Keke Palmer has been one of my favorite young actors since Akeelah and the Bee. She has a warm and relatable screen presence and a purely delightful personality with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. That’s more than enough to build a career on. But she also has extraordinary discipline and ability as an actor with remarkable range from the sitcom “True Jackson, V.P.” to appearing opposite Kevin Spacey in Shrink. In “Joyful Noise” she co-stars with powerhouse performers Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah and more than holds her own. She also sings, dances, and has a very sweet romance with Broadway star Jeremy Jordan. Keke spoke to me about singing on screen for the first time and the lessons she learned from co-star and producer Queen Latifah.
I loved the movie!
Thank you so much — that means a lot!
You were terrific with Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton. What did they teach you?
I learned a lot from them. Working with Queen Latifah for the second time [after “Barbershop 2”], I really got to understand how she creates this empire for herself. The people who surround her now are the same team she’s been working with since high school. So I learned from her that if you surround yourself with good people who want the same things you do, these are the kinds of things that you can do. And from Dolly — just watching her kindness to everyone, her openness, not guarded at all, how she treated people. She’s amazing!
Writer-director Todd Graff made his third film in a row about teenagers. Does he have a particular understanding of that stage of life?
He is a very empathetic person. He is very gifted in that way. He can get inside people’s heads, not just teenagers, everyone. The character Queen Latifah plays is so much like my mother! He didn’t know my mother; he’s not a black woman; but he was able to create a character so genuinely, that people can relate to. He can look at people and disect them and create them for the screen. When I read the scene where my character’s mother tells her about what it is to be beautiful, I said to him, “This is brilliant!”
Was this your first time singing on screen? How was that?
We recorded the music before we went to Atlanta. We had to lip-sych, which is harder — I ended up blowing my voice out because I had to sing over me!
Why is gospel music so powerful?
It is the soul that’s put into gospel music and the passion the singers have behind it. You can often tell the difference between a singer that grows up in the church and one that just can sing. There’s a connection to love and support and care. You feel good when you hear it. You feel the people have so much conviction in what they’re singing. They believe it so you believe it. Not that you can’t find that in other music or other singers. But a lot of the time when you see someone that makes you feel something when they sing, they will tell you they grew up in the church.
Tell me about working with your co-star Jeremy Jordan.
He’s an amazing singer and did a great job in the film, which was his first. It’s hard being a Broadway actor going into film where you have to tone everything down. In theater, everything you’re taught is to be big and broad and make everyone feel like they are right next to you even in the last row of seats. In our conversations with Todd he would give us ideas and background about our characters and what they had when they knew each other before.
Do you have a favorite scene?
The scene with my character and her brother makes me cry every time. When you’re down and out or suffering a disability or something has been taken away from you you can question things. In order to pick it back up you have to realize as Queen Latifah says that God is like a parent. We may not understand why we go through things but and there is a brighter and bigger lesson to see. God wants us to overcome all of the obstacles.
I’m working on a movie called “Virgin Mary” with Abigail Breslin. I’m also in “Ice Age 4: Continental Drift.” And I have a television movie coming on Nickelodeon that I worked on with Nick Cannon. I acted in it but I am more excited about being a producer!