LAURENCE FISHBURNE on 'AKEELAH AND THE BEE' Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
April 1, 2006
In the inspirational drama Akeelah and the Bee, an 11-year-old girl named Akeelah (Keke Palmer) uses her talent for spelling to make it all the way to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. In her quest to win the prestigious academic competition, she is coached by a stern but passionate professor (Laurence Fishburne), even as she grapples with the implications of her natural gift and a strained relationship with her hard-working single mom (Angela Bassett).
Although Akeelah resorts to just about every trick in the book to pull on the heartstrings of the viewer (lost relationships, selfless sacrifice, regrets, and triumphing against long odds, all set to overtly sentimental music), it manages to do so in a surprisingly acceptable way that imparts a feel-good vibe. The cast is strong across the board, but Keke Palmer in the title role particularly shines--she should definitely be remembered during awards season for her performance as Akeelah, a stalwart and sympathetic heroine audiences will cheer till the very end.
In this interview, Laurence Fishburne talks about his involvement in the project as both actor and producer, as well as the making of this extraordinary tale of living up to your potential. He also briefly talks about working on Mission: Impossible III and getting involved with UNICEF, and jokes about being confused with Samuel L. Jackson.
One of the best reviewed films of the year, Akeelah and the Bee is now available to own on DVD. Special features include audio commentary, behind the scenes video, deleted scenes, a gag reel, and a featurette on director Doug Atchison and the film's young star, Keke Palmer.
And thanks to a partnership with Lions Gate, the DVD is also available at your local Starbucks!
MEDIA: This is quite a wonderful film...
LAURENCE: It's a lovely little movie. It really is a gem.
They should show it in schools...
They will. It's going to have a long and healthy life, I think.
You were in another film that involved a gifted child, Searching for Bobby Fischer, though that youth seemed more troubled than Akeelah. What parallels did you see?
Well, clearly, there's a similarity--it's gifted children, it's parents confronted with what to do with a gifted child, there's the child trying to figure out how to deal with this gift and the responsibility that comes with it. All those things. But I don't know if it was any more or less difficult for one character or another. I haven't seen the film in a long time, but I think as long as there's kids, there should be movies that focus on them.
What message do you think parents can take away from Akeelah?
I think they can take a lot, but the most important thing seems, to me, to be to pay attention to your kids. [laughs] Pay attention to your children.
Is that something you've done better since being a part of this movie?
That is something that I still struggle with. I mean, it's hard. I'm a divorced parent. You know, I have a very, very big and busy life, so I continually struggle with making time for my children.
One of the story's themes is the proper use of language. How important is it to you to either see young people speak properly, or to help them speak properly?
Well, it's a good question. I'll tell you that it was important to my mother that I know how to speak properly and that I always try to use my language and use my words and use my manners. And so that's how I was raised, and that's how I try to carry myself most of the time...Part of the actor's instrument is his voice, and his speaking voice. And I've developed mine, I think, pretty well, and I just keep using it. But I can't pass judgment on how anybody speaks or doesn't speak. Language is a funny thing. Language is a way in which we really express ourselves.
In addition to your role as an actor, you also serve as a producer on Akeelah. How did you get involved in that side of the project?
I read it in '02 and I thought, "Oh my God, this is beautiful. This is wonderful." And then I was heartbroken because I realized that there were very few people with the courage to come forward to make this kind of movie. So I threw my hat in and said, "Yes, I'll act in it, and if it helps that I produce it too, then okay." And then things progressed. Doug started looking for his Akeelah and [producers Sidney Ganis and Nancy Hult] and the rest of the gang started doing what they needed to do to get the financing.
Was your character of Dr. Larabee based on anyone in particular, or a composite of several people?
Dr. Larabee is really a creation of Doug Atchison, who was inspired by a man who was a teacher of his in Phoenix.
Have you ever had a mentor like Larabee?
I haven't had mentors like Larabee because my education wasn't formal. I've had many mentors. Francis Coppola was a mentor of mine, Martin Sheen was a mentor of mine in my teens. A man named Maurice Watson was a mentor of mine when I was very, very young, and then later on in life, Roscoe Lee Browne is a mentor of mine, Sidney Poitier is a mentor of mine. The late August Wilson was a mentor of mine. Dennis Hopper is a mentor of mine. But all of that is very informal.
Obviously, the movie hinges greatly on Keke's fantastic performance. What in particular did she bring to the project as an actress?
Well, Keke carries the movie. This is her movie. Make no mistake about it. This movie is called Akeelah and the Bee, and it's all about that little girl, and Keke Palmer is an extraordinary talent. She has intelligence, she has intuition, she has this gift that I was reminded of myself when watching her and working with her--I imagined that my talent was kind of like hers when I was young. And I really hope and pray that she has a long and fruitful career, and that she's able to negotiate all of the pitfalls, and the highs and the lows, of this business, because they're very, very difficult.
Have you and co-star Angela Bassett looked for projects to work on together since your acclaimed work in What's Love Got to Do with It?
No, we haven't. I think, for the most part, that that was actually a very good thing. You know, we got a lot of attention, both of us, for those performances, and I think it was really important for the two of us to go off and do our own thing individually. We had done Boyz n the Hood together in '91, and people were really kind of impressed with that, and we only had one scene together, I think. I mean, we had the thing on the phone, but we had that one scene in the restaurant, and people really liked that, and that was great. And we almost made a movie together three years before that that actually was a picture that she and Natasha Richardson were going to be the stars of. They were going to be the leads, and it was Tony Todd and I that were cast as the other parts. Anyway, the money fell out of the bottom. So Angela and I have this long history. And it was just, I think, really important for her and for me to just do stuff independently. It's a given that when we come together, good things are going to happen. So what was nice about Akeelah and the Bee is that it kind of reminded us of that. And I think now would be a good time for us to start looking for things to do together, because there's been such a considerable amount of time since What's Love, and enough time that people won't come to the movie with that kind of expectation, because there's no way we could actually repeat that.
What was it like working with writer/director Doug Atchison on his first major feature film?
I enjoyed working with him. I always enjoy working with first-timers, particularly first-time writer/directors who I think have written something beautiful, because they're so invested, they're so passionate about it. It means everything, and it means everything that they get the opportunity to direct their pieces as well. And that's always great to be able to help somebody realize a dream like that. It's a wonderful thing to be able to do.
By contrast, how was it working with director J.J. Abrams on his first feature film, Mission: Impossible III?
J.J. was great. But I don't even think of Mission: Impossible as his first feature. If you look at Lost, if you look at Alias, if you look at all that work...I mean, he's involved in one-hour drama. He's doing, basically, a movie every week, every 8 days, every 14 days, whatever it is. But his script for Mission was really exciting, and it's going to surprise a lot of people how, I think, dark the movie is.
Samuel L. Jackson has a great joke where he talks about being mistaken for you...
Do you find it frustrating or amusing that people mix up your films?
Well, now I find it really amusing. I liken it to what happened with Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino back in the '70s. People couldn't keep them straight. They're both terrific actors. Everybody knows they're both acting gods. So if people want to confuse me and Sam, that's fine.
Have you ever signed on autograph for him?
I did once.
How did you come to be involved with UNICEF?
I got involved with UNICEF because I was looking for a way to use this thing called fame that was positive, that was global, that was meaningful, and UNICEF seemed to be the right thing. So I met with Charles Lyons, who runs UNICEF these days, and we hit it off and talked, and I've been doing some work for them whenever I have a spare minute.