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Quvenzhané Wallis Tames "Beasts of The Southern Wild"

Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry [Photo by Brad Balfour]They're getting younger and younger these days -- precocious stars who make their first movies before hitting puberty, garnering awards and accolades they don’t even quite comprehend. 

That's certainly the case for Quvenzhané Wallis -- the young and amazing eight-year-old star of Beasts of The Southern Wild, the remarkable feature debut from director Benh Zeitlin. The film debuted at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and won awards there and at Cannes Film Festival 2012. It was also sneak previewed at the 2012 New Directors / New Films at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater.

In Beasts…, the then-six-year-old Wallis became Hushpuppy. Her fellow non-actor and New Orleans resident Dwight Henry (the 47-year-old proprietor of The Buttermilk Drop BakeryandCafé in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood) played her loving but alcoholic father, Wink, in a strange surreal household set in an isolated Louisiana bayou. It’s a place about as much like New Orleans as that southern burg is like Manhattan

Within their little hamlet, "the Bathtub," also live a few others who have chosen to remain apart from the big city -- a choice they made in order to share a freedom from restrictions and societal conventions. 

Though this southern Delta community serves as inspiration, Zeitlin ratchets up this little bayou village into a hallucinatory fantasy world where little Hushpuppy recalls happier days before her mother died and the storms didn’t threaten as much.

Taking place just as Katrina unleashes her hurricane rage on the levees, the audience sees through the girl's eyes and her narration the catastrophes occurring. Her father develops heart disease, her house burns down, and the Aurochs -- beasts in the mind -- threaten Hushpuppy and her friends.

As the film neared its theatrical release, Wallis, her fellow cast member Henry and its creators -- Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar -- came to NYC's Crosby Hotel to talk about it just before its New York opening. Since then, the film has continued to play throughout the country this summer, despite -- or maybe because -- it's so unlike the usual tentpole blockbusters.

Sitting down with the playful "Nazy" offered a challenge for journalists unlike most:  keeping her entertained while doing interviews. But talk she did, and she shared her perception of the experience.

Q: What was the audition process like for you?

QW: It was fun because it was something I wanted to try. There was a call from my mom’s friend and she said they were having auditions for six-to-nine-year-olds, so I went to see if I could get the part, but I was only five.  So I went in and we actually put "six" on the paper and I acted like I was six.

During the audition, they wanted me to act like one of the producers, Michael Gottwald. They wanted me to act like he was my son and it was his first day of school and I had to wake him up. He asked me to fix his breakfast and said "No, get up on your own two feet and fix your own breakfast."

And we just did the audition. I walked out, my father and two brothers and sister were outside. It was something I just tried, and something a kid wouldn't normally have an opportunity to try. 

They called two days later and said they were looking for "Nahzy" and my mom said, "Who’s that? You must be looking for 'Nazy', but her real name is Quvenzhané anyways."

And they said, "Oh, we must have got mixed up and called the wrong number" and they almost hung up. But my mom caught them and told them I call myself 'Nazy. My mom was like "Phew!". It almost got away.

Q: What was your role like?

QW: She’s just a brave little girl trying to follow her father’s footsteps.

Q: How did you and Dwight bond for the role? I hear you were tough and chose the person who played your dad?

QW: I make the decisions.

Q: What did you like about him?

QW: The sweets. But he coulda brought me the toys.

Q: And did you learn about cave paintings where the Aurochs come from?

QW: I didn’t even know what a cave painting was...

Q: Do you know now?

QW: Yeess.

Q: Did you have any difficult scenes?

QW: The difficult scenes were when I was in a cardboard box and whenever I had to touch the pig. The fun scenes were whenever I got to scream, and burp, and eat crawfish with all the other guys.

Q: Did you like the crawfish that eat and eat in the one scene?

QW: Yeah. We ate everything.

Q: What did you think of having your hair that way?

QW: It’s not that hard. You just gotta wash it, dry it, and you’re done.

Q: Now that you’ve been in a movie, what about going to Hollywood? Will you do that?

QW: I aint going to Hollywood! I aint going to Hollywood even if they tell me to go. I’m staying with my big daddy.

Q: By the time you’re 12, you’ll be directing movies.

QW: I am doing one -- it’s called Fat Kids Don’t Get Gifts on Christmas.

Q: When you were looking at the Aurochs, what were you really looking at to play the role? Did they have a little ball or something to look at?

QW: What do you mean -- I was looking at the Aurochs!

Q: C’mon… Really.

QW: Okay, the first time they did the Aurochs they just used cardboard.

Q: What was the most fun moment in making the whole thing?

QW: The crawfish. The crawfish was the most tastiest thing I ever ate.

Q: How many did you have?

QW: Thousands.

Q: And you didn’t get fat.

QW: Nope.

Q: Have you learned how to cook crawfish?

QW: No. I don’t even know what the ingredients are.

Q: When you first went to the bayou, what did you do? Had you been there before?

QW: I had, but it was just for fishing with my dad because he likes to fish a lot.

