Profile: KeKe Palmer

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In writer and director Doug Atchison’s feel-good drama, Palmer portrays 11-year-old Akeelah Anderson, a gifted middle school student with an aptitude for words and a lackadaisical attitude about attendance. “Akeelah is kind of shy and insecure,� notes Palmer, who leads the cast alongside Oscar nominees Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne as well as Curtis Armstrong

KeKe Palmer is a pre-teen in every sense of the word. For starters, she talks a mile a minute, radiates limitless energy and is virtually addicted to Degrassi and Moesha marathons on Noggin. And though she’ll likely deny it, she blushes at the mere mention of newly-crowned R&B prince, Chris Brown. There’s no denying that she’s having a blast, just being 12.

As a third grader, Palmer took home the top prize in a spelling bee by acing a word that seems quite simple to her now. “My word was ‘gorilla,’ which is so easy, but when I was a kid, it was like, ‘are there two ‘ls’ or one,â€? laughs the star of Akeelah and The Bee, opening April 28th. 

In writer and director Doug Atchison’s feel-good drama, Palmer portrays 11-year-old Akeelah Anderson, a gifted middle school student with an aptitude for words and a lackadaisical attitude about attendance. “Akeelah is kind of shy and insecure,� notes Palmer, who leads the cast alongside Oscar nominees Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne as well as Curtis Armstrong. “She’s really afraid to let people know how smart she is because she doesn’t want anyone to think she’s trying to be better than them.� After hours spent mastering the origins of multi-syllable brainteasers – think pulchritude, xanthosis and prestidigitation – Akeelah, once a reluctant contender, learns the value of sportsmanship, focus and courage on her journey from her South Los Angeles neighborhood to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC.

Palmer won the title role after nailing a handful of auditions. “KeKe was very special,� notes Atchison. “She was the only kid who moved her eyes back and forth as if she was actually reading something that was written on the wall, which was powerful to watch. I wasn’t looking for a kid to whom I could dictate a part; I wanted someone who understood Akeelah and with whom I could have a collaborative relationship – she displayed all of those qualities.�

Currently a home-schooled seventh grader, the Illinois native initially believed the film’s plot focused on a flying insect rather than a spelling competition.  “At first, I thought, ‘Is this movie about a bee?’â€? she chuckles, “but once my family and I read the script, I just knew I had to be a part of it.â€?  Speaking of family, Palmer, born Lauren Keyana, is the first to admit that hers is a top priority.  In fact, the entire Palmer clan has relocated from their Midwest roots out to Hollywood to ensure that she has every opportunity to pursue her dreams.  Sandwiched between big sister, Loreal, 17 – who blessed her with the nickname, KeKe – and her 5-year-old twin brother and sister, Lawrence and Lawrencia, she is grateful to be surrounded and supported by her parents and siblings.  “I’m just so happy that my family is always there for me,â€? she beams.

“KeKe is a little wonder; she’s been raised well and is so respectful,â€? Bassett notes.  “She’s charismatic, has a quick smile and great instincts as an actor.â€? Most recently a member of Tyler Perry’s all-star ensemble for Madea’s Family Reunion, Palmer landed her first film role as Queen Latifah’s loud-mouthed niece in Barbershop 2:  Back in Business when she was just nine years old.  She later earned guest spots on Cold Case, ER, Strong Medicine and Law & Order: SVU and even shared the screen with William H. Macy for TNT’s Wool Cap, the latter which earned her nominations for both SAG and NAACP Image Awards.  “Even though I didn’t win, I was just so happy and proud of myself for making it that far,â€? she says.

With such a burgeoning resume, it’s a wonder that she’s never stepped foot in an acting class.  “I didn’t want to take acting lessons,â€? she notes, “because I don’t think any one can teach you how to act.  You have to find that in yourself.â€?  Fisbhurne, who also began his career as a youth, agrees.  “KeKe doesn’t need any acting lessons.  She’s like me when I was 12 – she has a gift.  She’s got real talent, she’s charming and very, very sensitive.  I had such a great time working with her.â€?

Along with her big screen adventures, Palmer, who contributed her voice to Akeelah and The Bee’s soundtrack, is hard at work on her debut album for Atlantic Records.  A fan of Ne-Yo, Beyonce’, Alicia Keys, Ashanti and of course, the aforementioned, Chris Brown, she’s thrilled about the prospect of topping the music charts and best describes her own sound is as “a mix of R&B and Hip-Hop.â€?  Oh, and she’s sharing songwriting duties with her sister, Loreal.  The future is looking rather bright for this little starlet.

“My hope for KeKe is that she have room to grow as an artist,â€? notes Bassett “and that she’s able to transition smoothly from being a young actress to an adult actress.  As for the little girls watching this film, I hope they’ll learn that when they come to the table, they should come with all of themselves – all of their beauty, all of their talent and all of their integrity.  Come with it!â€?

And what does KeKe Palmer want film audiences to walk away with?  “I want other kids will feel inspired to be themselves and fulfill their dreams…that’s what I’m doing right now.â€?

Speaking Truth To Empower.� To contact The Black Star News write editor@blackstarnews.com or call (212) 481-7745. Subscribe to this newspaper and advertise to build power.

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