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Keke Palmer Feels Seen by All Her Memes: “It Really Touches Me”

The Nope star talks about the curveballs Jordan Peele threw on set, meeting the real Daniel Kaluuya, and overcoming the stigma against child stars. 
Daniel Kaluuya Keke Palmer Brandon Perea in Nope 2022.
Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea in Nope, 2022.By Universal/ Everett Collection.

“I wish you could see what’s going on right now!” Keke Palmer exclaims over the phone. She’s in the back of a car, having just finished a taping for a late-night series. There are fans everywhere, vying so loudly for her attention that Palmer’s team is trying to block the windows with bathrobes so Palmer can focus on the task at hand: talking about Nope, Jordan Peele’s latest cinematic spectacle. 

In the extraterrestrial horror film, Palmer plays Emerald, an extroverted animal trainer who, along with her brother, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), runs a legacy company training horses for Hollywood shoots. Emerald is bouncy and high-energy, flirting and networking her way across any room. But she switches gears when something extraterrestrial appears in the sky, determined to get a shot of it and get famous along the way. It’s a comment, Peele has said, on humanity’s obsession with spectacles

Palmer, as reviews have noted, is spectacular in the role. It’s is her latest high-profile performance, following her turn in Lorene Scafaria’s critically acclaimed Hustlers and coming before her role in Aziz Ansari’s Being Mortal. But for Palmer, performing is second nature. She began acting at 11 years old and never stopped, starring in everything from the family drama Akeelah and the Bee to the Nickelodeon series True Jackson, VP, to the Facebook Watch series Turnt Up With the Taylors, which earned Palmer her first prime-time Emmy in 2021. (Which is to say nothing of the robust other half of her career, which includes hosting talk shows and game shows, releasing music, and becoming a walking meme.) Nope has already launched early awards-season speculation for Palmer, who is, frankly, “having a little bit of a hard time processing it.”

“I’ve been doing this for so long, [but] this is still a very new experience in terms of the scale of this film and the attention that it’s getting,” she says. “But I’m going along with it.”

Vanity Fair: You worked with Jordan Peele on Key & Peele. Had you kept in touch over the years, or was this your first reunion with him? 

Keke Palmer: Nope was my reunion with him. I had not seen him at all since then. My management told me that his people had called saying, Hey, Jordan wants to talk to Keke about his next film. He gave me a light pitch of what the story actually is. I was following it and understanding it, but I was really excited to read the script. 

How guarded was the script? Does someone messenger it and take it back the second you’re done? 

They have a new application where the script literally deletes the moment you’re done reading it. I remember one time, I screenshotted a scene for reference to ask Jordan about it. And literally the moment I screenshotted it, it canceled my whole account. 

They’re not messing around. 

They’re serious about the script! Like, damn. I immediately apologized to Jordan. Like, I swear I wasn’t trying to send it to somebody! I just wanted to screenshot a reference.

Was there any special meaning behind the name of your character, Emerald? 

You know, I never asked about the choice of her name. But everything Jordan does is intentional. Nothing is by accident, so I’m sure there is a reason why her name is Emerald. I mean, you think about the concept of spectacles and the fact that one of the lead characters’ names is OJ. That, in reference to spectacles and what we exploit as far as stories and pop culture, could not be any more connected. 

There was that story going around about how many takes you did to nail your opening monologue. I loved your tweet where you were like, “To nail it? It’s called an embarrassment of riches.”

Oh, my God, it’s so funny that you just said it because Jordan just texted me saying, “I just told someone today how each of your safety speech takes was flawless.” That’s so random that you just said that right now! 

I know people don’t understand all the time how film works, but I wear that as a badge of honor because it’s actually not easy to do 14 takes back to back to back. To give options. You know what I mean? Especially when it’s a monologue. I’m just grateful that I still have the stamina that I had as a kid. I really think I owe that to Disney and Nickelodeon. Working with a large corporation at that age, I had to do a lot of things repetitively, whether it be marketing or whether it be [acting]. My ability to be consistent and to give variation comes from all those years of training as a child.

That reminds me of an interview David Fincher did where he said he used to not want to work with Disney kids or Nickelodeon kids because they were too polished. But then he started working with them and realized, these are real professionals. Did you ever feel like there was a stigma on Disney and Nickelodeon kids? 

Oh, my gosh, there’s a huge judgment that they’re not genuine actors. But when I was a kid, that era was keeping the lights on. That whole kid television [era]. Nickelodeon really was having major success with it, all the way back from All That and Kenan & Kel. The Disney Channel really started to pick up their pace when they had had Lizzie McGuire and Even Stevens and That’s So Raven. The writer and creator of True Jackson, VP was also a writer on Just Shoot Me. There were a lot of high-quality creatives working and creating shows for these talents, doing sitcoms that aren’t far off from the tone and tempo of some of our most beloved sitcoms, like I Love Lucy or Cheers. True Jackson, VP was a workplace sitcom like The Mary Tyler Moore Show. 

