Child’s play

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY STYLE - by Christy Lemire

Qu­ven­zhane Wal­lis is 9. Is that too young to vie for an Os­car?

‘BLOS AN­GE­LES easts of the South­ern Wild” star Qu­ven­zhane Wal­lis is an ac­tress of tal­ent, poise and ma­tu­rity well be­yond her years. She was only 5 years old when she au­di­tioned and 6 when she played the part of Hush­puppy, a lit­tle girl of fierce strength and re­source­ful­ness liv­ing with her daddy in a squalid slab of Louisiana swamp­land known as the Bath­tub. She was just a reg­u­lar kid from nearby Houma, La. — she’d never even acted be­fore, and ac­tu­ally pre­tended to be a year older than she was to be con­sid­ered.

Now, at only 9, Qu­ven­zhane (KuhVAHN-zuh-nay) is the youngest-ever ac­tress nom­i­nee at the Academy Awards. Al­to­gether, “Beasts” has four nominations at Sun­day’s cer­e­mony, in­clud­ing best pic­ture.

While her pres­ence is un­de­ni­able, Qu­ven­zhane’s nom­i­na­tion raises the ques­tion: How young is too young to

Qu­ven­zhane Wal­lis is the Os­cars’ youngest-ever ac­tress nom­i­nee

com­pete for an Os­car, the film in­dus­try’s high­est honor, which has eluded per­form­ers with decades more ex­pe­ri­ence and ac­claim? Is a child really ca­pa­ble of act­ing, with craft, or do th­ese per­for­mances re­flect un­canny in­stinct?

Di­rec­tor Benh Zeitlin doesn’t think 9 is too young for such an honor. Zeitlin, who is up for a best-di­rec­tor Os­car with his first fea­ture, praised Qu­ven­zhane for the in­cred­i­ble sense of self she dis­played from the be­gin­ning. He also re­called one day when she seemed to be strug­gling on set, and he took her aside to ask what was wrong.

“‘I know. I can’t snap it to­day. Nor­mally I can snap it,’ ” he re­mem­bered her say­ing. “The fact that she had an in­ter­nal sense of when she’s in char­ac­ter, when she’s get­ting the emo­tions right and feel­ing it, is really spe­cial even in ex­pe­ri­enced ac­tors, but es­pe­cially some­one of her age to have that sort of self-aware­ness.”

Justin Henry, who re­mains the youngest-ever Os­car nom­i­nee in any cat­e­gory, for 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer,” said that in some ways it’s a purer form of act­ing at this age.

Henry was just 6 years old and had never acted when a cast­ing di­rec­tor came to his Rye, N.Y., school look­ing for some­one to play Billy, the lit­tle boy at the cen­ter of Dustin Hoff­man and Meryl Streep’s cus­tody bat­tle. He was 7 when he shot the film and 8 when he was nom­i­nated for best sup­port­ing ac­tor; he lost to 78-year-old Melvyn Dou­glas for “Be­ing There.” (Ta­tum O’Neal is still the youngest Os­car win­ner in any cat­e­gory; she was 10 when she earned the sup­port­ing-ac­tress Os­car for 1973’s “Pa­per Moon.”)

A vot­ing Academy mem­ber, Henry said he thought it was “awe­some” to see Qu­ven­zhane get nom­i­nated for the ac­claimed Fox Search­light in­die drama, which he called the best movie of the year. Now 41 with a 7-year-old daugh­ter, he looks back at his own nom­i­na­tion and ac­knowl­edges: “I didn’t even know what it meant. . . . I just re­mem­ber be­ing ner­vous as hell about hav­ing to give a speech in front of 3,000 peo­ple.”

“That’s the great thing about act­ing: In some ways, it’s a child’s game,” said Henry, who went on to play Molly Ring­wald’s wise­crack­ing younger brother in the John Hughes clas­sic “Six­teen Can­dles” and now spe­cial­izes in Web video distri­bu­tion. “You’re just pre­tend­ing, so some­times it’s easy when you’re a kid. You just kind of fol­low your in­stincts.”

