Quvenzhané Wallis: ‘I also want to be a dentist. But kids change their minds’

The Times

February 23, 2013


Having seen her on screen tearing into a chicken carcass I’m nervous about coming between Quvenzhané Wallis and a McChicken sandwich. The youngest ever female Oscar nominee — her Christian name pronounced “Kwer-vun-juh-nay” — is certainly happier polishing off bun and mayo than discussing her Oscars frock. “It’s all a secret, a seee-crrrr-etttt,” the nine-year old star of Beasts of the Southern Wild says. “If it’s a pretty colour I’ll wear it.” She’s sharp, funny and two steps ahead of you: both poised actress and goofy kid. Offering me a spare McChicken, Wallis makes it clear that she has the measure of journalists: “You’re a nice friend — maybe.”

We’re sitting with her mother Qulyndreia in an office overlooking Times Square. On the table a glittery handbag (named “Hannah”) in the shape of a dog lies amid the debris of burger wrappings. It feels far from the Bathtub, the fictional Louisiana bayou shantytown in Beasts, Benh Zeitlin’s low-budget independent movie that has become an awards’ season hit. Wallis plays Beasts’s narrator, Hushpuppy, a self-possessed girl with a chronically ill father living in a boozy, raucous, isolated community threatened by environmental catastrophe and the intervention of authorities.

“I’m excited,” Wallis says. “It’s good to make history and all that stuff. But I don’t want to be selfish and say ‘I want to win, I want to beat them’. If I win, I win, if I don’t, I don’t. If I don’t win it still means something — I still got nominated.” Wallis wants to act, “I also want to be a dentist, but you know kids can change their minds about careers. I just want to see people smile, like you are.” Why a dentist, I ask. “I just want to be nicer to people with their teeth. I’ll put some numb stuff in their gums and wiggle it around so it doesn’t hurt.”

Zeitlin is “amazed” by Beasts’s success: “We thought it would be great if it was put on in a New York movie theatre. It was an amateur, guerilla shoot.” The film is up for the Best Picture Oscar alongside the likes of Ben Affleck’s Argo and Steven Speilberg’s Lincoln. Spielberg, a hero of Zeitlin’s, told him how Beasts “had made him emotional. That was amazing,” Zeitlin says. “E.T. has a big influence on Beasts.” It was also released the same year, 1982, that Zeitlin was born.

Visceral and magical, Beasts features a mother who may or may not be dead, crazy nocturnal revels, the imaginary presence of long-extinct auroch beasts, and Hushpuppy experiencing it all — wide-eyed, defiant, singular. Her character is smeared with the muck of the bayou, but Wallis is wearing a chic black coat. She “only ever woke up with” hair like Hushpuppy’s afro and wears a sleek ponytail. Her mother, a teacher, mostly declines to speak, perhaps wary of being seen as pushy (which she doesn’t seem to be) or perhaps out of respect for her eloquent daughter.

Among its many prizes, Beasts has won the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) at the Sundance Film Festival where Zeitlin “was pink with excitement” recalls Wallis, and the Caméra d’Or in Cannes. At the Oscars Wallis is competing against Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence, Naomi Watts and French actress Emmanuelle Riva — in a neat twist the oldest-ever Best Actress nominee. The oldest and youngest nominees have met, but the language barrier meant that they only managed some bashful “bonjours”.

Zeitlin, 30, who cofounded the Court 13 group of film-makers, is based in New Orleans and has been long fascinated with the bayous “and the people who lived at the end of America”; one such community, Pointe-aux-Chenes, is the film’s principal location. Wallis, whose family is from the town of Houma, 15 miles away, fished there with her father Venjie Sr, a trucker, “and caught my first big fish, a drum, before my brothers” (Venjie Jr and Vejon; she also has a sister, Qunyquekya).

