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The Predator: Interview With Keegan-Michael Key

Shane Black may be famous for his dialogue, but The Predator will be giving its cast plenty of freedom - Keegan-Michael Key chief among them. A surprising emphasis on improvisation is just one of the insights we received from the film's cast while visiting the set. And it's strangely fitting, since the bulk of the cast are erratic to begin with. The band of broken and mentally damaged veterans will find a new purpose when faced with the movie's main monster, but not when first introduced.

If things go according to plan, audiences will be thoroughly surprised by Shane Black's vision for The Predator. But even the highly-trained alien isn't ready for this military unit. Allow Keegan-Michael Key to introduce you to... The Looneys.

RELATED: The Predator's New Characters & Cast Guide

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 Looneys?

Yes, this is The Looneys. I’m one of The Looneys. I’m actually the bigmouth of The Looneys. 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, Baxley, are Marines. So they’re buddy-buddy, but they’re also inexorably linked to eachother because of a horrible tragedy that took place during The First Gulf War that Coyle is responsible for - and Baxley and his crew were the recipients of this horror. Somehow through some events that are mentioned in the movie, you see they have a much deeper relationship, but it’s a militaristic, macho relationship. It's '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 eachother 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 a 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 scarred, 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 'em in the ass and got 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 Keegan-Michael Key ever imagine he would 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 sixteen when Predator came out... I could not have ever seen myself here. I would have been in a malaise of ecstasy for twenty-five 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 the jacket you’re wearing part of the costume?

Yes. Tish Monaghan came down to L.A. and she and I had a blast putting him together. 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 your 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, 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 misbehaved during our group therapy session. We’re all in group therapy together. It's 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.

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 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?

We have two pilots and a demolition guy. I think more than anything his weapon is just kind of a brash attitude. He has a very jarhead mentality, 'Okay, fuck it. So there are aliens [pretend gunfire].' 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.

How does he feel about the Predator walking in who's kind of the equivalent of a wild animal, who's 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, 'huh, look at this guy' attitude about a humanoid from another galaxy. 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 dreadlock-ed 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.

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 [Laughter]. There was no way I wasn’t doing it. Actually, it was the 'The. 'Predator'? Pshh. 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, 'C'mon man, it’s the '90s, blow him away and say somethin' 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 am a HUGE fan of this universe.

It's plot-driven and has a meta quality to it at the same time, yet he still 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 what 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, 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 tropey?

I feel 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 warzone, it’s a warzone 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 might have an adverse reaction to that. And PTSD will exacerbate the 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... 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 grounded-ness, 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. Those 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.

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

[Long 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.”

Yes. [laughs]

Is there a really long monologue?

He has a huge soliloquy in the middle of the movie... You’ve never heard these clicks before.

NEXT: Our Interview With The Predator Director Shane Black

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The Predator: Interview With Keegan-Michael Key