Keke Palmer has been fielding questions all afternoon about stepping into the shoes of Mercedes, a naturally comical stripper in Hustlers. It’s one of the reasons why director Lorene Scafaria sought her out for the role.
“Lorene wasn’t really familiar with any of my prior work,” Keke tells Teen Vogue at New York’s Whitby Hotel one day before the premiere date. “She was more familiar with my Instagram and my social work. She’s seen me do interviews and seen my comedy on my page, which was very refreshing for me. She also saw that depth [from] when I talk to my audience. [She said,] ‘That’s what I want in the character.’”
Actor, singer, and TV personality Keke Palmer, born Lauren Keyana Palmer, is so naturally endearing that she’s currently the star of her own viral meme. While taping Vanity Fair’s “Lie Detector Test,” the actress hilariously responded to a picture of former vice president Dick Cheney by saying she didn’t know who he was — the relatable statement quickly turned into its own phenomenon.
In many ways, that same speed has applied to her blossoming entertainment career. Even an abridged list of her features from 2004–2019 is exhaustive: Barbershop 2, Akeelah and the Bee, True Jackson VP, Abducted: The Carlina White Story, CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, The Trip to Bountiful, Brotherly Love, Grease Live!, Ice Age, Scream Queens, Pimp, Star, and most recently, this year’s big splash, Hustlers. (The box office hit grossed $33.2 million in North America during its first weekend.)
Hustlers, based on a 2015 the Cut article about strippers who drugged and scammed Wall Street customers, boasts an all-female, all-star cast: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Julia Stiles, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B, Lizzo, and Keke Palmer. Or as Keke describes it, exactly the sort of female power movie director Scafaria wanted. Lorene was actually the first person she texted after seeing it for the first time: “I was just like, girl, you did everything you wanted to do.”
Keke, school-girl styled in a matching pink and green cardigan and pleated skirt from Thom Browne, is coolly seated at the end of a supper table with her pedicured feet exposed underneath. Snow white Tamara Mellon pumps are tossed to the side. (“Girl, shoes off! I’m sitting, ain’t I?” she’ll later joke.)
After 15 years in the game, it’s no surprise that Keke’s command of character is so fine-tuned. Akeelah and the Bee (2006) was her first head-turning role, establishing familiarity with her audience. They’ve all grown with her since then, so much so that some people refer to her as Akeelah, a role she played at age 13, before anything else. Keke, now 26, doesn’t mind it much.
“I try to think of it in the same way that I would family,” she says. “They don’t mean any harm by it. They see me like how my auntie or my uncle does, as Lil Keke. I appreciate it in many ways. It’s very cool that people feel that close to me.” However, that closeness doesn’t stop her from living her life or openly displaying all the ways she’s grown since then.
“If they’re stuck in Akeelah, then that’s cool. But it ain’t me.”
Since then, a bevy of roles have showcased the breadth of Keke’s emotional canon — the quirkiness of True Jackson, the vulnerability of TLC’s Chilli, the pageantry of Marty Maraschino, the spice of Gigi Nixon — all of which have come with their share of lessons.
Like her approach to new roles, for instance, (“looking at them as if they were a friend and then stepping into their shoes”), finding bonds with seemingly opposite characters (“If you’re able to bring it out in a real way, then that means it lives within you”), or the comfort of setting boundaries (“I’m very clear that I don’t want any nudity; that’s the one promise I made to myself”).
Perhaps the hardest lesson, however, came from 2018’s Pimp, where she was both the star and an executive producer. Keke had heard that dramatic actors like Denzel Washington would take year-long breaks between roles, but couldn’t figure out why someone would want to take time off from their passion. However, when she tapped into the grim truths of her character, Wednesday, she quickly learned that emotional pauses are a necessity.
“My feelings don’t know that this is a joke,” Keke says. “My emotions are actually going through the feelings of the character, whether I’m pulling from a personal experience or allowing myself to be devastated by whatever this character is experiencing. If you’re going to do a deep role, it has to be meaningful to you. You’ve got to be sure about it and give yourself the opportunity and time to recover. I didn’t respect my feelings enough to understand that until I did that role.”
After that, she became very selective with potential gigs to protect her peace. “Even if it comes down to an audition tape, I’m not f**king going there if there’s no need to.”
As she continued to matriculate through the film world, her path forked. In 2012, the same year she starred in The Carlina White Story, she was booked to cohost Anderson Live, planting the seed for another unexpected extension of herself: TV host.
In two years, Palmer would become the youngest talk-show host in TV history with her short-lived BET show, Just Keke. However, it was a familiar face from Anderson that ushered her to her current seat at the Good Morning America table alongside Michael Strahan and Sara Haines. “With GMA, everything was going together so perfectly. So many times things are difficult and it was just so smooth,” she says of the Strahan, Sara and Keke morning show. “Oh wow, the person that’s a part of this is the same person that believed in me when I did my first talk show. What are the odds that they would now be in this position?”
It was an indication that her varied career was unfolding just as it should. “It started to all connect so much that I could not ignore that it’s time,” she continues. “It’s time for this to live.” And it may be a tall order to stomach a multi-hyphenate in the era of loaded Instagram bios, but that’s not her problem to sort out.
“They don’t have a choice,” Keke says of her audience. “But that doesn’t mean that just because you like my movies, you’ll like my talk show, or just because you like the talk show, you’ll like my music. That doesn’t mean you have to take me as the conglomerate that I am, but I’m never going to stop because my career is truly just me exuding me in the world.”
In her mind, why be just an actress or a singer or a host or an executive producer in a silo? Do all of the above. Live our your heart’s wildest dreams. See what happens. “I don’t know exactly what [my career] is going to look like in the next phase,” Keke says with a smile, “but I’m expecting to surprise myself.”
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue