The following article appeared in the May 1, 2006 issue of Jet Magazine
'Bee' Actress Palmer Is a S-T-A-R
Spelling drama is the first leading role for Keke Palmer
By Daniel Fienberg
When you're 11 years old, a couple weeks can seem like years and a waiting a couple months -- particularly when you're an aspiring actress waiting to hear about the biggest role of your career -- can feel like forever.
"It was way long, too long for them to take," laughs Keke Palmer, who plays the title character in the new spelling bee drama "Akeelah and the Bee." "When you audition for a part, it's maybe a couple of weeks and then they tell you you got the part or you didn't. With this movie, they didn't tell nobody they'd gotten the part, so I was a little upset, but then when I found out I was like [She lets out a scream and does a little dance.] But I was still a little mad about it, because it took a long time."
As long as the process felt for Palmer, it was even longer for writer-director Doug Atchison, who estimates they auditioned roughly 300 girls for the role of Akeelah, a middle schooler from South Central who dreams of winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
"Keke felt like a real kid and she's as smart as Akeelah is," says of his young star, whose previous credits include TNT's "The Wool Cap" and this spring's "Madea's Family Reunion." "Now, she'll play around and she'll screw around with you, but she's a brainy kid. I also found a kid that I didn't have to dictate the part to, but one who I could collaborate with."
Even before Palmer was officially signed, her audition tape was being used to woo high profile co-stars like Angela Bassett.
"I remember just being filled inside just looking at her little face and hearing the way she spoke, just feisty and bright and cute," recall's Bassett, who plays Palmer's mother in the film.
Her other co-star, Laurence Fishbourne, also has kind words.
"I think Keke has the potential to do incredibly well," he says. "I think Keke has the potential to have a very long and fruitful career."
Having those two Oscar nominees alongside her helped Palmer, who had never toplined a film before, feel more at ease.
"My mom always told me, 'Don't think you have to carry this movie. Don't think about that. Just think of you going in there and doing your best,'" Palmer says. "And then everybody comes in here saying, 'You carried the film!' I'm sure if they'd said that while I was on the set, I wouldn't have done it that way."
While Palmer downplays her own spelling abilities, she says she didn't find the wordplay any more challenging than learning any other long monologue.
"I learn lines really quickly," she says simply. "That's why it's easy for me to learn those words --Memorize them. Done."
Having the spelling of so many complicated words, can she still do it?
"Only one. Only the first. Prestidigitation. I can spell that one. P-R-E-S-T-I-D-I-G-I-T-A-T-I-O-N. Prestidigitation."
We'll just assume she's right.
"Akeelah and the Bee" opens Friday, April 28.
Love's Got to Do With It
Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne are passionate about their "Akeelah" roles.
By Susan King
Times Staff Writer
One doesn't so much interview Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne as sit back and watch as their friendship, wordplay and enthusiasm for their craft plays itself out.
"I think we both have a genuine respect and love for what we do," said Bassett. "Theater is sacred."
"It's church," said Fishburne.
"And what we do is sacred," added Bassett.
It's been 13 years since the two actors gave powerhouse performances as Ike and Tina Turner in the hit biopic "What's Love Got to Do With It," for which they received Academy Award nominations. In 1991, they also appeared in John Singleton's breakout film, "Boyz N the Hood," as an estranged couple.
And now Bassett, 47, and Fishburne, 44, have reunited for the inspirational family film, "Akeelah and the Bee," which opens Friday.
Written and directed by Doug Atchison, "Akeelah" stars newcomer Keke Palmer as a bright 11-year-old girl living in South Los Angeles who wins her middle-school spelling contest. And faster than you can say "Spellbound" and "Bee Season," Akeelah is preparing for the national spelling bee in Washington, D.C.
Bassett plays her tense, embittered mother grieving over the loss of her husband to a random shooting who doesn't have time for Akeelah and her dreams.
Fishburne plays Dr. Larabee, a UCLA professor and etymologist, who becomes Akeelah's coach and surrogate father. The soft-spoken Larabee is also dealing with the death of his young daughter and subsequent separation from his wife.
