To infinity and… kaboom! Wait, no, that can’t be right. Unless… there’s no longer just one skyward-soaring, death-defying, catchphrase-spouting action figure in the Toy Story universe? Could it be true!?
As Duke Caboom, Canada’s greatest stuntman and an antique store’s most beloved daredevil, Keanu Reeves joins Toy Story 4 playing one of the newest and most narratively nuclear toys to cross paths with Woody and Buzz during their bucolic vacation. Be it by his radical mustache and spontaneous poses, the tragic backstory of his state-of-the-art Caboom Cycle, or the way Reeves himself yells “KABOOM!” every few minutes during this interview with EW, Duke Caboom arrives on the scene—then steals it, singularly making his Pixar presence known.
But as catchphrase-happy as Duke is, Reeves was intent on not treading on any of Buzz’s toes in bringing the ’70s-inspired figure to life.
“I wanted to make sure I didn’t do anything that would go into Tim Allen’s space as Buzz Lightyear,” Reeves, 54, tells EW between KABOOMs (and, on one occasion, a KAPOW!). “That was one thing I was really paying attention to when I was thinking about the character and how he would talk. So I made Duke a little more gravelly but still tried to give him energy and a big personality.… I just thought that Duke should love what he does. He’s the greatest stuntman in Canada! I wanted him to be constantly doing poses on the bike while he was talking, to have this great extroverted passion.”
In his first meeting up at Pixar’s headquarters in Emeryville, Calif., with director Josh Cooley, producer Jonas Rivera, screenwriter Stephany Folsom, and the rest of Toy Story 4’s creative team, Reeves was immediately animated about getting animated. The anecdote is already making the rounds: Reeves jumped onto the table in the middle of the studio to express his ideas about Duke’s Evel Knievel-inspired physicality, insisting the character be constantly in motion with a variety of ridiculous poses. Yet the lunch wasn’t just fun but formative, says Cooley: “Once Keanu came to the table, he was just asking all of these great questions about the character… and it made us realize that we weren’t digging deep enough for this character and there’s a real opportunity to have him support Woody’s story in a much bigger way.”
Cooley admits he didn’t fully anticipate the depth of what it meant to actually get Reeves—their dream Duke—for the role. (And Reeves’ casting, shockingly, had nothing to do with the fact that the actor is from Canada and has a motorcycle company.) In envisioning what he desired from Reeves’ performance, “it’s not so much [that I wanted Reeves to do] Bill & Ted,” says Cooley. “But I wanted to hear the honesty in the character and the truth come out and not just that we’re playing a crazy character. And so there’s a bit of an intensity to Duke, and I knew Keanu could do that, but I didn’t know if he could do the comedic side of it, and I was taught quickly that he can, because he was killing me. And I could tell in the room, he was just having a real fun time doing it, and that comes across in his performance.”
Reeves relished Duke’s outrageous personality, but he was even more intrigued by the tragic backstory that showed a pulse beneath the plastic. When Bo Peep (Annie Potts) introduces Woody (Tom Hanks) to Duke in an underground speakeasy in an antique shop, the daredevil openly pines for what he once lived and lost: His French-Canadian kid, Rajon. “Every kid has their toy, and Duke let his kid down when he couldn’t do what the commercial said he could,” explains Reeves. “So he’s a wounded person! He’s needing to have some, I don’t know, catharsis. Some feeling. I wanted him to have a real sensitivity and a soft heart.… I also saw him as a character that has a really wide dramatic bandwidth in the sense of being so big. Kaboom! Kapow! Let’s go! But who can also then share his wounds and get real quiet. You have a kid? I had a kid. I let him down! Rajon! So it was really a lot to play with on the playground.”
But when things get serious, Duke seriously delivers. “Duke becomes an important part of trying to save Woody and Bo’s mission,” Reeves says proudly. “They take his skills as a motorcycle daredevil and ask him to confront his fear of failure in order to help the greater good.” That’s what we call going out with a kaboom.