He’s played Toofer on the NBC juggernaut, 30 Rock, and appeared on Aaron Sorkin’s, Newsroom. Now Keith Powell is staking his ground on the internet with his new webseries, Keith Broke His Leg. Still recovering from his holiday cook-a-thon, Powell took time out of his day to talk about his new series, struggling with stereotypes, and fond 30 Rock memories…
Pressure Life: So, how was your Thanksgiving, Good? I saw you tweeting some serious menus, you looked well prepared.
Keith Powell: “It was great. I cooked for 15 people and it was just me cooking. My wife did all the desserts and I did the dinner portions. We were a little exhausted afterwards and did nothing but get drunk all day the next day. I quite enjoyed it.”
PL: In your new webseries, Keith Broke His Leg, (which streams for free on Powell’s own site, www.getbroken.com) you’re doing double duty in both acting and writing. As far as your career in general, which talent developed first for you?
KP: “I’ve always been a writer, I’ve always been a director, I’ve always been an actor; even when I was a teenager I always wanted to do all three. In community theatre I always wrote, directed and acted in my own plays, which is very foolish (laughs). But I learned a lot when I was going there. I went to NYU. I was originally a directing major but I started getting work as an actor outside of NYU. I’ve always worked as an actor. Thank God, knock on wood. Directing and writing and acting have all been equal passions of mine.”
PL: I’m sure you’ve gotten this question a lot. The premise for the series, the broken leg- did that stem from a personal experience?
KP: “Yes, but not in the way you think. I never broke my leg but I did have a minor operation a year and a half ago and was incapacitated and had to relearn how to do the most basic things. The idea for the series is it’s about a man who is closed off to the world and learns to become empathetic as people in his world are not empathetic to his plight. It’s about relearning things you thought you already learned and that’s kind of how it kind of fused together. It’s entertaining while also digging at deeper truths and I hope that people walk away from it smiling and thinking a little deeper with their own lives.”
PL: Keith Broke His Leg has a fairly smaller budget and more contained production. How does the writing process differ on a web series as compared to a network behemoth like 30 Rock when you had more cooks in the kitchen in the writer’s room?
KP: “This show is a lot more intimate and a lot more personal. We only have a crew of three people, sometimes four if we are getting luxurious. It actually takes place in my home. All the people who play my friends are actually my friends. I feel like it’s a more personal private project, whereas 30 Rock was a grand ambitious big network show. This is more intimate and homegrown.”
PL: While it is its own beast, Keith Broke His Leg is reminiscent of shows like Louie and Maron, if only in its ability to pace itself.
KP: “Thanks, man. That is a high compliment. And I will absolutely take it.”
PL: Well, it’s true. The show never feels desperate to race to the nearest joke. You’re not playing to the back of the room to sell the punch lines. The humor matures organically in the scene, rather than writing the scenes around the jokes. In that regard, did you have to change the way you acted in shifting from network sitcoms?
KP: “Personally, I don’t think so. I might be doing subconsciously. I think that comedy is very much about timing. Not just timing being fast, but slow as well. It’s the actors job to be perfect and honest and the only difference between comedy and drama is timing… for an actor. For a writer, it’s obviously a completely different beast, but as an actor you’re supposed to bring the same amount of truth to it. You might need to do it slower or faster depending on what the scene calls for. With this show, it is a slower show, it is a dryer show, but my approach to it as an actor is kind of the same as my approach to 30 Rock. There are some moments when I realized I needed to take it slower than on 30 Rock when your mouth goes a mile a minute.”
PL: Do you have a favorite joke or scene that you were able to get away with in the webseries that you could never get away with on network television?
KP: “There’s an entire episode about masturbation. There’s one about me getting high off weed chocolate, but I think the thing that I found the weirdest story, that I found most people really embrace, is the episode where my hand gets stuck in a blender (laughs). Just the idea of serving blood soup to people…it freaked me out. I was so worried that people were going to turn off from it.”
PL: The best about that one was the underlying joke that you’re serving it to vegans.