Fishburne and Bassett didn't actively search out another project after "What's Love Got to Do With It" just for the sake of working together again. But all the same they're pleased this project organically bubbled up and brought them back together.
"You know, whatever happens between the two of us that's created when we come together as actors is not something I think we can explain," said Fishburne, sitting next to Bassett at a conference table at a trendy Sunset Strip hotel.
"I just know it happens. I think it would have been easy for us to do [another film]," he added. "But we are not easy. We came up working hard and with a clear intention to do things that would make our community proud and our families."
He paused and looked over at Bassett. "We are not looking for easy and we didn't get into this to get rich. We both came through [playwright] August Wilson's works. We were both directed by Lloyd Richards [on Broadway]. You go all the way back to 1959 and 'Raisin in the Sun' and him directing that piece about black folks and breaking the color line."
"We don't take it lightly," Bassett said. "It impacts us."
The movie carries an on-screen dedication from Fishburne to his 14-year-old daughter, Montana, who lives in New York City with her mother, Fishburne's ex-wife. "She was 12 when we made this movie," said Fishburne. "She's this little girl as far as I'm concerned. My son just entered Boston University, so now I get the opportunity to spend time with her. I have been making trips once a month to New York and I take her to the theater."
"Do you want her to be an actress?" asked Bassett.
"No," responded Fishburne. "I want to expose her to the theater so she understands her father's passion. She's 14 and being popular is something she is concerned with. I have never been concerned about that. My life has been about this thing, so I want to introduce her to that so when she grows up she'll be able to say, 'I know what my father loved and I know why because he introduced me to do it and helped me experience it.' "
Bassett had her own life-changing experience in the theater at 15 when she saw a production at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" with James Earl Jones and Kevin Conway.
"That play and those performances had a huge impact," said Bassett. "It just changed the whole trajectory of my life. When [Jones] kills that woman at the end of the play, this simple-minded man who is gentle with a little mouse, it just spoke to my little girl's heart. I was the last one out of the theater. I was sitting there weeping."
Fishburne pounded the table with excitement. "You saw James Earl Jones and Kevin Conway doing that? I love that!"
Fishburne became involved with "Akeelah" four years ago. "I said, 'I'll be in it and produce it,' " he recalled.
Palmer was already cast when Bassett was sent the script.
"Then they showed me a tape of Keke and I fell in love with her, she's feisty …. "
"A dynamo," added Fishburne.
"And fearless," continued Bassett. "She's at that point in her life when kids are fearless. They say, We want to be this and that. We want to be four different things. It's before folks start telling you can't be a ballet dancer and a fireman and a president and an astronaut."
Fishburne admired the fact that Atchison stresses the positive aspects of the African American community rather than focusing on the stereotypical negatives.
"We know that there is gang violence in our community," he said. "We know there is gang violence in other communities, but with our community it always happens to be the focus of the media's attention."
Like Akeelah, Fishburne and Bassett had mentors when they were young.
"Mine were informal mentors," said Fishburne. "They were all in my working life."
Bassett recalled that Robert Anders, the assistant principal at her high school, set her on the straight and narrow.
"I would straggle the line between being the bright and smart kid and trying to be cool in the lunch room — that sort of thing," said Bassett.
Anders, she said, was the one "who said [to my mother], 'Betty, Angela is smart. She can do this. She can do that.' And she'd say, 'Mr. Anders, are you watching her? Is she doing everything she is supposed to be doing?' And he'd say, 'Yeah, I got my eyes on her.' "
'Bee' Reunites Fishburne, Bassett
'What's Love Got To Do With It' stars cast a new spell in 'Akeelah'
By Daniel Fienberg
The last time Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett shared the screen, things worked out pretty well.
In the 1993 drama "What's Love Got To Do With It," she was Tina Turner and he was the abusive Ike. The biopic took in nearly $40 million domestically and earned Oscar nominations for both stars, but it took more than a decade for the duo to reunite.
