The Washington Post

A thriller rich with intellect and history

- BY WENDY SMITH

After embellishi­ng the 19th century with alternativ­e histories and fantastic developmen­ts in four previous novels, beginning with her best-selling debut, “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street,” Natasha Pulley grounds her latest work in an actual 20th-century event. “The Half Life of Valery K” takes off from a 1957 nuclear explosion in the Soviet Union, which blasted mortally dangerous levels of radiation into the atmosphere, and the ensuing coverup by the Soviet government. Exhibiting all the storytelli­ng skills that made her earlier books so readable and popular, Pulley also offers a piercing study of how a police state deforms individual psychologi­es, personal relationsh­ips and profession­al ethics.

Valery Kolkhanov has been a prisoner in a Siberian labor camp for six years when he is summoned in 1963 to City 40, “a nature reserve” in western Russia. The area was deliberate­ly exposed to radioactiv­e contaminat­ion, project director Elena Resovskaya says, so that the effects of radiation on an ecosystem could be studied and species that develop resistance to it identified. Resovskaya asked for Valery, who did graduate work with her in the 1930s, because he was a biochemist specializi­ng in radiation before his arrest. He will serve the rest of his 10-year sentence as “a prisoner scientist,” KGB security chief Konstantin Shenkov tells him.

with glowing reviews and gleeful anticipati­on.

Palmer plays the spunky and enterprisi­ng Emerald Haywood, the inquisitiv­e sister to Daniel Kaluuya’s more silent and serious character, OJ, in the latest movie written, directed and co-produced by “Get Out” filmmaker Jordan Peele. The horror flick follows the duo as they attempt to capture evidence — and monetize their discovery — of a mysterious flying object that has terrorized their family horse ranch. To do so, the siblings must put aside their conflictin­g demeanors and get help from electronic­s store employee Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) and cameraman Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott).

Palmer spoke with The Washington Post about the many jobs she holds, the detriments of living superficia­lly and why working on her first Peele project was so refreshing. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How is playing Emerald Haywood different from your other roles? Why is it important for characters like her to be portrayed in movies?

A: Emerald exists in life. I think it’s so important to show diverse Black female characters. In my life, I’m also the kind of female who wavers both on masculine and feminine energy. I pull from both ends, and I think most of us are that way in life, no matter what gender we are. That’s also really important to showcase in film and television. I really love having a character that redefines what people think about women.

That also played into my balance of what strength looked like for Emerald, because she’s not just strong. She’s soft. I think that’s also important as a Black woman; I don’t want to be onenote and be strapped, because that’s an annoying stereotype.

Q: You’ve also previously talked about colorism in the entertainm­ent industry. What does an opportunit­y of this scale mean to you?

A: I’m not the first or the only dark-skinned woman that’s received opportunit­ies on this scale, but I think this just continues to redefine the concepts of what beauty is, what power is and what it means to be a leading lady and somebody that is seen as a fierce leader.

All these different levels of representa­tion are important. People see themselves on-screen or see people that relate to them, and it continues to give positive reinforcem­ent. It doesn’t mean every single story has to be that way. But I think when it comes to something like this, we have a lot less of it than I think we should and we could, so I’m just grateful to be a part of it, to be able to play in that space.

Q: You were eager to work with Jordan Peele. What drew you to his work, and what was it like on set getting to work with him?

A: He’s just so thoughtful, and he has something to say. I really connect with Peele’s films: His approach to filmmaking is very much like an artist, like somebody who’s done a painting or sculptures. It’s very openended, but it has a direct view. It’s specific. When you really take a deep dive into it, you’ll realize that every stroke was connected to the next. And even still, within that, it’s up for your interpreta­tion. That is just so unique.

I can be very journalist­ic and observatio­nal. I think there was half of me that was really watching, learning and creating the space for mentorship to learn from the relationsh­ip that Jordan had with his producers and … actors. I felt like I was going to an art school, and I got an internship to watch Jordan Peele film a movie.

He empowers the other people on set. He has a clear vision, but he also trusts the people that he’s hired. As an actor, I just wanted to make sure that I was listening and making sure that I could tell his story, because I also really believed in what he was trying to do. It’s just a very cool and genuinely collaborat­ive process.

Q: What do you hope people will take away from this movie?

A: There’s a lot. I would love for people to take away the brother and sister relationsh­ip, and just how beautiful some of these platonic relationsh­ips are in our lives: the ones that we take for granted, the ones that we don’t necessaril­y call on until you really, really need them, the people that really know us and see us.

I want people to see the value in that instead of the value that we put on being validated, or being popular or creating a moment for ourselves. The kind of seeing we actually want doesn’t come from popularity; it comes in genuine connection­s.

And then I want people to know how exploitati­on is not great. We need to be more conscious of what our intentions are as it pertains to things that are captivatin­g us and the way we are interactin­g with it. What does it actually say about you? To see something — whether it be beautiful, scary, miraculous or intriguing — what does it say about you for your first step to be to exploit it?

Q: You’re multitalen­ted and wear many hats. You’re an actress (“Lightyear”), producer (“Alice”), show host (“Password”) and competitio­n show judge (“Legendary”). What would you say is your favorite right now?

A: I love that you said “right now,” because that’s exactly how it is. I’m really feeling personalit­yhosting and producing, because I’m really feeling me and myself more than portraying someone else. Even though my personalit­y in hosting is still a performati­ve aspect of who I am, it’s a little bit closer to who I am than playing a character or a role.

The producing aspect really allows me to be a more toneddown version of myself, which also is awesome. I’m in a regenerati­on stage of trying to rejuvenate myself and prepare for whatever that next challengin­g thing could possibly be on camera, and stretching my skill set in other areas, because I know that’s only going to make me a better artist all around.

 ?? Universal Pictures/associated Press ?? Keke Palmer says she doesn’t want to be “one-note,” evidenced by the myriad roles she has played, such as a spelling bee champion, a stripper and now a Hollywood horse trainer in “Nope,” above.
Universal Pictures/associated Press Keke Palmer says she doesn’t want to be “one-note,” evidenced by the myriad roles she has played, such as a spelling bee champion, a stripper and now a Hollywood horse trainer in “Nope,” above.

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