Hollywood actor Keegan-Michael Key, who plays the Chief of Police in cahoots with the Chocolate Cartel in ‘Wonka,’ says it was a magical experience, the cumbersome costumes notwithstanding.
“There’s this everlasting, timeless, classic feel to just uttering the name “Willy Wonka.” It makes us feel there’s a fantastic sense of imagination that is going to be foisted upon us in a moment when you hear the name. That whatever conversation follows, it’s going to be rife with magic,” said Key.
This film, which is playing in UAE cinemas now, is a prequel to the story first written by Roald Dahl. It boasts a stellar cast, with standout performances from talents like Timothée Chalamet, Calah Lane, Olivia Colman, and Hugh Grant. Excerpts from an interview with Key:
What was your reaction when you first read this script?
I was overjoyed. I had been a big fan of (director) Paul King’s and the Paddington movies, and even his work way back when on British TV. And I just thought that his work was so touching and whimsical, heartfelt, fun and exciting. And to have the opportunity to be asked to do something like this was just the bee’s knees for me. I was ready and raring to go from moment one of reading the script. It was just so wonderful and the right kind of magical. It’s the right kind of fantastical for the world of Willy Wonka. I think that he really brought this breadth to the story that makes it epic, which makes it feel like a novel. And I think that Roald Dahl would’ve been proud.
What was Willy Wonka to you before this project?
Before this project, I’d have to say it’s the magical-ness of Willy Wonka. There’s a timeless quality to the Gene Wilder film, which I think is a lot of people’s introduction into Willy Wonka. It certainly was for me. I think I saw the movie or pieces of the movie before the book was read to me in school when I was a kid. And there’s this everlasting, timeless, classic feel to just uttering the name “Willy Wonka.” It makes us feel that there’s a fantastic sense of imagination that is going to be foisted upon us in a moment when you hear the name. That whatever conversation follows, it’s going to be rife with magic.
Tell us about your character. Who is this guy and what is he trying to accomplish?
My character is the Chief of Police, and he is just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill Chief of Police, as everybody suspects, until you see that he’s actually in cahoots with the Chocolate Cartel, which are the three men who actually run the town … or certainly run the business side of the town. And that means that nobody can open a chocolate shop anywhere near these three men without there being some kind of interference or some kind of hardship. And the person who provides that hardship is my character, the Chief of Police. But, what he wants ultimately is chocolate. He has an addiction to chocolate that he doesn’t want to admit in the beginning. And then, as time moves on, you realise more and more that this addiction has taken a hold of him and he’s willing to do almost anything to get more chocolate.
What were your first discussions with Paul King like?
Our first discussions were all extremely pleasant. Paul King is one of the more pleasant people I’ve ever encountered in my life. He’s just lovely. He’s a lovely, lovely man and a very creative type … but creative in a very practical way. I think that’s how he does his filmmaking, too. And I think we had a lot of discussions about dialect and accent, and what he wanted my character to sound like within the fabric of the project. And I had volunteered to do different accents. Like, I said I could do a British accent … And we opted for other things, but we had a lovely lengthy discussion about what he wanted me to sound like. And that was at the first meeting, I think, before the role was really offered to me, but even then, I was having a good time.
And you have a superlative scene partner with Timothée Chalamet. What was it like to work with him?
Giving, he’s such a giving partner. There’s something so wonderful about the way that he shares the screen with you. But he also engenders a certain excitement in you, because there’s an excitement in Timmy that comes out naturally that can’t be described, but it brings that out in you, too. And it was an absolute joy.
And when you started working with Paul, you mentioned the accent. How did the character further develop?
We discussed it for a bit and we talked about doing some sort of an American regionalism. And so, we talked about a couple of different things. One was doing a Boston accent, and we worked on that for a little bit and tested that out. And then we decided on doing more of a Brooklyn, New York accent, so that there’s this rough sound. At the end of the day, what Paul wanted him to sound like was a cop. And not a Bobby, not a British bobby, but like a good old meat-and-potatoes American cop. So, that’s what we finally honed in on, and that’s what we ended up doing.
Even though you’re always in a police uniform, you might have more costume changes than anyone in this film actually. How did collaborate you with costume designer Lindy Hemming, and work on your movement?
Well, first of all, working with Lindy was an absolute delight. And Lindy was always very cognizant of my comfort and what I would feel like when I was in the bigger suits … What it would feel like for the stuffing in my arms and my legs, getting the clothing on, which took about 20 minutes, which was amazing that we had such a great crew of costumers around me. I mean, some days, I’d announce, “I’ve got to go to the bathroom, guys.” And it was like a pit crew at a Formula One race. They would just attack me and remove the suit. It happened so fast, considering all of the moving parts that had to be assembled, put on and taken off. But Lindy was great. She was really, really helpful. And also, the movement — sometime people will say the phrase, “No acting required.” Trying to act like I was this big guy that was getting bigger wasn’t that difficult, given the fact that I was handed the gift of these costumes that were cumbersome in just the right amounts. I was forced to move through space in a new and different way than I typically would. And that was fantastic. It was so, so helpful.
Now, have you ever considered being paid in chocolate? Or if not, what would be a method of payment for you that would be as valuable?
A method of payment for me? I’ve never really contemplated being paid in chocolate before, but I have to be honest with you, if it were the right kind of chocolate, I might consider it. Chocolate’s pretty good. I do enjoy it very much. But one way you could pay me is if you could guarantee me that my favourite football team would win their games, that would be my payment.
Of all the chocolates in this film, Hover Choc, Silver Lining, Big Night Out, Broadway Show, and Mamma’s Chocolate, which one do you wish existed in real life?
I really love the Silver Linings. I think the Silver Lining is a chocolate that everybody in the world can use at some point in time. Somebody’s always at a place where they’re just like, “Well, that’s not going to work out,” or “I don’t feel good about this,” or “We can’t do this.” And that Silver Lining chocolate engenders hope in people. And I think that that would be wonderful. Because something that we all need a little dose of every now and again is hope.