The Lionsgate drama "Akeelah and the Bee" stars 12-year-old Keke Palmer as Akeelah, a gifted speller whose rise from South Central to the National Spelling Bee is aided by a moody college professor (Fishburne) and by her strict-but-loving mother (Bassett).
For writer-director Doug Atchison, the pairing wasn't something he planned.
"Laurence got on first as both a producer and an actor. He read it a few years before we started shooting," Atchison says of the script, which spent years circling the industry. "And then we found Keke, because the studio wasn't going to go forward until we found Akeelah. And we found her. And then it just seemed logical for me to try to put [Fishburne and Bassett] back together. I just thought that would be great. I met with Angela and she wanted to do it."
Of course, having Fishburne and Bassett together forced Atchison to write additional scenes where the actors would share the screen. He stopped short, though, of the temptation to artificially create a romance for their characters.
"It was only joked about, because we knew it would tip the balance of what the story was about," he says. "If it suddenly went that way, you're not paying attention to Akeelah anymore."
Fishburne agrees that he and Basset were determined never to upstage their young co-star.
"This was an opportunity for us to sort of support this new talent and to be her supporting cast," he says. "With respect to me and Angie, it was nice to work together. It was as if no time had passed at all and this experience made us really want to do some more work together in the future."
As befits their very different personalities, Bassett is a good deal more effusive about working with Fishburne again.
"Oh it was just sweet and wonderful," she laughs. "I have a great deal of respect for Laurence and we both just love and honor the craft of acting. We love it and we speak the same artistic language."
The voluble actress continues, "People do it different ways. He went to the school of acting on the set of 'Apocalypse Now' and 'Cornbread, Earl and Me' or whatever. I went to Yale School of Drama. You can come at it from different ways. People go to whatever acting class or whoever acting coach or not at all or from the music world. But where do you meet? Do you have a common language?"
See the fruits of that common language with "Akeelah and the Bee" hits theaters nationwide on Friday, April 28.
'Akeelah and the Bee' casts its spell
By Valerie Kuklenski
"Akeelah and the Bee" is the story of someone who lacks self-confidence, then meets a daunting challenge, puts everything into the effort and ultimately achieves an important goal.
And that's just the process of getting the film made.
The title character, played engagingly by Keke Palmer, is a sixth-grader from Compton who is pressured by her principal to enter the school spelling bee and, against her mother's wishes and despite feeling out of her element, makes it to the prestigious National Spelling Bee.
Writer Doug Atchison says he faced a similar uphill battle, first in convincing himself — a white guy — that he could write a believable story for a predominantly black cast, and then in selling it just as is for production with himself, a first-time director, behind the camera.
"The way Akeelah was hesitant to go for the bee, I was hesitant to write this story, because whenever you do things that are outside the realm of what people expect from you, there's an added pressure, there's an added concern," Atchison said.
"For five years I didn't write the story because I thought, oh, no one's going to accept me writing this. And that's exactly the fear that Akeelah's going through: 'Nobody's going to accept me going to this bee.' And once I made that connection with her it was easier for me to write the story."
In the spirit of the successful 2003 documentary "Spellbound," Atchison says he wanted to infuse his film with a sports-picture feel rather than making a "dry academic movie about spelling." But it wasn't until he found his star that greenlighting it became easy for Lionsgate and its financial partners.
"They weren't going to go forward until we found Akeelah, which makes sense because she's on every page of the script," Atchison said. "A huge weight lifted up off my shoulders when we found Keke because she was so natural and so real and so talented, but also she's a real kid. A lot of girls we were meeting were overly precocious, overly trained, just felt like adults in kids' bodies.
"Or they felt like a real kid but they didn't have the acting chops that Keke has."
Keke, 12, who lives in Duarte with her ex-actor parents, two sisters and a brother, got her acting start two years ago with a role in "Barbershop 2" and a part in the live stage show at American Girl Place in Chicago.
If there was one project that polished her, it probably was "The Wool Cap," a TNT movie in which she co-starred with William H. Macy. He played a mute character, so she performed without being fed line cues, picking up an Emmy nomination for it.
