Go ahead and call me crazy. Don’t be surprised, though, if 8-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis receives a Best Actress nomination for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” her first-ever acting job. Which she filmed when she was 6. And auditioned for at 5.
Wallis is the remarkable centerpiece of director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin’s debut film, which has picked up plenty of accolades: “Beasts” took home the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and a FIPRESCI prize (given by the International Federation of Film Critics) at the Cannes Film Festival. That acclaim has resulted in tons of press and a schedule that Wallis' co-star, Dwight Henry, a New Orleans bakery owner and fellow first-time actor, describes as, “Interviews, interviews, photo shoots, interviews, interviews, photo shoots, luncheon, reception, go to sleep, wake up, interviews, interviews, get on the airplane, more interviews, photo shoots.”
In the spellbinding, New Orleans-shot “Beasts,” opening Friday, single father Wink (Henry) has one primary purpose: Making sure that his 6-year-old daughter Hushpuppy (Wallis) realizes that her dad won't be around forever. He wants her to be able to fend for herself.
They live in a remote southern Delta community known as the “Bathtub,” where inclement weather constantly threatens to elevate the waters above the heads of those trying to stay afloat. Not to mention prehistoric beasts are thawing and heading toward the Bathtub.
At the Hotel Palomar, Wallis, Henry (who auditioned after the filmmakers posted flyers in his bakery), 48, and Zeitlin (who joined the interview a few minutes late), 29, talked about Wallis' fearless defiance, elements of the movie they lived for real and punching fish in the face.
Benh, you struck gold with casting. What went through your head when you saw these two for the first time?
Benh Zeitlin: It was real different each time. The first time I met Quvenzhane was when she walked in for her callback audition, and she just had this focus and fierceness and also wisdom that was completely outsize[d] for her age. I had never seen anyone that intense and she wasn’t malleable. I think a lot of times when they cast kids they puppeteer them. You can’t puppeteer her; she’s too tough.
And before you walked in today she said she wasn’t even trying.
BZ: Yeah, she just was fearless. It wasn’t like she was trying to be fearless. She actually wouldn’t do a lot of things I would tell her to do.
QW: I wouldn’t throw the bottle. He got a little frustrated because—
BZ: You know, I went back and looked at it the other day, it was actually a stuffed animal. It wasn’t a bottle.
QW: Well, they are the same thing.
Why wouldn’t you throw it?
QW: The person I was trying to throw it at I didn’t even know.
BZ: She thought it was not right to do that. It was like morally incorrect to throw something at someone you didn’t know.
QW: But now I would just take something and I would just like seriously look at him and say, “Think fast” and just throw it at him. I would just take this remote [picks up remote control on table] and be like, “Think fast.”
BZ: But you can’t get her to do something that she doesn’t think is right. That was very much how Hushpuppy is, and I was so impressed by that. Dwight I knew beforehand because I had been going to the bakery and I was always impressed by the way that he holds court. Everyone knows Dwight. Everyone’s friends with him because he’s a magnetic presence at the bakery. I knew he had presence in that way, but he brought this real intensity and sort of passion and intensity to this part. But one thing that would happen a lot of times when we would audition people for the role, when we would play these angry scenes and be violent it became ugly. The character could easily drift into someone who’s kinda ugly, but Dwight always had, he’s such a good person, he has such a strong and kind of generous heart, that even in the most violent moments you never lose sight of the fact that he loves his daughter and is trying to take care of his daughter.
I read that when Quvenzhane got tired you’d give her marshmallows to keep her going. How many other Hollywood stars do that?
QW: No one. They would just like go home. They would just quit. I quit, but I would stay.
What do you mean, you quit?
QW: I wouldn’t do it anymore, but then I would stay there and I would just make them give me something.
DH: We had to promise her a pizza party.
BZ: I remember that.
DH: One time she was on set, [arms] crossed, refused to work. She was tired, it was getting late. So we had to come up with some strategy to get her to do these last two scenes. So we had to promise her a pizza party after we finished.
BZ: That relates to that thing too because what you didn’t want to do was you didn’t want to hit Dwight. ‘Cause that was the scene where she had to punch him.
QW: Yeah, I sat on the side and …
Why didn’t you want to punch him?
QW: I was tired. I was too lazy.
BZ: I have my own story about this. She really goes so intensely into the scenes when she’s doing them that it feels real when she does it, and to actually punch someone that you love and care about is not an easy thing to actually experience. And so it was a very, very tough scene. So what we did, we said, “We’re going to go into this, we’re going to play pretend, and we’re going to go do this intense thing. And afterwards we’re going to party and we’re going to be a family again and it’s all going to be OK.”
So you had a pizza party right after you punched him?
QW: Oh yeah.
BZ: Pizza was waiting at the finish line. And chicken wings.
QW: Yeah. I got what I wanted.
What are moments in the movie that remind you of things you actually experienced for real?
DH: Well, for me the experience first-hand is being in the water, facing the possibility of losing your life. I’ve been in that situation in real life, in water, on numerous incidents, not one particular incident. It’s the course of things. I was two years old when my mom and dad’s house [was] going underwater. [The] water [was] rising in the lower 9th Ward. My mom and dad had to put me on the roof, waiting on somebody to come get us. That’s actually something I went through in real life on numerous occasions, not one particular incident. It’s incidents throughout the course of history that we go through along the Gulf Coast facing possibilities of losing families, loved ones, homes, business.
