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At age 29, “Nope” star Keke Palmer has already racked up two decades in show business. She acts, sings, hosts a TV show and is the face of numerous memes — and she has big plans for more. If her public persona is like Mickey Mouse, she says, then “I’m Walt Disney.”
In this episode of “The Envelope,” Palmer shares what it was like to work with Jordan Peele on his blockbuster sci-fi thriller, how she felt about being her family’s breadwinner during her childhood and the advice Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett gave her on the set of “Akeelah and the Bee.” Also, Whoopi Goldberg, if you’re reading: She wants to talk to you about “Sister Act 3.” Listen now wherever you get your podcasts.
Mark Olsen: Hello, and welcome to another episode of “The Envelope.” Today’s guest is someone who has already had quite an impressive, multifaceted career at just 29. She’s an actress, singer, TV host, meme queen. I’m talking, of course, about Keke Palmer. Did I miss anything, Yvonne?
Yvonne Villarreal: Well, she just joined the hosting club of “Saturday Night Live,” where, by the way, she revealed she’s pregnant. So in short, we’re slacking, Mark. A lot. But, yes, it’s such an exciting time to talk with Keke.
This summer, she really wowed critics and audiences with her performance in Jordan Peele’s “Nope,” really showing off her comedy and drama muscles.
In the film, she plays Emerald Haywood, the exuberant sister of Daniel Kaluuya’s more serious character, O.J. The two siblings discover this curious — and threatening — presence in the sky and set out to capture it on camera. It’s this social thriller that tackles many poignant themes like race, exploitation in art, and capitalism.
Jordan actually wrote Emerald specifically for Keke. And some have already called it her best performance yet. It’s quite the peak to an already storied career.
But, Mark, I’m curious: When did she sort of get on your radar?
Olsen: Of course, I saw her as a child performer in “Akeelah and the Bee,” but that seems so long ago now. I think I really took notice of Keke in her current incarnation with “Hustlers,” as one of the dancers who scammed their clients at a nightclub. Her energy just burst right off the screen.
Villarreal: Oh, for sure. She’s got such a vibrant personality, and it’s been fun to see how it’s evolved as her career has matured. In our conversation, she tried to unpack how she maintains her sense of self and that authenticity while surrounded by everyone else’s perceptions of her. And we also get into how she plans to take her career to the next level — and let’s just say, I was taking a lot of notes. But enough about me, let’s get into the conversation.
Villarreal: Keke, thanks so much for joining me today.
Keke Palmer: Yes, thanks for having me.
Villarreal: So Keke, you’ve been working in show business for a long time. I actually want to read through some of these numbers out loud. You’re 29 years old right now. And this is your 20th year in show business. How does it feel to be marking this moment in time with what is arguably your biggest role to date as Emerald in Jordan Peele’s “Nope”?
Palmer: It feels incredible. The whole experience was just something I’d never experienced before, and so I’m just grateful to still be able to surprise myself or for the industry to surprise me after 20 years of doing it.
Villarreal: What about “Nope” felt new for you as an actor, as a performer? In what ways did you surprise yourself or see your capabilities in a new light?
Palmer: I think being able to, first of all, have the space to explore on such a scale with someone that is obviously as gifted and talented as Jordan Peele was incredible, but then also still being able to reach a dramatic place and an emotional spot with Emerald, that a character that usually is deemed as the comic relief doesn’t usually have. So I was happy about being able to kind of bridge these two archetypes of jester and orphan together to create, you know, what is the character Emerald. And then I would say the collaborative aspect of the project I think was unique. Jordan is an extremely collaborative writer and director. Maybe that comes from his background with sketch and just being a talented comedian. Regardless of what the reason is, I was really appreciative of it. It’s a type of experience that I will just always remember. I really just really adore him.
Villarreal: I want to expand on that a little bit. What’s a note that you remember him giving you before a scene that really helped you find what you were after or really helped you give him what he was looking for?
