The youngest Best Actress Oscar nominee of all-time has only made one movie. She doesn't own a driver's license, and she can't buy cigarettes or beer. At 9 she's not even close. An acting prodigy, she lists Selena Gomez among her favorite actresses and loves cheerleading. She's Quvenzhané Wallis and you might not be able to say her name, but you will remember it.
How do you pronounce "Quvenzhané?"
When we interviewed her, she pronounced her name Kwah-VEN-Ja-Nay, but we're guessing if you enunciate the "Z" she won't mind.
Who is she?
When she was 5, Quvenzhané and her mom, Qulyndreia, fibbed about her age so she could audition for Beasts of the Southern Wild, a small independent film shooting near their hometown of Houma, Louisiana. Director Benh Zeitlin was looking at 6 to 9-year-olds for the lead in the movie. According to Zeitlin, little Quvenzhané stood out among a group of about 4,000 auditioners.
"She had this extraordinary fierceness within her," he said. "Not just that, she had this wisdom and sense of right and wrong. You see that in older kids where they've developed a sense of who they are, but, at that age, she had this force about her that was so powerful and defiant."
The rest is history. Zeitlin picked Wallis to play Beasts of the Southern Wild's young protagonist, Hushpuppy, and less than a year after the film debuted at Sundance, she's a nominee for the most prestigious acting award in the world.
Who is Hushpuppy?
Hushpuppy is the diminutive bushy-topped heartbeat of Beasts of the Southern Wild. She first appears pantless, wearing white rubber boots and playing outside a dilapidated trailer in a rain-soaked coastal Louisiana landscape. Hushpuppy lives in squalor with her alcoholic father and is left alone most of the time. Wallis' co-star, Dwight Henry, describes Hushpuppy, who leads a spiritual search for her deceased mother, as "fearless."
What's the origin of the name "Hushpuppy?"
Beasts of the Southern Wild is based on a play, and in it the only dish Hushpuppy's dad can make is deep-fried cornbread balls, a "warm, soft, good thing" just like his daughter. This detail isn't revealed in the film.
Why was Quvenzhané nominated for an Oscar over the likes of established actresses like Marion Cotillard and Helen Mirren?
Her performance rings true. Watching Beasts of the Southern Wild, it's hard to imagine any of it was acted. Zeitlin's vision of this outcast community on the wrong side of the levee (dubbed "The Bathtub") is wholly naturalistic. Quvenzhané personifies that notion. Physically, she braves the elements in little more than a T-shirt. Emotionally, she blames herself for her mother's death and carries the weight of the world on her shoulders.
Consider the gravity of these words from the film, which Wallis delivers with heartbreaking sincerity. "When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces. I see that I'm a little piece of a big big universe."
What's next for the rising star?
Quvenzhané will appear in Steve McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave later this year. She stars alongside New Orleans resident Brad Pitt, as well as Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, and a familiar face, Dwight Henry.
What are her favorite movies?
Megan Good, Danny Glover, Selena Gomez, Chris Brown.
Reading, math, and English.
Basketball, volleyball, tennis, ping-pong, singing and dancing, cheerleading.
What does she want to be when she grows up?
A dentist and an actress.
What would people be surprised to know about her?
She can burp "over and over again" if she wants to.
Here's an edit of our interview with Quvenzhané. We met with her, Henry and Zeitlin about a week after they got back from the 2012 Cannes Film Festival where Beasts of the Southern Wild was given a standing ovation by the usually reserved French audience.
Click here for our full interviews with Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, and Benh Zeitlin.