Young star more wor­ried about math than Os­car

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Stacey Plai­sance

HOUMA, La. — She was just nom­i­nated for a Spirit Award for her lead­ing role in Beasts of the South­ern Wild, and there’s buzz that Golden Globe and Os­car nods could be next. But th­ese days, Qu­ven­zhane Wal­lis is more con­cerned about pick­ing up long di­vi­sion in her math class than tro­phies in Hol­ly­wood.

“I ac­tu­ally had to learn what an Os­car was,” Qu­ven­zhane said over a lunch of fried shrimp and craw­fish at the nineyear-old’s favourite seafood restau­rant in her home­town of Houma, La., about 100 kilo­me­tres south­east of New Or­leans in bayou coun­try.

Qu­ven­zhane — pro­nounced KwuhVIN-juh-nay — said she was shown a pic­ture of what an Os­car looks like and came up with a nick­name: “I call him ‘the golden man,”’ she said, cross­ing her arms across her chest em­u­lat­ing the pos­ture of the iconic statue.

If given the op­por­tu­nity to go to the Os­cars, Qu­ven­zhane cer­tainly knows what to ex­pect. The fourth-grader has walked many red car­pets since Beasts first pre­miered at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val, where it won a grand jury prize, and then played at the Cannes fest, where the film took the Cam­era d’Or prize.

Qu­ven­zhane, who had never acted be­fore and doesn’t watch much tele­vi­sion, said she didn’t know who Su­san Saran­don was when the ac­tress pre­sented her with a New Hol­ly­wood Award in Bev­erly Hills last month. Nor did she know Ben Af­fleck and Kerry Washington when the ac­tors con­grat­u­lated her at an­other cer­e­mony.

“I’m just like, OK I got an award, nice to know. And then I just go back to what I do,” she said.

In Houma, that means cheer­lead­ing and school, where her favourite sub­ject is math. It also means be­ing picked on by her two older brothers and spend­ing Hal­loween dressed in an or­ange and black tiger cos­tume, roast­ing hot dogs and marsh­mal­lows with her friends and fam­ily.

“I’m just nor­mal,” she said. “I’m just this girl who al­ways fights with her brothers, like nor­mal, al­ways tack­les the big dog that’s al­ways in the house, like nor­mal.”

She’s the youngest of four chil­dren — ages nine to 19 — to a teacher mom and truck driver dad who have been mar­ried for 20 years. Dur­ing the Beasts pub­lic­ity run, her mom has been trav­el­ling with her while her dad stays be­hind with the cou­ple’s other chil­dren — two sons, and a daugh­ter in col­lege.

“We’re still us,” said her mom, Qu­lyn­dreia (Kwah-LIN-dree-uh) Wal­lis. She said be­ing a teacher has helped keep Qu­ven­zhane on track with her stud­ies while trav­el­ling, and her fam­ily’s dis­tance from the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try has made it easy to keep their youngest child grounded.

“This is all still so new to us, so we are to­tally on the out­side,” Wal­lis said. “We just go with the flow.”

Qu­ven­zhane was just five when she au­di­tioned for the film’s lead role of Hush­puppy, a lit­tle girl with a wild imag­i­na­tion strug­gling to sur­vive in the south­ern Delta with her ail­ing fa­ther as a storm ap­proaches. Dwight Henry plays the fa­ther and like Qu­ven­zhane, he had no prior act­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. It was also the di­rec­to­rial de­but for Behn Zeitlin, who co-wrote Beasts.

Qu­ven­zhane had turned six when the film was shot in Pointe-aux-Chenes and Isle de Jean Charles — the last in­habit- ed speck of land at the end of a wind­ing high­way south of Houma. She gripped the hearts of au­di­ences around the world with her por­trayal of a lit­tle girl fight­ing for her phys­i­cal and spir­i­tual sur­vival in a big, hard world — of­ten wear­ing lit­tle more than un­der­wear and white rub­ber boots.

Although it was her first time on a film set, Qu­ven­zhane read her lines and took di­rec­tion like a pro, said Henry.

“She has some­thing in­side her that is so very spe­cial,” he said, jok­ing that one day he’ll be old and in a wheel­chair and will be watch­ing Qu­ven­zhane on TV. “She has such a bright fu­ture ahead of her, and I look for­ward to see­ing her in film again and maybe pos­si­bly work­ing with her again.”

The pair landed parts this sum­mer in the Steve McQueen-di­rected film Twelve Years a Slave, which was be­ing shot in Louisiana. Star­ring Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, the movie cen­tres on the true story of a free man who was cap­tured and sold into slav­ery in the mid-1800s,

Though they didn’t share scenes with each other, the Beasts co-stars say they en­joyed get­ting in front of the cam­era again.

Qu­ven­zhane said the set was more se­ri­ous than in Beasts, where she was free to run and play be­tween takes. But she was up for the chal­lenge: “I’m nine now, and nine-year-olds are like kind of se­ri­ous but don’t play much,” she said.

Qu­ven­zhane says she would like to be a den­tist “to see peo­ple smile,” but won’t be giv­ing up act­ing, which so far has given her plenty to smile about as the hon­ours for her and Beasts just keep coming.

But whether she or the film will be nom­i­nated for an Academy Award, “that’s not in my head,” she said.

— The As­so­ci­ated Press

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Qu­ven­zhane Wal­lis had to be shown what an Os­car was.

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