Quvenzhane Wallis is only 8 years old and already Hollywood knows her name, if not how to pronounce it.
Wallis is the breakout star of Beasts of the Southern Wild, a Louisiana bayou drama acclaimed at Cannes and Sundance, and now touted as an Academy Awards contender. In her acting debut Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a fiercely independent girl dealing with natural disaster and a dying father, played by newcomer Dwight Henry.
Hushpuppy joins Huck Finn and Scout Finch as lyrically precocious Southern child heroes, and Wallis is extraordinary in the role. Both the actor and character have good heads on tiny shoulders, although Wallis in a telephone chat isn't as eloquently loquacious as Hushpuppy's inner voiceovers.
Wallis is just a regular, one-syllable kid, the youngest of four siblings, reading Judy Moody books and looking forward to fourth grade. She wants to be a dentist when she grows up but movies might change that. And she sounds a bit tired of answering questions from grown-ups, as children often are.
Since Wallis is 8, we offer the same number of things you should know about her.
1. What is the story with her name?
It's pronounced Kwe-VEN-zhan-nay, and means "fairy" in Swahili. Friends and family call her "Nazie" for short.
2. She's just a little girl playing make-believe, only with a script.
"Acting was right up her alley," said her mother Qulyndreia Wallis, who accompanies her daughter wherever she goes, and monitored our conversation.
"She likes role-playing, becoming the different people and stuff. It was just something she likes to do, so we've been doing this since she said she likes it."
3. How Wallis learned her lines:
"I had a tutor that would help me read and do different things," Wallis said. "She would help me understand what the words meant. We would study (the screenplay) in the car (driving to the set). I'd get in a church that they had, and we would study it in there."
4. Wallis was an adorable diva on the Beasts of the Southern Wild set.
Director and co-writer Behn Zeitlin told reporters that whenever his young star didn't feel like working she could be bribed with the promise of a pizza party. Between takes, she wouldn't miss a chance to remind the filmmaker who he was dealing with.
"I'd say, 'Okay, Nazie, that was good but I need you to do it with a little more subtlety.' And she'd go: 'Behn, I am 6 years old. You think I know what subtlety means?' "
5. The man who played her daddy is Nazie's fan for life.
"She's a wonderful, bright young girl (with) a real bright future ahead of her," said Henry in another telephone interview. "You're going to be seeing a whole awful lot of her in the future.
"I'm going to be 80-90 years old one day, in a wheelchair looking at TV and I'm gonna say: 'I played her first movie with that little girl, right there.' "
6. Why Wallis thought Henry was perfect to play her father, after telling Zeitlin she didn't like two other finalists for the role:
"The thing I liked about Mr. Henry is that he acted like himself," she said. "He didn't push or try to get the role. And the other two, they just tried to get the role to be in a movie."
7. Wallis doesn't realize yet what "spoiler alert" means.
After noting heat, mosquitoes and animals for the umpteenth time, Wallis remembered another filming hardship, although it revealed a key plot point.
"I just thought about this," she proudly announced. "Whenever I (spoiler deleted), that was one of the toughest ones. It was tough because when the smoke started to come I couldn't open my eyes very well but I did the best that I could."
8. How she copes with overnight stardom:
"Just try to be nice to everyone, and give everyone a chance," Wallis said. "I really don't worry about the attention; I just give them what they want sometimes because they're my fans. So, I'm happy to be nice to them."
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.