Keke Palmer was at home in New York, “hanging out on the couch, or whatever,” when she got the call. Jordan Peele, her management said, wanted a chat. Top-secret, obviously. “And I’m like, are y’all serious? He wants to talk to me about his new film?” She sounds incredulous, having worked with Peele only once before in 2013, on his sketch show with comedy collaborator Keegan-Michael Key (“Girl, it was the smallest little thing”).
The call led to a digital copy of a script, programmed to auto-delete if you screenshot it. And that became 28-year-old Palmer’s starring role in Nope, Peele’s grab at summer blockbuster status. The sci-fi horror follows his Oscar-winning directorial debut Get Out, and 2019’s Us. And in it, Palmer’s Emerald Haywood and her older brother OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) resolve to make history. Somewhere out there, in a white-hot sky above their family’s dusty horse ranch, they are pretty sure they can see a UFO. Their goal? Capturing it on film. The story is about spectacle, but it’s also about the sweaty-palmed hustle culture Hollywood attracts – and siblings who know precisely how to both support and annoy each other.
Palmer’s not new to this. She has been in everything from tween sitcoms to the critically acclaimed Hustlers. She has even voiced a lovebug in Netflix’s filthy animated comedy Big Mouth and its spin-off Human Resources. Emerald Haywood is, though, her highest billing on a feature film as an adult. How does she react to Nope being described as her big break?
“It’s pretty normal, I think, especially as a Black entertainer,” she says. It reminds her of an old interview she saw, maybe with Luther Vandross. She remembers he was asked – and she puts on a newsreader voice – “How does it feel to be mainstream?” To which she believes he replied: “Well, I’ve always been mainstream; you’ve just found out.”
Nope seems moulded for Palmer. As a former child star, she has something in common with Ricky “Jupe” Park, the character played in the film by Steven Yeun. “I really related to it,” she says. “I think performing in general is exploitative. I think that being a child entertainer is really exploitative, because you don’t even know your limits yourself,” she says, on a sofa in an empty central London hotel room. “And a lot of what you later envision as a memory is actually trauma.”
She says this looking perfectly calm. As the air-con gusts, Palmer huddles under a pristine white bathrobe which was draped across her by one of her handlers as we started to speak. Palmer pulls the robe up to her chin. Anyone charmed by a widely shared Vanity Fair interview snippet, where she politely and hilariously explained that she couldn’t identify ex-US vice-president Dick Cheney – “sorry to this man” – would see a quieter side to her today.
Clips of her filmed interviews often become memes. “I’ve had people discover me from the ‘sorry to this man’ meme,” rather than acting roles, she says. She doesn’t mind. Leaning forward, she will take in a question, sometimes playing with the ends of her long cornrows under the robe, a powered-down Energiser bunny version of the viral Keke Palmer.
Born in Harvey, Illinois, then raised in nearby Robbins, Palmer was encouraged to perform by her parents. Singing, acting – it didn’t matter. Aged nine, she starred in Barbershop 2: Back in Business, as the niece of Queen Latifah’s Gina. At 10, she was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award, opposite William H Macy in The Wool Cap (she lost to Glenn Close). Her milestones kept coming: NAACP Image award-winner for Akeelah and the Bee in 2007, and for Nickelodeon sitcom True Jackson, VP; talkshow host of Just Keke on BET, aged 20; the first Black Cinderella on Broadway in 2014.
As a Nickelodeon and Disney actor, she learned to hit her marks, something Peele includes in Nope. “I liked how Jordan put that story in there,” she says, grinning. “There’s so many themes about the film industry, how degenerative it is, and the people that it chews up and spits out.”
Her character, Emerald, seems more than happy to be a jack of all trades in entertainment, reeling off her skills to the crew on a horse wrangling job, while OJ looks on, like a man-sized eye roll. Both siblings (but really OJ) have taken over their father’s horse-wrangling business, after he died in mysterious circumstances. OJ, a sullen foil to sparky Emerald, thinks footage of the UFO could change their fortunes.
Emerald and OJ are the fictional descendants of the real, unknown Black jockey in Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering 19th-century picture sequences depicting bodies in motion. “You have a character like Emerald, who’s trying to keep the legacy of her family alive,” Palmer says. “And then you have someone like me, who’s playing her. There’s something very meta about it” – as though Palmer is the successful real-life version of who Emerald strives to be.
Beyond that, Palmer – like Emerald – knows about navigating the entertainment business as a Black woman. Race and racism aren’t the central subject in Nope, as they were in Get Out. Still, Peele puts Black characters at the centre of his films in a way that can trip up people when they expect racism itself to be the point. “This is just his perspective,” Palmer says. “Yes, there are nuances in there that can speak to the Black experience specifically, but it’s life, life stories.”
What does she make of playing a Black character whose Blackness is almost taken for granted? “I think it’s great. I mean, I don’t think that Steven Spielberg casts white people because he doesn’t like Black people. I think it’s from his perspective.” If she were to write a script, she reckons she would “end up writing about a Black woman” just the same. “It’s just what I can relate to.”
I meet Palmer days after she responded to a tweet thread implying she’s less successful than mixed-race Euphoria lead actor Zendaya because Palmer is darker-skinned. Both were Disney stars. How does she process moments like that? “Yeah … oof.” A very long pause. “It’s difficult. I’m asked about it a lot, you know? Before that little tweet even came out.” She tries again. “People would always ask me: ‘How do you deal with colorism? How do you deal with being Black in this industry?’ And the answer I’m gonna give you may not be the answer that you want. Because the truth is, I ignore it. I ignore it.”
For some time, she works through this out loud. Her words cascade, then suddenly stop. Ultimately, she is saying that, sure, racism exists. But if she spent all of her time stressing about it, she’d never get anything done. “I just hate when the narrative goes to a place where I think young girls might look and say: ‘I’m a victim.’ When yes, racism is real. Colorism is real.” But an imagined Zendaya v Keke Palmer face-off isn’t real. “You believe I’m not doing enough, not because I’m not but because you don’t believe that I can be enough. And that is colorism.”
What disturbs her more is being turned into an object of pity. “You should actually use me as an example of what I was able to accomplish despite what I was up against. Don’t change the story of somebody who has given hope to make them hopeless,” she says, with a “huh!” chuckle. “The real conversation around colorism and Keke Palmer should be that she defied the odds.”
She wasn’t raised to reason with racists. “If you feel like the Boo-Boo-Jones awards don’t show love to Black people, then stop going,” she begins, sounding exasperated. “Don’t ask somebody to care about your ass if they don’t care about you. Go where you’re celebrated, not where you have to beg to get in.” That’s why, she thinks aloud, she’s not as scarred by prejudice. “It’s not because I’m not experiencing it or haven’t been on the receiving end of it. Of course I have been. But … OK? Then, ‘Fuck you, too,’ and you move the hell on to where people appreciate you. That’s all you can do.” It’s why, she thinks, she’s able to work consistently. And perhaps why the calls keep coming.