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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Keke Palmer Is OK With Being Left Out of the Group Chat

Let’s clear this up once and for all. After watching Keke Palmer on screen for 20 years, here is what I can tell you with absolute certainty: She is, and continues to be, an omnipresent talent—an actress and producer, a CEO, former talk show host, and self-described millennial diva. To describe Palmer as one of these things more than the other would be incorrect. She’s a canny, once-in-a-generation artist who makes the kind of work that resists containment. So, no—she is not one moment, one performance, one anything. 

Keke Palmer is all of them and more.

A turbine of emotion and a natural scene stealer, she has pulled off an audacious high-wire act of feeling, from her breakout role as a champion speller in 2006's Akeelah and the Bee to her turn in Nope as Emerald Haywood, the electric heart of Jordan Peele’s awe-stirring sci-fi Western. I have always considered Palmer my generation’s Angela Bassett. She is an actor who puts in the work. Gaze into the window of any of her roles and notice the way she builds them line by line, making a home for us to find comfort in. Palmer’s investment becomes ours. Through all of it she has remained unequivocally herself. 

Now 29, Palmer always knew there was more on the horizon. “In the last three years, I have really matured a lot in terms of visualizing what I want for myself in this next chapter of my life, and what I want for my family,” she told me when we spoke over Zoom in late February. (Days after our chat, Palmer and her partner Darius Jackson welcomed their first child, Leo, into the world.) One outcome of that dream-boarding was KeyTV, her just-launched network of web series made by and for creators who have traditionally been left out of the Hollywood machine. She’s just getting started.

You recently started streaming on Twitch. Were you always into video games?

I was super into games when I was younger. Mario Bros. Fighting games like Tekken. Crash [Bandicoot]. Perfect Dark. Some shooting games. I got into simulation games around 12, and I played The Sims most of the time. I played Second Life. I’ve always liked role-playing games. Those are much more personal; you don’t always play them with people. 

Right. But you can play them “with” people when you stream. 

When I was getting back into Sims—because I’m at home more, awaiting the baby to come—I was running into some CC and mod stuff, which are things that you add to your game to make it more of your personal vibe. So I went online to try and get people to help me. It was from those interactions that I decided I should get on Twitch. I didn’t realize it was something people even cared about—like, OK, I can get on here and do this. I can play my game and talk. 

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As an actor, do you think games like The Sims innately speak to you—being able to step into someone else’s life?

I never thought about it, but it totally makes sense. I’m an entertainer. I act. I perform. It doesn’t seem too far disconnected.

The Sims is all about world-building. Is KeyTV part of your world-building?

One hundred percent. I see myself very objectively. Not like I see myself as a Sims character, but in so many ways I see myself as planning toward things. I’m very disciplined. Once I make up my mind about something, I follow through and I figure out how to support it. As far as KeyTV is concerned, it’s something that I became serious about a year ago. I feel really happy to have gotten to the point of launching. I’m looking forward to continuing to build it. My community of fans that have always followed me—the Keke Palmer brand—I want to introduce them to something that can expand beyond just me personally.

It’s a battle for people’s attention these days. The marketplace is overcrowded. How does KeyTV cut through the noise?

So last year was when I filmed Nope, I think. Did I film Nope last year? Time has all gone by so fast. 

Our relationship to time is very strange now.

Time is so weird to me now because of Covid. It was after the height of Covid; we were still in the vibe of the pandemic, in terms of keeping masks on, but people were outside. It was summertime and I was filming Nope. Personally and career-wise, I was in a new place. I also started to think, OK, what can I do outside of myself? How can I bring something that doesn’t just solely depend on me? 

Was it an attempt to do something where you weren’t at the center? 

That’s the thing. As an entertainer, you’re constantly a workhorse—not that that’s bad—but everything really is ultimately dependent on you. When you think about creating generational wealth or community wealth, you are trying to take whatever it is that you started or whatever it is that you have and expand it outwards. I thought that KeyTV could be its own voice in the sense of what I stand for, which is education, democratization, and entertainment. 

