Interview: Richie Keen on ‘Fist Fight’and How He Transitioned from Actor to Director

“As an actor, I got so many things like, ‘He’s not cute enough.’ ‘He’s not tall enough, he’s not this enough. He’s great, we just went another way.’” – Director Richie Keen

Director Richie Keen told an audience right before a screening of his new film, Fist Fight, that the last half hour was “f’ing nuts!” and he wasn’t wrong. The film stars Charlie Day and Ice Cube as a pair of high school teachers trying to keep things together on the last day of school. From senior pranks, budget cuts and potential firings, things go from worse to freaking crazy as the two eventually meet in an all out, crazy after-school fight. The film has some incredibly funny moments thanks to the cast that also includes Tracey Morgan, Kumail Nanjiani and Jillian Bell.

Keen, who told me he was a “recovering actor,” stared his career as an actor and stand-up before moving on to directing. I talked to him recently about Fist Fight, his former acting career and his advice to actors now that he’s a director.

I saw the movie last night. You and Charlie introduced the film and you told everyone that the last half hour was “fucking nuts.” And you’re completely right. Especially, and don’t I want to give it away, but the song with Charlie’s daughter (Alexa Nisenson).

Richie Keen: Oh yeah, the talent show. I’ll tell you a quick story about that without giving anything away. There is the talent show that Charlie has with his daughter and it was written to be a Kanye West song, which I thought was awesome. “Oh my God, this is gonna be such a cool moment.” We couldn’t afford the song, we just aren’t a big enough movie. We didn’t have a big enough budget. And I was devastated. How might you replace ‘Stronger’ by Kanye West?

And I must have listened to 100 songs over the course of a week and I heard that song that’s now in the movie and I called Charlie up and I said, “I think I just changed the third act of the movie. This is gonna be amazing.”

And that song sparked Charlie saying, “What if my daughter is getting bullied too?” It had been that his daughter was just a rap music fan and he said that that could be a really interesting parallel. And then we started talking a lot about bullying and how can we show the difference between getting bullied as a kid and what’s the right way to handle it and getting bullied as an adult. Not that this is a movie with a strong message but it really did lead us to exploring bullying a lot more.

That’s one of the funniest moments and that little girl handled it perfectly.

Richie Keen: She’s amazing. She’s a huge talent. There’s a scene right before that scene that you’re talking about where Charlie goes and finds his daughter and she’s upset. And Charlie and I kind of walked away after the first take and we’re like,”It would really be great if she was crying.” This girl hadn’t done a lot of acting. She had sent me a tape of her in her kitchen doing the audition. She kind of looked over and she said, “Excuse me, you want me to cry?” Charlie and I were like, “Yeah. Yeah can you cry?” She said, “Yeah, just give me a minute.” I rolled the cameras, she looked down, she got herself worked up and she looked at me and nodded her head at me, like, ‘say action.’ I said ‘action’ and she started crying. She’s a kid! She’s such a talent and she really steals the show.

Speaking of someone who steals the show, Jillian Bell. Her scenes with Charlie are hilarious. Having Charlie and Jillian, I’d think they like to veer off the from the script a lot.

Richie Keen: Jillian’s role was written for a man and I just kept saying, not that had it had to be a woman, but it had to be Jillian Bell. I kept saying, “This has to be Jillian Bell. I don’t know why but I know that Jillian, being a teacher who likes drugs and wants to sleep with the students, weirdly, I think I’m gonna root for her.” She does make it clear that they have to be 18 or over but I just kept thinking that she is gonna bring something to this. We re-wrote the role for her and she said ‘yes.’

The great thing is that they both love to play and so some lines were scripted and some lines they were playing. The thing for me with improv on set, I don’t like when improv happens that is off story or it’s just jokes. It has to be on story. And I think for us, there’s a lot of improvisation that I didn’t put in the movie that made me laugh but it’s just two people being funny about whatever. So, if there’s ever a joke that made it into the movie because people were improvising, it’s because it was completely on story and said something about the character.

How much of a collaboration was it between you and Charlie and Ice Cube?

Richie Keen: Huge. Look, I came into this with a strong point of view. I said, “This is a prison riot movie. It’s the prison guards vs. the inmates.” I had the cinematographer who did Cop Land and Kids and To Die For. I wanted this to look like a real public school that was falling apart.

Sitting down with Ice Cube and Charlie before shooting, we talked at length about… We had a responsibility, even though it’s a huge outrageous movie, we’re looking at teachers and kids in high school and we all agreed that this had to be a pro teacher movie. We wanted to make sure that both Charlie and Ice Cube were good teachers or at least teachers were very passionate and just had different philosophies on how to teach.