Still, Keke had to do five auditions for the role of Akeelah. "On the fourth audition I had to do a crying scene from the movie. I didn't go in there trying to cry or anything. I just went in there trying to do the best that I could.
"I did the first half of the scene and then I just started to cry and I did the rest. And I went over and shook all the producers' hands, and when I got to Doug, he stood up and hugged me and said, 'Thank you so much.'"
Learning how to spell archaic, rarely used words was easier than it would seem, Atchison said. The kids had only dozens to memorize — just a handful a day to remember — compared with the thousands studied by real bee participants. Keke had her own technique.
"My mom threw like a little spelling bee for me and my sister," she said. "We took all the words out of the script — not just mine but every single word that was hard — and we did a little spelling bee and whoever won would get $10. And I won."
"Akeelah and the Bee," which opens in theaters on Friday, reunites Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne in significantly less adversarial roles than their Tina and Ike Turner of "What's Love Got to Do with It." Bassett is Tanya, Akeelah's widowed mother who discourages her involvement in the bee because she's afraid her daughter's schoolwork will suffer and she will only be left disappointed. Fishburne is Dr. Larabee, a friend of Akeelah's principal who participated in the bee in his youth and agrees to coach her.
Fishburne's early involvement — he's one of its many producers — was one of many factors that encouraged Bassett to sign on. "The producer, director, the script, Keke, Laurence — when you can't anticipate the outcome you've got to look at some of the ingredients. It had great ingredients, I thought."
Bassett said her rehearsal time and improvisation sessions with Keke were great for bonding — and for getting a feel for how scenes would shape up when the camera rolled.
'Some of the scenes are confrontational between Tanya and Akeelah, mother and daughter. I would just go there, real strong, fierce, and she would meet me with Akeelah attitude and I would meet her right back.
"We were in tears, we were laughing," she said, adding that each such tense moment ended with a loving embrace and recognition that "this is just a little precious soul right here."
Fishburne's character is a poised and mostly soft-spoken intellectual with his own secret pain bubbling beneath the surface. He considers his young co-star "absolutely brilliant."
Of course, there's that old admonition against sharing the stage with kids.
"I don't know why they say that because they always make you look good," he said. "She's uninhibited as an actor, you know? She hasn't learned any bad habits that I can tell. So I think she just lets loose. I think she wants to do very well. I think she takes it quite seriously."
As for Keke, she's hopping around the country to promote the film, reading scripts for possible summer work and keeping up her seventh-grade studies, while trying to find time for simple pleasures like double-Dutch rope skipping, shopping, seeing movies with friends and styling her big sister's hair.
While she enjoys the encouragement and high praise she has received for her work, Keke has not yet decided whether to make acting her career. She oozes confidence but remains cautious.
"I was doubtful at first about doing some of the acting jobs because they were so big, and a lot of people I've seen on TV were auditioning for them," she said. "But as I got to another level I kind of realized, well, I've gotten this far. Maybe I am good enough.
"And that's what Akeelah thought when she got to the regional bee. She kind of realized, 'If I've gotten here, then I must be good.'"
Starbucks building buzz for spelling bee movie
By Gail Schiller
Starbucks will officially launch its first foray into the movie business Tuesday with a groundbreaking marketing campaign for the drama "Akeelah and the Bee," which opens April 28.
The coffee retailer hopes the campaign will not only boost box office revenue -- since Starbucks will share in the profits -- but also transform the way studios market their movies.
The Lionsgate film stars Keke Palmer as an inner-city schoolgirl who gets a chance to compete at the national spelling bee. Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne co-star.
An estimated 30 million customers will be challenged to expand their vocabulary and spelling prowess with words featured in the film's spelling bees such as pulchritude and prestidigitation. More than 25 words will be printed on in-store signage, cup sleeves, coasters, flash cards, magnets, and on lanyards worn by Starbucks' staff of baristas.