I want to make [entertainment] feel more accessible to people in our community, specifically Black and brown people, people that maybe don’t have immediate resources and access to the industry. I want to bridge that gap.

KeyTV is about equity behind the camera as much as it is in front of it. Having worked in Hollywood for so long, were you not seeing that kind of inclusion on sets?

It would depend. Whenever I worked on a Tyler Perry set, yeah. When I did House of Pain or Madea’s Family Reunion, it was always tons of Black people. And that was before it became a trendy thing to do. Now it’s become a thing. Back when I was 11, 12 years old, wasn’t nobody caring about employing anybody Black. Anytime I stepped on a Tyler Perry production, everybody was Black. That was the best thing about it. It was like being at a family reunion. 

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Tyler is somebody that has inspired me in terms of always finding a way to not only employ our people and help them to become part of different industries, but also giving people chances, which isn’t an easy road. A lot of times, you don’t see people give new opportunities because they feel like it’s easy to do what has been working, or they rather work with people that are already there. 

Why do you think that is? 

It takes a lot of work to start from the bottom with people. But I see Issa Rae and Kevin Hart do it. I see Jordan Peele do it in terms of just making sure he has a diverse crew. Jordan did a great thing for Nope behind the scenes. He introduced people to PAs and to the crew. He wanted people to learn. It’s so important to know about these things. 

I always say specifically for people of color, because people of color a lot of times believe their only way forward or into a major corporation outside of having a degree from Princeton or Stanford is, I need to be an entertainer. But there are so many other ways to be a part of this industry, outside of just knowing how to sing, dance, or whatever. There are other skills that you’re using elsewhere that could be just as helpful in the film and TV industry.

There was something Issa Rae said that always stayed with me. This idea of working across instead of trying to collaborate with established gatekeepers. There’s so much success that can be achieved by working with the people already around you.

It’s so important, but it’s so hard. That’s not talked about enough. It’s easy for us to all just feel like, Oh well, this doesn't happen to me because someone was hating on me. Or because I’m Black or I’m a woman. And yes, a lot of it is that. Those barriers have caused an inability for people to move forward. But also, a lot of the time, people don’t want to take a chance on teaching someone something. 

There are a lot of politics and systems in the industry. And not all of the politics and systems are negative. It’s just the way that it works. You’re not gonna email your boss and say, “Hey motherfucker, what’s good.” You’re going to say, “Per our last email.” Every system has a way that you do things. 

What’s been the hardest part for you as the boss?

Just that. Figuring out how to share information and also building trust. A lot of people don’t trust this industry. They don’t know how things work. The biggest thing about being a producer, and specifically choosing to work with people that haven't done this before, is learning how to best communicate and help them understand things without stripping them of their ability to make their own decisions. 

Especially when dealing with contracts, because some people don’t know if they should get a lawyer or what kind of lawyer they should get. I asked a producer friend of mine when she knew when to push and when to fall back. She told me those are things that you learn. It’s why you have other producers and partners on your team to help facilitate those relationships. What you also learn is to work with people that are more experienced. And that was pretty difficult for me to hear. As a woman of color, a lot of the people that have great ideas that I want to give a chance to don’t have experience. So how do you give people opportunity—that is why we’re doing what we’re doing. 

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Earlier we touched on Blackness being trendy. Nope is a movie about our obsession with spectacle. For Black creators, where is the line between art and spectacle?

It’s quite blurry. I’m always trying to figure it out and make sure that my art is not being guided by society. That I'm guiding my story through my art. What happens when we talk about spectacle, we end up getting wrapped up in the gag, and before we know it we’re performing for someone else. We get caught up in capturing the spectacle just as much as the spectacle is interested in capturing us. 

Did it take a while to learn that? 

Growing up as a performer and being somebody that has lived their life in front of the camera, there’s always a question of making sure that I’m doing this for me. I’m doing it for me. I feel good doing it. I don't feel like I have to do it. That comes a lot more when I am in my everyday life. When I’m on set,  or when I’ve decided I’m going to give a performative version of myself, that’s my choice. When I’m outside—at dinner or the gym—I’ve learned to not feed into that so much, because then that’s me being controlled by the spectacle ,as opposed to me knowing what my relationship is to the spectacle.