The thing that was important in terms of collaborating, and sitting with Ice Cube, he was very clear he wanted to do something that he had never done before. He wanted his audience to see the stuff they love that he does but he also wanted them to see things that they hadn’t seen. So, I really worked hard to have him do some physical comedy. He’s never done that before. He’s subtle in a way that he wasn’t able to do and 21 or 22 Jump Street, where he was brilliant and I’m the biggest fan of those movies.

And with Charlie, the guy who’s always the nut job in his projects, whether it’s Horrible Bosses or It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, I cast so the movie he’s the straight man. I mean he’s dealing with Tracy Morgan, he’s dealing with Jillian Bell, is dealing with Kumail Nanjiani. And it’s not until the second half of the movie that he becomes the Charlie Day that his fans love, which is so fun because he gets to flex different muscles. I said to them, “Look for 90 minutes, you doing that thing is going to be too much, let’s find the arc.” And Charlie did a brilliant job of being the leading man.

You actually started out as an actor.

Richie Keen: Yeah, I’m recovering actor. I was an actor for 12 years. I studied theater and the monologue was always the girl I couldn’t find. I was like, “How do you find that perfect monologue?” Any time there were those monologue auditions, I was like,  “Goddamnit!” Because I just never could find what I thought could show why I was special. It’s just such a hard thing for actors to do.

You did quite a bit of stuff, we’re you making a living solely as an actor?

Richie Keen: I studied theater at Northwestern and I drove out in my white Pontiac Sun Fire to LA in 1996. I was a classically trained actor who would go at night and do stand up. So, I’m the guy who loved Shakespeare and at night would get on the train and go to downtown Chicago and tell jokes.

I was very lucky because, and it never occurred to me… I thought in 1 million years I’d never get a commercial. I thought you had to be gorgeous. It turns out, funny average looking guy/hot girl. That’s every car ad. That’s every beer ad. So, I was so lucky that even when I was struggling in the television and film stuff, I was usually doing enough commercial work that I was making a living. I was that sort of rare middle-class actor that was not famous but I owned a condo. I drove a decent car.

And in that time, I became an acting teacher and a private acting coach. I would get sent up and coming actors and Broadway actors, pop stars and wrestlers and rappers, all sorts of people that were gonna do their first movie or TV show or whatever it was. And I started thinking, “I feel like I’m directing them.” I didn’t really know how you got into directing but I just felt like, “I’m the guy who, if you need to be funny, you send them to Richie.” And I realized, ‘I should think about directing.”

So, I decided to make my own short film, my own little pilot. And I started shooting my own material.

Were you starring in these as well?

Richie Keen: The first one, I was like the third or fourth banana. More out of necessity though. I couldn’t find enough people. You know, I was shooting stuff for free.

And then, the most interesting thing happened. I found as an actor, I have to knock on 100 doors if you want one to open. And as a director, I would have to knock on three and it just seemed like it was a great fit. I never really quit acting, I just started working more and more as a director.

I still act in short films and one-act plays, I love doing that. But I look back on that time and I feel like it taught me…. The guy who was a comedian, the guy who was an actor and the guy who was an acting teacher and private acting coach made me into a sort of an actor’s director. And I think I can do that as well as anyone.

When you’re coaching actors, did you ever think something like, “Hell, I’d be perfect for this role. Why didn’t my agent send me out on this?”

Richie Keen: It was the opposite. It was more like someone would come in for a role, like a young man, and I would help them with their audition. I try to find out was special about each person and help bring that out, I wasn’t trying to steer in any one direction.

I do remember being up for a big television role and there was three of us in the audition room. It was me, the guy I coached and another guy. And the guy I coached was pissed. He was like, “This isn’t right because you saw my audition.” And I was like, “Look man, we couldn’t be more different.” And ironically, the third guy got the role.

But what I did start doing after that was anytime someone wanted to come coach with me, I would always make sure they knew my age and that I’m an actor. And everyone knew I was at that point but I just made sure. “Hey I’m an actor. I’m your age. I’m a dude. So, make sure you’re comfortable with that.” For the most part I was lucky at that time in my career, I was getting out the things I was right for.

Have you ever wanted to slip yourself into little part in the things you directed?

Richie Keen: You know what’s funny, the answer is ‘no.’ I’m so thrilled to be helping the other actors get the performance and I’m so happy to be moving the camera and doing cool stuff.

I have three lines in this movie. I’m the Apple employee. And here’s why I have three lines in the movie. I actually hired a heavy African-American man that I loved to play that role. It’s only three lines but I thought he was fantastic. And then a couple of days before filming, this actor got a play and it was a long-running play and he just couldn’t miss this rehearsal. We didn’t know what to do and someone at New Line said, “You should do it.” I was like, “Aw, I don’t want to do it.” And then Charlie said, “Oh my God, it would be so fun you should do it.” And I thought, “What the hell, I’ll do it.” And that day, I was so nervous, I was so stressed. “Goddamnit, I have to act now? I want to make sure Charlie’s good and I don’t want to be thinking about me.” But it’s a fun little way to my friends and family to go see the movie and see me say two or three lines. I think they get a kick out of that.

