Mario movie: What's On in conversation with Keegan-Michael Key

On tight pants, Donkey Kong and who was the cast’s Mario Kart king (or queen)…

Squid Game, but the final challenge is Mario Kart. Which driver are you gonna pick? Sure you could go with someone embarrassingly obvious like the guy whose name is actually in the title of the game, or his brother. Pffft. I mean you could just go right ahead and select the Nissan Patrol-sized unit that is Bowser. And sure old wandering-tongued Yoshi’s quick off the blocks, but you know who is a bit of us? The original fun-guy of the Mushroom Kingdom… Toad. Yep, Toads, is our jam. And in the upcoming The Super Mario Bros. Movie (released across the KSA on April 20) — he plays a central role in the story, as a sort of consigliere character, aiding our questing protagonists on their hero’s journey.

He’s being brought to life by the legendary comedian, actor, writer and producer Keegan-Michael Key, a man with a singularly impressive voice acting CV. We’re talking The Lego Movie, The Lion King (reboot), the Hotel Transylvania franchise, Storks, The Angry Birds Movie, The Star, Wendell & Wild, Archer, Pinocchio, Chip ‘N’ Dale (Rescue Rangers, not exotic dancers) and enough remaining titles to ostensibly turn this article into an IMDB page. We got the opportunity to talk one-on-one with the man with the chameleon voice, and this is what he had to say…

What’s On: You’ve racked up quite the number of animated movie credits over the past few years. How does this one compare in terms of freedom to kind of play with it a little bit, to adlib or just having fun with the creative process?

Keegan-Michael Key: I had a wonderful time coming up with the voice with the director. We had a nice collaborative experience. And it’s fun when you can make a voice sound completely different than your own, because sometimes you’re just asked to kind of just interpret the lines in such a way that they’re funny or they come across exactly the way the director wants, but it’s just your voice. And in this particular case, that was not what we were doing at all, which was really great.

And I did get to ad-lib and improvise quite a bit. Not all of it makes it into the movie of course, but at least you give it the freedom to do it. Sometimes it just gets you into the mood. You know you’re not going to use it, but you want to make the director laugh or make the engineer laugh. Just have a nice kind of joyous experience. 1s And he was perfectly fine with letting me do that. I think it paid dividends in the end.

WO: Apologies, you’ve probably heard this question on repeat, but we have to know. Are you much of a gamer? Did you have much experience playing the Mario titles before this?

KMK: Well, my big game was back way back in the day, Donkey Kong. That was my big game. It was the original Mario game with Donkey Kong and Princess Peach standing up there next to him. And that’s really my big experience of playing the game. I have certainly played Super Mario Bros. through the years, but I was always obsessed with Donkey Kong. That was my big game.

WO: Absolute classic. Yeah. I just love how you can tackle these games as a child. Then when you have your own children, you kind of steal their controllers and have a go yourself.

KMK: Because these games are intergenerational. If you think about this world, this part of the Nintendo universe has been around for 40 years. That’s like two and a half generations of people. And like you’re saying, there are games that you’ve played that you’ve enjoyed and then also your five year old son is now enjoying.

WO: Now, traditionally, production houses like the one behind this movies will often tackle the two tiers of cinema. You’ve got the kind of stuff that’s in there for the kids and you’ve got the stuff, as we’re saying, intergenerational that’s there for the adults as well and tackling some big themes. It. Having watched the movie, there are definitely undercurrents morality that are being tackled by the movie. What, for you, do you think were some of the more important takeaways from the movie? 

KMK: I agree with you that there are some really wonderful themes. I think one of them is really just this basic theme of never giving up. It’s a characteristic that Mario has where he is willing to take on every task in the midst of this adventure that he’s on. He’s just willing to go up against the odds. And I think that that’s something that’s actually very inspiring about the movie.

But there is this sense of and there’s also this familial loyalty that he has to Luigi and doing everything he can to protect Luigi. I think that that’s going to resonate with people quite a bit as well. And there’s this sense of also just a sense of civic pride is another theme, I think, for my character, toad especially. He really loves the Mushroom Kingdom, and he will do anything to protect the Mushroom Kingdom as all the rest of the Toads are running the opposite direction and heading for the hills. He’s the one that’s going to go head on. This tiny, little adorable guy is more than happy to go out there and fight for his land.

But I do think that the big thing that really struck me is this characteristic of Mario never giving up. No matter what, no matter the odds, he’s always in there to fight. And if you knock him down, he gets up again. And if you knock him down, he gets up again. He has an indomitable spirit.

WO: So as we’ve already discussed, in terms of coming up with a voice for Toad, you are a man of many impressions. As I say, I’ve been binging Keegan and Peele and I just have to say, your British accent in that one sketch that you do with the actors – you nailed it. And I don’t say that lightly. I think there are a lot of British accents going around. Yours was spot on.

KMK: Thanks so much. I appreciate that. I work hard on that kind of stuff.

WO: But yeah, did you have an idea for Toad’s voice right from the outset? 

KMK: I did have an idea from the out said I was actually using a friend as inspiration. There was a friend who I was trying to use his vocal rhythms and his vocal, um. His vocal kind of tendencies. And I brought that into the director, and the director said, that’s good. I like that. He said, I also just want to make sure that we’re getting can you pitch it up a little bit?

As you can tell from watching the movie, I was like, oh, no, yeah, sure. [voice pitch heightens] I could pitch it up a little bit. And he’s like, could you do it a little bit more? And I go. [voice pitch heightens yet further] Yeah, sure. Yeah, I could give you even more. Can you go even more? And I’m like, [barely perceptible vocal range] okay, yeah, as far up as you can. And then finally I’m in the stratosphere, and we’re trying to figure out this nice kind of middle ground of where Toad’s voice would be. And then eventually it got to this weird place where I just had to imagine I was on helium all the time and make sure to come to the recording booth wearing tight pants so that I can maintain that sound.

WO: Afterwards, after the recording sessions, would you go out and it would just slip out occasionally? 

KMK: Yeah, it would slip out every now and again. Sometimes I was shooting in London and try to hail a cab. It’s like, hey, over here.

WO: Again, I’m sorry, it’s a lowest common denominator question, but did you ever and the crew ever play any Mario games together? Any Mario Kart sessions, rap party? 

KMK: Well, just recently we had a Mario Kart session with the other actors. I played with Seth Rogen and Chris Pratt and Charlie Day and Jack Black. And I got to tell you, Jack Black, man, he is a gamer. That guy is a gamer.

He was absolutely killing us. He was winning every time, and with quite a big amount of ease, by the way. But he does loves his gaming, and he’s very good at Mario Kart, and I am not, by the way. I enjoy it, but I’m not good at it. Just like, okay, so I’m just going to try to do better every time. So come in 12th place, and then maybe next time I’ll come in 11th place.

WO: Was he racing as Bowser? Were you racing as Toad or was it just kind of a free for all?

KMK: Yeah, I was racing his Toad because I figured I want to stay in character.

WO: Method right?

KMK: Yes, I’m very method [laughs]. I had to do it as Toad. And if anybody else wanted Toad, I took umbrage. Everybody was kind of racing as they were racing as their own characters. Other than Seth (Rogen), he kept switching it up a little bit.

WO: He comes across as someone that would do that, I think. Just try and put the cat amongst the pigeons. Thanks so much for answering our questions Keegan, it’s been an absolute honour.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie is released nationwide on April 20. You can book tickets here

Images: Provided