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Keke Palmer had a message for her friends and 10.5 million Instagram followers on May 25 about the content she’d been creating. “I’m so excited about presenting it all to you guys and I’m just trying to give it all of me so it can be as perfect as it needs to be,” she posted. “Nothing brings me more joy than to entertain! Sometimes the ideas keep me up at night!”
Sleepless spells make sense after examining even just a fraction of what the 27-year-old actress, singer, author and producer has been cooking up. Over the past year, she released back-to-back albums (Virgo Tendencies Part I and II), became the first Black woman to host the MTV Video Music Awards, starred in and executive produced the upcoming drama Alice, booked a lead role in Jordan Peele’s untitled new film and churned out TikTok clips for nearly 6 million followers on her main account and on Southern Belle Insults, a popular experiment showcasing Lady Miss Jacqueline, a character who serves up insults in fashionable ensembles.
Then there’s the Facebook Watch series Turnt Up with the Taylors, a satirical take on the reality genre about a family navigating the future of their Taylor Time reality show after daughter Chelsea “Barbie” Taylor (a character Palmer created on Instagram) decides to break free for solo fame. Palmer plays all five parts in addition to co-creating, co-writing and producing the eight-episode shortform comedy series, which she developed in partnership with production company Kids at Play and Facebook Watch after pitching the idea. Palmer opened up to THR about how she came to inhabit all five parts, what she loves about producing and how she feels about working for Peele.
How did you dream up these characters?
I always am trying to dive into deeper topics with any of the stuff that I create, especially when it comes to comedy, because I feel it’s so awesome when the punchline is a bigger theme. For this character, Chelsea “Barbie” Taylor, what I like to say is, we have so many ideas of what a Black American is, what they should be like, what they should listen to — hip-hop, et cetera — and I thought, what if you have this character that lived her life as if she grew up in Beverly Hills? What if she lived in a totally different culture than the one that is expected of her? That was the original formation of the character and how I found her voice and what she’s into. From there, I collaborated with Facebook to build it out and create a world where I also got to explore other characters. That was awesome because I love playing with and coming up with new characters.
What was the shoot like when you’re playing five characters?
I try to work pretty quickly. I feel that you don’t need to overbeat it — you just need to know what you’re trying to get before you go in. The hardest part, obviously, was changing into each character. The shoot happened very fast because I had very little time to do it because I was also filming [Good Morning America‘s third-hour show with Michael Strahan and Sarah Haines in 2020] in New York. I came back to L.A. to film [Turnt Up], so it was a bit crazy on the schedule. But once I get on set, I morph into the character I’m doing. I go into laser focus, do it to the best of my ability, and make sure to get whatever shots we need, and then I move on. I had Chelsea’s voice before I had anyone else’s — even before I knew what she looked like — and the rest of the characters just followed based on the narrative. Slowly, as we were writing and getting it together, their voices started to come alive and become something on their own.
You wrote it with a creative partner, right?
Yeah, Max Wyeth. I met him when I was doing Scream Queens and he was doing social media stuff. He and I really hit it off and had a vibe. He saw that I really wasn’t exposed to [social media] on my own yet and he was always looking to produce, so I started doing a lady named Jacqueline that became Southern Belle Insults. From there, we became producing partners, and we continue to create content for social media and just have a lot of fun doing it.
Do you stick to the script or allow yourself to improvise?
I don’t always stick to the script. When I’m acting in other people’s projects, I try to stick to the script out of respect unless I’m told to otherwise. For my own stuff, because it’s so alive in my mind, I come up with stuff on the spot all the time. I just rip and have fun with it in the moment.
If you could describe your five characters with one word or a quick description, what would you say about Chelsea, Lil Thad, Miranda, Rick and Gammy Tay?
Oh my gosh. I’ll start with Chelsea. She is oblivious, ironically oblivious. Gammy Tay is hot under the collar. I would say Miranda is all goodness. Thad is a good time. That’s the best way I can explain who he is. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, he’s just a good time. And Rick is a loyal family man — he’s trustworthy.
I hate to ask because you created them all, but do you have a personal favorite?
I love them all in their own way. I feel like it would be unfair not to say Chelsea because she was such a character that she helped to create a whole world. I’m going to give it to her, but if I had to pick a close second, it would be between Thad and Miranda.
Digital creators say they love the format because it allows for such a quick turnaround and you can almost engage with the audience in real time. How much did you take what you read in the comments section to heart?
