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Keegan-Michael Key On Improv, Easter Eggs, And Whether It's A Hat Or Toad's Head In The Super Mario Bros. Movie - Exclusive Interview

If you're a fan of Nintendo's Mario video games, you know that Toad is a tiny creature with a mushroom cap on the top of his head who would do pretty much anything to be helpful to Mario (Chris Pratt) and Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). He's enthusiastic, joyful, and has the cutest little voice. You might have been surprised to hear that Keegan-Michael Key was voicing the role in "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" for Illumination and Universal Pictures with his relatively deep voice, yet as you can see from the trailers, he absolutely makes it work. 

In the film, Toad instantly befriends a very confused Mario, who has found himself in the Mushroom Kingdom after somehow leaving his plumbing business in Brooklyn that he shares with his brother Luigi (Charlie Day). Toad jumps in, offers to help, and brings him to the castle to meet Peach. It seems like there is nothing that can diminish this little guy's enthusiasm. 

Looper recently spoke to Key about playing the role, doing improv in animation versus live-action, and who is the best at Mario Kart among the cast, which also includes Jack Black as Bowser and Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong. Key also weighed in on whether that spotted mushroom is a hat or part of Toad's head. 

Toad is the hero of the film

I have to ask you. This dome on Toad's head — your take: hat or actual head?

My take is actual head. The thing is, if everybody in the Mushroom Kingdom is ostensibly like a humanoid mushroom, then it would make more sense that they are their heads as opposed to a little cute little bald head underneath their hat, because you never see anybody without one on. That's the thing. I've never seen anybody take a break and go [indicates taking off hat and wiping sweat away from forehead], "Oh, boop," so I'm going with head.

Toad's got so many skills. He hits people with a frying pan; he can cook; he plays the flute. Were there any fun facts you learned about this character?

The thing that's most interesting to me is that he's so adventuresome, that he's ready to go on an adventure ... What I learned about him, I learned in the script, and how they've fleshed out this character. That's what I liked the most about him — he's ride or die no matter what. He's willing to go ... He's like, "Where are we going? Here? Let's go. Oh, we're going there. That looks scary. Let's go." He doesn't care. I love that he's ... Then he's so dedicated to Mario, this person that he doesn't know. He's never seen anybody that looks like him, he's never seen a creature like it in his life, and he's completely and utterly ... He's in.

Don't you think that makes him the hero of the film?

Yes, it does. He's definitely the hero of the film. Toad is the hero of the film. I don't understand why it's not called "Super Mario Toads."

Me neither. I totally get that.

Maybe the sequel. We'll call it "Toads" or "Toad Two."

Bucking the trend of bad video game adaptations

What's so much fun about this movie is that it's continuing bucking the trend of bad video game movies. So much stuff that's based on video games has been great lately. Why do you think that is?

Something that's been happening is that people have been staying truer to the game, as opposed to trying to widen it out too much and add too much new stuff. This movie is so streamlined and on point with what the game is.

In the beginning of the movie, I love when Mario decides to help Princess Peach, and he's going through the training sequence — awesome. You recognize all of the things, and it makes you think about when you've been playing the game and you're trying to learn a new move or trying to learn a new timing. It has that feel to it, and the whole movie has that feel to it. I feel like it is a perfect example of the game coming to life.

I heard the cast was playing Mario Kart. I've got to know, do you play as Toad, and who is the best player in the cast?

Yes, I 100% played as Toad. Nobody else took Toad. They were kind enough to let me have Toad. I thought that was important for me to continue to do my character development even after the movie was done.

The best player, hands down, is Jack Black. Jack Black was killing us. I wasn't even close. He was first, I was 12th, and he was blowing everybody away. A close second was Chris [Pratt]. Chris did pretty well, but Jack was winning time after time after time.

Easter eggs and improv

There's a lot of stuff happening on screen, particularly in that whole scene where Toad takes Mario on a tour of the Mushroom Kingdom. Did you have any idea what was going to be happening on screen?

No ... when I read the script, the ad-libs — all of the ad-libs and all that special stuff — not all of that was in there, so one of my favorite things is when the guy walks past the antique shop. You hear the two guys in the antique shop, and he is like, "Are you sure this is going to work?"

"Yeah, yeah. If it doesn't, just blow on it." Just blow on it? Like those old cartridges. That was great. All those little ad-libs in there are fantastic.

Were there any other Easter eggs? There's a reference to "Punch-Out!!" in here.

Oh my gosh ... I'm sure I missed 95% of the Easter eggs. I do remember ... the "Punch-Out!!" one is in the game. It's not in the Mushroom Kingdom world. It's in the regular world. It's in the pizzeria or in the shop. I couldn't even tell you. I've probably missed ... I have to go back and watch the movie two times in a row and start looking for them.

I was curious because improv is your thing, and you're so good at it. Does it differ when you're doing voice work?

It does differ. You want to stay as on track as you can, even if you're getting to improvise. You want to stay on track because the story has to go where it's going in regard to how it's being animated. That's the hardest ... I should say, that's the fun challenge of it, that you're trying to make sure that you're staying within the confines.

Now, sometimes you're lucky enough — or you're privileged enough — to get people animating after your voice, so then you get to ad-lib a little bit more. That's a blast. That's really fun when the director goes, "All right, we're reanimating that line. Okay, we're reanimating that line," so it differs [from] when you're on camera, and you can just go for it.

"The Super Mario Bros. Movie" will hit theaters on April 5, 2023.

This interview has been edited for clarity.