Now that you’re on the other side of the table and you’re watching auditions, what advice would you give to actors who are coming in to see you?

Richie Keen: I would say a couple things. One is, I think if you put your head down and you work hard to get your chance, you’ll get your chances. The question is always: what are you willing to give up? Being an artist is just a hard, long road. It’s no different than being a writer or director actually but having done all three, as an actor you’re putting yourself out there in such a personal way. When people look at my movie, if they don’t like it I can still point at the screen and say that’s ok. As an actor, I got so many things like, ‘He’s not cute enough.’ ‘He’s not tall enough, he’s not this enough. He’s great, we just went another way.’ It’s so hard not to take it on the chin.

First of all, when you get feedback, anytime someone I brought in for an audition who I know, who later contacted me and said, “I heard from the casting director this this and this….,”iIt’s almost never right. It’s a telephone game, right? So, you went to audition, you leave the room and I say, “Oh, he’s a little too subtle. I’m not sure this guy’s big enough.” And then the casting director says to the agent, “He didn’t laugh as much is he wanted to.” And the agent says, “They say you’re not funny.” I never said that at all. You might have given up brilliantly funny audition, I just might have wanted somebody outrageously funny, much bigger in their delivery. But that’s what happens a lot. Feedback, take it with a grain of salt.

You know, the other thing and this is gonna sound so cheesy but I think everyone is special and unique. And you should never try and figure out what you think someone wants. You gotta do you and you gotta do what you think when you read for something.

You go see an acting coach and they’re gonna give you ideas. I gave people ideas. People give me ideas. But you have to know what you think is a good idea and what you think isn’t you and what makes you special.

There’s no right or wrong way to do anything, take it from me. I took of movie that didn’t read like a prison riot movie and I said, “I think this is a prison riot movie.” The studio producer could’ve said, “You’re fucking insane, man.” But they happened to think it was a cool idea. I think the same thing with acting.

The final piece of advice I would give, just as someone again who’s done it all: Find other things that fill you up. Find the things that make you happy. Don’t put your whole day on how your audition went. If you did or didn’t get an audition. Because then someone else has all the power and the control.

I can just tell you, I’m 42 years old and I’ve been in this business for 20 years. The thing I’ve learned most … and look it’s easy for me to say this now but I’ll tell you, I was unemployed six years ago. I wasn’t a director that people wanted to hire. I was trying to make it. And I had been an actor and comedian who was trying to make it.

You find those things and people that fill you up because if you’re putting all your hopes and dreams and happiness on other people saying that they think you’re good, it’s gonna be really tough life.

When you’re working as an actor what was your worst audition?

Richie Keen: How do you pick?

There was a soccer movie, a drama, the guy that directed Hoosiers and Rudy was doing. They are the two best sports movies of all time, in my opinion. And I lied to my agent and said that I had played NCAA soccer because they wouldn’t read anyone who wasn’t really a legit soccer player.

And instead of reading me, they said, “We want you to scrimmage with the LA Galaxy on Saturday.” And I was like, “Oh my God, I haven’t played soccer since I was 14 years old.” I went to the scrimmage and I did a drill and the ball got kicked in my gut and I couldn’t get my breath. I kicked the ball into the parking lot and they excused me. That was probably my worst audition.

But I’ve also tell you that I had auditioned for a role was mine. I gone into 2,3,4 times and now they’re bringing me to the studio or the network and I just blew it, I got nervous.

I will tell you one last audition story because I think it’s interesting for actors. I was network testing. I had done a pilot at NBC, the pilot hadn’t gone to series. It was the next year and a buddy of mine had been cast as the lead, so he was doing chemistry reads for his friend and I was one of those people. And I went in and I’m about to do my audition in front of the head of the network and casting. I did the audition and I’m like, “I blew it. Oh my God, I blew it. I blew it and I missed all the jokes.”

I’d done a pilot the year before and I felt like I knew them and I said, “I’m doing it again. I’m doing it again.” And they looked at me like, “Whoa, this guy’s got some moxie. All right.” So I did it again and I crushed it. I hit every joke. I nailed every moment. Felt totally in the zone.

And that night, my friend called me and said, ‘They were exactly the same. Both reads were exactly the same.” And I learned something very interesting: Sometimes we think we blew it and we didn’t. Sometimes we think we killed it and it’s the same thing. And it’s not always how you feel, it’s how they feel watching you. So, don’t be so hard on yourself if you blew it, you probably didn’t do as bad as you think you did.