Born on the Bayou

An 8-year-old actor builds awards buzz in the new ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’


"I'm sorry, Chicken can't come to the phone right now. Can I take a message?"

It’s a little early to be talking about Oscar season, but Quvenzhané Wallis, star of the new “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” opening locally Friday, might turn out to be the youngest person ever nominated for an Academy Award.

That would be a wonderful thing — not only because we’d get to hear unprepared journalists stumble over “Quvenzhané” (it’s kwa-VAHN-je-NAY) but because it would mean the Academy has joined film festivals such as Sundance and Cannes in celebrating the film and Wallis’ revelatory performance. It’s a performance that’s all the more remarkable when you consider that Wallis was 6 when the movie was filmed.

In the film, directed by newcomer Benh Zeitlin, Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a little girl being raised by her father, Wink, in an area of Louisiana called the Bathtub that could generously be described as “hardscrabble.” Her neighborhood, built on the wrong side of a levee, is home to a multiracial, raucous group that believes they can take on hurricanes, the government and ancient creatures called aurochs. Wink is the king of the Bathtub and Hushpuppy his heir, and he raises her to be ready for anything.

“He wants her to be tough,” says Dwight Henry, who plays Wink. “Because everybody in the Bathtub looks to Wink when a problem occurs. And when Daddy’s not here, you need to be tough, ’cause everybody’s going to be looking to you to solve their problems.”

Hushpuppy’s training involves catching catfish with her hands in murky, muddy water and other activities that other girls her age might not be into. “I liked being dirty,” says Wallis, now 8. “I liked it because it was something I never really [usually] did.” As the film’s shoot wore on, Wallis found she did have her limits. “I was getting used to the fake dirt; then they started putting on real dirt. I told them to go right back to the old dirt.”

Hushpuppy is still 6 when the movie ends, but for Wallis, the story could easily continue.

“I was like, ‘Can we make a “Beasts of the Southern Wild 2” so I can see what happens next?’” she says. “[Hushpuppy] might be king of the Bathtub.

Hair Peace

Quvenzhané Wallis spends most of the film in boys’ clothes with her hair a great cloud around her face — except for one scene, in which she’s cleaned up and her hair is braided and bedecked with ribbons. After so much time spent in comfortable clothes, it was a tough change for Wallis. “I didn’t even like the hair like that,” she says. “And that dress was too small.”

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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