Keke Palmer Talks Visual Album Big Boss , Her Directorial Debut, and Everything She Sacrificed for Stardom
There's nothing more empowering than being the one to call the shots. Keke Palmer knows this all too well; the Emmy Award-winning multi-hyphenate is in her “big boss” era, and today releases her highly-anticipated visual album of the same name.
Big Boss the album has 10 tracks and a short film companion that clocks in at a little over 40 minutes. The film was written, directed, and executive produced by its star — the many hats Palmer donned to bring this project to life are cheekily acknowledged at the beginning of the film, with a note that declares: “Pretty much everything by Keke Palmer.” Big Boss the album is Palmer's first official studio album release in almost a decade, and was executive produced by legendary producer Tricky Stewart. (Fun fact: Stewart hails from the South Side of Chicago, just like Palmer.)
“A true story of perseverance, self-love, impenetrable faith, and survival of spirit,” the Big Boss film takes a brave dive into Palmer's nearly 20-year career. The film refuses to shy away from the misogynistic hardships Palmer has endured across the entertainment machine, from Hollywood to the music industry and back again. Big Boss the film shares insight into Palmer's life like never before, revealing her true thoughts about the men who dominate both the recording studios and the movie studios, laying bare her insecurities as one of the brightest talents of her generation, and depicting some of the lowest moments of her career thus far — and most importantly, how she overcame them.
Keke Palmer, who has been a performer since her single digits, has been slighted by many in the entertainment industry throughout her career. But this is her lick back: becoming a superstar, a media mogul, and a Black woman confident of her abilities and her talents against all odds. There were many who didn't think she could do it, and still, she's doing it — and doing it her way. Palmer calls this chapter of her career her “second act.” It seems fitting that Big Boss drops only a few months ahead of her 30th birthday, only a few months after she's become a new mom. There's nothing more boss than growth, and Palmer's blooming is unstoppable.
Big Boss was released in tandem on Palmer's own platform KeyTV and is now available to stream everywhere. Teen Vogue hopped on the phone with Keke Palmer to discuss her directorial debut, what she's sacrificed to be a boss, and why Big Boss couldn't have been made at any other point in her career but now.
Teen Vogue: How did you work with your director of photography Mélisse Riahi to create a vision for the film?
Keke Palmer: Mélisse is also the creative director, so we started out at a meeting, I think we were in KIWAMI in Studio City, and I was talking to her about the film. She had read the script and she had a lot of ideas on how to visually enhance some of the messaging. We were on such a time restraint, so a lot of it was about how to pack everything in and still make it possible for us to get it all done.
She was able to tap into some great symbolism [with] the things I was going through, whether it was my monologue [when] I was coming out the dirt and I was rising from these ashes, or the meat locker scene, which is actually the studio [representing] experiencing being prey amongst all these people… Visually, she's really talented. The lighting, the angles, she's a very smart woman and I thought she was the perfect person.
TV: And how’d you approach this differently as a director, as opposed to how you would approach it if you were solely acting in it?
KP: When I'm acting in a film, I'm literally just focused on me. When you're a director, you're focused on everything and everyone. I'm looking at things from a bird's eye view. The biggest difference with the experience is that I didn't have just one job. I had so many, many jobs, things to do, to confirm this and to make sure this is good, to look at the production design to make sure I agree with this angle, and to make sure that this performance is matching what we need for the next scene — there's a lot of things that a director has to think about. I would say it's definitely easier being an actor and just focusing on what your part is, but it was definitely a fun experience and I can't wait to direct something else that I'm not in.
TV: What about the directing experience was different from what you expected?
KP: Probably that, that [directors] have to deal with a lot of different voices and questions, and do a lot of approvals. I don't think that registered with me. But that's probably the most “wow” part: you have so many people that want to know what you think because you're the director, you have the final sign-off.
TV: Thinking about other directors or actor-directors, is there anyone that you'd like to be on par with? Who are you a fan of yourself, who would you emulate?
