To infinity and… kaboom! Wait, no, that can’t be right. Unless… there’s no longer just one skyward-soaring, death-defying action figure spouting catchphrases in the Toy Story universe.
As Canada’s greatest stuntman, Duke Caboom, 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 upstate vacation. Be it by his radical mustache, his (once-)state-of-the-art Caboom Cycle, or the way Reeves yells “Kaboom!” every few minutes during this interview with EW, Duke will make his Pixar presence known June 21.
But as catchphrase-happy as Duke Caboom is, Reeves was intent on not treading on any action-figure 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 story is already making the rounds how Reeves jumped onto the table in the middle of the studio to express his ideas about Duke’s Evel Knievel-inspired physicality. But more than fun, the lunch was 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 they were going to get in actually scoring their dream Duke for the role. (Reeves’ casting, by the way, shockingly had nothing to do with the fact that both Reeves and Duke are motorcycle enthusiasts from Canada.) “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 Woody (Tom Hanks) and Bo (Annie Potts) meet Duke in a spooky antique shop, the daredevil openly pines for what he once lived and lost. “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, like, ‘You have a kid? I had a kid. I let him down!’ And he can get quiet. 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.