Palmer: He’s not really overly notey. The way that I think he gives direction is based off of a conversation or a feeling or a space in which he puts you in. He kind of creates the stage and allows you to perform through that. I just remember the specific scene that we had at the end where I’m screaming to my brother. I’m like, “Come on, come on,” when I’m on the motorcycle. And I remember feeling so — through the conversation and through what we were talking about, I remember getting so frustrated and feeling so frustrated and then finding myself giving that exact performance, which was exactly what Emerald was.
It was the conversation that we had leading up to that that brought me to that place. And I just remember feeling very happy about the performance because, again, of the space he creates.
Jordan is not afraid to take up time and to take up space, but I think him having the background that he has as a performer as well, that allows him to then create that space for other actors in a way that I think doesn’t generally happen unless the director really is experienced with actors or is an actor himself, you know what I mean?
Villarreal: Yeah. Well, and Jordan has said that you’re a brilliant improviser — that in at least one case, you gave him like 14 wildly different takes on a scene. Tell us about that scene and what you were going for, what parts of it were improvised. Break it down for me.
Palmer: Well, I am the kind of performer that — honestly, in this, I always tell people that sometimes I hate this because I put it all on the table, so much so that sometimes people push me further. And I’m like, “You guys, now, come on now.” It’s almost like you can see that someone can hit a three-pointer, so you’re making them hit three-pointers every damn second, even when they’re not f—ing necessary. You’re like, “Come on, give me a damn break.” And so that was one of the first few days of shooting, and this monologue that my character had was not even in the original script. It was something I found out the week before filming, like, “When the hell did I get this monologue? When the hell did Jordan write me this goddamn monologue?”
I’m an overachiever by nature. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a middle child or if it’s because I’m a Virgo, but I overprepare in every scenario, and he kept on doing takes of it, you know? And I was doing it, there was no mistakes. So I was just performing it and performing, and then as we start getting to the sixth time, the seventh time, I’m like, “Well, s—, let me add something to it so he’s not just seeing the same performance over and over again.” And it was like the last scene that we filmed of the day and we had like maybe 30 minutes, 20 minutes or something to get it. And so I was like, “S—, I’m gonna go balls to the wall.” And I just started improv-ing. And I had a lot of fun enjoying that.
Villarreal: You’re gonna have to give me some tips, ’cause sometimes even with this podcast, they’re asking me to improvise in the intro and I’m like, “Guys, I don’t want to mess up. I don’t want to not give you what you want.” I get in my head.
Villarreal: How long before you got out of your head to be able to do that?
Palmer: I think I’ve always been an improviser in life. And what I mean by that is, I hate dead space. So whenever there’s dead space or something awkward going on, I’m, like, “Yeah. So yeah, you know what I’m saying? Like, myahh.” I just end up trying to do something to fill that space. So it’s kind of like a nervous tic. I’ll be honest that the natural or innate ability to kind of improv is so that there’s no empty space.
I think I became aware of it and started honing in on it through practice. I did a little bit of it, obviously, on “True Jackson, VP,” which was a multicam sitcom, but it was on a kid network, so I was limited in terms of how, where I could grow in that facet. But it definitely helped me hone into my comedic skills. And then after that, I ended up doing “Scream Queens,” and I remember I did some improv sessions, because I felt like, “Hey, I don’t know how many lines Ryan Murphy’s going to give me for this, but I’m definitely going to make sure that I’m ready, and when the lights are on me, I’m going to offer something different or try to improv and add what I can.”
I also watch great people like Niecy Nash. I watched her improv, and I’m the kind of person that studies through visualization. So watching her and seeing her also helped. I think the biggest thing is just to go for it and not be afraid to go for it.
It’s all rhythmic, you know, what you add and what you say and what you do and all that stuff — it should come from a place that you think is true to the character. And then also it’s musical. I think whether it’s lines or whether it’s improv, everything is, for me, about the rhythm of the scene. It’s never about trying to steal a moment or take a moment, it’s all about riding the waves and adding to the moment. And then as it pertains to hosting, it’s just about not letting it get awkward.
Villarreal: Well, I’ll wait for your masterclass and pay lots of money to take that. I’m curious about how the themes of the film resonate with you because “Nope” gives a unique commentary on the film industry, on Hollywood, especially as it relates to tokenism and the desire to feel seen. And you started in the industry at such a young age and were probably sort of marred by the sense of what opportunities would be available to you. So how has the idea of feeling seen in the industry evolved for you?
