Keke Palmer on ‘Nope,’ Jordan Peele and the appeal of being herself

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Keke Palmer doesn’t want to be “one-note.”

It makes sense: In two decades in Hollywood, she’s played everything including a spelling bee champion, a stripper, an enslaved woman and the first Black Cinderella on Broadway. In her next film, “Nope,” out Friday, she’s taking on the role of a Hollywood horse trainer confronting potentially deadly invaders. Naturally.

On-screen, Palmer has committed to rediscovering herself over and over as she continues her chameleon-like streak through the business.

Since her big break as Queen Latifah’s niece in the 2004 comedy film “Barbershop 2: Back in Business,” Palmer, 28, has captivated audiences in movies, on television shows, through albums and EPs, and with live musical performances. At 20 years old, she became the youngest talk-show host in television history with the premiere of “Just Keke.”

Her likability has also made her particularly ubiquitous on the internet. A sound bite of her greeting Megan Thee Stallion at last year’s Met Gala — where Palmer was hosting red carpet coverage for Vogue became the backdrop of a trendy TikTok melody. And the Emmy-winning actress saying “Sorry to this man” when she didn’t recognize a picture of former vice president Dick Cheney during a 2019 lie detector test with Vanity Fair has become a social media meme staple.

Whether on set or online, Palmer’s persona is infectious, as seen in her performance in “Nope,” which has been met with glowing reviews and gleeful anticipation.

Palmer plays the spunky and enterprising Emerald Haywood, the inquisitive sister to Daniel Kaluuya’s more silent and serious character, OJ, in the latest movie written, directed and co-produced by “Get Out” filmmaker Jordan Peele. The horror flick follows the duo as they attempt to capture evidence — and monetize on their discovery — of a mysterious flying object that has terrorized their family horse ranch. To do so, the siblings must put aside their conflicting demeanors and get help from electronics store employee Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) and cameraman Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott).

Palmer spoke with The Washington Post about the many jobs she holds, the detriments of living superficially and why working on her first Peele project was so refreshing.

Review: Say yes to ‘Nope,’ Jordan Peele’s alien-invasion western

Q: How is playing Emerald Haywood different from your other roles? Why is it important for characters like her to be portrayed in movies?

A: Emerald exists in life. I think it’s so important to show diverse Black female characters. In my life, I’m also the kind of female who wavers both on masculine and feminine energy. I pull from both ends, and I think most of us are that way in life no matter what gender we are. That’s also really important to showcase in film and television. I really love having a character that redefines what people think about women.

That also played into my balance of what strength looked like for Emerald, because she’s not just strong. She’s soft. I think that’s also important as a Black woman; I don’t want to be one-note and be strapped, because that’s an annoying stereotype.

Q: You’ve also previously talked about colorism in the entertainment industry. What does an opportunity of this scale mean to you?

A: I’m not the first or the only dark-skinned woman that’s received opportunities on this scale, but I think this just continues to redefine the concepts of what beauty is, what power is, and what it means to be a leading lady and somebody that is seen as a fierce leader.

All these different levels of representation are important. People see themselves on-screen or see people that relate to them, and it continues to give positive reinforcement. It doesn’t mean every single [story] has to be that way. But I think when it comes to something like this, we have a lot less of it than I think we should and we could, so I’m just grateful to be a part of it, to be able to play in that space.

Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer and Brandon Perea star in Jordan Peele’s alien-invasion western. (Video: Universal Pictures)

Q: You were eager to work with Jordan Peele. What drew you to his work, and what was it like on set getting to work with him?

A: He’s just so thoughtful, and he has something to say. I really connect with Peele’s films: His approach to filmmaking is very much like an artist, like somebody who’s done a painting or sculptures. It’s very open-ended, but it has a direct view. It’s specific. When you really take a deep dive into it, you’ll realize that every stroke was connected to the next. And even still, within that, it’s up for your interpretation. That is just so unique.

I can be very journalistic and observational. I think there was half of me that was really watching, learning and creating the space for mentorship to learn from the relationship that Jordan had with his producers and … actors. I felt like I was going to an art school, and I got an internship to watch Jordan Peele film a movie.

He empowers the other people on set. He has a clear vision, but he also trusts the people that he’s hired. As an actor, I just wanted to make sure that I was listening and making sure that I could tell his story, because I also really believed in what he was trying to do. It’s just a very cool and genuinely collaborative process.

Q: What do you hope people will take away from this movie?

A: There’s a lot. I would love [for people] to take away the brother and sister relationship, and just how beautiful some of these platonic relationships are in our lives: the ones that we take for granted, the ones that we don’t necessarily call on until you really, really need them; the people that really know us and see us.

I want people to see the value in that instead of the value that we put on being validated, or being popular or creating a moment for ourselves. The kind of seeing we actually want doesn’t come from popularity. It comes in genuine connections.

And then [I want people to] know how exploitation is not great. We need to be more conscious of what our intentions are as it pertains to things that are captivating us and the way we are interacting with it. What does it actually say about you? To see something — whether it be beautiful, scary, miraculous or intriguing — what does it say about you for your first step to be to exploit it?

Q: You’re multitalented and wear many hats. You’re an actress (“Lightyear”), producer (“Alice”), show host (“Password”) and competition show judge (“Legendary”). What would you say is your favorite right now?

A: I love that you said “right now,” because that’s exactly how it is. I’m really feeling personality-hosting and producing, because I’m really feeling me and myself more than portraying someone else. Even though my personality in hosting is still a performative aspect of who I am, it’s a little bit closer to who I am than playing a character or a role.

The producing aspect really allows me to be a more [toned]-down version of myself, which also is awesome. I’m in a regeneration stage of trying to rejuvenate myself and prepare for whatever that next challenging thing could possibly be on camera, and stretching my skill set in other areas. Because I know that’s only going to make me a better artist all around.

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