KP: I'm a huge fan of Ron Howard, a huge fan of Jordan Peele. I think Donald Glover is great. I also think James Cameron, [but] not necessarily his effects. He tells big stories that involve incredible set pieces, but the heart of his projects always shines through. He has great stories.
TV: So tell me about the process of making a movie and an album at the same time. That sounds like a creative dream, but also a little chaotic.
KP: The album I did first, then a few months or so after I started writing the film. We filmed [Big Boss] just a couple of months before Nope. So it was still a crazy schedule, because I was doing that and then I was getting ready for Nope right after. It was definitely hectic, oh my gosh. But every day I felt like I was in a euphoric state, which is insane. I was on this adrenaline high. Even though it was a lot going on, it was a very good experience. I felt like a kid in a candy store. It was really fun. It felt good.
TV: This is your first “official” studio album release since 2007. What does that mean to you? What does this music mean to you?
KP: It means a lot. I have done a few other independent projects in between that time, I've done EPs and different mixtapes. When it comes to this being a full-throttle album situation again, it's again the big boss energy. I'm here, I'm ready, I'm taking it. I'm really comfortable with my story, and I'm comfortable enough to share it and own it… I'm only here because of what I went through. It took what I went through with music in order for me to get to this place as an artist.
TV: The folks over at CBS called you a studio boss. You really are a media mogul. When did you first get the idea for KeyTV? Was it after a conversation like the one that you had with your mom in the film, or was it another pivotal moment?
KP: I think it was the pivotal moment of getting Nope, and then feeling so overwhelmed and excited about the opportunity to play such an incredible character, her being the final girl and all of that opportunity for me. I felt like, "Okay, what can I do?"
Having started at age nine and being at this pivotal point in the second act of my career, from being a child entertainer to now being an adult and being in such [an] inspired, creative space, I wanted to know that I was putting what I learned and what I've built into something that could multiply and be bigger than me… Not just like, “I'm Keke Palmer and I'm doing things for Keke Palmer.” [Instead] Keke Palmer took the Keke Palmer brand and expounded upon that, [and turned it] into something else. That's what ultimately birthed KeyTV: the opportunity to breathe life into the next generation, and even the current generation, by being able to offer them opportunities through mine.
TV: You self-funded Big Boss, which gives even more meaning to the note at the beginning of the film, that says “pretty much everything by Keke Palmer.” Why was it important to you to handcraft this film all the way from the bank to the screen?
KP: Well, because that's the only way to do it. To be the big boss, you've got to put your money where your mouth is. I mean what I say, I'm about what I say. I'm in a position to be able to do what I want, and that's what I'm going to do. Again, the big boss energy: it's being your greatest investor, being your greatest supporter, being the one that's in the driver's seat. Ultimately, a big part of that is you footing the bill.
That's why it's so hard sometimes as an artist to be in a position of empowerment or control when sometimes you just don't have the capital. So you end up collaborating with people that either, A, do get you, do support [you], and are down for it, or you're under the thumb of people who want to control you and make you into something that you're not. That's really stifling and really difficult, and that's the story we always hear.
In order to do these visuals and these albums, it costs money. I'm very grateful to be in a position where I can invest in that way — but it was not easy, and [that] has not always been the case. That was also something that often used to stop me or make it hard for me [to create], because people had such expectations for what they wanted my music to be. Then when I couldn't do a $3 million video shoot, I would feel like, “Oh, this is not the quality they're expecting.” That kinda stuff gets into artists' heads all the time. They've got to have this level video or this level thing. And none of that matters, because at the end of the day, you're going to grow and things are going to get better, because that's how it happens. One thing after another, after another, after another. Keep growing. But if you never take that first step, then it's never going to even get there. All of [these difficult experiences] are the growing pains that [teach you] to make your dreams come true.
TV: Were your parents hesitant at all to be on camera and act in the movie? What was it like filming that emotional scene with your mom?