Palmer: For me, there is something very meta about the way that this film was casted. It’s interesting, the storyline of Steven Yeun and then the storyline of my character and the fact that I’m also a child actor playing this character. I feel so similarly about how I’ve been able to not allow the industry to define me and to tear me apart, essentially.
Coming from being a child entertainer and thinking that there was one way that I had to be or survive or be validated, to then realizing that nothing validates me as an entertainer [other] than me entertaining. It’s not how many people are watching me. It’s not who’s watching me. It’s not what awards I’ve received. It’s not the popularity that I have or the trends that I’m catching or starting. It’s about the fact that I’m just literally genuinely an artist.
Emerald, though she was not like me, she went on a journey of thinking that she had to be seen in order to be valid as a person, to — at the end of this film, when she was working so hard to be seen — she is finally seen and it’s not even what she expected it to be.
I think ultimately what I took from it was just that being seen, in our generation and definitely for me personally, has been based off of so many things that’s not real. And the only thing that really is real in our lives, or the only true people that really see us, are the ones that have always been there from the beginning, are the ones that have always loved us, cared for us, acknowledged us. It’s the ones that sometimes we take for granted.
Villarreal: Who are those people for you?
Palmer: Definitely, my immediate family. My mom, my dad, my sisters, my brother, they’ve always seen me. They showcase that in the movie between Emerald and O.J. where there’s a moment where she’s trying to bring up this memory of him seeing her and he doesn’t really acknowledge it. But then in the end, you know it was true all along that he did see her and he was the one that always saw her.
Family doesn’t always give you what you want when you want it, you know what I’m saying? And family, they’re always dealing with their own stuff as well. We all are struggling and trying to figure out how we want to exist in this world. So for Emerald, she showcased that in a lot of different ways, and most of that experience going far away from home and exploring all these different aspects and trying to chase what many of us chase, I think a lot of that is sometimes subconscious. It’s not something active, I don’t think.
I think my love for entertainment has always been genuine and it’s never been based off of fame, but I think when you are in an industry that’s constantly exploiting you, it’s hard not to know when you are now playing a part in that exploitation yourself. And that is, I think, really expressed well in the film as it pertains to Steven Yeun’s character, who goes from being the exploited Asian kid on a very popular American television show to then exploiting himself as an adult, years later.
Villarreal: Looking back, could you identify a moment like that early in your career of feeling that exploitation?
Palmer: Yeah, I mean I think I was always at — the exploitation, I don’t think it’s always this terrifying thing. I think sometimes, many of the times, it is, but other times, it’s just kind of like a part of it. I think everybody’s exploited in the entertainment industry. I think it becomes dangerous when you are exploited against your will or you are exploited in the ways that you do not wish. You look at a situation like Britney Spears, and she was exploited in ways that just totally were unfair and not aligned with probably what she truly wanted as a young woman. Whereas me, I think my parents definitely did do a good job at making sure that I was not exploited in ways that made me feel less as a person.
When you look at my roles and the things that I played, especially as a kid, they were roles that could only make me feel proud about who I am. I was a national spelling bee champ. I was the star of a football team. Double dutch champion. I was the vice president of my own fashion company. So they really, they were careful about the ways in which I was being put on display that it was something that in the end, that I could be proud of. But there is the aspect of that, as a child entertainer, especially once those opportunities disappear, where you have to figure out what you’re going to do and how you’re going to work from there. And I think that’s when things can be tricky. And I think I really just took my time with it and didn’t focus on hey, trying to be popular, but trying to figure out what stories I wanted to tell and how I wanted to impact artistry as a whole.
Villarreal: I want to turn now to your origin story and the film that really launched your career, which, as you mentioned, was “Akeelah and the Bee.” When the film came out, it had hugely positive reviews for your performance. I remember seeing it in the theaters. And you were just 12 years old. I’m curious, what was it like to be on a set of a big movie for the first time?
