Quvenzhané Wallis stars in ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

by Micah Haley on June 5, 2012

Working quietly outside of the mainstream, Court 13 and director Benh Zeitlin began to assemble their first feature-length film. Adapted from Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious, Beasts of the Southern Wild is set on the Gulf Coast of South Louisiana. At the center of the story is Hushpuppy, the daughter of an impoverished man named Wink. An exhaustive search for the young girl who would embody Hushpuppy ended in the city of Houma with Louisiana native Quvenzhané Wallis.

Her big screen debut at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival was lauded. In an early review, Variety proclaimed her “possessed of incredible poise and almost feral intensity.” The Hollywood Reporter remarked that “her tenacity and fortitude seem absolutely real, not posed or artificially induced.” And the New York Times said the film is “among the best films to play at the festival in two decades.”

A day before Quvenzhané traveled to France, where Beasts was selected to compete in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. I spoke with her at Second Line Stages in New Orleans on a rainy day. A day when we created our own sunlight.

MH: Where are you from?
QW: I was in my mom’s stomach whenever we lived in Houma.

MH: You do such an amazing job as an actor. How did you learn to do it? Was it something you practiced?
QW: I would always play with my friends in the street. Just play school and stuff like that.

MH: How did you find out about this movie? Was there an audition?
QW: Yeah, my mom’s friend called and said that they had an audition at the library. I was five, but they were looking for like six- and seven-year-olds. So, she just brought me there just to see if they’d let me do it, and we kept getting callback after callback and I finally got the part.

MH: Well, it sounds like you were up against some stiff competition.
QW: Yeah, about four thousand other girls were trying to get the part.

MH: Oh wow, that’s pretty amazing! Did you think that you were going to get it?
QW: No.

MH: How did you find out? Did they call you, or did they come visit you?
QW: Yeah, they called back, and they said that I had the part.

MH: What was your response? Did you jump up and down?
QW: No, I was just like, “Ok,” then I got back on the computer.

MH: After you were cast, I’m sure you started doing rehearsals. What was it like working with the director, Benh Zeitlin?
QW: It was fun because whenever I would get mad or sad, he would have to take off his hat and hit me with it to make me angry.

MH: He would hit you?
QW: Yes, with his hat. And it was a blue hat and he would hit me with it. I told him to do it, anyway.

MH: The script for a movie is so big. How did you learn all of the lines?
QW: They had a car, and we would sit in the back. They had this hump, and I would sit there, and then Benh and Mr. Henry, [who plays] Wink, would sit on the sides so I wouldn’t fall. And we would sit and read the lines while Benh would sit there and copy our mouths.

MH: You would say the words and he would imitate you?
QW: Yeah, yeah! And if we would get it wrong, he would tell us what they were supposed to say. [Throughout the shoot] we would just go to the front, sit, chill, have a snack, and eat the snack while doing the lines.

MH: That sounds like fun, but it was a lot of work, though.
QW: Yes, a lot of work.

MH: Because you’re in every frame of the movie.
QW: Yes. Every single frame. Just not with the aurochs. Yuck!

For those who have yet to see the film, the aurochs are a mysterious, ancient beast introduced to Hushpuppy by a woman who has a tattoo on her leg of two humans fighting the giant creatures, reminiscent of cave etchings. “This here is an aurochs,” she says. “A fierce creature.”

MH: About the aurochs, did you know what they were when you first read about them?
QW: No. I just thought they were a big pig.

MH: So you didn’t really know what it was? How did they tell you what they were going to be?
QW: They were picturing it, so they took a cardboard box, and they cut it, and they drew a picture of it, and everybody had a nice little break, you know. And they would draw it and have a visual of it, and then they would go find ‘em, and then they tamed ‘em.

MH: Can you tell me about the places where you filmed? Was it on the swamp?
QW: It was near the swamp. It was down the bayou.

MH: Had you been there before?
QW: No, I don’t think so. But it was near Headquarters 13. It was a gas station and we would work there. And they had like each office, and I guess we moved from out of there and nobody works there no more.

