"We knew we were going to make this movie and put it on the shoulder's of someone really tiny."
-Benh Zeitlin, Director of Beasts of the Southern Wild
On Thursday, January 10th, Quvenzhané Wallis was nominated for Best Actress for the 85th Academy Awards, making her the youngest nominee for that category, and the third youngest nominee ever, in history. While her name will forever grace the pages of the Academy's record books, we have a feeling her performance as Hushpuppy will leave the most unforgettable legacy.
The role of Hushpuppy, based on a character from Lucy Alibar's play, Juicy and Delicious, was originally adapted for the screen as an 11 year-old girl. But through the development and casting process, director Benh Zeitlin, came to a transformative revelation. He told NPR's All Things Considered:
"We actually originally wrote that character to be 11 years old, thinking that that was the youngest we could possibly find someone that could handle this role. But as we did casting — and we were casting as we were writing — we realized sort of to our horror that the mind we were trying to explore was actually a 6-year-old mind. And so that was sort of a disastrous moment where I told my producers this, and they were like, 'Oh, my God, this is impossible.'"
The film's producers quickly set off on their mission impossible, canvasing the area in and around New Orleans with casting flyers advertising an open call for young girls between the ages of 6 and 9.
Back in Houma, Louisiana, five year old Quvenzhané Wallis had just completed kindergarten, when her mother's friend called with information regarding an open casting call at their local library. Quvenzhané Wallis told Roger Ebert:
"The audition turned out to be at the library and my mom got a call from one of her friends and it was for six through nine year olds. So my mom said I couldn't go cause I was only five, and [the friend of] my mom forced her to go... So we sneaked in and we walked out like we didn't do nothin'."
Despite her age and lack of experience, Benh immediately recognized something special about little Quvenzhané. Again, from NPR:
"The moment [Quvenzhane Wallis] walked in — I have it on tape. You just see this wisdom and focus and tenacity and fearlessness in her eyes that she didn't have to say anything. It was like you could put the camera on her face, and you just see this whole world that she has inside of her that's so beyond her years. And I think that was the thing that really took us the most — that she is such a little kid in so many ways, but then at the same time you can pull her aside and tell her where her motivation is and tell her where she needs to emotionally pivot in the scene, and she completely internalizes it, and is able to focus and project it. It was an absolute miracle that we found her."
Watch a clip from her first audition from this Access Hollywood interview, beginning at the 3:15 mark:
The pivotal moment of Quvenzhané's audition came when she was asked to throw a stuffed animal at one of the producers reading lines with her. Quvenzhané refused to follow the order. Benh Zeitlin says on CBS Sunday Morning, "She was being defiant but she was being defiant on the grounds of sweetness and on the grounds of right and wrong. And, that's who Hushpuppy is." Benh had finally found his heroine.
Before production even began, Quvenzhané played a large part in developing the spirit of the film. She hand picked Dwight Henry to play the role of her father, Wink, and would often sit down with Benh Zeitlin at the computer and help rewrite lines of dialogue.
Quvenzhané was six by the time the film headed into production in April 2010, at the edge of the world in Isle de Jean Charles. Whether she realized the entire film rested on the shoulders of her performance or not, Quvenzhané delivered with the resolve and poise of an actor beyond her experience and years. Benh Zeitlin says, "The look in her eyes and the intensity and the amount of feeling you could see was going through her head, behind her eyes, was so powerful."
Alongside her mature and thoughtful performance, Quvenzhané also brought an important dose of youthful energy to set, allowing the crew to truly see the world through a child's eyes. The promise of a pizza party would coax Quvenzhané out of the funk of long, working hours. And, she often challenged Benh to see, direct and capture his protagonist in a way that stayed true to the essence of the character. When asked to deliver a line more subtley, her response: "Behn, I am 6 years old. You think I know what subtlety means?"
When filming wrapped, Qulyndreia Wallis, an elementary school teacher and constant companion to her young daughter (Quvenzhané), both on set and on the publicity trail, says she had no idea how much exposure the film would receive.
That all changed in January 2012, when Beasts of the Southern Wild premiered to an audience for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival. On seeing herself on the big screen for the first time, Quvenzhané says:
"I was like: “Wow! There is actually a bigger me, but I can handle it.” It was something you wouldn’t get used to, but I felt smaller, and my voice was smaller, too. So, there was like a bigger me with a smaller voice, and a smaller me with a big voice. It was something I would never have thought would happen that way."
The film went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the festival, landed a distribution deal with Fox Searchlight and introduced Quvenzhané Wallis to the world.
Since then, Quvenzhané has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, graced the pages of the New York Times' Magazine Hollywood Issue, and walked red carpets across the globe.
Quvenzhané's recent Academy nomination caps off a whirlwind year of much deserved awards and accolades and has brought a new breath of exposure and awareness about the film and its tiny leading lady. Through Quvenzhané's powerful and poised performance, we're pretty confident that audiences here, now and in the future will always know that, "Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub".
From everyone in the Beasts family, a big, warm congratulations to Quvenzhané Wallis on her Best Actress nomination! Beast it!