Q: How could are you at catching fish.

QW: Not that good, but I know how to catch fish. When we went down to the bayou I caught one this big.

Q: Were you able to catch any with your hand?

QW: No, not yet.

Q: Did you know they were going to blow up the house. What did you think of that?

QW: It was a little scary, but it was something we had to do.

Q: How many siblings do you have?

QW: Two brothers and one sister -- and I hate my brothers.

Q: Oh come on.

QW: But I love them too.

Q: Are they younger or older?

QW: Older. That’s the reason.

Q: You’ll value them when you are older. Did you see them while you were on set?

QW: The family went there two or three times, but it was mostly the crew.

Q: Did you play with or get to know the other kids?

QW: Oh, yes. 

Q: Did you bond with them?

QW: They are going to be at the New Orleans premiere and I am so excited. But I saw one of them and they miss Amber [Henry, who played LZA].

Q: Which one is Amber?

QW: The one with the shaggy shirt.

Q: Are you excited to have a premiere in your hometown New Orleans.

QW: Yes, because my family and everyone else will be able to see it.

Q: What movies do you like in theaters? Did you see Where the Wild Things Are? You talking to the Aurochs reminded me of that movie. Or did you read the book?

QW: We have it in our school library. The movie that I just saw was Madagascar 3 in 3D.

Q: Did you like it?

QW: Yes. It’s funny because of the Zebra. And the Hippo, I know. I saw her on the red carpet. 

Q: Did you meet anyone else?

QW: I didn’t get to meet Jaden Smith because she was already inside.

Q: Sounds like you’re getting to know a lot of people in the movie world.

QW: I saw…Chris…I forget his name.

Q: Chris Rock?

QW: I think that’s him.

Q: Would you like to do an animated movie like that?

QW: Yeah, I’d like to meet the Madagascar people. I saw Madagascar 2 and 3, but not 1.

Q: What kind of animal would you like to play.

QW: The zebra. Or the hippo. Or the tiger in Madagascar 3. Or the seal.

Q: Are you going to continue being an actor?

QW: Yes.

Q: Have you planned your whole future at the point?

QW: A little, but not all the way.

Q: The kids you go to school with, what do they think?

QW: One day one of the kids from my school went to the set. The next day at school, she was so excited and [was] asking me when I’m gonna be on the red carpet, when are the Oscars are gonna come, when can I do anything with you? I’m like, "Come on, let me be like I was, like a normal little girl."

Q: You went to the Sundance Film Festival, right? Was that exciting?

QW: Yes, because I get to meet different people, and different movies I get to see. 

Q: Do you like all the journalists asking you or other people questions?

QW: It’s okay asking people questions and people asking me questions.

Q: What did you ask Benh?

QW: I’d ask him what that scene meant.

Q: So he’d explain things to you?

QW: Yeah, he explained every single set. And Chris [Carroll, a co-producer] would help with the camera, the directing, and the producer stuff.

Q: So when you saw the movie, were you surprised or did it make sense to you?

QW: I was excited that it came together and that the people at Sundance thought it was a good movie.

Q: You represent the spirit and freedom of the bayou. Have you talked to anyone from the bayou about it.

QW: I talked to a few people, but my mom mostly talked.

Q: Have people from the area seen it?

QW: They haven’t seen it yet. We haven’t even tried to show it in Louisianna.

Q: So there's a big premiere in New Orleans….

QW: Yes, it’s gonna be the biggest one of them all. And I’m gonna be wearing my beautiful new dress.

Q: Tell me about the dress.

QW: I can’t, it’s a secret. But if you go to New Orleans, you’ll see.

Q: Was it fun being messy in the bathtubs and messing around all the houses.

QW: No, because I’m not a dirty person.

Q: You like things nice and organized?

QW: Yes.

Q: What do you like to collect and what’s your room like?

QW: My room has like teddy bears on my bed, then I have some dolls at the back door and under the bed is my dog with his little bed. The TV has pencils, paper, notebooks, and binders at the top. My shoes are under my bed.

Q: What part of your character is like or unlike you.

QW: She doesn’t wear pants, not like me. But we both have wonderful fathers.

Q: Did your dad get to meet your movie father?

QW: I think, but I dunno because that was like two years ago.

Q: Is it strange doing all these things now and having to remember stuff you did two years ago?

QW: Yes. You’re like eight and you go back to an audition when you were five. It’s like you're at the beginning. And it makes me feel shorter.

Q: Was it fun doing the narration and hearing your voice in the movie?

QW: Kind of.

Q: Just kind of? In between making the movie and now, did you do any other acting?

QW: I can’t say.

Q: What is the next step for you when this is over?

QW: Doing another movie!

Q: What grade are you in school now?

QW: I was in third grade, but now I’m in fourth.

Q: What are you best at?

QW: New division.

Q: You like math. Do you write or draw or use an iPad?

QW: I do all sorts of stuff. I got an iPod, I just play little kid games on it. Not even a flip phone.

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