“I was lying asleep in my hotel room,” said Quvenzhané (pronounced kwa•ven•ja•nay) Wallis, about when she learned of being nominated as Oscar’s Best Actress. “My mother woke me up to tell me the news. I was still pretty sleepy.”
Wallis is the 9-year-old star of Beasts of the Southern Wild as the irrepressible though star-crossed Hushpuppy. It’s not completely novel to nominate a girl of tender years — an 11-year-old Anna Paquin won Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Piano nearly 20 years ago — but Wallis was only 6 for her role in Beasts, where she also provides the point of view and fantasy contexts.
Though the whole experience is still amazing, Wallis admits that she hasn’t had much time to consider the impacts. “I never even thought about being in the movies until this one came along,” said Wallis, who’s watched her film about 10 times so far. “But it’s been good. Everything is kind of big now.”
That said, she denies that her life has been disrupted much, explaining that she doesn’t have a special tutor, for instance. “I go to public school here in Houma,” she declared of her Louisiana hometown. “Oh, when I’m gone, they send me my assignments, and I do them,” she said, anticipating the awards, which she will attend with her mom. But surely the hoopla must make it hard to concentrate? “Well, yes it does,” she said.
It’s been reported that director Benh Zeitlin picked Wallis for her great scream and ability to burp on command — check and double-check — but her talents extend far beyond belching prowess in the film, particularly during the poignant scene in a floating bordello, in her cooped-up monologues delivered while drawing inside a cardboard box, and in Hushpuppy’s assertions to her faltering father that she’s “the man.” Soon we’ll see Wallis under the guiding hand of another astonishing director: Steve (Shame) McQueen. “I already did it,” she said, a trifle blasé in confirming the rumors. “We made it last August.” Her role? “A slave,” she said. And how was that? “Great. It was fun. It was different.”
If Paquin is a predicting factor, we can hope for great variety in Wallis’s future, and she already has her own great targets. “I like Judy Blume, Judy Moody, and Dr. Seuss,” she said of her favorite books. And whom would she play on the big screen? “I would like to play the girl,” said Wallis, “and I would like to be the star.”
Quvenzhané Wallis will be honored with Ann Dowd, Elle Fanning, Ezra Miller, Eddie Redmayne, and Omar Sy with SBIFF 2013’s Virtuosos Award on Tuesday, January 29, 8 p.m. at the Arlington Theatre.