As entertainers, the easier you make something look, the more people think you’re not doing it. It’s a gift and a curse. People don’t think, as a child actor, that you’re really putting a lot of thought into it, but you really, really are. Most of us kids at that time, we know that we’re doing a wink and a nod. Those are still some of my most exciting years in terms of the stories I was able to tell to my generation. I still have people come up to me because of True Jackson. 

Jordan had also previously said the monologue you did wasn’t even in the original script. Is he a director who likes to throw a lot of curveballs? 

He is, but he’s not too scary about it. It’s not too Freaky Friday. Like, you show up to work on pins and needles. It could have been bad, but it was not. The thing is, once you show him what you can do, he pushes you to dig deeper. I was always down to go there. It was very collaborative and we were always serving the greater good of the film.

Speaking of a pins-and-needles situation, have you experienced the opposite with a director? 

By the grace of God, I never have. I’ve had some annoying experiences with the directors, because that’s normal workplace stuff, right? You’re not going to like everybody that you work with. I did one film where I was definitely like on pins and needles, not necessarily because of the director’s actions or creative attitude, but because of it being such a low budget film. Like, are y’all going to have the cameras we need? Are the materials correct? Do we have the lights? How much time we got here? Did the permit clear? 

But I care about getting the work and the art done. Obviously, I’m not going to let anybody disrespect me or do anything ridiculous like that, but artists can be odd. Creative people, they have idiosyncrasies about them, and I try not to take it personal. I try to be of service and leave the rest where it’s at.

I’m curious about your relationship with Daniel Kaluuya. His character in the film is very quiet and introspective. Was he like that on set? Did he stay in character? 

You know what, it’s intense for him because he has to do a whole accent change and everything. So for the most part, when we were on set, I would see more of him staying in his zone, to a certain degree. But we would still have everyday conversation. We have such good chemistry, naturally. We’re into the same things. We really were able to have fun.

But I’ll be honest, I don’t think I saw, was able to see the real Daniel and all the nuances of his personality, until I was able to hear his voice. Your accent is as much a part of your personality as what you’re saying. He’s really funny, and I don’t think he was able to give all his inflections while he was maintaining his American accent, because he held that American accent from beginning to end. Now he can actually be himself.

Your character is in show business, but she’s striving to do more. You’re the polar opposite: You are firmly in this business, you’re very successful. But everybody starts somewhere. As you were reading the part of Emerald, did it make you reflective about your career? 

Her journey did resonate me with me…[but] I think the difference that I had from Emerald was that she is chasing validation. She felt unseen in a lot of ways. So a lot of that pushes her to what she’s trying to achieve and the kind of attention she’s trying to get in the world. It’s relatable in the whole zeitgeist of what social media can create. Whatever you’re not getting at home, sometimes you end up going to the internet, or just outside of yourself, to find it. I can relate to that on a human level.

I don’t know if I originally realized the power of the internet. When I started going viral or doing sketches and stuff on Instagram, it was really just to be creative and to have fun and get immediate response and engagement from my audience in terms of what their interests were. It was the way that I piloted things. I was able to see what they find interesting about what I can bring to the table as an artist.

You mentioned going viral. You said something really touching in an interview last year about your memes: that because of fame, people feel really far away from you, but whenever a meme goes viral, it feels like people really see you. They see that you’re a real person. Is that still how you feel? 

It really is. I still feel that way. It’s a very humbling feeling. I’m a very noncelebrity kind of person, meaning I don’t live my life very lavishly. I have lavish moments, like we all do, but I don’t really exist in that space. So when those viral moments happen and people are saying, Oh, my gosh, that’s so me, I’m really happy that they are seeing me outside of their perception of what my life is, and just seeing me as a normal person, whether it’s somebody that reminds them of their sister, their brother, their friend. It really touches me. I’m just a normal person. I’m just an everyday girl. 

They’re so funny. I think the latest one is from the V.F. video, where you say “Who the hell are they?” 

If they end up selling it as an NFT, just give me a little something. Break me off something! I was living for, “Who the hell are they?” It’s just so funny how everybody takes them out of context. I saw something I did for another interview where I was like, “Ooh, they thought I was dead.” And somebody wrote, That’s what the roach said after they stepped on me a hundred times. The internet? I live for the way that they are real-life comedians, girl.

I have a follow-up to the “Sorry to this man” meme, because it’s my favorite. After finding out who Dick Cheney was, are you actually sorry to that man? 

No, girl. I didn’t even honestly do the research. I left him where he was at. I hate to say that. I really did. Everybody was like, It was Dick Cheney! And I’m like, still means nothing. The way people were coming up to me, telling me who he was, it seemed like he wasn’t worth me doing the research on. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.