about these characters, which is difficult to do in an ensemble, but that's our endeavor.

Going back to Lethal Weapon, Shane Black's shown a great skill at dialogue. Given your history as an improvisor and comedian, I'm curious how much freedom you have versus how much you want to stick to the script.

We have a ton of freedom. It's been way more collaborative than I had anticipated. It's really been great. We have little conferences in our cast tent. Shane will say, "there's a texture still missing in this scene that I really want to highlight," and he'll have us talk. Shane will very often ask me, "If this was a sketch, what would you do here?" It's been extremely collaborative and fluid in the most creative way. The actors have been eating it up.

Was there an element in this script that sold you on it, or did you need to be sold at all?

Oh, no. I saw two words: The. Predator. There was no way I wasn't doing it. Actually, it was the "The." "Predator", pshh. (laughs) There are things that I'm certainly not allowed to share with you that made my eyes pop out of my head. I was already in, but as I read the script, I was like, "Oh, what!?! To the where?!? How did...Boy, he's never gonna get..." There was a lot of that as I was reading the script out loud, by myself.

How do you think this, as a Shane Black film, differentiates itself from other action movies?

There is something Shane possesses that I really enjoy. There's always a nice, sly meta quality. Like at the end of The Last Boy Scout, he's like, "Come on, man. It's the '90s. You blow him away and say something cool as shit." This picture contains a little bit of that as well as some great referential stuff – not just to the original movie, but to Predator 2 and every other movie in the franchise, including the Alien vs. Predator franchise. It pulls pieces from all of the movies. The way he references the movies is really clever, especially if you're a huge Predator fan, and I'm a huuuuuge fan of this universe.

It's plot-driven and it has a meta quality to it at the same time, yet still he has room for character development. He hits the trifecta. Sometimes I think in action movies you can go, "I understand the story, but I don't have any idea who he is, what he cares about, or who he's married to." I want that connection to a character so the stakes go through the roof. Our goal here is to make sure that if anybody perishes or is put in jeopardy, that you're really going to be invested in these people.

PTSD affecting former soldiers and Marines is a serious cliché, so how do you keep that human and not staid and tropey?

I feel that the cliché is often that we see the after the war kind of stuff. Typically it's a movie like, "now this guy with PTSD is going to get into a relationship" and that's what the movie's about, whereas these guys are pressed back into service, so it's like the broken Dirty Dozen. It's not just a war zone, it's a war zone with galactic warriors. That, I think, turns it on its head a little bit.

The other thing is that Shane is constantly talking about how he wants to find the right balance between snappy dialogue but also keeping it grounded, so we're just humans dealing with stuff. Like I said before, especially with my character, there are moments where the seams come loose. That happens. If you encounter an alien and you had to fight them and you didn't know what the hell was going on – you're seeing space armor! – you might have an adverse reaction to that and PTSD will exacerbate that situation.

The given circumstances of the movie is what keeps it from being tropey. Thomas Jane can tell you what's going on with his character in particular, but we're all a little off. It's not like the dream team with Christopher Lloyd and Michael Keaton. We're trying to keep it real. What does it really look like when you meet a Vietnam vet or someone has a little something to them where they're not all there. I think it's the subtlety, the human groundedness, that we're trying to play.

Can you talk a little bit about what happens when you throw a kid into the mix?

Well, you can't lose with this kid. This kid is the best actor in the movie. Unfortunately, I don't get a lot of scenes with Jake [Tremblay]. He's such a terrific kid and he's a consummate professional. He's way more professional than all of us – we're just goofing off all the time.

Often when there's children on a set...we experienced this with Keanu...when there are children and animals on a set, everyone gets really focused. These are the scenes that will get done quicker because everybody's focused. I also think it brings another level of heart to the project. Like what I said before about the jeopardy being genuine, having a kid always steps up that part of the game.

You said that your character in the film gets to enjoy three-dimensions. Does The Predator get the same treatment?

[pause] I'm just trying to think how I can answer the question. The answer is yes, but I cannot divulge more. I'm so sorry, but that's all I can say.

"Keegan-Michael Key Confirms Jacob Tremblay Turns Into The Predator."

[laughs]

Is there a really long monologue?

[laughs] He has a huge soliloquy in the middle of the movie. You've never heard these clicks before.

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The Predator hits theaters on September 14, 2018.