Voicing ‘Lion King’ hyena no laughing matter for Key

The Lion King

BY RICK BENTLEY
TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

LOS ANGELES – Keegan-Michael Key is living the acting dream by being part of two major movies hitting theaters only weeks apart. 

He’s not only a part of the much-loved “Toy Story” franchise with the recently released “Toy Story 4,” but Key will be going head-to-head with himself in theaters when the live-action version of “The Lion King” is released.

In “Toy Story 4,” Key’s the voice of the not-so-lovable stuffed toy Ducky, while in “The Lion King” he speaks for the hyena Kamari. 

‘Watershed moment’ 

“It feels satisfying. You can ask any journeyman actor, someone who works their whole career, sometimes you are doing it for the love and sometimes you are just doing it for the money,” Key says. “But, you hit pinnacles and right now is a pinnacle moment for me. 

“It is a watershed moment for me in my career to have been asked to what is ostensibly an American tradition — two American traditions. When you can say two words like ‘Toy Story,’ ‘Lion King,’ and it evokes something in people, you are doing something special. I feel blessed.” 

On voice training

The two big voice work jobs are just the latest recording work for the Michigan native. His long list of credits with animated projects include “SuperMansion,” “American Dad!,” “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation,” “The Star” and “Bob’s Burgers.” 

The ability to handle voice work goes back to the training Key got while attending Pennsylvania State University. He credits his study of 17th-century restoration theater for his skill behind a microphone. 

“That is a very archaic style and a little baroque,” Key says. “In classical theater, especially when you are reading prose, there’s lots of syntax you have to try to manage in specific parentheticals.

“It’s being able to run into the parentheticals, hit the semicolon, back up, small pause to the period. That’s where the voice work training came from.” 

Well-known work 

Key’s well known for his voice work, but he has an equally impressive list of jobs where he’s performed sketch and improvisational comedy from “MADtv” to “Whose Live is it Anyway?” and “Key And Peele,” where he worked with his “Toy Story 4” recording buddy Jordan Peele, who is the voice of Bunny in the Pixar production. 

Key found over the 16 years he did nothing but improvisational and sketch comedy that style of working has a much more organic feel than he needed to be able to do voice work.

But the experience he gained by having to modulate his voice to play so many different characters was an element that helped him, especially in “Toy Story 4.”

Back with Peele 

Both “Toy Story” and “The Lion King” required Key to go in and out of recording studios for years.

He found the experiences of getting his lines recorded for the projects to be quite different. In “Toy Story 4,” he and Peele were in two recording booths that faced each other. Being close enough to see Peele’s eyes made the recording sessions feel more like the days when the pair were working together on their sketch-comedy show. 

“The Lion King” director Jon Favreau went for a different approach having Key and Eric Andre, who speaks for the hyena Azizi, work in a room that felt more like they were working on a stage production. 

‘Extremely organic’

The pair were fitted with microphones so they could move around the room while delivering their lines. 

“Jon sat at a small table with a bottle of water and he would just watch us,” Key says. “He would tell us to start from the beginning, invade his space, we are finding something here. It was extremely organic. 

“Sometimes he would not be getting the line read that he wanted and Jon would then act with us. If you have seen the move ‘Made,’ with him and Vincent Vaughn, it’s that dynamic. I’m him and Eric Andre is Vince Vaughn.” 

Working with Faverau 

Key got to show off his improvisational skills as in the early recording sessions. Faverau would allow the actors to come up with their own material to go with what was in the script. With each session, the process got more refined until the hyenas had their voices. 

The freedom Key felt when recording came from having a director like Favreau, who has worked on both sides of the camera. 

He says working with Favreau was getting the opportunity to work from “a fellow soldier” who knew what it was like to work in the acting trenches.

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