In addition, Starbucks expects its baristas, who either were invited to advance screenings or were sent the trailer on DVD, to encourage dialogue about the film. The baristas will be free to express their own opinion about "Akeelah" even though Starbucks is recommending the movie to its customers, said Starbucks Entertainment president Ken Lombard.
"We can provide the studios with a very unique opportunity to reach moviegoers in a way they currently don't have and frankly is going to help with better box office performance for their films," he said.
Movie promotion in retail outlets and quick service restaurants usually revolves around posters, standees, branded cups and toys.
Even more significantly, Starbucks -- named as a co-presenter of "Akeelah" in the opening credits along with Lionsgate and producer 2929 Entertainment -- appears to be the first retail or brand promotional partner to get a cut of a movie's profits. Usually, tie-in partners pay millions of dollars for the privilege of featuring images and clips from a film in their own ad campaigns.
Lombard said Starbucks has been approached by a number of other studios -- and not just the smaller, independent ones that have smaller marketing budgets -- about promoting their movies. He said Starbucks expects to base future film partnerships on the same basic model that gives it a share of the profits.
Through its T-Mobile HotSpot network, the Starbucks campaign for "Akeelah" also will offer customers access to the movie trailer, a clip from the film, links to the "Akeelah" Web site (http://www.akeelahandthebee.com) and links to music from the movie on the Starbucks Hear Music homepage. It will sell travel-size Scrabble as part of the promotion, and the DVD will be released in Starbucks locations simultaneously with its national release at traditional retail.
Producer hoping "Akeelah" spells success
By Gregg Kilday
LAS VEGAS (Hollywood Reporter) - Producer Sid Ganis couldn't have hoped for a more receptive audience when he arrived in Las Vegas this week to screen his latest movie at the annual convention of the nation's movie theater owners.
For, in his capacity as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Ganis had used his appearance at this month's Academy Awards to praise the somewhat embattled moviegoing experience.
In return this week, National Association of Theater Owners president John Fithian offered a shout-out to Ganis during his state-of-the-industry address to ShoWest attendees, observing that "his decision to tell an international audience that movie theaters are indispensable to our collective industry earns ... our deep gratitude."
Still, it's in the nature of producers to fret. Ganis didn't automatically assume Fithian's words guaranteed easy sailing for his film "Akeelah and the Bee," a little movie about an 11-year-old black girl who, against all odds, aims toconquer the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington. The film is set for release April 28 via Lionsgate.
Five years ago, writer-director Doug Atchison's original screenplay was one of the winners of the Academy's annual Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. At ceremonies acknowledging the winners, Ganis happened to be sitting next to Atchison's sister, and though he knew it sounded corny, he introduced himself as a producer and asked to read the screenplay.
Ganis immediately was taken by the work and showed it to his wife, Nancy Hult, who was just as enthused. Recalling that some years back when he was working as an executive at Paramount Pictures, his wife had been just as convinced about the promise of a script titled "Ghost," Ganis adds, "I trust her instincts."
Ganis and Hult optioned the script for no money. They eventually were joined as producers by Daniel Llewelyn, Michael Romersa and Laurence Fishburne, who appears in the film as mentor to the young spelling bee champ, played by 12-year-old Keke Palmer.
Laughs Ganis of the no-frills production, "It's the same as every other movie I've made, except when you had to stop traffic for a shot, the producer has to go out there to help stop it."
While the film was in production, Lionsgate scored big with the first of its Tyler Perry films, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," which encouraged all involved to believe that with the proper handling "Akeelah" also could break out. (Its trailer was attached to Perry's recent follow-up "Madea's Family Reunion.")
The movie's profile was further raised when Starbucks Entertainment agreed to come aboard as a financial and marketing partner.
"Now we're slowing inching our way into the real world, so we wanted to show it to exhibitors from all over the country," Ganis says.
The movie may have a sentimental streak, but Ganis knows hard-edged theater guys put sentiment aside when making their booking decisions, so he was heartened when a Canadian delegate told him that even though the common wisdom is that black movies don't play north of the border, he would book it.
"These guys," Ganis added with some relief, "gave us a good sense that the movie can hit the marketplace."