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All Eyes on Keke Palmer: How the ‘Nope’ Star Earned Hollywood’s Trust

For Keke Palmer, the Hollywood grind has been real (and rewarding). With Jordan Peele’s third film, ‘Nope,’ Palmer’s claiming the spot she’s worked hard for.

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

When the character Emerald Haywood first appears in the new movie Nope, gusting into the picture with gale-force authority and bluster, she promptly whips up audiences’ interest, both real and imagined. It’s not just the viewers sitting in the movie theater, watching Jordan Peele’s latest film about some rather uninvited guests, who find themselves with all eyes on Emerald—it’s most of the people milling around on-screen, too.

Confident and competent and played by 28-year-old Keke Palmer, Emerald is a kid sister, a hustler, and a natural performer capable of making even the most rehearsed speech sound in-the-moment and off-the-cuff. In her opening scene, which takes place in the middle of an equine-involved Hollywood shoot, she pairs a loud green sweater with a leopard-print tank top and rattles off her family’s long history with cinematic horses to the cast and crew. “Did you know,” she asks, “that the very first assembly of photographs to create a motion picture was a two-second clip of a black man on a horse? And that man is my great-great-grandfather.” Her brother OJ, more of a strong, silent type portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya, stands by, side-eyes his sis, and reminds her that there’s one more “great-.” He has seen her spiel many times before, though that’s by design: He’s not really a guy who would have much interest in delivering it himself. Not everyone is born to entertain!

But Emerald clearly is. And so is Palmer, the actress who plays her with a magnetic mix of giddy charm and also, crucially, artful restraint. (As any good saleswoman or showman knows, you can get far more out of that first trait if you mix in some of the second.) Palmer has been in show business ever since she was in grade school. By age 14, she had already picked up a SAG Award nomination for one film; played the titular role in another; and recorded a studio album. Her resume includes musicals; a Nickelodeon show (and theme!); a film about strippers; one of history’s dankest memes; and the Video Music Awards. She can do a mean Kamala Harris impression; she has made Timothée Chalamet melt.

All of this is to say that it almost feels disrespectful to suggest that her work in Nope might constitute a breakout role, the kind capable of changing the trajectory and tranche of a career. After all, she began getting breaks long ago. Still, watching her performance of Emerald—all the fist bumps, the twirls, the earnest squeals about Oprah, the things left unsaid—it also seems undeniable that in the same way Palmer lifts the movie, the movie is poised to elevate Palmer. For years, she has earned her audience’s appreciation, time and again. But now she’ll have everyone’s attention, too.

Earlier this week, as she walked the red carpet at the Nope premiere, Palmer told Variety that it had been stressful to keep secrets about Nope’s premise and plot. Ever since the runaway success of Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out (2017), which grossed more than $255 million worldwide for its mix of social commentary and dread, his follow-up projects had been treated with a mix of reverence and frenzy, and Palmer fielded lots of questions about what this film, Peele’s third, was about.

“I’m like, ‘Just don’t ask me about this damn movie,’” Palmer said, “because I want to work with Jordan again, and if I slip up and tell you something, then I’m gonna be the one in trouble.” (Palmer first collaborated with Peele in 2013, when she appeared in a bit on his Comedy Central program Key & Peele at age 17 as an “anger translator for Malia Obama.”) To make sure she didn’t slip up, she relied on a stock answer. “‘It’s a thriller,’” she would say. “‘It’s an adventure, and it’s about a spectacle.’”

All that is true: the film has jump cuts and mystery; motorcycles and blood; a carnival barker (of sorts) and an eye in the sky. But her co-star Kaluuya identified another aspect of the film, one that is different but no less broad: It’s about family. Nope has a tiny cast, and the two characters with the most screen time are OJ and Emerald, who project all the fraught familiarity and ancient history that comes along with modern sibdom. “That brother-sister narrative, I feel, was a really unique arc in modern cinema,” Kaluuya said on the red carpet. “You don’t really see narratives like that, we call it ‘siblance.’ Just two people who love each other, but really annoy each other.”

There is plenty of siblance on display the first time viewers are introduced to Emerald in Nope. OJ is both relieved to see her and irritated that she does her job with a little too much flair. Emerald’s arrival on set briefly saves the shoot, right up until it doesn’t. Part of her character’s speech wound up in the first cryptic trailer for Nope that debuted during the Super Bowl—an inclusion made more noteworthy by reports that the scene was a formidable one to get right. “Keke came in and did, I don’t know, probably about 14 takes,” Peele told IndieWire. “Each one of them really very wildly different, uncuttably so. But just a tour de force.” Palmer told IndieWire that she couldn’t remember if her monologue was even in the original script. “When it came, I was like, ‘OK, you’re putting me to the test, Jordan,’” she said.

If those words sound familiar, it’s because they’re quite similar to what has been, to this point, probably Palmer’s most famous moment: that time in 2019 when she took a lie detector test for a recurring Vanity Fair segment and, in doing so, revealed that she was unfamiliar with the former Vice President of the United States. “Who the hell is … ooh, y’all are really testing me on some stuff,” Palmer said at the time as she stared blankly at a photo of Dick Cheney that was put in front of her. “I hate to say it. I hope I don’t sound ridiculous. I don’t know who this man is. He could be walking down the street, I wouldn’t... I wouldn’t know a thing.” Politely, she slid the photo back across the table to her interlocutor. “Sorry to this man,” she said, one of those lines that now lives forever.