When I first started doing these characters, I started to realize how easy it was on these platforms to really get my work out. You can give it directly to the audience and correspond with them. I love to create. I’m just so happy that it’s become something that I’m able to do as a job. I’m really, really thankful to have come up in the traditional way, but now we have this social media space where you can directly connect and put things out. And when I saw the responses I was getting on Instagram, I was just so excited to get to do it on Facebook in a kind of bigger way. I was excited to see what [the audience] thought of how we developed everything out. I like to see them having fun and pick up on what they respond to. I take notes, too, and try to figure out how to tap more into that, whether it’s for that particular project or another.
As a producer, has the process encouraged you to create more original content for yourself?
Oh my gosh, I love it. I love it beyond belief. I can’t wait to do more of it. One of my favorite things to do is produce. I’m so happy with it. It’s also that much easier when it’s you because you know what you need to do and you can depend on yourself. But I would love to eventually get to the point when I can produce for other actors and I don’t have to be in the project. Just being a part of putting creative [content] together and [fostering] a big collaboration — that’s the best.
Where do you get this energy to keep creating these characters?
I think from when I was a kid. I don’t think it’s something I’m even that aware of. Sometimes people make a joke on my team, like, “Oh my gosh, you always work, work, work and create characters for yourself.” I don’t know how to stop. I’m not even trying to turn it into anything, but I think just the repetition of growing up in the entertainment industry and seeing up close and personal how to put things on and how to do a production makes it seem a lot more accessible to me. So, when I do have an idea, why not shoot it? I’m very grateful, obviously, for how young I was when I got into it because it makes me feel like all the ideas that I have are a lot less intense. Instead, it’s like, why not just do it?
What have you learned about yourself during the pandemic?
That I don’t spend enough time alone and I need to spend more time alone. I don’t think I realized how much I need that because I’m always giving out so much energy without even knowing it. It’s part of who I am, especially when I get around people, because I get excited and I have such a good time. But I realized that, hey, alone time is good for me. It makes me more creative. It makes me better. I realized that I want to put more emphasis on that.
What’s the status with your movie Alice, did you finish filming?
Congratulations on the role. I remember when the news broke and you said that you took the part because it tackles the harsh realities of slavery and white supremacy while offering inspiration and vindication through Alice’s journey. There’s been a renewed conversation about centering Black pain in Hollywood on the heels of projects like The Underground Railroad or Them. I know you’re very thoughtful about what you do, so why did you decide to play this character and how do you feel it fits in the current conversation?
The problem becomes not so much that we have stories that center on Black pain or something like that but really, more importantly, on our history, our American history. The problem becomes when you see so many [projects] ending in a very victimized space, or projects that make you feel as if there’s only one version of survival or one version of how to perceive history. That’s what attracted me so much to Alice, because as hard as the history of my ancestors is in this country, I don’t look at it and say, “Oh my gosh,” I look at it and I say, “Wow, look at how far we’ve come.” My ancestors were able to get up every morning and try and believe and have hope and faith. That allows for me to be here. For me, it’s something that I’ve always wanted to see when it comes to a movie about our history.
I remember loving Django Unchained when I first saw it. Sometimes you want to see a narrative that doesn’t give you the feeling that when you walk out of the theater that something was stolen from you. When I read Alice and when I filmed the movie, I didn’t feel like that. I felt empowered. That’s the way that I felt growing up in my home, and that’s the way that my parents talked about our history. It was like, “This is what happened and look what you can do to play your part,” especially when it comes to art. That’s why I wanted to be a part of [Alice], because it takes us through history, which can be really tough, but at the same time, it allows you to realize that while things may not be where you want them to be, there’s enough to help you push forward.
You were cast in Jordan Peele’s new movie. I’m not going to try to get you to reveal the story or who you play, but instead I’ll ask this: How does it feel to be one of the actors who gets to play in his universe?
Oh my gosh — it’s freaking insane. I’m such a huge fan of Jordan. I got to work with him once when I was a teenager when he was doing Key & Peele. Then, obviously, when I saw Get Out, I was absolutely mind-blown to the umpteenth degree. I feel like I’ve been waiting 20 years for something like this. I say 20 years because that’s how long I’ve been in this business, and for him to be in this position to create something for me to be a part of, it’s amazing. This is the biggest film I’ve ever done. My past films have been amazing and had an impact, but none has been on this scale. For [Jordan] to do what he’s done and to give me an opportunity to be a part of it, it’s amazing.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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