Mary Cybulski
November 29, 2012 at 04:09 PM EST

The name you’re going to want to remember is pronounced: Kwah-VAHN-Jah-Nay.

Nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis is the adorable little star who melted hearts at Sundance this year with Beasts of the Southern Wild, a dreamlike Dixieland fable about a swampland girl named Hushpuppy who faces down the apocalypse alongside her ailing daddy.

The movie won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize, and introduced its charismatic young actress to the world (and Oscar campaigning).

Here, in an article originally posted last January, is the tale of how she was cast.

For more stories behind this year’s top TV and movie moments, click here for’s Best of 2012: Behind the Scenes coverage.

After one recent screening, director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin stood in front of a cheerful crowd and tried to get his young star to talk.

“Where’d you come from? What’s your name?” he asked, lowering the microphone to her.

Wallis smiled and crossed her arms shyly. “I just told them …! We all did.”

Zeitlin nudged her to say her name again (knowing it’s not an easy one for folks to grab the first time.)

“How long you been with me?” Wallis said in a deep voice, narrowing her eyes.

“Is it Jane Smith?” Zeitlin joked.

Wallis rolled her eyes playfully. “Ha. Ha. Ha,” she said.

Beasts of the Southern Wild features rising floodwaters, melting ice caps, and giant, roaming, prehistoric creatures, but that steely determination on the pint-sized newcomer’s pursed face is just as formidable a force of nature.

Zeitlin asked what goes through her mind when she’s acting.

The little girl considered this for a moment, then broke into a smile: “La la-la, la-la, la-la …!” she sang. “That’s all I think!”

Then Wallis told a typically truncated little-kid story about making her first movie.

“How I got found was from my mom and her friend. They knew about the library auditions,” she said, pronouncing it “lye-barry.” “So we went to the lye-barry and he said I was the Hushpuppy girl,” she concluded, pointing at Zeitlin.

The first-time feature filmmaker laughed, and shared a more detailed version.

“The casting process started very, very early on. The entire cast is non-professional actors. None of them ever acted a day in their lives before we started,” he said. “The screenplay [co-written by Lucy Alibar, and based on her play] had to be very loose. It had to be flexible enough so that when we found each actor, we could change the character to fit them. We wanted to bring their life to the character.”

He turned to Wallis and warned: “Now I’m going to embarrass you.”

The little girl stuck her fingers in her ears.

NEXT PAGE: ‘That’s not right!’ 6-year-old tells director

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