The reason Palmer had been shown the photo in the first place was as a reference to the Nickelodeon show she starred in as a teenager: True Jackson, VP, one of the early significant roles of her career. As a kid, Palmer unsuccessfully auditioned for a live performance of The Lion King and a spot on American Juniors, an American Idol for the younger set; it wasn’t until she tried out for a role in Barbershop 2 playing Queen Latifah’s niece that she finally landed a film. (It helped, Palmer wrote in her 2017 memoir I Don’t Belong To You, that she recorded a tape of herself singing “Be a Lion” from The Wiz to give to casting agents.) After that, her family decided to try their showbiz luck and relocate from Illinois to California, driving all four kids in a Dodge Caravan. The gambit worked: Palmer was cast in a K-Mart commercial, a made-for-TV movie with William H. Macy that earned her the SAG Award, and then a feature film, Akeelah and the Bee.

“There’s something about her poise and self-possession that hints she will grow up to be a considerable actress,” wrote Roger Ebert in 2006 about Akeelah and the Bee. “The movie depends on her, and she deserves its trust.” She won several accolades for the part, including an NAACP Image Award, and appeared on—yes—Oprah. In the years that followed, Palmer released an album called So Uncool, became one of Nickelodeon’s prized performers, took roles ranging from a TLC biopic to animated voice-overs, and appeared on several talk shows, including 2014’s Just Keke on BET, where she chatted and sang with Brandy and played one-on-one hoops with the NBA’s Amir Johnson. In 2019, she started guest-hosting ABC’s Strahan and Sara and, for a few months, the show existed as Strahan, Sara, and Keke.

Still, for many years Palmer also dealt with the mounting pressure of being her family’s breadwinner in an uncertain industry. “I was like the stockbroker dad who was used to making x amount of dollars and didn’t know what to do without it,” she wrote in her memoir about the aftermath of True Jackson, VP’s cancellation. “Nothing was more devastating to me than losing our beautiful house in a peaceful gated community.” Luckily, since then her star has only continued to rise, between stints in programs like Scream Queens and Scream, movies like Hustlers, the Strahan talk show era, and her own one-woman endeavors like Turnt Up with the Taylors—for which she won a Primetime Emmy Award. In 2020, she hosted the VMAs, a performance that included lots of music and wacky character work, just the way she likes it. Earlier this year, she voiced a character in Lightyear and she starred in Alice, which premiered at Sundance.

And she stayed her outspoken, irresistible self: Recently, Palmer participated in another Vanity Fair video with her Nope colleagues in which they reacted to fan theories about the film. “I bet we see Scully and Mulder,” she read out loud, then looked around and inquired, in that confectionary Dolly Parton voice of hers: “And who the hell are they?”

One of the most blessed things about Nope is that, with a couple of impactful exceptions, the movie spends very little time expositing or flashing back to its characters’ troubled youths. And it works, particularly in the case of Emerald and OJ, who are each so set in their ways and alive in their roles that there is more than enough to parse in the present. (Like that exquisitely joyous quadruple dap!) The two bicker and hunker down and smoke “garden weed” and go shopping, quite comedically, for security cameras. (Emerald’s “you look pretty” non-sequitur at the Fry’s Electronics store is one of the great line deliveries of our time.)

Their personalities, while divergent, are of a piece: specific without devolving into cartoonishness or caricature; appreciative of vintage jerseys and tees. She is a loose cannon without being a liability; he is a stoic without being a dick. There’s no real need to see them as children, because it’s easy enough to simply understand that neither sibling has really materially changed. When Emerald shows up to that Hollywood set and gives the presentation that her brother doesn’t want to, both of their behaviors are clearly treading a trodden trail, retracing all the other times in their lives that OJ has been Emerald’s grounding force, and Emerald has been OJ’s resounding voice.

“We all know the archetypes: the jester, the orphan, the hero, the list goes on,” Palmer told GQ. “But what does it look like when you put all the ones that don’t usually exist together? This is really a character driven piece about two siblings. But at the same time, it’s a social commentary, outré film that’s saying a bigger message—and also a blockbuster, something that is commercial.”

It’s those characters that make Nope appealing, and it’s Nope’s potential blockbuster status that can help give Palmer an even wider appeal. Working with Peele on Get Out was what helped launch her co-star, Kaluuya, into a rare echelon of Hollywood talent; Palmer’s funny and vibrant work in Nope seems poised to do the same. “As soon as the character [Emerald] came to me,” Peele told Complex, “it was Keke. We met early on and I just got a sense of her and got a sense of what she could bring to the role and I basically wrote it for her.” In a way, Palmer’s work as Emerald is comparable to her Akeelah role from 16 years ago, in style if not in substance. Just like back then, Palmer’s newest movie depends on her, and she deserves its trust.