Palmer: I was 10 when I auditioned for the movie, and then I was 11 when the movie actually filmed, and then I was 12 when the movie actually came out. And even though I was really, obviously it was a lot of responsibility, I truly enjoyed being somebody that people could count on. I always had, as a little kid, loved when somebody entrusted me with something. And as an actor on sets and as a performer, it is a responsibility to know your lines, to hit your mark, to do the proper performance, to display the proper emotion. And so all of that was like a game for me. So I just remember having a lot of fun and really enjoying being an actor.
I think specifically on “Akeelah and the Bee,” I experienced serious actors that also treated me like an actor. Not that they were mean, but they definitely did not give me any shortcuts or treat me like a kid, which I think is a blessing. Like, I remember when I did this one scene with Laurence Fishburne and I started laughing because he was crying in the scene and obviously he’s an older man and I’m like, “This old man is crying,” and I started laughing ’cause I was a little kid. And he really got serious with me. He was like, “This is unacceptable. You know, this is not what actors do to other actors. You have to hold this emotion and you have to be serious.” That’s something that stuck with me in that experience.
And then I remember when I did this one scene with Angela Bassett where, you know, this one particular scene, I was having trouble because there was so much chaos going on. I could not quiet the noise and really get into the performance. But the director was getting nervous, and he was a new director, and Angela said, “Just hold on and let me just talk to her. And when I start moving my hand like this behind my back, you don’t say action, don’t do anything, just start rolling the cameras.”
Angela starts talking to me and she’s like, “You love acting, don’t you?” And I said, “Yes.” And she said, “Who helps you with your acting?” And I said, “My mom. My mom and I, we do it together, and she always helps me with my lines and she helps me learn everything.” And she said, “Well, what if your mother said to you one day: I’m not going to help you anymore. Everything that we’ve done together, it means nothing, and you’re not going to be able to have my help anymore. You’re going to have to figure out how to do all of this on your own.”
And so Angela says all that. And then I shake my head yes and I start getting watery eyed, and she goes into the lines and we do the whole scene and we do the whole moment. And I remember that. I remember her teaching me how to attach my real-life emotions to something that the character was experiencing. To put it in context, which is — what’s happening that we all could relate to is that Akeelah was losing her support system. And we got that emotional scene.
Villarreal: That’s so powerful, and I don’t want to diminish any of that, but I have to say I really liked your understated Angela Bassett impersonation.
Palmer: Ha ha! If anybody’s going to give you an Angela Bassett impression, honey, it’s going to be me. You know I can serve you Angela Bassett impression! My latest one that she has me gagged about is when she’s like, “If God is for you, then who can be against you? No one.” Why? Why? I just want to know why she’s so fierce at every damn moment. It doesn’t make sense.
Villarreal: Now, Keke, I want to talk more about those early days of your career and the way your parents shaped your trajectory.
Some people may not know that your parents were actors themselves but when you and your siblings were born, they set aside performing for more steady careers. And later, when it became clear that you had so much promise as a child actor, they sold their house and moved the family to Pasadena.
What do you remember about that period? That’s a lot of change they took on to help you pursue your dreams. Did that weigh on you at all?
Palmer: No. That didn’t weigh on me until many years later. I was much too young. I think what I was just thinking about was, “We going on a road trip. I’m with my family and we’re about to have some fun. I can’t wait to be acting. We’re going to be living in California. I’m so glad for us all to be here together.” Because my parents worked so much in Illinois that I was also excited about the fact that I, me and my siblings were going to get them all to ourselves, and so I was very excited.
Villarreal: So did your parents stop working when they moved to California? Did they find different types of jobs out here? Were they strictly focused on you?
Palmer: So both my parents worked back in Illinois. And so when we first moved to California, the idea was for my dad to find a job and then for my mom to continue to work with me more full-time. And then my older sister, she was really missing her old life and having her freshman year of high school. So my parents said, “Hey, you can stay in Chicago for another year to experience your freshman year. And then when you, you know, after that you gotta come back.” ’Cause we are a very tight-knit family.