Was there ever a time it felt uncontrollable?

Mostly when I was younger. Around 16, 17, I felt like everybody was telling me how to be, who to be. I felt very held down by what people wanted from me in my daily life. I didn’t want to ruin their idea of me. It was a burden. But I did the work to grow out of it. I grew from carrying that weight. 

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Let’s dig more into KeyTV. What was it about, say, the show Sportsfan that felt intrinsic to the mission of the network?

First, in the way that we shot it. It was important to shoot the shows on all different levels and different budgets. I didn’t want everything to seem like it had to be 1 million dollars. We shot Sportsfan on an iPhone. I wanted people to see that, hey, you can shoot something of quality on your iPhone. You don’t have to have a big fancy camera. It goes back to the democratization and education aspect of what we’re trying to accomplish.

The guys that I shot it with—Moses and Sean, really talented cinematographers—believe in what we can do right now, as young content creators. The show plays into that. The lead character, CJ, wants to be an influencer, but obviously it takes a lot to build an audience and make money from that while at the same time trying to be the man his family needs him to be. 

And yet, the style of it is kind of a throwback to a different era of TV.

It’s all wrapped up in the genre of a sitcom. It’s pretty aware of itself. There are a lot of clichés that are meant satirically that we play into. The irony is that everything is so on-the-nose. It’s meant to give you that old, silly feeling of watching a sitcom. I’ve missed those shows. The multi-cam sitcom is a genre many of us have stopped appreciating. 

Many of the web series on KeyTV feel of the moment. One of the more heated discussions on Make It Make Sense, which borrows from the talk show format, was around group chats. Have you ever excluded a friend from a group chat or found out you were that friend?

I have two sisters, and I have a best friend who’s like family. She’s so close to my family that when my baby comes, we're all expecting her to be there as well. So I found out that all three of them have a group chat I’m not a part of. The chat is about them being single. And I’m like, OK, fuck you guys [laughs]. I was like, Let me back up and know my role, because you know what? Maybe I don’t understand what they’re talking about. Maybe it’s not my place. But I was definitely gagged. 

I do worry that a buddy of mine is going to eventually find out we started one without him. I like to think that I’d be OK if I was ever in that position.

I understood. I try to really accept it as, “You know what, it’s not personal.” The subjects that they’re talking about, like going on dates, are not for me. I’m not living a single lifestyle, so I get it. I had to accept it and move on [laughs].

Speaking of moving on, how are you feeling about motherhood?

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Very excited. I’m having a baby that is probably going to be a Pisces. 

Pisces are said to be very emotionally transparent.

I’m excited to see what that means, because everyone keeps saying what you’re saying [laughs]. Like, what the hell does that mean?

You’re an actor. A CEO. A soon-to-be mother. You just launched KeyTV. You’ve done so much, but it also feels like the beginning for you. Like you’re just getting started. I’m curious. What’s one thing about being a strong Black woman people get wrong?

They forget that we’re soft. It’s taken a lot in my life to find people that aren’t intimidated by how I present in the world. I present in the world because of the way that I learned to survive. Not even in a sad way. Just that I’ve learned to survive in my own reality. But that’s not all I am. The people that are close to me know that I’m really super sweet. I’m a delicate person. Everybody is not like that. Everybody has their own vibe. I like to think that everyone is sweet at the core. What people accept or assume about strong Black women—they don’t realize that. 

Yes. 

People are intimidated by us or don’t know how to take what we’re doing. I know I’m fierce. I feel fierce. But I know I’m not only fierce. People don’t realize that you can exist in both ways. My fierceness doesn’t stop me from being soft or delicate or trusting or loving or open or any of those things. And those things don’t make me weak. I can be open and loving, and when I see your ass don’t deserve it, I can change it up in a motherfuckin’ minute. 

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