After the first weekend of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, few films were as universally admired as Benh Zeitlin's New Orleans story, "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Speaking about its production in a pre-Sundance interview, Zeitlin said, "[We were] saved only by the miracle of our star, Quvenzhané Wallis, a native of Houma, Louisiana. When you see the movie, you'll know what I mean." And when over a thousand audience members saw the world premiere in Park City, they did.
Honor Roll is a daily series running throughout December that features new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-person stories of some of the year's most notable cinematic voices. Today we're revisiting an interview we did with Wallis at the Sundance Film Festival, where "Beasts" went on two win two awards including the Grand Jury Prize. The actress was recently nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.
After watching six-year-old Quvenzhané give a brutally honest, subtle performance as Hushpuppy, a young girl living with her father in a remote rural community surrounded by water in Southern Louisiana, the audience honored her with a standing ovation. Quvenzhané (whom everyone calls Nazie), now 8 and dressed in pink galoshes and a T-shirt with shiny pink sequins, tripped up the stage and introduced herself to the audience by saying, "My name's Quvenzhané Wallis and I like to party!"
When I spoke to her mother after the interview that follows, she confessed she asked Nazie why she said that. Nazie responded by saying that she meant she liked to have fun, and doing this film was a blast for her. Far from a pushy stage mom, Nazie's mother was surprised and humbled by her daughter's response.
Did you watch the film last night?
Was that the first time you saw it?
Yeah, it was the first time I saw it finished. I saw some of it when I was doing voiceovers.
What was the most interesting part of working on a movie?
I'm trying to think because there were a bunch…. oh! Going nose to nose with a beast [the title's beasts describe some fantasy prehistorical creatures and contemporary pigs]. I liked that part. That was awesome! A big nose against a little girl's head.
How did you find out about the movie?
My mom had a friend and she said that they had an interview at the library, so we went and we met Michael and Benh and that was it.
Michael Gottwald (one of the film's producers): We handed out a lot of flyers, and we would have a lot of auditions in libraries and churches and Nazie showed up in one that was in her hometown.
Before that, did you ever think that you wanted to be in a movie?
Oh, I don't know. Before that I was just watching movies, and thinking "Ooooh, nice! Oooh, nice!" Then they have little kids like Willow and Jaden Smith. I was like, "Oooh, that's cool!" I think I would like to be in a movie one day.
Do you think you stacked up to Willow Smith?
I don't know about that one. She's cool. I like her. She's a singer, dancer, she does movies. She's everything.
Did you like being on set?
Just the food was disgusting.
Gottwald: All the nice ladies that prepared food for you, and this is what you're gonna say?
QW: Like I like their food, they had foods that I like, like the buttery popcorn and the raisins.
Gottwald: What about the buttermilk drops?
QW: Uh huh! The meals that they had at headquarters, the way y'all was eating that, I was like "Are you sure y'all wanna eat that?"
How was it like working with Benh?
Really fun. Sometimes he made me tired and made me angry and made me sad.
Did you get mad at him?
(pretends to cry) Yeah, sometimes. Benh, you said one more time and then you made me do it five times! When are you gonna say one time and mean it? And then he was forcing me to touch a pig. And I was like "No!" and it was a big pig.
But you got used to the pigs?
He just forced me to touch a pig and I never touched a pig before!
What was it like seeing yourself on the big screen?
I was like, look at me (points to imaginary screen), I'm here! Look at me! I'm here! Aaah!!!
Was that weird? Because that's not you up there!
Yeah, that was younger me! And it's Hushpuppy!
What did you think of Hushpuppy?
She was a wild girl, and that's all I have to say! (turns to Michael) Why don't you ask Michael a question? He's just sitting here bored.
How was working with Quvenzhane?
Gottwald: It was great working with Nazie. I think she brought a really crucial element to the set. Everyone loved her. She had this energy that you see right here with her all the time, and so she got to know pretty much everyone on the crew. Not just the other actors, but she got to know everybody from the still photographer who she was playing with in the snow the other day to people on the G&E crew to the other actors. So, it was really cool to watch. We had three other girls on set — the other three girls in the movie, and she was good friends with them too, she spent a lot of time with them.
Nazie, did you ever get tired?
Yeah, it was eight o'clock in the evening, and I would be itchy and tired. But then they'd give me marshmallows and then I'd be back to happy again. And then I'd be grrrrrrrrr… I'd get mad again.
Is doing more movies something you'd want to do?
Yeah, I did a short mini-movie, and I was playing [a character named] Blessing.
Was that also in Louisiana?
Yeah, it was like in Morgan City.
You looked like you were enjoying yourself up on stage on Friday, were you?
I was! I was like… (screams)
What were you thinking? That was a lot of people!
I haven't seen that many people.
And they were all watching you!
On Friday, I was looking back, and I said, "Oh, they're crying in the back!" And I wasn't, and I was like (laughs). And a lady, her makeup was coming off because she was crying so hard. That was funny.
What have people been saying to you?
They've been saying, "Thanks for letting me see the movie; I was busting into tears." I said, "Thank you!" They were asking about the questions they said they forgot, and I was like, well, you should have asked me when I was on the stage! They don't use it while they have it!
How did you decide what you were gonna wear on Friday? You were looking very shiny!
(laughs) Look at my mama! It was basically Mike's [another actor's] fault because we forgot the luggage when we left for the airport, and there was a lot of time that we could turn around and go back. So when we got to Utah, we had to go to Wal-Mart, my mom said she didn't want to spend all of her money, and so we had to get the cheap stuff!
Nazie's mother: I just think we shouldn't buy things because we want them; we should buy them because we need them. And she picked out the things you liked from the selection, the things she wanted. In case you couldn't tell, when she thinks of something, she says it! If she's not afraid of saying something to her daddy, who's 6 and a half feet tall, and she isn't, she isn't afraid of saying anything to anyone.
Honor Roll 2012 Profiles:
December 4: Bart Layton, "The Imposter"
December 3: Marion Cotillard, "Rust and Bone"
December 2: John Hawkes, "The Sessions"
December 1: The Team Behind "How to Survive a Plague"