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One night earlier this month, I met up on the famous backlot of 20th Century Fox, which was once the stomping grounds of Shirley Temple, with another great child actor: Beasts of the Southern Wild star and best actress Oscar contender Quvenzhane Wallis. Looking at the tiny 9-year-old seated across from me, surrounded by massive soundstages, studio equipment trucks and studio gates through which many a star has passed, it was impossible not to be struck by just how far Wallis has come — literally and figuratively — in such a short amount of time.
Four years ago, her mother heard about an audition for a film that was to shoot not far from their home in Louisiana. The casting people were seeking actors between the ages of 6 and 9; Wallis had never acted and was only 5, but she was game to give it a try, so her mother took her in, telling them that she was 6. Not long afterward, co-writer/director/co-composer Benh Zeitlin called to say that he had chosen her for the part over 4,000 other youngsters. And, before long, production on the $1.8 million film commenced in remote Montegut, La.
The resulting film — which shows how Hushpuppy (Wallis), a young girl who was born and raised primitively in a remote part of the southern Louisiana bayou, deals with the illness of her father (Dwight Henry), absence of her mother and mysteries of the world — would not be screened publicly for another two years. But when it finally premiered last January at Sundance, it was a huge hit, winning the Grand Jury Prize, the Excellence in Cinematography Award and a distribution deal with Fox Searchlight. It then played at Cannes in May, winning the Camera d’Or for best first feature. And it eventually opened in select art-house theaters in June.
It proved to be one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2012 (85 percent of its reviews were favorable, according to Rotten Tomatoes), performed quite well at the box office (taking in $11.25 million from art-house theaters) and is now regarded as a serious Oscar contender (having been nominated for major prizes from several major awards groups, including three Critics’ Choice Awards).
Wallis, for her part, is one of eight actresses — the others being Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone), Naomi Watts (The Impossible), Helen Mirren (Hitchcock), Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) and Rachel Weisz (The Deep Blue Sea) — who seem to have a serious shot at snagging one of the five spots in the best actress Oscar category. She has already won the National Board of Review’s best breakthrough actor award and the Hollywood Film Festival’s New Hollywood Award, and been nominated for the best breakthrough actor Gotham Award and the best actress Critics’ Choice, Indie Spirit and NAACP Image awards.
During my conversation with her — highlights of which you can watch at the top of this post — we discussed, among other things:
- Her unique first name and her nicknames;
- Her thoughts on acting and actors;
- Her favorite movies and TV shows;
- Her audition for Beasts (“I did it just to do it and have fun”);
- Why she had mixed-emotions when her mom came into her bedroom to tell her that Zeitlin had called to say she’d gotten the part (the disturbance caused her to lose the game she was playing online — “I had 23 bananas so far!”);
- How she kept up with her schoolwork while working on the movie (“I had to miss school, but I didn’t really miss school because my tutors went to the school, talked to the teachers, and they just had all the work handed over.”);
- How she felt when she saw the huge script that called for her to appear in virtually every scene (“It was kind of hard to think about. Like, ‘How am I going to do this, with this enormous script?!’ I barely knew how to read!”);
- What it was like working with Zeitlin (“He was fun, and he was kinda funny, and he was fun to play with”);
- Her least favorite direction (“I didn’t like when the director said, ‘One more time!’ When he said it, he actually meant about five more times!”);
- What it was like working with Henry, a local baker who was recruited to make his acting debut in the film (“He brought me sweets and I loved them … After a scene, she says, “We would laugh, and talk about it, and laugh some more, and then get serious for the next scene, and we’d do that over and over.”);
- How her colleagues convinced her to work even when she was tired (“Pizza party!”);
- What she makes of running back-and-forth between Louisiana and all of the festivals and awards shows that she’s been attending (“It’s kind of fun to leave, and then you come back, and then you hug and squeeze”)
- What’s next for her (she’s already filmed a small part that will appear at the beginning of 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen‘s next film)
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