There are two forces of nature in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” writer-director Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature. One is the fictionalized hurricane that swamps the phantasmagorical Louisiana bayou the movie calls “the Bathtub.” The other is Quvenzhane Wallis, the 6-year-old who plays the protagonist, a girl known as Hushpuppy.
“I didn’t know what that meant,” says Quvenzhane, giggling during a recent interview at a Washington hotel. “I was like, ‘A hushpuppy? What kind of name is that? Woof woof?’ ” She emits a high-pitched yip that’s both clearly a question and convincingly canine.
“I had to tell her it’s Cajun corn bread, a spicy dish they deep-fry,” interjects her mother, Qulyndreia Wallis.
“I was like, ‘Okay! I’m spicy!’ ” says the first-time actress, who is now 8 — and whose name is pronounced “kwah-VAHN-jah-nay.”
The spicy Hushpuppy is in virtually every scene of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which opens Friday. Also the narrator of the tale, the girl is an exuberant, self-reliant youngster whose mother vanished long ago, and whose father is frequently absent. Her companions include a cat, a pig and many dogs and chickens.
Working with the beasts, Quvenzhane says, “was hard to do. All the animals, I’m kind of not used to. I have my own dog. But they had four more. And they had a big pig.”
Quvenzhane and her family live in Houma, in Terrebonne Parish, a part of southern Louisiana whose sea-level precincts inspired the Bathtub. Ask her about her home town and the young actress sounds like someone from the local Chamber of Commerce. “That’s where the food is mostly coming from. The fish, the crawfish, the shrimp, everything that’s food mostly comes from Houma, and we feed it to other people.”
Actually, Quvenzhane’s mother notes, “where we live is more like city. We have McDonald’s and Burger King. When they go to the mall, they come to Houma to go to the mall.”
“Where the movie was shot was down the bayou, where their life is fishing. That’s what she’s trying to tell you. The filming took place in the lower part of our parish, where the seafood industry is.”
If Hushpuppy’s world is different from hers, Quvenzhane says the two are similar in character. “The only [ways] that Hushpuppy was different from me was that she was dirty and un-well-dressed. That’s the only two different things, pretty much.”
In the movie, Hushpuppy sports a luxuriant Afro. It required a lot of maintenance during filming, says Quvenzhane, whose hair is straight at the time of the interview. “Things would get stuck to it sometimes. Like grass. Or Velcro.” She laughs. “Or anything else.”
But what she recalls most vividly about the hairdo was the scene where it gets peppered with crud. That’s because her siblings were watching when “the grits and the things came on me.”
“She’s talking about the explosion scene,” her mother explains. “The family was there. After the explosion, she had all the debris all over her face. Well, she got teased by her brother, so that’s what she remembers.”
“Yeah, my brother is always teasing me,” Quvenzhane says. “My Afro was up, and the grits were just like dandruff. I was like, ‘Anybody want some dandruff?’ And I was just shaking it.”
In fact, Mom adds, “It was mashed potato flakes.”
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” was developed with the support of the Sundance Institute and features some Sundance specialties, including backwoods Americana and family tragedy. The script began as “Juicy and Delicious,” a play by Lucy Alibar, who shares a screenwriting credit. Zeitlin changed the central character from a 10-year-old boy to a 6-year-old girl and added echoes of the post-Katrina catastrophe.
“I don’t even remember any floods, because I was always little,” says Quvenzhane. “The only one I remember is when they said the flood was coming, and we had to pack up. I don’t know what that was. I know it wasn’t Katrina, because I was [really young] when that happened.”
Her mother explains that Quvenzhane is thinking of 2008, when Gustav and Ike flooded nearby areas but didn’t submerge the family’s part of town.
Zeitlin uses the drenching of the Bathtub as a metaphor for the end of the world as well as for individual mortality. But Quvenzhane doesn’t see the movie as grim, because the experience of making it overshadows the story.
When she finally saw the film, she recalls: “I didn’t think anything was sad. Everything was funny. My mom would tell me, like, ‘Stop laughing!’ I’d still giggle a little.”
“She would remember what happened on set, and she would laugh,” her mother says. “It was a serious part of the movie, and she would laugh.”
There’s something else that Quvenzhane Wallis can’t take too seriously: her impending stardom. When she skipped the last months of first grade to make the movie, she told only one friend where she was going. But after trips to Skywalker Ranch (to record the movie’s narration) and the Cannes Film Festival (where “Beasts” won a critics’ prize), word is getting around.
“My teachers tell everyone in the school,” Quvenzhane protests. “It’s something that’s kind of spreading now. Even the new kids. Even the pre-Ks!
“People come up to me and give me a hug. It’s something that I’m not used to. Because I’m just normal. I’m a normal kid. I’m just in a movie.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.