KP: It was great, because my parent's love for acting and film and television and all that, all of my love for it came from them. To be able to do this movie and get a chance to [do it] with my mom was a lot of fun. It was cool, because the world's going to get to see how amazing she is.
TV: Using those therapy scenes as transitions throughout the narrative was so genius. Are you in therapy? Were those scenes based on real conversations from therapy?
KP: I did have those conversations in therapy. I'm not in therapy now, but I was in therapy. I think therapy is something that you really can't end, too. So it's like, “I'm not in therapy now.” I started going to therapy when I was 17 and it's kind of always been in and out of my life since then. That was definitely what I wanted to showcase — because, again, I didn't get where I am out of nowhere. I definitely had to answer some hard questions and come to some realities… I found a lot of those answers in therapy.
TV: While writing this movie, was it emotionally difficult for you at all to revisit so much of the bullsh*t that you've had to endure in Hollywood and the music industry?
KP: I would say “therapeutic.” It was very therapeutic, because I didn't know I wanted to talk about this stuff. My manager told me, “Hey, you should go for it. I think it'll be good. You're a great actress, and I think you can do something great bridging those worlds." …When I sat down and thought about it, it all came back at me. Like wow, I didn't realize how these things affected me. I didn't realize how much I've grown.
TV: What was your favorite scene to write, and what was your favorite scene to film and direct?
KP: My favorite scene to film and direct was the one in the studio. I love the location, I love the way it looks. I love that scene so much. My favorite scene to write… I love the monologue when I'm talking about how being a woman makes me feel, the resentment I have towards how people view women, and how I feel like my power gets stolen [because of] my gender. I loved writing that and [having] that in the movie, because I was saying how I felt and I was happy to say that in a body of work. I'm happy that people get to hear those words.
TV: In one of your posts about the film, you said “it costs to be the boss.” That's deep. As the boss, what have you sacrificed?
KP: I've sacrificed a lot. I sacrificed my childhood. I sacrificed moments in my siblings' lives, like holidays, theirs plays, their games, just moments in their life. I sacrificed my peace of mind. It is a very anxious career. Most of all, a lot of time — time is the one thing that you can't get back. Time is invaluable. But then at the same time, I could retire or I could take at least years and years and years off and I'm not even 30 yet. You take the good with the bad.
That's what I would hope for people to know and understand, too. I don't know what it's like for everybody in the entertainment business, but I know for me it could seem like, oh my gosh, it's just the perfect life. But it comes with something, just like everybody else. There's never any job or anything that you're going to do in life that isn't going to require work… the whole quick money, scam, schemes, there's no such thing. Everything requires work and sacrifice. But yes: some of those sacrifices are worth the reward. That's a big thing to remember. “Is what I'm sacrificing worth what I can gain in the end?” And if the answer is yes, then you gotta keep going.
TV: I also loved seeing a few actors in the film who have also been in this industry since they were kids, too, like Skai Jackson, Kyle Massey, Robert Ri'chard. Was that intentional?
KP: Yes, it was, for the reasons that you said. I know many of them also. Skai is very representative to me [from] when I was working in children's networks. In a meta kind of way, [I wanted to] wrap people back into that [memory and] mindset of my journey. Robert Ri'chard and Kyle, I've known them for years so it was great to do this project with them. There is a specific group that you're in when you are a child actor, and only child actors can understand. It was cool to do something with them again as adults.
TV: What did making Big Boss teach you about yourself, about your career, about anything?
KP: Probably that I could do it. Anything you do from start to finish, anytime you set out to do something and you finish it, what it tells you is that you can do you. It builds confidence. [Big Boss] has only made me more capable.
TV: Do you have a dream writing or directing gig? It makes sense to start with your own story, but what type of other stories would you love to tell in the future?
KP: I like to tell stories of hope and inspiration. [Stories] that make people feel inspired, not [suggesting] that life's going to be easy… but for them to feel like even when it's not [easy] that we can still find a way. That's kind of the kind of work that I want to do, stuff that makes people happy and laugh and enjoy.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue
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