Angela Bassett and 'Akeelah and the Bee'

Angela Bassett looks at a photo album in a scene from 'Akeelah and the Bee.'

hide captionAngela Bassett plays the skeptical mother of a talented 11-year-old in her latest film.

Lionsgate Films

Actress Angela Bassett talks about her career with Ed Gordon. Her new film is Akeelah and the Bee, a story about an inner-city school girl trying to make it to a national spelling competition.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

It may be hard to believe but it's been 13 years since Angela Bassett teamed up with Lawrence Fishburne to deliver her stellar Oscar nominated performance as Tina Turner in the film What's Love Got To Do With It?

(Soundbite from movie “What's Love Got To Do With It?”)

Ms. ANGELA BASSETT (Actress): (As Tina Turner) I'm Tina Turner. My husband and I just had a fight. I am supposed to open at the academy tonight. I have 36 cents and a Mobil card, but if you would give me a room, I swear I will pay you back.

GORDON: Bassett and Fishburne are together again in the new movie, Akeelah and the Bee. The film also stars Keke Palmer as Akeelah, an inner-city girl who aims to win a national spelling competition. Bassett plays Akeelah's single mother who's fighting to keep her daughter focused on the bigger picture.

(Soundbite of movie “Akeelah and the Bee”)

Ms. BASSETT: (As Tanya) Where you been?

Ms. KEKE PALMER (As Akeelah): Studying.

Ms. BASSETT: Studying where?

Ms. PALMER: Woodland Hills.

Ms. BASSETT: What you doing there?

Ms. PALMER: They got a spelling club.

Ms. BASSETT: Akeelah Anderson! You done lost your mind? I'm not having another child of mine disappearing at all hours. So if this spelling thing means sneaking off to the suburbs by yourself, I'm calling it all off.

Ms. PALMER: We can't call it off, I'm going to the regional bee!

Ms. BASSETT: Not if you flunk out of school, you're not. I just got a letter saying you gotta take summer school to make up for all these classes you done skipped.

Ms. PALMER: But momma, I hate Crenshaw; it is so boring there and nobody cares.

Ms. BASSETT: But you think they care about you in Woodland Hills?

GORDON: The film is already getting great reviews and is the latest success for Bassett, who's been gracing stage, screen, and television since she was a teenager. And as the Florida native celebrates the film's major release today, Bassett is also reveling in a more personal kind of joy.

Angela Bassett welcome, always good to see you.

Ms. BASSETT: Thank you. Nice to be here.

GORDON: As always. Listen, now I get to say congratulations. So talk to me, before we get into the film, about the real life big deal, these two little babies you have.

Ms. BASSETT: Yes, little Bronwyn(ph) and little Flater(ph). They're three months old and they're exquisite.

GORDON: What can you say people couldn't get you ready for? I remember before my daughter was born people would say, you know we can tell you all this stuff, but you'll never know until you have 'em. You just never know till they're yours.

Ms. BASSETT: Right, right. You hear, I think you hear two things; I think you hear sleep deprivation is real and you also hear, it goes by so fast so enjoy every moment, and I--I keep trying to put the brakes on my own desires, you know, to see them walking and crawling and speaking and just enjoy this moment.

GORDON: How much are you aware, and perhaps even now more acutely because of the babies, the idea of being a role model for black America, when you think about your educational pedigree, Yale, that ain't too shabby; the idea of the roles that you've played have meant so much to African-Americans, whether it be Betty Shabazz in Malcolm X or Tina Turner or, you know, any of the roles that you had that didn't even portray real people, but the fictional characters that you brought so much to--the mother in Boyz ‘n the Hood and Waiting to Exhale et cetera, et cetera; how much is that real to you in understanding how much that's meant to the community?

Ms. BASSETT: Well, as I interface with the world, they express that to me, that it's meant much, you know? So I don't take it lightly. And I've always tried to make my family proud, my mother, my auntie, those who, you know, have been beacons and inspirations to me, who've been proud of me and who always set a high mark for me; so I always want to add and not subtract.

GORDON: You must feel that with this latest project, 'Akeelah and the Bee', and I say that because there's so much buzz in black America right now about this movie, because we don't see this kind of movie often enough and I suspect you've heard that, too.

