“Friends From College” is very different from the work you did on “Key & Peele.” How would you describe it?
It’s a bunch of paradoxes. It’s like a heightened “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” yet more grounded. It’s zany and dark, but also heartfelt. It’s got everything smushed in it. It’s an ensemble, but I’m Rudolph. [Laughs.] I’ve got the best Donners and Blitzens and Comets in the world. And people keep asking me to be Rudolph.
Your character, Ethan, is married to one college friend and having an affair with another. Does that make him harder for audiences to identify with?
He’s comfortable with his behavior, but he’s also comfortable in his misery. He knows he shouldn’t be doing what he’s doing. So he’s constantly trying to justify what he’s doing. But what it is that makes him not stop is what we’re exploring.
How did you feel about viewers meeting your character completely naked in an opening sex scene?
I had no idea that entertainment lawyers spend a good 25 percent of their day talking about side-butt versus full crack versus partial crack versus full back-al — as opposed to full frontal — full posterior view, half-crack with mostly side. “He’s O.K. with three-quarter-side, quarter-crack.” You literally get to negotiate how much, to the delight of my loved ones. But there’s comedy sex, and then there’s passionate sex. And the latter is way more uncomfortable [to perform]. Way more uncomfortable.
You have a B.F.A. from the University of Detroit Mercy and an M.F.A. from Penn State. What were your higher-education experiences like?
Unlike our parents in the ’60s, I wanted to listen to my elders. I did not want to rock the boat. I would say there was more technical learning than there was self-discovery. It’s a completely different part of my life that I’m trying to look at now. And the show has actually helped reveal a little bit of that.
What kind of lessons has it taught you?
I’m allowed to have my own opinions. I’m trying, every day, when I meet a new human being, to not have the first thought that comes into my mind be: Are they going to like me? I’m allowed to say, I like this and I don’t like that. That’s a whole new thing in my life.
That’s surprising — looking at “Key & Peele,” that would seem to come from a person with a very strong point of view.
A good deal of my work you’re seeing through the prism of two people. Jordan has no compunction, whatsoever, about sharing his feelings about the world. You see exactly how he sees the world when you watch “Get Out” [the film Mr. Peele wrote and directed]. At times, I can be vocal about what I think people want to hear, as opposed to being vocal about what I really feel. I’m the more covert of the two of us. I have to establish new habits in my life, and one of those new habits is asking, what do I think about this? What are my opinions about this?
Given the success Jordan had this year with “Get Out,” do you feel any burden to succeed to the same degree in something of your own?
It’s not about succeeding to that exact level. He did exactly what he wanted, and that was the result. So I have a profound admiration for him. If you actually express what you feel, and you know where you’re coming from and what makes your heart beat, that can happen. We’re two different artists. He wants to be in charge of creating worlds. I’m more than happy to be a person who lives in those worlds. I’m making sure to pick projects that reflect what I actually want to do. I’ve learned that from him.
Does that include looking for leading-man roles that, in a different era, might have gone exclusively to white actors?
Something that Jordan and I have said many times, in our previous work, is that the African-American experience is not a monolithic one. If you’re telling a specific story, and then you drop a person who happens to have more melanin in their skin in the middle of that story, you can’t help but identify with the person. You get swept up in the story of that human. I’m looking for human stories to do.
How did you end up in “Hamlet”?
My girlfriend was asking me one day, “What do you want to do?” It’s like pulling teeth to just ask me what my dreams were. But I said: “Here’s my dream. If Matt Damon retired, I want to play Jason Bourne in four more Jason Bourne films, and I want to get $5 million a picture, and then in my off time, do Shakespeare.” And she said, “Well, you could do that if you wanted to.” I started regularly having coffee with Sam Gold [the director of “Hamlet”]. I was kind of vying to play Cassio in his “Othello,” with David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig. That didn’t work out. Then, one day, out of the blue, he just said, “I want to offer you the role of Horatio in ‘Hamlet.’” A role that I’ve been fascinated by for well over 20 years.
What’s fascinating about Horatio?
When I was younger, he interested me because I didn’t have enough confidence to think I could play Hamlet. [Laughs.] So I’ll just play the best friend. Now, there’s a lovely speech in the play, where Hamlet talks about Horatio being a man who is “not a pipe for Fortune’s finger.” He’s the steady rock — he can handle anything. And I go, Oh, I want to be like Horatio.
“Hamlet” is about three and a half hours. Have you ever had a live theatrical experience that’s as demanding as this one?
This is going to sound strange, but sometimes we forget how good of a writer this guy is. You’re tired, and then sometimes you just lock in and you start really listening to one of your cast mates speaking. And it lifts you up. The language is so full and dynamic and descriptive and whole. You can’t help but be turned on by it. Nobody wants two-show days, and I can’t wait for two-show days. I can’t wait.
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