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 EW.com’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.
“She’s an incredibly wise and strong human being,” Zeitlin said. “When we’re on set, I can talk to her like an adult and she’ll talk to me like an adult. It’s strange, she can sort of swap being a little kid and being the most sophisticated person you can imagine.
“We looked at over 3,500 kids and when she came into callback, she did a scene I had seen a thousand times before – but there’s a moment in there I remember the most where she’s supposed to throw a water bottle at another actor. I wanted her to, because the scene was going so well. I kept going ‘Throw the water bottle at him.’”
He looked down at his little actress. “Remember this?
She shook her head, fingers still in her ears.
“You wouldn’t do it!” he said. “I couldn’t get her to do it. So I cut the scene and said, ‘Why won’t you just throw the water bottle? and she said: ‘That’s not right. It isn’t right…’
“The fact that she had this strong sense of morality, and the fierceness to defy some director she didn’t know … that was when the character sort of all came into place,” Zeitlin said. “I realized this is Hushpuppy, that’s what this whole movie is about: this moral girl who believes in right and wrong so strongly, and has this fierceness and sweetness that are sitting inside her at the same time. That very much comes from Quvenzhané. That’s who she is.”
As he finished the story, Wallis took her fingers out of her ears.
“I didn’t hear a thing!” she smiled.