Writing about Keanu, which came out this past weekend, New York film critic David Edelstein said, "I’d estimate two-thirds of it works, and when it’s good it’s sooooo good — good enough to make you want to see Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key and director Peter Atencio and co-writer Alex Rubens do it again and go farther out." And arguably no scene is more sooooo good than the movie's one spectacular cameo. [Spoilers about this particular scene ahead.]
In Keanu, Key and Peele play cousins — Clarence and Rell, respectively — who get involved with the Blips (a gang of Bloods and Crips rejects), agreeing to help them deal drugs in exchange for a kitten, the titular Keanu, that the gang unknowingly stole from Rell's apartment. This leads them to a mansion in the Hollywood Hills. Clarence stays in his minivan with three of the Blips while Rell goes with Blip Hi-C (played by Tiffany Haddish) into the mansion. Once inside, a coked-up blonde maniac (Anna Faris) and her friends greet them.
The scene heightens for a while as the blonde continues to act more and more crazed. Then, while Hi-C is showing her a new drug hybrid, Rell quietly tells Faris's character, "I loved you in House Bunny."
It's one of the biggest laughs in the movie — a completely original joke that expertly plays with the vocabulary of a cinematic cameo. Ever since 1928's Show People — a Hollywood satire that featured appearances by many popular stars of the day, including Charlie Chaplin — there have generally been two ways a cameo works: Either a famous person plays an unimportant or minor character like Richard Pryor as a balloon salesman in The Muppet Movie, or they play themselves, like David Bowie as David Bowie in Zoolander.
Keanu subverts this history by revealing Faris is playing herself right about when the audience was sure she was playing a character, making the playing-against-type trope feel fresh. The scene then continues to escalate from there, with Rell having to explain to Hi-C who Faris even is, listing all her movies until Hi-C says she recognizes her from Scary Movie. All of it works, and is not too jarring, because of the precise execution of the unexpected cameo.
That's why it came as no surprise when director Peter Atencio told me that they put more work into that scene than any other in the movie. So much work, in fact, that when the studio asked them to try a more immediate reveal, they flatly said no. Here, Atencio explains how such a simple-seeming joke can require so much effort.
What was the genesis of that scene?
PETER ATENCIO: There was always a drug-deal scene in the middle of the movie. It was the point in the movie where the stakes needed to get really elevated for Clarence and Rell — they’re actually committing a crime. We always liked the idea of it being a famous person who you think is just doing this crazy character and then halfway through you realize that they’re playing themselves. I don’t remember who we originally wrote it for, but it was a long process of going out to people and trying to convince them to play themselves where they’re coked out of their mind, buying drugs from gang members, and ultimately getting killed. Everyone was like, "Yeah, thank you, but no thank you."
I got it: We were coming from doing a basic-cable sketch show. We were very lucky to get Anna.
What did you tell Anna in terms of her performance?
We wanted it to be very ambiguous. My instructions were like, "Don’t play a different person, but do play what you would be like if you were insane and doing a bunch of blow." She just dove in and there were even times where it was like, “Okay, you can be a little bit more normal because we still want there to be one foot in Anna," who’s like the sweetest, most normal, most kind of down-to-earth person in the world. So, the character’s kind of flighty and fun and silly and then there’s little moments where the crazy kind of bursts out.
Was there a debate about which movie to have Jordan's character first reference?
Oh yeah, we had a few options and we played with the order. We all agreed that House Bunny was the most universally known Anna Faris role that was a little more recent, because we knew we wanted to end with Scary Movie. But pretty much all of her credits at one point were in the dialogue to find the right balance of roles the audience would recognize versus ones where they'd think, "I totally didn’t know she was in Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" — which is a hilarious title to drop into the mix.
Was it hard to get the studio onboard for something so different?
That was actually a big fight with the studio because they felt like, "Gosh, maybe people will have a bigger reaction to seeing her play herself." We were like, “No, this is such a great reveal and it’s so much more satisfying to go, ‘Wait, wait. Whoa.’" So, we were very protective of it, about not just doing it as late as possible in the scene, but also in a very casual way when there's an awkward silence. "I love your work, by the way," is totally more organic.
After some test audiences, did the studio understand why the reveal is where it was? Did they want a backup plan?
We had this moment of them approaching the house, where Jordan’s character and Tiffany’s character are walking up to the house and they walk by this big, long pool. And they’re having this conversation, and he’s like "Have you ever been here before?" That was the place where the studio was like, "Let’s just ADR him saying, 'Whose house is this?' And she goes, ‘Oh, it’s Anna Faris’s house.’" They were like, let’s try a version where the audience finds out up-front. We were just like," “No. It’s not even worth talking about; we’re just not going to do it. You’ve got to trust us.” And they did.
What was your approach to building to the reveal as it appears in the movie?
Tension is the mirror image to comedy. They both rely on timing and this building and release of energy. I always like walking that line. So, with the cameo, I wanted to make sure I was servicing her, building up this character, and treating it like a reveal, but then not going all the way into "Hey, look, we got Anna Faris." That was probably the part we tweaked the edit more than any other part of the movie. There were countless different versions of that whole sequence. Our brilliant editor, Nick Monsour, would do a cut and we would walk away from it for a week and work on other stuff and come back with fresh eyes. It was definitely the most touched piece of the film, for sure.
There was a little push-in when we first see her that makes you think, Oh shit! It’s Anna Faris, but then because no one speaks to her right off the bat, you are left wondering — especially as she gets crazier, starts pulling out a samurai sword, and doing a couple of lines right in front of them. The hope is the audience is lulled into this idea of, Oh, it’s just Anna Faris playing this crazy character, kind of like Alfred Molina in Boogie Nights. And then it builds to hit you with it. And then she dies.
How conscious were you of the visual vocabulary of a cameo?
Very. There is this meta quality to the entire movie where these two guys, who live these normal, boring lives, essentially get pulled into an action comedy. We wanted to play with these established themes. With the cameo, since they are so common, it was intended to lure you into this false sense of security. When you watch a comedy that has a cameo, it feels safe, like, Okay, now they’re with this person and we get some jokes based on their persona. We wanted people to feel like, Oh, nothing bad is gonna happen. And then as it gets crazier and crazier and violent, you’re just that much more unprepared.