Ms. BASSETT: I know, and I wonder sometimes, you know, I don't know what gets a movie green lit, but I'm so happy that this one was; and it's a buzz all over, you know? About this little African-American girl from south-central L.A., but she could be anyone because each of us have had dreams and aspirations and wanting to be and needing to be supported and directed, because what do we know as a ten, 11, 12 year old what's best to do.

(Soundbite of movie “Akeelah and the Bee”)

Ms. PALMER: So why you home again today? Ain't you got a job?

Mr. LAWRENCE FISHBURNE (Actor): (As Joshua Larabee) Leave the ghetto talk outside, all right?

Ms. PALMER: Whatever.

Mr. FISHBURNE: You can leave now.

Ms. PALMER: How come?

Mr. FISHBURNE: Because I don't have time to waste on insolent little girls.

Ms. PALMER: Insolent? I ain't--I mean, I'm not insolent. When I put my mind to it, I can memorize anything and I don't need help from a dictatorial, truculent, supercilious gardener.

Ms. BASSETT: You know when I was making the movie I had as an inspiration my mom. She was a single parent, my sister and I growing up in the housing projects, so she put down certain edicts; and it seemed strong at the time, you know, or she cut out every extra-curricular, she cut out all the fun until you did what was your job and that was to get your studies. So I took as an inspiration for Tonya, my mom.

(Soundbite of movie “Akeelah and the Bee”)

Unidentified Man: I swear we thought you were onboard with this Mrs. Anderson.

Ms. BASSETT: You wanna tell me what the heck is going on here because I never signed a consent form.

Ms. PALMER: I signed daddy's name.

Ms. BASSETT: You did what?

Mr. FISHBURNE: I apologize, Mrs. Anderson, if we've contributed to any anguish you may be feeling.

Ms. BASSETT: And who are you exactly?

Mr. FISHBURNE: My name is Joshua Larabee, ma'am, and I have been helping Akeelah prepare herself for the spelling bee.

Ms. BASSETT: Well, you must want this thing pretty bad because you ain't never lied to me before in your life.

GORDON: Often you see people who have won Academy Awards and then you see people who you think have won Academy Awards throughout their career. When you think of the performance that you gave for What's Love Got To Do With It? Do you ever look back and think that's the one that got away? Does it matter to you at all? Because most people most people, truth be told, felt like that was yours that year.

Ms. BASSETT: Well, thank you. I thought so, too, but it would have been the first--the first time that an African-American woman has won the award for Best Actress, and it just seems that they just weren't ready for that at that hour.

GORDON: But in the long run it's enough for you to know that you had one of those career defining, once in a lifetime performances?

Ms. BASSETT: Absolutely, and I'm, you know, I'm prime to get another chance at it. When I got into it, it wasn't for awards; it was for the pure joy of it, of acting, and it still is.

GORDON: Let me ask you this, you were smart enough to marry a Detroiter.

Ms. BASSETT: So, you're from Detroit.

GORDON: I am from Detroit. Let me ask you the idea of having two artists in the home, two actors in the home. Can we read too much into that? Are we going too stereotypical, or is there some truth to the idea that artists are artists and you've gotta work your way around that?

Ms. BASSETT: I love actors. I find actors fascinating. I love them. They're--they can be exciting, they can be needy, but Courtney is a great balance.

GORDON: Now I understand that you guys were co-writing or are co-writing a book. Is that the case? Talk to me about that.

Ms. BASSETT: Yes, Friends, a love story. It's just about how, you know, he from the fields of Detroit, I from the fields of St. Petersburg, Florida, sort of a relationship book.

GORDON: Inside an inspiration on the journey that you guys have had and so many people admire, not only you guys as a couple, but as individuals and as artists and, of course, as I said, so many people looking forward to this movie and just happy to see you and Mr. Fishburne together once again.

Ms. BASSETT: Mm-hmm, it's our third opportunity to work together. We did Boyz ‘n the Hood and, of course, What's Love Got To Do With It? and here we are again. It was great, we got a history together, and that's nice

GORDON: Uh huh, and a great one.

Ms. BASSETT: Thank you.

GORDON: Akeelah and the Bee is the movie, and, as I said, so many people waiting for it. And it's today--it will be out, and get to the theater the first weekend and let's really make a buzz and some noise about this movie.

Angela Bassett, so good to see you.

Ms. BASSETT: Thank you, it's a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much.

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