QW: Most of these things, the dying part, that happened to my grandfather. That’s just one of the things that happened. We don’t really have that many floods and hurricanes, but we do have them. Some of this I couldn’t really relate [to], and then I just started doing it over and over again so I started getting related to it.
What’s gone through your heads after all this awards attention? Quvenzhane, if you get an Oscar nomination you’d be the youngest Best Actress nominee ever by far. Have you thought about that?
QW: No, but my momma has four children and I’m the youngest. So I know my brothers and my sister is going to be jealous.
(Her mom, who is also in the room, chimes in with a correction: “Proud”)
QW: Jealous and proud.
What was the biggest challenge for each of you to do what you needed to do for this movie?
DH: For me, dealing with the elements. A lot of things that we did in the movie—Benh, he didn’t want to simulate a lot of things. One particular scene, we could have shot it in a warm swimming pool, and we could have made it look like the Mississippi and no one [not] on screen would have ever knew. They would have swore we was in the Mississippi. But he wanted us to actually be in it, in the water, in the Mississippi, and that brought a certain realness to it. He didn't like to fake anything ... our animals was real animals. They wasn’t puppets. We shot scenes in the real woods, not in a simulated wooded area with no mosquitoes and things like that. We was in the real woods with the real mosquitoes. And every scene that we shot in that movie was not simulated.
There's a scene in which Wink teaches Hushpuppy to fish with her hands and punch them in the face. Did you actually punch fish in the face?
DH: Yes, we actually caught the fish by hand. Being from south Louisiana, from the Gulf Coast, you wouldn’t understand it unless you’re from there, we catch fish with our hands.
BZ: We did have to swap in a dummy fish, though.
To punch it?
BZ: Yeah. We had one live fish and one dead fish that we bought from the fish store or whatever.
So they caught a live one, punched a dead one.
BZ: When he caught it, that was a live fish.
QW: ‘Cause it was really shaking.
But people would protest if you punch a live fish.
BZ: Yeah, you don’t want to hurt animals. Animal rights. Although some of the crawfish did not make it out. We ate them.
QW: From that scene, whenever he dumps the sack [of crawfish], you get that they were dead and they were going in our stomachs.
DH: Everything on that table, it was eaten. It wasn’t no props. There wasn’t no crawfish props. It was real bayou crawfish, and we ate everything on that table.
QW: They had to stop us from eating it.
BZ: Yeah, we did. To slow down.
QW: Everybody that was under the table, they would just sneak it and get it.
What’s next, and what’s something you want to do?
QW: I want to do school. And movies.
BZ: What about dentistry?
DH: You keep forgetting about that.
BZ: Last week you were all about being a dentist.
You don’t want to be a dentist anymore?
QW: I want to be a dentist, don’t just aggravate me about it.
BZ: [Laughs.] Sorry.
QW: Especially my father. [Looks at Henry.]
DH: I want you to be a dentist. That was a dream of yours.
QW: I’m ‘a be a dentist …
DH: Back to the bakery, back to business. I actually got a new business that I’m about to open up: Wink’s Bakery and Bistro, named after my character. I’m 'a ride the wave, wherever the wave ready to take me, I’m just going to go with the wave and ride it. If something comes I’m going to try do to it. I’m real stable.
Will you serve Hushpuppy’s hushpuppies at Wink's?
DH: That’s something I’m considering. I gotta put a hushpuppy on the menu.
QW: And I’m going to be there.
DH: [To Matt] You just did something just now. You said that and a flag went up, my antennas just went up just now. I’m going to have to do something about that. You gave me a great idea.
QW: I’m working in his bakery.
QW: As a cashier and an ice cream girl.
I think that’s what most Oscar nominees do afterward.
QW: And a waiter. Am I?
DH: No. Cashier, manager, ice cream girl.
BZ: Watch the register.
DH: Yes. Watch the money.
QW: And give money.
BZ: Correct change.
What Wallis and Henry would do with unlimited time in Chicago, where they've never been: “Play.” (QW) ““I would want to see the city. Never been here before I would want to see, you hear a lot of different things about Chicago. I would love to go see about the different cultures that Chicago have. It’s a huge city. I’ve never seen a city as big as Chicago. It’s a huge city, and I would love to be able to find some time to go around and see about your wonderful culture, your wonderful lakes and the wonderful waterways y’all have and things like that. There’s the boats and the cruises I would love to do some of the things that Chicagoans do.” (DH)
If people should avoid thinking only of Hurricane Katrina while watching “Beasts”: “Yeah, I think so. It’s certainly not [about one] particular storm. I think the film is about living in a state, in a place where storms are a constant threat. They’re a constant reality. I think people relate what they saw on TV. Katrina got on TV, but then there was Rita and there was Gustav and there was Ike. Betsy and Audrey and who knows what’s coming this year. It’s just about living in a place that’s under threat that can be taken away at any moment. More than there’s the specific events or politics of Katrina as a specific current event. I don’t think it’s wrong to think about it that way, it’s just a little broader. And it’s still happening. I think that’s the main thing. Katrina’s five, six years ago, and this stuff isn’t over.” (BZ)
Guilty pleasure movies/favorites: “I’m a big fan of ‘The Little Mermaid.’ Ursula the Sea Witch is an inspiring character. The poor, unfortunate souls have a place in my imagination.” (BZ) “I love all the Pixar movies, and I like ‘Happy Feet Two.’ ‘Cause it has a lot of babies.” (QW) “One of my favorite actors is Russell Crowe and ‘Gladiator.’” (DH) “My favorite actor is, I can’t believe I’m saying this, is Meagan Good. I’ve met her in person.” (QW)
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