[Editor’s note: The following story contains spoilers for “Nope.”]
Filmmaker Jordan Peele may love putting his characters through hell, but he’s also just as delighted to bring them back through it, ending his thrillers and chillers with vaguely happy endings (or, at the very least, endings where his stars live, or perhaps more appropriately, live to tell everything they’ve just been through).
Such was the case with his breakout debut, “Get Out,” which sees stars Daniel Kaluuya and Lil Rel Howrey surviving a series of horrifying attacks, racist revelations, and enough nightmare material to basically make sure they (and probably the audience) never set foot in a stranger’s home ever again. But their survival was never assured, as Peele originally envisioned a very different ending for the pair.
For his third film, the UFO horror outing “Nope,” Peele again decided to make his primary characters (including roles played by Keke Palmer, Kaluuya, and Brandon Perea) not just survivors, but living, breathing, alien-butt-kicking heroes. The film ends after the trio (sans one new pal, the be-scarfed cinematographer Antlers Holst, played by Michael Wincott) not only manage to a) record the saucer-shaped alien wrecking havoc on their small desert community but b) bring the damn thing down, killing it with equal parts ingenuity and fervor.
It’s Peele’s happiest ending ever, and it all concludes with the indelible image of Palmer’s Emerald Haywood, breathless and dirty and scared out of her mind, capturing the big baddie on film, just as it’s imploding and hitting the ground, no longer able to snatch up humans and horses and anything it wants as a tasty bloody snack. It’s not just a win, it’s a real victory, and it adds Palmer to the rarefied ranks of Peele movie winners.
As Palmer told IndieWire, when Peele first brought the script to her, telling her that Emerald was written for her, the actress instantly knew they were going to make something special that was destined to mark a new level in her career.
“It’s unbelievable because, I’m just like, ‘Wow, this is a huge honor, because I literally am obsessed with you,’ and it was also like, ‘I hope that I give you the part of Keke Palmer that you’re looking for, because she’s got a couple of different sides,’” Palmer told IndieWire. “It was just really awesome to go on that journey with him. He trusts that he’s going to get it there. It’s never really truly finished until it’s finished.”
One thing that was always finished: that Palmer’s character was going to emerge victorious at the end of the film. Palmer said it “was always the case” that Emerald survived the events of “Nope.”
“I remember reading it, and I was literally like, ‘I can’t even believe this, Jordan,’” she said. “I was very shocked when reading it, because there’s so many amazing archetypes that have been put into the character Emerald, from being the jester to being the orphan, and she emerges from being one thing to another. Over the course of this spectacle, [we see how it] impacts her as a character.”
The actress said she already loved seeing Emerald’s many transitions and journeys, but when she got to the end of the script, she was floored by where Peele chose to end things.
“I remember calling Jordan and immediately being like, ‘I can’t believe this. What does this mean? How do I unpack this? How do we perform this? How do we string all these different elements and beats for this character together in a way that feels as authentic as possible?” she said. “I was excited to have the opportunity to play a female character like this, you know what I mean? It’s just not common. To get the opportunity, I was just like, ‘Jordan, really?’ He really sees me, and sees how I’m willing to stretch my range to be able to do a role like this.”
Palmer was also enthralled by the care Peele had taken to weave together different parts of Emerald’s personality and seemingly small moments throughout the film. “There are a lot of nods and things that you’ll pick apart in terms of the film that, aside from the big themes, there’s little things that you’re going to see that Jordan really took his time to detail,” Palmer said. “You’re going to be like, ‘Oh, that’s such a treat. Oh my gosh, this was so thoughtful.’”
And Palmer was especially taken by the clever way that Peele allows Emerald to take on a childhood dream, with a bit of a twist. Early in the film, we learn that Emerald wanted to train a Haywood horse named Jean Jacket, and that the gig was promised to her by her dad (Keith David as Otis Haywood, Sr.) when she was just a kid. But when the Haywoods were hired for “The Scorpion King,” Otis opted to take both Jean Jacket and Emerald’s brother OJ on the shoot, cutting short Emerald’s training dreams.
So, it’s particularly funny that OJ and Emerald opt to name the flying monster “Jean Jacket,” all the better to remind the siblings that even it can be trained, just like Jean Jacket the horse. And, yes, Emerald ends up training the damn alien, at least enough to bring him down and save the day.
“I remember when I finally realized, ‘Wow, she finally got to train Jean Jacket. I was so impacted by that, but there’s so many of those moments,” Palmer said. “Lucky [the horse] is lucky. Her picking up the coin in the beginning [at Jupiter’s Claim]. I mean, there’s so many little things! It’s crazy that this man’s last name is Peele, because his movies, you really are peeling back the layers. Every one of them, you keep peeling back and you learn more and more each time. He really don’t play.”
And neither does Palmer.
“First of all, if there’s any question to future filmmakers about whether or not to kill off a Keke Palmer character, don’t do it. It’s not going to work. It ain’t going to work for ya,” Peele told IndieWire. “See this movie, Keke survives, Emerald survives. You’re going to get that, and then you come see what happens.”