And then the twins, my little brother and sister, they weren’t just in school yet. So I remember them having babysitters on the set of “Akeelah and the Bee” and things like that. But ultimately what happened is that it just hit a point where my dad could no longer do a job because if he did a job, then there would be nobody to take care of my older sister and my younger siblings because my mom was always with me. So it was like, all of our roles were switched. I became the financial breadwinner because my career was bringing in the most money, and my parents wanted to support me but they couldn’t have their own jobs because their own jobs would not even allow them to really be able to sustain a stable household.
So everybody’s positions were flipped upside down, which is why some years after that, I did start to feel pressure. I started to realize that I was the financial breadwinner, and that if I didn’t have a job, who would have a job? Or how could my parents have a job? Or how could we sustain the same lifestyle even if they did have a job? Because I was making the kind of money that many people never make. It put us in a crazy position.
Villarreal: Was there a time where your childhood years as an actor were, I don’t know, annoying, where you were trying to get out of that shadow? And what have you sort of come to appreciate about that time in terms of how it shaped you to be the actor you are today?
Palmer: Hmm. I remember there was something that people were saying when I came out in Time and they said “rising star.” And that offended some people that they said “rising star,” and I’m like, “Well, s—, I don’t want to be at my destination. You know?” So if, if I’m —
Villarreal: Right, right,
Palmer: — if after 20 years I’m still considered a rising star, well, where the hell y’all see me going? If this is, if I’m continuously, I’m still continuously rising? I’m about to be at the goddamn stratosphere. So for me, I don’t know if I hated the shadow of it. I think I was always proud of the work I did as a kid. I think what I hated was that people thought it should end there.
Child actors are so often seen as has-beens, especially ones that have reached any type of major success: had their own TV shows or household names or anything like that. Once that chapter is over, people are like, “Oh, I remember when.” And it’s like, “I’m only 18 years old!” So I think that, for me, was a little bit weird because that was just one chapter of my life. Even now I still don’t feel like I’ve reached the best chapters of my life. You know what I mean? I’m approaching 30 in 2023, and this still is just the beginning for me.
So I think that was the thing, was dealing with other people just trying to constantly put their perceptions of what my life should be like, and being able to just remove myself from that and still maintain my sense of self, is something that I’m very proud of myself to have been able to do. Because I think that’s difficult. You know, it’s difficult for everybody to keep telling you who you are.
Villarreal: Yeah. Well, in addition to “Nope,” you had a lot of projects on your plate this year. And I’m going to kindly ask that my editor not listen to this, ’cause I don’t want them to expect this kind of output. But you voiced a character in “Lightyear,” which was Pixar’s latest addition to the Toy Story series. You starred in the thriller “Alice.” You took on a TV host for NBC’s game show “Password.” I’m curious how you decide what’s worth taking on. What are you after at this point in your career?
Palmer: I take things on that I feel excited about. Simple as that. Things that I’m excited about, things that I want to do, things that I haven’t done before, things that I think I’ll have fun doing. What drove me for so many years is making sure that I could create a sustainable or stable brand that could then serve as the business model for me as a businesswoman. I think that I’ve been able to successfully do that where the brand is Keke Palmer. If I were to put an example behind it, it would be, like, Keke Palmer’s Mickey Mouse and I’m Walt Disney.
What I want my future to be is that I’m somebody that people can look to in terms of knowing how to market, how to build a brand, how to establish IP, how to create characters, how to tell stories, how to build marketing stories as well as narrative stories and just be able to be a real, genuine creative force on a cerebral level, not just a performer, you know what I’m saying? Like not just be the animator but actually be the person that’s sitting at the table making the major decisions. Yeah. I think what these earlier stages of my career and where I am now has really all been about, is establishing my brand and my ability to navigate the industry and create a sustainable career for myself.
Villarreal: Well, to sort of talk about that the person that you present versus being the mastermind — I’m curious because the internet loves you. You have fans that are always calling for you to take on a new role via the internet or they’re turning your interviews into memes. And I’m sort of curious: People are drawn to your authenticity, but when people come to expect you to react to what’s going on in the world with something funny or silly, how do you keep that from becoming a performance?
Palmer: I do think once people think that you are funny, you could be saying the most serious thing ever, and they think that it’s going to be funny. So there’s not much that you can do about how people are going to perceive you. For instance, I did not mean to be funny with “Sorry to this man.”
