You may know Keke Palmer as that child star who grew up to be the woman of your dreams. In that case, cue the night terrors. “I did a horror movie before this, and I loved it, loved it, loved it,” says the 21-year-old actress from the set of Scream Queens, a slasher-comedy series premiering on FOX this month. “I just want to keep doing more.”
Born in the suburbs of South Chicago, Palmer has always been good at getting what she wants. After starring in her first Hollywood film, Barbershop 2: Back in Business, at age nine, she convinced her family to relocate to L.A. so she could pursue an acting career. And she’s been unstoppable ever since. On top of her four dozen–plus acting credits (she’s had recurring roles on 90210 and Showtime’s critically acclaimed Masters of Sex), Palmer’s résumé includes a season on Broadway as Cinderella, a studio-recorded R&B album, and a talk show on BET, Just Keke, that debuted last year, making her the youngest talk-show host in television history.
Of course, a schedule that busy requires a lot of shooting from the hip. “They didn’t really give me too many details about my character when I signed up, so I’ve been improvising a lot,” she says of her role as Zayday Williams, a sorority girl—and likely homicide victim—in Scream Queens, which also stars Emma Roberts, Ariana Grande, and Jamie Lee Curtis, among many others. (It’s going to be a bloodbath.) “Greek life was something I always heard about growing up. My dad and uncles had all been in the same fraternity.”
But mastering the art of the toga party is only half the battle. Set on a fictional college campus in New Orleans, Scream Queens centers around a sorority house with a major serial-killer problem. As far as slasher anthologies go, it’s the perfect storm, especially when Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan — co-creators of Glee and American Horror Story — are calling the shots. “They’re such a great pyramid of creative geniuses,” Palmer says. “I know it sounds terrible to say, but the killing scenes are going to be so cool.”
If Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan stick to their promise of offing one character per episode, there’s a good chance Palmer will find herself on the wrong end of a butcher knife—or an ax, or a chain saw, or a lawn-mower blade—sometime soon. She doesn’t know how, or even when, it’s going to happen. But, she says, it needs to be epic. “That’s what I keep telling them. If I die in the next episode, make sure you zoom in close, so you can really see my eyes!”
Photos by Karen Collins for Maxim