Quvenzhané Wallis, the charismatic 8-year-old star of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” has been getting Oscar buzz since the film screened at Sundance in January. She plays Hushpuppy, the spitfire at the heart of the magical-realist fable by 29 year-old filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, about a fierce little six-year old who lives with her hard-living, hard-boozing father in a mythological and apocalyptical place off the Southern coast of Louisiana called the Bathtub. And Dwight Henry, who plays her tough-love father, Wink, has a real shot at a supporting Oscar nod. The shocker is they are both non-professionals who have never acted before.
The accolades have rolled in for the film, including prizes at Sundance and a Camera d’or (rookie of the year award) at Cannes. Rapturous reviews are great, but what’s driving the Oscar chatter as well are the impressive numbers at the box office. The film opened June 27 in four theaters in L.A. and New York and grossed $169,702, and since Friday it has expanded to 19 screens and grossed $745,000, which is impressive for a film that cost about 1.5 million
All this may be lost on the film’s star, who probably doesn’t even know what an Oscar is. She was only five when she won the part over 4,0o0 other girls in a casting call that extended to eight parishes in South Louisiana. Zeitlin and the members of Court 13, the collective of artists who work with him, distributed fliers to classrooms, delis, churches and community centers in a nine-month search for a girl between the ages of 6 to 9 to play Hushpuppy. A friend of Quvenzhané’s mother told her about the audition, even though Wallis was only five.
Recently we met Quvenzhané and Dwight Henry, along with the director and co-writer Lucy Alibar at the Crosby Hotel in SoHo, where they were promoting the film. Quvenzhané (Swahili for fairy) is pronounced Kwe-VEN-zhah-nay, a publicist told us, but everyone calls her NAY-zee.
The fierce little 6-year-old girl from the film with hair that looks like copper cotton-candy, is now nearly nine. She walked into the room wearing a black-and-white print dress, her hair in a tidy, dark, upswept do. She was with her co-star, Dwight Henry, and her mother, Qulyndreia, who goes with her everywhere. (Nayzee lives with her parents and two brothers and a sister in Houma, Louisiana.)
How does she resemble Hushpuppy? “Not one bit,” Nayzee replied. “Unlike me she doesn’t wear pants.” Hushpuppy spends the beginning of the film scrounging around in the mud wearing white-plastic rain boots, a dirty t-shirt and orange underpants.
As far away from the Bathtub as you can get is Cannes, where the film got a nine-minute ovation, and she was treated like a rock star. During the applause Zeitlin picked her up on his shoulders. “All I saw was people just yelling,” she said. But “yes” she enjoyed it. “Eight years old just and in France and just standing there, doing interviews, photo shoots and tv shows, so it’s something that you wouldn’t expect.”
What was she thinking when she saw herself on screen. “I felt like I was still six.”