Villarreal: “Sorry to this man” is a viral moment from a Vanity Fair interview, when Keke was shown a picture of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
[Clip from Vanity Fair: PALMER: I don’t know who this man is. I mean he could be walking down the street — I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t know a thing. Sorry to this man.]
Palmer: There was like nothing in my bones that was like, “time to drop a little humor here.” Like that was so genuine on all levels of like, “Hell, I’m sorry. I don’t know who this man is, truly. And so I hope that nobody’s pissed at me for not knowing who this man is, if he’s important.” So like that was just such a genuine moment that you know, I can’t, I don’t know why people found that funny, and it was just something that was outta my control. And so, hey, it is what it is. So I think for me, you know, I just try my best to be genuine and authentic. All you can do is just keep being you.
Villarreal: I mean, if your performance in “Nope” is sort of a turning point in your career, what does the next half of your career look like to you? Like what are you after?
Palmer: I’m hoping it’s a hodgepodge between Dick Clark, Oprah Winfrey and Ron Howard slash Jordan Peele. That’s what I’m hoping. I’m hoping that there is some ownership, some creating spaces for the next generation, some cool, fun, original IP, as well as being able to be a host and have fun, you know, bring fun shows, games, things to the forefront. I’m just in the middle of everything, and that’s why I have to bring so many names together to say who I am, because I really am a unique hodgepodge of a lot of the things that I admire.
I love what Dick Clark was able to do in terms of being a host and creating a brand and creating an identity of things that people can look toward for many, many years to come. Very iconic things. That’s exciting to me, especially to be able to do that for my culture as it pertains to Gen Z, millennials and BIPOC people. I just would love to be able to do that. And then I love Oprah Winfrey for being a voice, for saying things that are important but also being something that people feel connected to. That to me is just so cool to be able to be a voice in that way, to be somebody that people just want to hang out with in their living room on a Saturday afternoon. I love that.
And then when I look at people like Ron Howard and Jordan Peele, I mean, I love Ron Howard for being a child star. I used to watch him on “Andy Griffith” with my dad. He became who he is today, from “American Graffiti” to directing and to producing. That’s the way you want to do it. And the same thing with Jordan — going from being a comedian and being somebody that people thought only did one thing to then transforming an entire genre and offering something that wouldn’t otherwise have been offered. So for me, I kind of look at all those critical pieces that those people have offered to me. And I want to be able to somewhat do the same in all the different fields that I’ve been able to pave for myself.
Villarreal: You didn’t mention Beyonce, and —
Palmer: And you know I love.
Villarreal: — you have a singing career. Is that still something you want to keep pursuing too?
Palmer: It is. It is. And for me it has to come into the form of also theater. It has to also have the theatrics. I’m very excited about what I can do with music as it pertains to storytelling as well. When I did “Star,” for Fox, I really loved — and I know my audience really loved — seeing me in that narrative story with music, and so I’m very excited about exploring even more of that. So I’m glad you brought that up. So yes, there’s definitely, you know, Beyonce’s my girl. “Alien Superstar,” that is what you are.
Villarreal: Well, to sort of combine those thoughts, and I’m not trying to generate headlines, this is for me and my happiness: Whoopi Goldberg announced recently that she’s working on a third film of “Sister Act,” and she’d love for you to star in it alongside Lizzo and Nicki Minaj. What was your reaction to that and how do we make this happen?
Palmer: My reaction was, “Whoopi, where do I sign on the dotted line? Because Whoopi, I’m ready. I’m ready for whatever that you need from me.” OK, Whoopi is an EGOT winner. Whoopi had her own one-woman show. Whoopi hosted the Oscars. Whoopi is everything! So for her to mention me for the “Sister Act,” I mean, I’m here, I’m there for whatever that needs to be done, just call me up. It was awesome. And I’m here for Lizzo and the Nicki Minaj of it all as well.
Villarreal: We need to find a way to get this interview to Whoopi so we can be a part of this sort of manifesting of this role.
Palmer: Yes. I’m here for this.
Villarreal: I can’t wait for it to happen. Well, Keke, it was such a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you for taking the time.
Palmer: Pleasure’s all mine. Thank you so much.