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This story first appeared in the Nov. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Over the closing frames of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Quvenzhane Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy, an irrepressible girl living in a mythical version of the Louisiana bayou country, issues a ringing declaration: “In a million years,” she says, “when kids go to school, they gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.” It’s a thrilling moment since Hushpuppy is such an unforgettable character, and in the 10 months since writer-director Benh Zeitlin’s film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, Wallis herself has made an equally indelible impression.
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Appearing alongside the filmmaker and accompanied by her mom, Qulyndreia, the Louisiana native, now just 9, has charmed audiences from Park City to Cannes. She twirled on the red carpet at October’s Hollywood Film Festival, where she received a New Hollywood Award, and on Nov. 2, she brushed shoulders with Gabourey Sidibe and George Lucas at the Ebony Power 100 Gala at New York’s Lincoln Center.
When the names of the best actress nominees are read Feb. 24 at the 85th Annual Academy Awards, the betting is that Wallis will be among them, and some handicappers are even calling her the front-runner in the category, which, if their predictions pan out, would make her the youngest winner of a competitive Oscar in any of the acting categories.
But getting to that point could be tricky. Navigating the awards-season obstacle course can trip up even the most veteran performers. So Fox Searchlight has a delicate job: The distributor needs to introduce Wallis, who has had no formal acting training, to voters without ever appearing to exploit her youthful enthusiasm. For as cute as she is, Searchlight just can’t trot her out at every event the way The Weinstein Co. paraded The Artist’s Uggie in 2011.
So far, Wallis appears to be taking it all in stride, according to Zeitlin, who often accompanies his young discovery as they brave the paparazzi together. She’s making only select appearances so she doesn’t miss too much school, and, he says, “since she was so young when we made the movie, as far as she knows this is what happens whenever you have a movie — once, every few weekends, you go off and visit someplace crazy.” It also helps, he adds, that she then quickly returns to her hometown of Houma, La., where all the other kids are barely aware of the hoopla surrounding Beasts.
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Wallis is taking on some of the trappings of a pro. She signed with ICM Partners and Steve Kavovit of Thruline Entertainment in August and has completed a role in Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave, the story of a free black man in the mid-1800s who is kidnapped in New York and sold into slavery in the Deep South. (Since the film was shot in Louisiana, it didn’t take her away from much of her schooling and routine.)
At the same time, those around her are conscious of managing expectations. (In the past, there have been reports of young stars who have broken down and cried when their name wasn’t in the telltale envelope.) Says Zeitlin: “We haven’t set it up for her that this is some contest. She calls the Oscar ‘the golden man.’ She knows that people think it’s real important, but I don’t think she’s expecting to win or even to be nominated.”
That could be wise because for all the critics’ kisses and festival kudos lavished on the movie, it has encountered a few setbacks. It failed to qualify for SAG Awards consideration, for example, because the $1.8 million movie was a nonunion production.
But assuming Wallis does score an Oscar nom, another question will kick in: Could some of the actors — who make up the largest branch of the Academy — balk at the idea of voting for an untrained actress? Her very success might be viewed by some as a rebuke to their own years of training. On the other hand, there probably are members in the other branches, convinced that actors act like kids all too often, who would have no problem giving Wallis the nod.
VIDEO: ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ Director Reveals the Obstacles to Perfection: ‘Water, Children and Animals’
But, says acting coach Anthony Meindl, there’s no reason young actors shouldn’t compete right alongside their older peers. “Adults don’t necessarily solely possess those qualities of being dynamic and courageous, present and intuitive,” he says. “A good performance is a good performance, and it transcends age and ethnicity. Some kids and young adults are more plugged in to doing it the right way than more trained adults because a lot of training ends up removing the instinctual, expressive, human things that are just natural for kids.”
Wallis has proved herself a natural onscreen; now those around her have to ensure that the aura surrounding her is maintained offscreen as well.
STORY: ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ Cast Deemed Ineligible for SAG Awards (Exclusive)
The Littlest Oscar Players
She had done dozens of shorts and features by age 6, so she was given a special Oscar in 1935.
Paper Moon, 1973
At 10, she became the youngest best supporting actress for starring with her dad, Ryan O’Neal, who she said punched her when she was nominated. He denies it.
Whale Rider, 2002
At 13, she became the youngest best actress nominee.
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