Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, and Angela Bassett on this wonderful inspirational film
There are spelling bees and then there's the Scripps National Spelling Bee - the biggest spelling contest in the nation. You know you've seen it on ESPN and thought to yourself, 'What the heck is a spelling be doing on ESPN?' Don't lie, I'll admit it; I have the same reaction every time I see it.
Well, there must be something about it, cause recently there's been three movies made about spelling bees. It started with the documentary, Spellbound; then last year's Bee Season with Richard Gere; and now there's Akeelah and the Bee, starring Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, and newcomer Keke Palmer.
Actually, you can't really call Keke a newcomer - she's been in some pretty popular and heavy films and television shows, including earlier this year in Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion and 2004's Barbershop 2: Back in Business. But Keke's also guested on ER, Cold Case, and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
In Akeelah and the Bee, Keke plays the title character, Akeelah Anderson, a young girl living in South Los Angeles. But Akeelah's got a gift, and that gift is spelling; and after catching a glimpse of the ESPN broadcast of the Scripps Spelling Bee, she knew that was her destiny.
There were only two things standing in Akeelah's way - the first is her mother, Tanya, played by Bassett, who doesn't think Akeelah needs to worry about spelling; she wants her to just deal with getting through school. Angela talked about why she felt her character was keeping Akeelah away from the extra curricular activity. After Akeelah's father was killed, "She's (Tanya) still nursing with that grief; she's still nursing that pain and hurt. It's hard for her to let her go forward."
The other thing keeping her back is Akeelah herself, being very shy and quiet in front of so many people. It was definitely hard for Keke to tone down herself to play Akeelah; when we spoke to the 12-year-old actress, you could tell she was very vibrant and not shy at all. Keke will be the first one to admit that, too. "I talk many words a minute; me and my sister have our own language and my mom is always telling me to slow it down, but I'm way worse than Akeelah."
And even the audition process was different for Keke to play Akeelah, but she put herself in that same position; she really got into the mind of Akeelah. Keke remembered going back in for the third time with the producers and Doug (Atchison, the director) in the room. "It was a scene where I had to cry, and so I didn't plan on going in there crying and just doing the best I could. When it got to the crying scene, I just took all my nerves and made myself cry. I thought to myself, 'What am I doing?' I didn't let that mess me up; I just kept it up and kept crying. After I was done, I went over to everyone and shook their hands; when I got to Doug, he told me 'Thank you.' When I left the room, I went to my mom and told her what happened; she told me that 'thank you' meant 'thank you for making up my mind for choosing you.' And I believe that that's what he was thinking."
That was a definite good thing; Keke is fantastic in this film. And that's not just my sentiment. Take it from her co-star, Laurence Fishburne; he plays her spelling coach, Dr. Larabee (how convenient). Laurence is also a producer on the film and knew they had to find the right girl to play Akeelah. "This is her movie; make no mistake about it, it's called Akeelah and the Bee, she carries this movie. Keke Palmer is an extraordinary talent; she has this gift that I was reminded of myself working with her and being around her that was my talent when I was younger. I really hope that she has a long and fruitful career."
Laurence plays a much different kind of character than his roles in the Matrix trilogy; he feels he's much more like Dr. Larabee than Morpheus. "I'm a deeply sensitive person. Dr. Larabee is really a creation of Doug Atchison, who's a creation of a former teacher of his.
Working again with Angela Bassett was perfect timing for Laurence. "We were always hoping Angela would do the film; timing just didn't work out before. We went out to her and had a conversation and she said 'ok.' Angela and I have this long history and it's a given that when we come together good things are going to happen."
Naturally thinking, being in a movie about spelling would produce some good spellers. Well, not the case with any of the stars; Keke, Angela, and Laurence are not the best at that department. However, Keke has taken a liking to one particular word. "My favorite word is 'prestidigitation' which means slight of hand; that I'm good at spelling. But I'm never going to use the word; I'm never going to say, 'I love the prestidigitation of that magician' or anything like that."
Throughout the film, Akeelah really finds friendship with some of her new found spelling buddies; as she gets through round after round, she gets very acquainted with one of the boys, Javier, played by J.R. Villarreal. Unfortunately, Akeelah leaves her other best friend behind; that's something Keke knows very well. She grew up in Chicago and moved to LA to pursue her acting career and says her life and Akeelah's life really parallel each other. "I had this friend who I told her I was going to live there for ten years, and then had to leave. As I started to get more into Akeelah, I started to get a little upset; we went back to Chicago to see some friends and relatives and I really realized this is what I wanted to do. I didn't want to give up on acting and it was what I wanted to do and take that extra step like Akeelah did and kept on going."
Being on the set with Angela and Laurence really helped her as well. "It was easy for me to get into the role and feed off of their energy. They're great actors."
And on top of that, having the kids on the set was just great because they would just have fun. Scenes between her and J.R. would take much longer because they couldn't stop laughing. "We were laughing so much on that kissing part; we had to do that 20 times. Doug told us get it all out when you can; he had us do so many rehearsals just to get it out. And that 'sexual harassment part' I couldn't keep a straight face, but I was able to hold it down."
Akeelah and the Bee is a wonderful, wonderful film! This is a movie everyone needs to see; and if you don't know who Keke Palmer is now, you'll definitely get to know her after this.
Akeelah and the Bee opens in theaters April 28th; it's rated PG.