KP: “Yeah, and the people who played the vegans are actually vegans and some of my dearest friends and are so good natured to have set themselves up like that.”
PL: Was there a moment during the onset of filming that you looked around and felt that everything just clicked, that you were onto something good, that a-ha moment?
KP: “No. We didn’t know what we had, frankly. We wanted to do something different and I always had a certain style that I was interested in but my wife read the script and went, ‘I don’t get it, Keith. It doesn’t make sense.’ and just kept going, ‘no, no, it’ll be fine…’ but then I started going, ‘Maybe it doesn’t make any sense…’
“We started to shape it in the edit and I realized this is the voice I want to do and the way I want it to go. We found that making the show go louder, faster, funnier was actually not the way it was supposed to go and we actually needed to slow things down. There were a lot of experiments in post to get the style of it but nobody ever shot it going, ‘Yes, we’re making great art!’ It was the same thing with 30 Rock. When we started out, the writers were just trying to find the voice of the show but nobody ever thought they were making one of the best TV shows of all time, they were just doing things that spoke to them as artists.”
PL: Are you planning a second season that matures from this or something new entirely? What’s on the docket for Keith Powell?
KP: “I’ve got ideas for dozens and dozens of new stories. I shot four more and they’ll be released through April and after that I’m doing something for Seriesfest. And then after that I’ll try to do a second season. It’s all about affording it, because I paid for the whole thing out of my own pocket. I always wanted to have complete artistic freedom with it so (Keith Broke His Leg) could go in any direction. Maybe in the second season he doesn’t have a broken leg, who knows? I always like keeping my options open in LA. But I do have ideas for a second season.”
PL: jumping back to 30 Rock; you portrayed Toofer, a black writer that wanted to be valued for his intelligence before his skin color. This theme comes up again in the episode “Baller” for KBHL. In playing the role of Toofer, was it ever a balancing act between making it humorous while not being the butt of the joke, not playing to stereotypes?
KP: “Yeah. I know that the writers had a struggle with it and I applaud them for figuring out that balance. For me, I had to struggle to just make him an honest human being and not a butt of a joke. I didn’t want his race to be a joke. There’s an aspect sometimes when someone wants to write a black character and the fact that they’re black and smart is supposedly some oxymoron, and I didn’t want that for Toofer. I wanted him to be a full-fledged human being, who has flaws obviously because that’s where the comedy lies but a full person who wasn’t just the ‘smart black man’ in the room.
“That is something that informed the way I approached the character and the way that I talked to the writers about the direction I saw the character going in and what I felt the character needed and lacked. I wanted Toofer to be very proud being black. There’s an easy stereotype that articulate black people are not proud being black and I hated that idea and I didn’t want that. So the writers wrote in how proud he was of his heritage. We tried breaking down stereotypes through performance. For that, I am very proud of 30 Rock and Keith Broke His Leg as well. But it’s all about timing. Once you make the point, ‘the point’, then people lose interest because they feel like they’re just being preached to.”
PL: I hope you’ll indulge me this: Do you have a favorite Tracy Morgan memory?
KP: “I have a lot of Tracy Morgan memories. (Laughs) A lot of them aren’t fit to print.”
PL: Any that won’t incriminate anyone that was on set?
KP: “I’ll say this about Tracy, he is one of my favorite people. He is the one who I miss the most. He had the dressing room across from me. There was one time, I’m in the middle of shooting a scene and Tracy wanders on the set and starts trying to have a conversation with me while I’m doing the scene. There was one moment where he was like, (Keith begin a Tracy Morgan impersonation, which is surprisingly accurate–)
‘Yo, Keith! You, uh, you see me on the Emmys?’
‘Yeah, Tracy, I saw you.’
“And then I get back to the scene and he keeps going,”
‘I clean up real good, don’t I?’
“And then he just wandered off. I love him to death. He’s one of my favorite people.”
Keith Powell’s very funny webseries, Keith Broke His Leg, can be found at www.getbroken.com, where you can binge watch all the episodes with even more being updated throughout the new year. You can also follow Keith on twitter @powelltothepeople