Wallis was 5 when she auditioned for Hushpuppy (her mother saw an advertisement; she beat 4,000 other hopefuls) and six during filming: “I didn’t want to act before, it was just something I wanted to try.” The script contained a summary of the plot. She says Zeitlin would talk through each of her scenes, facial expressions, “how I was supposed to act”. “She had incredible focus and poise,” Zeitlin says, “and this internal mechanism by which she knew if she’d landed [perfected] a scene.” Wallis calls being able to get a scene right “snapping it”; if she can’t, she’s “notsnappingit”.

Zeitlin was “very sparing” with words, “mindful of her capacity to retain informa- tion. It was good training for me generally, teaching me not to prattle on. She would scold me if my direction was too complicated. I once told her to do something with more subtlety and she said, ‘Benh, I’m six years old, I don’t know what that means’.”

He conveyed the story as “a fairytale from Hushpuppy’s perspective”, explain- ing scenes beginning: “Once upon a time . . .” The film retains that fairytale quality. Wallis formed “a colour range” for emotions demanded of her: yellow for mild anger, red for medium and purple for extreme. Zeitlin once asked for purple. “You don’t want to see purple Benh,” Wallis cautioned. At shooting’s end she informed him: “We’ve only gone to red.”

For Zeitlin, Wallis has “a wisdom beyond her years and a true childhood innocence”. She played with other children on set, then entered “focus mode” when required. Some critics claim Wallis’s performance is so raw it isn’t acting. Wallis doesn’t understand the criticism. Her mother asks what she did to prepare: “I would just read the script,” Wallis says. “We would discuss the scene, rehearse it, then film it.” She was only scared hiding in a box as fire raged around her and having to touch a pig. “I’m similar to Hushpuppy in that we both like nature and animals, we both have pets . . .” And different? “Hushpuppy doesn’t wear pants [trousers], has more pets than me and way more nature than me.”

“People are reacting to how natural her performance is,” Zeitlin says. “She was acting.” Qulyndreia shakes her head when I ask if she ever thought Wallis was too young to do the film. Early on Zeitlin recalls finishing a scene and seeing how devastated Wallis was, assumed she must have been affected by it. “Then she started laughing. There was no emotional damage. In the scene where her father hits her we had to modify the sound because she was laughing so much.”

Wallis’s mother woke her to tell her about her Oscar nomination: “I was calm but inside I was flipstyle.” She has enjoyed the red carpets, and “photographers calling my name”, of awards’ season, has met one of her favourite stars — Sanaa Lathan — but not her favourite singers, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Debby Ryan, Rihanna, Beyoncé “and maybe Nicki Minaj”.

Wallis met Michelle Obama at a White House Beasts screening: “She asked my age and what my sports were, she was cool.” She says she isn’t, as rumoured, taking the lead in a movie adaptation of the musical Annie, but has made two more films, Boneshaker and Twelve Years a Slave.

What does she do when not acting? “Aggravate my dog (Sammy, a Yorkie), play with my dog, aggravate him again, ride my bike, ride my scooter, go back inside, aggra- vate my dog. Then my brother takes out the big dog (Sugar, a German Shepherd). We walk the big dog, then go inside, play with her, then leave her alone, then get bored and watch TV.”

Is Qulyndreia proud? “I usually just sit here and let her (Wallis) answer the questions,” she says. “Haha, he’s letting me eat,” says Wallis, chomping her McChicken sandwich. “We, as a family, are excited,” Qulyndreia says. “Come on mom. Talk. You know you want to,” Wallis says. How’s your Oscars’ week looking? “I don’t know,” Wallis says, deferring to “Mommm . . .”. “Busy,” Qulyndreia says. Is there anyone you want to meet? “Everyone I want to see was at the Grammy Awards,” Wallis says. Sucks to you, Ben Affleck. “We keep getting that question about who she wants to meet,” Qulyndreia says. “She’s nine, she doesn’t know these people. What should we say?” Just be honest, as Quvenzhané is anyway, I say. Wallis, nibbling some mayo-smeared lettuce, indicates the spare McChicken sandwich to me: “You sure you don’t want it?”