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Keke Palmer on Nope and the violence of viewing

Interviewing the star of Jordan Peele’s latest hit movie, about the corrosive nature of fame, flop eras, and what scares her most.

12 Aug 2022

This article contains spoilers

After Nope’s confusing and unsettling opening scenes show the mysterious death of the patriarch of the Haywood family, the next sequence introduces the children who are carrying on their father’s legacy by running his business. He trains horses that are appearing in film productions because they say they are descendants of the first (uncredited) man depicted in motion pictures who was depicted galloping on a stallion. As a recently bereaved OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) – who lost his father in a freak extra terrestrial accident – struggles to explain the company’s history and their health and safety rules to a mostly bemused and uninterested film crew, his little sister Emerald, played by Keke Palmer, arrives late and instantly overshadows OJ with charm, humour, effervescence, and warmth. Even though I have lukewarm feelings about Jordan Peele’s CGI-laden thinkpiece horror, this scene is emblematic of Keke’s contribution to the project – she’s the comic relief, the heart and soul, the seasoning, and she is rightly having her moment. 

The 28-year-old shines among a blockbuster bill of rising stars. Daniel Kaluuya reprises his role as Jordan Peele’s facial expression maker-in-chief via his rather gloomy portrayal of OJ, Emerald’s brother. He won an Oscar last year for his unique ability to emote and tell a story through his eyes alone. Keke and Daniel’s chemistry during the press tour has been a movie in itself – both of them appear to take their art seriously, but aren’t too wrapped in the industry to not take the piss out of themselves and each other. “I love Daniel so much,” she adds. In the film, the pair believe they have discovered a creepy UFO on their ranch and aim to get the first clear shot of the phenomenon. The “Oprah shot”. But the neighbouring fame-hungry theme park owner Jupe is eagle-eyed and ready to market the phenomenon. He is played by Steven Yeun, who was also nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role in Minari and brings such realism to the troubled character. With a positive box office start in the US, Keke could be well on her way to some Academy nods for her part in the project.

Although Jordan found her via conventional channels, Keke had already taken her shot. Years ago, she tells me she slid into Jordan Peele’s DMs to let him know she wanted to act in one of his movies. She reveals she also did the same to Quentin Tarantino: “I want him to let me do the finishing storyline of Vivica Fox’s role in Kill Bill, I wanted to play her daughter. We can put that back out there.”

Keke’s cadence is musical and her face is expressive, but having darted to the Ham Yard Hotel in Soho from some press at another studio across the city, her exhaustion is also palpable. Even in her weariest moments, she’s deftly social and quick-witted, something that amuses viewers immensely. Of late, the multi-hyphenate’s fame has spread outside those who’ve viewed her films and listened to her music (she released her first studio album, So Uncool, in 2007 and a few EPs thereafter) via some extremely meme-able moments. “Sorry to that man” entered our lexicon after a video posted by Vanity Fair where the actor was shown a picture of Dick Cheney and said she “wouldn’t know a thing” if she saw him walking down the street. Being on the receiving end of Timothee Chalamet trying to walk down memory lane with her at the Met Gala had social media ablaze. She’s also the face of the “metra train” victim. Each of these moments has grown her profile over recent years. But in her words, she’s mostly trying to find ways to entertain herself after countless repetitive and demanding interviews.

Keke has been on our screens for two decades now. Recently you’ll recognise her from the hit stripper heist movie Hustlers, or Ryan Murphy’s horror-comedy Scream Queens. In her childhood, she appeared in black comedy classics like Madea’s Family Reunion series or the second interaction of Barbershop. She also, impressively, went on to appear on both Disney Channel (for productions like the skipping rope kids rom-com Jump In! alongside Corbin Bleu) and Nickelodeon’s child boss sitcom True Jackson VP. Her castmate Jeanette McCurdy is currently in the headlines talking about how child stardom, a fame-hungry parent, and industry predators have impacted her in order to publicize her new book I’m Glad My Mom is Dead. There are parallels between her story and Jordan’s allegory in Nope in that Jupe was also a child star who was traumatised by a tragedy on the set of a popular show. 

