‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ star Quvenzhane Wallis is an actress of talent, poise and maturity well beyond her years.
She was only five years when she auditioned and six when she played the part of Hushpuppy, a little girl of fierce strength and resourcefulness living with her daddy in a squalid slab of Louisiana swampland known as The Bathtub. She was just a regular kid from nearby Houma, Louisiana — she’d never even acted before, and actually pretended to be a year older than she was to be considered.
Now, at only nine, Wallis is the youngest-ever actress nominee at the Academy Awards. Altogether, ‘Beasts’ has four nominations at the February 24 ceremony, including best picture.
Director Benh Zeitlin doesn’t think nine is too young for such an honour. Zeitlin, who is up for a best-director Oscar himself with just his first feature, praised Wallis for the incredible sense of self she displayed from the beginning. But he also recalled one day when she seemed to be struggling on set, and he took her aside to ask what was wrong.
“‘I know. I can’t snap it today. Normally I can snap it,’” he remembered her saying. “The fact that she had an internal sense of when she’s in character, when she’s getting the emotions right and feeling it, is really special even in experienced actors, but especially someone of her age to have that sort of self-awareness.”
She landed the part by lying about her age: Wallis was five, and the filmmakers were only auditioning girls at least six years old.
“It was for a six-to-nine-year-old. So my Mom said I couldn’t go ‘cause I was only five. But we just went and we act like we’re having nothin’ to do; we had done nothin’ wrong,” she said.
“The character who is Hushpuppy, she does what is right and she is fearless and that’s what I did at the audition.”
They believed her fib and tried her out — and were blown away, giving her the starring role.
“It was very clear ...you don’t meet six-year-olds who have that quality,” said Zeitlin, recalling her audition. “She just had this natural charisma and focus and fierceness and wiseness and morality.
“Coming out of a body that small and a mind that young, it’s almost alien and alien in a way that goes kind of straight at your heart .. It’s her perspective that unlocks the truth in the film.”
That charisma is obvious when you see Wallis being interviewed to promote the movie over recent months, even before it was elevated to the stratosphere by being nominated for four Oscars in January, including best picture.
“I was in my bedroom half asleep,” Wallis told Jay Leno, about waking last month to learn she was nominated alongside Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence, Naomi Watts and Emmanuelle Riva, the oldest ever best actress nominee, at 85.
“So nothing reacted on the outside, but I was like flipping cartwheels and stuff on the inside,” she told the talk show host, whom she admonished — cutely — for asking her a question more appropriate for the director.
Wallis is already on her third film — ‘Twelve Years a Slave’, with Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender, due out in September. She has also made ‘Boneshaker’, a short film about an African family lost in America.
Whether she wins an Oscar on Sunday or not — the favorites are Chastain and Lawrence, admittedly — she is clearly a force to be reckoned with, and an actress to watch out for in years to come.