Two years after graduating from the antics of Key & Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, 46, enrolls in college — or rather, in Friends From College, a dark comedy about failing to grow up. The actor spoke to EW about joining the series, playing an unlikable character, and what his own friend group from college was like.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What appealed to you about playing such an unsympathetic character on Friends From College? Ethan’s cheating on his wife yet also trying to start a family with her — that’s not exactly fodder for a laugh-out-loud comedy.
KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: When I talk to people, some say, “I kind of understand where Ethan’s coming from,” and then other people say, “I hate Ethan!” It’s nice to have this polarized opinion, and at the end of the day, if you’re feeling a nice big juicy feeling [toward Ethan], I’ll take it. As many zany moments as there are in the series, there are moments that are very serious, very ponderous, and very dark. I’m trying to get back to the stuff I was trained in, which was drama and the classics, so I thought Friends From College would be a nice continuation [of my career] in that direction.
You’re part of a stacked cast of comedy heavyweights, including Fred Savage, Nat Faxon, and Cobie Smulders. How did you all bond to play these close pals?
Nick [Stoller, creator and executive producer] was very smart about this. We actually started in the party bus [for an episode in which the six go on a misguided road trip]. Misery loves company, so when you stick six people in a sweaty dark box with a fog machine for two straight days, something’s gonna happen. [Laughs] I think Nick put us in a horrible situation so we would immediately have a very profound shared experience. We all walked out of that bus changed people. [Laughs] We stepped out of that bus the best of friends.
Was your own friend group at the University of Detroit Mercy similar to this one?
We were similar in that there was a little bit of hanky-panky going on, but I think that’s par for the course for any theater department. [Laughs] My friend group, we were extremely obnoxious. You wouldn’t want to be at that bar when we showed up, mostly because we would overwhelm you with kindness and questions about the universe. You’d be like, “Get out of my face, I’m trying to get drunk, who are you? And stop using that fake English accent, what is wrong with you?!” We loved each other so much, but we were horribly, horribly obnoxious.
You’re now starring Off Broadway in Hamlet as Horatio, opposite Oscar Isaac. Why spend your summer doing a Shakespearean tragedy?
It’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do! [Laughs] My entire professional life has been a detour from my roots [in drama], and for over 20 years I’ve wanted to play Horatio. Even though it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, it’s my cup of tea. I’ll take the whole pot.
Friends From College debuts July 14 on Netflix.