A formerly tame monkey mauls his co-stars in what is undoubtedly the scariest moment of the film and spends his adulthood charging intrigued fans to marvel at the spectacle of his lowest moments and look at memorabilia that relates to him and his cast members, despite the gruesome history of the show. He’s so used to turning trauma into cash that when he sees the UFO, which is later nicknamed Jean Jacket, he decides to try and monetise the sightings and wow crowds of intrigued spectators. Even when the danger is apparent, and Jean Jacket gobbles everything around them, they watch rather than protect themselves. Jordan Peele is telling us that we are all bizarrely accustomed to watching troubling spectacles and too of making a spectacle out of our own turmoil (like how content sites, Tik Tok trends, true crime docs, and TV debates mine people’s trauma for entertainment). Keke says “there’s something about the violence of viewing”. She asks: “What does it do to you to put yourself on display?”

“There’s something about the violence of viewing. What does it do to you to put yourself on display?”

In a landscape of tortured child stars, conversely, Keke appears to be quite at peace. “Fame is traumatic in a lot of ways, it’s representative of Jean Jacket in our film, or this spectacle because everybody thinks that they want fame. And then when you get it, it’s kind of like a bad miracle.” Perhaps what separates her is her love of the craft rather than her love of attention for attention’s sake. Keke describes fame as “a side effect” of her impulse to perform. “It’s not what I was thinking about at [age] nine,” she explains. 

Her penchant for performance first began when she sang in front of audiences in church, and she also grew up in an entertainment-focused household. Her parents, Sharon and Larry Palmer had met in drama school and were professional actors before they had children. Keke smiles as she says she received pure love from them and learned joy from the way they were enamoured by each other. Akin to the sibling love story we see in Nope, she is close with her three siblings who have “very different personalities”. Even though her parents put their dreams to the side, they would talk to Keke and her siblings about their experiences in the industry. “I just wanted to be like my parents,” she adds.

This is not her first horror role and growing up she loved the genre classics like Nightmare on Elm Street and The Leprechaun. The key to a good scary movie is an unsettling backstory. Jordan Peele’s eerie mythmaking in this sci-fi shocker is the Haywood family, but he draws on real information with the story of the first motion picture, captured by a (murderous) photographer. The filmmaker, Edward Muybridge, is known, but the black man riding the horse is not. The fact that he is uncredited and erased from the industry despite him being so pivotal, is an example of how black people’s contribution to entertainment is often minimised or erased. In a way, Keke experienced this in the lead-up to the film’s release. Recently, fans were comparing her career to Zendaya saying that she is less successful than the fellow child star-turned-Spiderman and Euphoria lead due to the fact that she is darker. She replied to this by saying that pitting her against an unrelated lighter-skinned woman was actually an example of colourism, adding that she is “incomparable”. 

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Pondering whether the sentiment obscures her own unique career and legacy in the entertainment industry, she tells gal-dem that the Twitter thread is an example of “projection”. “Colourism is 100% real, I get the sentiment of it. But the conversation for me is that I defied the odds.” I sense that she is taking her time to answer, not wanting to minimise the impact that prejudice can have on careers, but mindful too of honouring her own achievements in their own right. She’s won several BET awards, received an Emmy nomination for her own talk show, Just Keke, and then took an Emmy home a year later for her role in the short-form series Turnt Up with the Taylors. These are not small feats. “What saddens me is that it’s the negative perspective they [the commentators] have on themselves, I want them to think about what I’ve done and what they can do too.”

Keke is not worried or concerned with what others see as a lack of attention or clout. The only thing that scares or concerns her is a flop era in the intellectual and spiritual sense. “Even if it looks like a flop to everyone else but I live on a farm and I’m learning new skills and it’s an evolution of me and I have some sense of direction, I’m good. But to not be excited to grow is scary.” Reflecting on her gifts, the fishbowl nature of being a star, and her current trajectory, the actor says her career is one characterised by fearlessness. “Not everything will work out, not everything is perfect but unless you’re jumping out of a plane the outcome is unlikely to be death,” she says. “You have to have courage.”