Entertainment & Arts

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Could Quvenzhane Wallis make Oscar history?

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Media captionNine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis on being on the big screen

Quvenzhane Wallis gives a sparkling performance in low-budget hit Beasts of the Southern Wild. Could she become the youngest actress ever to be nominated for an Oscar?

Quvenzhane Wallis was just five years old when she auditioned for Beasts of the Southern Wild, and seven when filming ended.

Set in a cut-off area of southern Louisiana, known as the Bathtub, the movie has earned critical acclaim on the festival circuit, scooping prizes at Sundance and Cannes.

But it is Quvenzhane's performance that is stealing headlines. The film's director, Benh Zeitlin, describes her as a "wise, wise person in a tiny, tiny body".

Oscar pundits predict she could be the youngest best actress nominee in Academy Awards history. But Quvenzhane isn't letting the Oscar talk go to her head.

"I really don't think about it that much, but I'd be like yes, yes, yes," she says, ahead of a screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild at the London Film Festival.

Image caption Beasts of the Southern Wild won the Camera d'Or prize for best first feature at Cannes

"That's not supposed to be in my brain, but my mum thinks about that!" she adds.

In the film, she plays Hushpuppy, a young girl living in squalor with her father. She is largely left to her own devices, but learns at school about the ecological shifts that threaten her ramshackle community.

Her world is changed forever when a Katrina-style storm raises the waters and her father falls ill.

Time called Hushpuppy "a wise, wild child, who looks like an angel and speaks like a Sybil". What did Quvenzhane (pronounced "kwa-van-je-nay") like about the character?

"That she would keep going after what she believed in, and help her father live his life," she responds matter-of-factly. "She had to keep pushing and face what she had to face."

Many have described Quvenzhane as a "force of nature" and in person it is not hard to see why. Now aged nine, she handles media interviews with the confidence of an actor with much more experience.

As a five-year-old, she had to lie about her age when she auditioned, as the casting notice asked for children aged six to nine.

Zeitlin had begun the search for Hushpuppy in early 2009 in New Orleans. By the time Quvenzhane turned up, a year had passed and he had seen some 4,000 hopefuls.

As it turned out, she came from the bayou communities where Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar were writing the script (based on Alibar's stage play Juicy and Delicious), and where the film would eventually be shot.

It didn't take Zeitlin long to realize he'd found his Hushpuppy. "It was as if you sat a five-year-old down at a piano and she played Mozart. It was the way that she could take these scenes and internalize them and express them in such a fierce way, with such focus and emotion.

"She brought this wisdom to this little kid that we'd never seen before in the character. At the time she could barely read the scenes, but she could come up with her own lines.

"She just slotted right into this person who's completely different from her, but she was able to channel this character."

Could he have made the film without her? "Yeah, we could have made a bad movie. The film was one thing - and then we found her. So the film got rewritten to turn the character into someone that she could really play. So the two things became really inseparable."

Zeitlin, directing his first feature film, says it wasn't about executing a perfect plan. "It was about finding elements that had a life of their own, letting Quvenzhane run wild with the character and letting animals run wild on set.

Image caption Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in Beasts of the Southern Wild

"It's like you're chasing this wild animal that you've raised that you can't control. Out of that process comes a physicality and athleticness to the actual cinema that gives it something that you don't get when everything is delicately crafted."

After Beasts of the Southern Wild's success at the Sundance and Cannes, Zeitlin says he's trying not to think about the Oscars.

"You try not to, but it's in your ear all the time. We're so thrilled, what has happened already is so far beyond our expectations or wildest possible dreams."

Oscar nominations are not announced until 10 January 2013, and if Quvenzhane does make the shortlist she would be the youngest best actress nominee by several years.

The current record is held by Keisha Castle-Hughes for Whale Rider in 2003. She was 13 years, 309 days when her nomination was announced.

Next is Jennifer Lawrence, who was 20 years, 163 days old when she was nominated for Winter's Bone (2010). It's worth noting that Lawrence is also a hot tip for an Oscar nomination in 2013 for her role in David O Russell's Silver Linings Playbook.

Meanwhile, Quvenzhane has already filmed a small role in Steve McQueen's new film, Twelve Years A Slave, which stars Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Beasts Of The Southern Wild is released in the UK on 19 October.

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