Tracy Tofte, who was 11 when she was cho­sen to play daugh­ter Heather Owens on the 1980s sit­com “Mr. Belvedere,” agreed that she didn’t un­der­stand the enor­mity of what she was do­ing. She’d started act­ing at 9 un­der the stage name Tracy Wells and booked 17 na­tional com­mer­cials in her first year, in­clud­ing a Pepsi ad in which she danced with Michael Jack­son.

“From the adults around me, I took off their en­ergy that it was a big deal,” Tofte, now a 42-year-old real es­tate agent in Santa Clarita, Calif., said of be­ing cast in the se­ries. “As an adult, I look back and I to­tally get it, but as a kid, no. You’re just, ‘Wow, my mom and dad are happy and my agent’s happy and this’ll be fun.’ ”

Tofte hasn’t seen “Beasts” but said of Qu­ven­zhane: “I’m sure this young girl did a phe­nom­e­nal job and de­serves the nom­i­na­tion, but there are veteran ac­tors and ac­tresses who have never had those ac­co­lades and they’ve been work­ing their craft and deal­ing with the ups and downs of this in­dus­try.”

In­trigu­ingly, Qu­ven­zhane is up against the old­est-ever best ac­tress nom­i­nee, 85year-old French veteran Em­manuelle Riva of “Amour.” Round­ing out the field are Jes­sica Chas­tain for “Zero Dark Thirty,” Jen­nifer Lawrence for “Sil­ver Lin­ings Playbook” and Naomi Watts for “The Im­pos­si­ble.” The Academy of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sciences de­clined a re­quest to com­ment on Qu­ven­zhane’s youth.

Thelma Adams, con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor at Ya­hoo! Movies and a long­time awards prog­nos­ti­ca­tor, points out that Shirley Tem­ple was al­ready well on her way to a ca­reer by the time she was 6, the same year she earned an honorary ju­ve­nile Os­car.

“There was a lot of craft to what she was do­ing,” Adams said. “With [Qu­ven­zhane’s] per­for­mance, it’s kind of a life force. They’ve cap­tured this won­der­ful lit­tle girl . . . but it’s not an act­ing per­for­mance.”

“I’ve seen her at par­ties,” added Adams, the mother of two teenagers who per­form. “I know she can get up in her party dress and charm, but I also saw a lit­tle girl who’d rather be rid­ing a pony at a kids’ party. . . . To have her nom­i­nated, it’s not good for her, no mat­ter how great she was in the movie — and she was ter­rific — but this red car­pet thing is a grind.”

But it’s ex­actly that kind of pas­sion that drives such ex­tra­or­di­nary kids, said John West, head­mas­ter at the Mir­man School for highly gifted chil­dren in Los An­ge­les, whose alumni in­clude ac­tors Crispin Glover, Masi Oka (”Heroes”) and David Dorf­man (“The Ring” movies).

“I’m not sure they fathom the im­por­tance of the honor. They fathom the im­por­tance of the work they do — that’s far more im­por­tant,” he said. “Any of our stu­dents who have been en­gaged in the arts don’t do it be­cause they’re look­ing for ap­proval or glory. They’re do­ing it be­cause the work it­self in some unique way touches them in their own lives.”

West has no prob­lem with Qu­ven­zhane’s nom­i­na­tion: “Peo­ple throw around all the time that some­one is an old soul pack­aged in a very young body, and as cliched as that may be, it’s true.”

But Zeitlin said Qu­ven­zhane was still very much a lit­tle kid on the set: “She would say things to me like, ‘Benh, I’m only 6 years old, you need to use smaller words,’ or ‘I’m gonna get cranky some­times.’ She had this aware­ness al­most like an observer of a child.”

He also points out that Qu­ven­zhane is noth­ing like the girl she played.

“Hush­puppy as a char­ac­ter is go­ing through un­be­liev­able cir­cum­stances. She’s dam­aged, she’s mo­rose, she’s con­tem­pla­tive, she’s quiet, she has this great bur­den on her shoul­ders,” Zeitlin said. “Qu­ven­zhane Wal­lis is the most care­free, fun-lov­ing, goofy, play­ful per­son you can imag­ine, and she had to put her­self in that skin on a con­sis­tent ba­sis.”


A YOUNG TAL­ENT: Qu­ven­zhane Wal­lis por­trays Hush­puppy in a scene from “Beasts of the South­ern Wild,” which has four nominations at Sun­day’s Academy Awards.

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