Beasts of the Southern Wild star Quvenzhane Wallis is an actor of talent, poise and maturity well beyond her years.
She was only 5 years old when she auditioned and 6 when she played the part of Hushpuppy, a little girl of fierce strength and resourcefulness living with her daddy in a squalid slab of Louisiana swampland known as The Bathtub. She was just a regular kid from nearby Houma, La. she’d never even acted before, and actually pretended to be a year older than she was to be considered.
Now, at only 9, Quvenzhane (Kuh-VAHN-zuh-nay) is the youngest-ever actress nominee at the Academy Awards. Altogether, Beasts has four nominations at the Feb.24 ceremony, including best picture.
While her presence is undeniable, Quvenzhane’s nomination raises the question: How young is too young to compete for an Oscar, the film industry’s highest honour, which has eluded performers with decades more experience and acclaim? Is a child really capable of acting, with craft, or do these performances reflect uncanny instinct? Director Benh Zeitlin doesn’t think 9 is too young for such an honour. Zeitlin, who is up for a best-director Oscar himself with just his first feature, praised Quvenzhane for the incredible sense of self she displayed from the beginning. But he also recalled one day when she seemed to be struggling on set, and he took her aside to ask what was wrong.
“‘I know. I can’t snap it today. Normally I can snap it,’” he remembered her saying. “The fact that she had an internal sense of when she’s in character, when she’s getting the emotions right and feeling it, is really special even in experienced actors, but especially someone of her age to have that sort of self-awareness.” Justin Henry, who remains the youngest-ever Oscar nominee in any category for 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer, said that in some ways it’s a purer form of acting at this age.
Henry was just 6 years old and had never acted when a casting director came to his Rye, N.Y., school looking for someone to play Billy, the little boy at the centre of Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep’s custody battle. He was 7 when he shot the film and 8 when he was nominated for best supporting actor; he lost to 78-year-old Melvyn Douglas for Being There. A voting Academy member, Henry said he thought it was “awesome” to see Quvenzhane get nominated for the acclaimed Fox Searchlight indie drama, which he called the best movie of the year.
Tracy Tofte, who was only 11 when she was chosen to play daughter Heather Owens on the 1980s sitcom Mr. Belvedere, said that she didn’t understand the enormity of what she was doing. She’d started acting at 9 under the stage name Tracy Wells and booked 17 national commercials in her first year, including a Pepsi ad in which she danced with Michael Jackson.
Tofte hasn’t seen Beasts but said of Quvenzhane: “I’m sure this young girl did a phenomenal job and deserves the nomination, but there are veteran actors and actresses who have never had those accolades and they’ve been working their craft and dealing with the ups and downs of this industry.” Intriguingly, Quvenzhane is up against the oldest-ever best actress nominee, 85-year-old French veteran Emmanuelle Riva of Amour. Rounding out the field are Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty, Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook and Naomi Watts for The Impossible.
Zeitlin said Quvenzhane was still very much a little kid on the set: “She would say things to me like, ‘Benh, I’m only 6 years old, you need to use smaller words,’ or ‘I’m gonna get cranky sometimes.’ She had this awareness almost like an observer of a child.” He also points out that Quvenzhane is nothing like the girl she played.
“Hushpuppy as a character is going through unbelievable circumstances. She’s damaged, she’s morose, she’s contemplative, she’s quiet, she has this great burden on her shoulders,” Zeitlin said. “Quvenzhane Wallis is the most carefree, fun-loving, goofy, playful person you can imagine, and she had to put herself in that skin on a consistent basis.”