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.’ ”