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Toplining role spells breakout for ‘Bee’ thesp

Rising star: Keke Palmer

“This is a hard business,” says Keke Palmer thoughtfully. “You get turned down a lot.”

That’s a sentiment you might expect to hear from a longtime Hollywood veteran, not a 12-year-old up-and-comer. But Keke Palmer, for whom ShoWest has created a special Rising Star of the Year award, is wise beyond her years, even if she often finishes her sentences with “you know” and “stuff like that” while fidgeting with her shiny silver bracelets. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot about this business,” she says. “And I know roles won’t come forever.”

For now, however, the roles are coming. At the moment, she can be seen starring as the narrowly adjusted foster child, Nikki, in Tyler Perry’s “Madea’s Family Reunion.” But her breakout role comes this spring with the titular role in “Akeelah and the Bee,” screening today at ShoWest. Palmer stars as Akeelah Anderson (with Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett) in the much-anticipated film about a precocious inner-city girl who dreams of winning the National Spelling Bee. “I was so, so happy when I got the part,” Palmer reveals. “I had been waiting for something really big like this.”(And she can also sing. Palmer has an album, not yet titled, to be released this spring on Atlantic Records.)

But don’t think it’s all gone to her head. While Palmer dreams of being “a big star” within the next five years, she sees herself as a regular kid. “I have a friend I’m going to the mall with on Sunday!” she declares.

Palmer got her start with a small part in 2004’s “Barbershop 2: Back in Business.” It was after she landed that role, she says, that her family decided to make the move from their hometown of Chicago to Hollywood.

“We drove for three nights and four days,” Palmer says pragmatically, flashing her pretty, gap-toothed grin. “In a few weeks I got a guest part on ‘Cold Case’ and a national Kmart commercial. And then we heard about ‘The Wool Cap.’ ”

William H. Macy called Palmer personally to tell her she got the part in the critically acclaimed 2004 TNT movie, in which she stars as Lou, the unexpected guest in the life of Macy’s character, a mute superintendent named Gigot. Palmer went on to garner a SAG nomination for her work on “The Wool Cap.”

With all this under her belt, Palmer knows better than to take the ShoWest award too literally, and she still wonders, in her wise way, what she’ll be when she grows up.

“You never know. I mean, I might not be an actress for the rest of my life,” Palmer says, shrugging her shoulders. “My mom thinks I might be a makeup artist because I love doing makeup.”