Keke Palmer on Bee-ing 'Akeelah'

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Keke Palmer gazes out a window with bars on it in a scene from the movie 'Akeelah and the Bee'

Keke Palmer plays a spelling-bee whiz from inner-city Los Angeles in 'Akeelah and the Bee.' Lionsgate Films hide caption

itoggle caption Lionsgate Films

Actress Keke Palmer is a different kind of child prodigy than the spelling whiz she plays in the film Akeelah and the Bee. The 12-year-old Palmer speaks with Howard Berkes about her acting and singing achievements and her ambitions.

HOWARD BERKES, host:

Can you spell prestidigitation? Twelve year old Keke Palmer can. At least she could when she starred as Akeelah Anderson in the film Akeelah and the Bee. That's the story of a seventh grade girl from South Los Angeles who turns a knack for spelling into a transformative journey to the National Spelling Bee. It's in it's second weekend in theatres around the country. Keke Palmer joins us now from our studios at NPR West. Keke, do I dare ask you whether you can still spell prestidigitation?

Ms. KEKE PALMER (Actress): Yes, I can. I can spell it right now.

BERKES: Okay, let me hear it.

Ms. PALMER: P-R-E-S-T-I-D-I-G-I-T-A-T-I-O-N. Prestidigitation.

BERKES: I had to look it up just to write this question. Well, Akeelah Anderson, the character that you play, she has to overcome shyness, her mother's resistance, even the resentment of her friends in order to get to the National Spelling Bee. Do you identify with Akeelah?

Ms. PALMER: Well, me myself isn't in that aspect like Akeelah. I'm not afraid to be myself and I'm not afraid, you know, to do good in school because I fit in even though I was smart. But my friends and my friends back in Chicago, which is where I'm originally from, some of them were afraid to be smart and do good in school because people might think they're nerds or their losers, you know, things like that. But me, myself, I didn't struggle with anything like that.

BERKES: How did you get this part?

Ms. PALMER: Well, I had just finished a shooting movie called the Wool Cap that I played in as a co-star role with William H. Macy and I was, you know, we were looking for new movies to do because, you know, I was just starting to really get into the movie thing and starting to do really well in it, and so we heard from my agent about Akeelah and the Bee, and so I went down and I auditioned and I think I auditioned about five times. And then, you know, I got the part.

BERKES: What was it that made you say to yourself, I want to do this movie?

Ms. PALMER: It was just so inspiring and it was, because I'm not like Akeelah, that made me want to play the role too, because I was able to play another person. And also because there were so many kids in the movie. A lot of the movies that I do is not kids on the set and it's mainly adults, and so I was really excited to do this film also because I'd be able to have fun with kids and I'd be able to do fun things on the set. Sometimes we'd play Scrabble and also, because of the jumping, I double-dutch, and we double-dutched like after lunch. We'd have maybe thirty minutes and we'd double-dutch.

BERKES: And these are things that you also did in the film. You played Scrabble in the film, you jump rope in the film. At times there was no difference between making the film and being on the set?

Ms. PALMER: No, no difference at all. I mean, J.R., who plays Javier, he is just like, he's a little different, but he's just like Javier, the character.

BERKES: Javier becomes your best friend, your spelling partner and competitor in the film.

Ms. PALMER: Yes, we meet at one of the spelling bees and he's a character, you know, he's funny, he's outgoing and he kind of, you know, has a crush on Akeelah.

BERKES: And onscreen, you get a little kiss from Javier, right?

Ms. PALMER: Yeah.

BERKES: Is that your first kiss on or off screen?

Ms. PALMER: Yeah.

BERKES: Was that a good thing, a bad thing, indifferent?

Ms. PALMER: It was just funny, I think. We did it so many times like it was a piece of cake, and were like, a couple of times we were fake laughing and that's when we got real laughs, because J.R., like I said, you know, he's so funny. I'd fake laugh and he said, Keke, that's a fake laugh, and I was lieke, and I just laughed harder and harder.

BERKES: You had too much fun making this film.

Ms. PALMER: Yeah. I mean a lot of people are like this is such a heavy movie, but it's a funny movie also, you know.

BERKES: Now I understand that when you were five, you wanted to do something that your mom was kind of resisting that was not acting, but singing.

Ms. PALMER: Mmm hmm.

BERKES: Tell me about that.

Ms. PALMER: Well, I went to, you know, a church in Chicago, and my mom, of course, was in the choir because my mom was a singer, she used to sing. I wanted to be in the choir as well and I was like, Mom, please, you know, I want to sing in the choir with you guys. I kept on asking her and finally I was, you know, in the choir. At the time, I probably wasn't really, really in the choir. Like I would just be sitting there dancing or singing or something, and I had a little robe, you know, they made me a little robe to fit in with the choir, and so that's why I knew that I wanted to do something. I knew I wanted to entertain.

BERKES: Even at age five, this is something you saw in yourself?

Ms. PALMER: I didn't know I was gonna act, I thought I was gonna be a singer because that's what I did first, and I was like, when I grow up, I want to be, you know, a singer.

BERKES: You sing one of the songs on the Akeelah and the Bee soundtrack.

Ms. PALMER: Yeah, it's out now, it's called All My Girls. My sister wrote the chorus and she sings some of the backgrounds and I'm singing the lead.

(Soundbite of the song "All My Girls")

Ms. PALMER: (Singing) This one's for all the ladies watching over, who's there for you when there's things you cant get over? The ones you call whenever you fall to get through pain and joy, I'll wait there for ya.

Ms. PALMER: It's, you know, about wherever you're from, don't be afraid to be yourself. You know, all my girls, stand up, be yourself, be proud of who you are.

BERKES: What did you learn from Akeelah, this character that you play, that maybe will help you achieve your goals?

Ms. PALMER: To not be afraid of anything, because I mean Akeelah, she was too busy like feeling bad for herself, you know, like, oh man, you know, nothing's going right with me, I live in this dumb neighborhood, I'm, you know, never going to amount to anything because this is this and that. And once she stopped, you know, kind of thinking about herself and starting thinking about what she could do, when she started thinking outside the box, she was able to go out there and, you know, be in the spelling bee and do the spelling bee and, you know, work hard.

BERKES: Akeelah, in the film, has these low points where she doubts herself, and I wonder if in your relatively short career, at least it probably seems so to us, I guess. In your career, so far, have you had low points and how have you been able to get over them?

Ms. PALMER: There've been times where, like when I auditioned for Akeelah, I think in the first audition I was a little bit afraid because it was, you know, I had seen girls in there that I had seen on TV before and I was like, man, I might as well just walk out of here now because I'm just a newcomer and this and that. But when I went into the room, I kind of just had to let all of that go and I went and I was myself, did the lines the best that I could and I kept getting callbacks and callbacks, and as I kept getting closer, I think that, you know, like Akeelah, as she starts to get further in the spelling bee, she started to realize, well, hey, maybe I am good enough if I'm getting this far. And that's what I thought. I thought, well, hey, I'm good if I'm getting this far.

BERKES: Keke Palmer is an actor, singer and dancer who plays Akeelah Anderson in the film, Akeelah and the Bee. Good luck to you.

Ms. PALMER: Thank you.

BERKES: For more about family movies, art films, even Mission Impossible 3, go to npr.org/movies.

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