MH: Nobody works there anymore?
QW: Yeah. They said that it was haunted. It was Lucy and Dan. They’re from the movie and they produced some of it, and they said that they just heard noises and they couldn’t find each other.

MH: The movie was shooting not far from where you lived in Houma. Were you staying in a hotel or did you get to go home at night?
QW: We’d go at 8:00 in the morning, have dinner, have lunch, have all of that, and go back home. Everybody’s drudging through the door. Well my daddy was, wherever he went. And everybody’s drudging through the door, going to their room, and all you hear is, “Sigh.” Every room, it was just like a echo.

MH: Was it ever lonely on the movie without your friends?
QW: I made so many new friends. Whenever I saw the other three girls, they started coming outside. And they were like, “Come on, just play with us.” And then, we just started playing together.

MH: Tell me about your character, Hushpuppy.
QW: Hushpuppy, she’s wild, as you can see in the movie. She is wild, she’s always in the forest. She’s always doing something she’s not supposed to be doing.

MH: Who is her dad?
QW: My dad in the movie is Mr. Henry, who plays Wink. He’s my father and he got sick, because I hit him in his chest and he was a piece of the world. And if only one piece of the world gets broken, everything gets broken. So, it made him sick because he’s part of the world. Everything breaks, and so does he.

MH: Do you feel like you’re a lot like Hushpuppy, or Hushpuppy’s very different than you?
QW: She’s just like me, except for only one thing: she doesn’t wear pants. We’re alike because we both have animals, we both like nature, we both like exploring the world. And we’re different because she doesn’t wear pants, she has a lot of animals, I don’t have that much nature. And she gets to explore the world anytime she wants to.

MH: Why can she go explore anytime?
QW: Her father just lets her. It’s pretty complicated how their relationship is. Their relationship is very far apart. The father doesn’t like her living with him. So they both have separate houses because they don’t get along as well.

MH: It takes a long time to make a movie. How did you go to school at the same time?
QW: We had a tutor. Her name is Hannah. Please don’t say Hannah Montana! That’s what we called her Hannah Not-Montana, and we called her Hannah Banana. We had nicknames for her all the time. (Laughs) And she would be my tutor, we would bring some books. We would work on some math, reading, stuff like that. And the other little girls, Kaliana, Amber… they would come too, and they would bring some games. And she brought a game that nobody knew how to play. It’s called Slamwich.

MH: Slamwich?
QW: Yes. You make a sandwich, and if you get a double, or like a bread, cheese, bread, you had to slap it. And if you get a thief, you have to punch, or slap, whatever you want to say, slap the thief, and then you get to keep the thief.

MH: Where did you film the movie? What was it like?
QW: It was the gas station, the trailer, and then there’s a road back, and it would have wild onions, and they would have my house back there. I think that’s where my house was.

MH: What did you think when you finished filming the movie? Were you glad that it was over?
QW: No, I really wanted to stay. And whenever they said, “Wrap,” if I didn’t cover my ears, I would just start crying. So I had to cover my ears as hard as I could.

MH: What happened after the movie? Did you go back to your school?
QW: Yeah, I missed the end of the year. And I’mma miss this end of the year. And they were planning a picnic, and I really want to go. But I’mma be in France.”

MH: Well that sounds better than a picnic!
QW: Yes, and I’m glad. Hot, sunny days. Beaches, a lot of beaches.

In the movie, Quvenzhané’s character lives in a place called “The Bathtub,” a watery swamp shantytown where residents live in ramshackle dwellings propped off the ground in an effort to stay out of the reach of floodwaters.

MH: Yes, a lot of beaches. We don’t have any beaches here. We have bathtubs here.
QW: Yeah, bathtubs. And one lucky bathtub.

MH: Tell me about going to Sundance. Did you know what Sundance was?
QW: No, I just thought it was gonna have sun, and it was a dance for fans [of movies].

MH: You went up to Utah for the movie, and what did people think of it?
QW: They thought it was a good movie.

MH: Were people asking you questions?
QW: They were asking me, “How did the aurochs come?” “How, how did you face up to them?” It was just like, “How? How? What? What? This? That?” And that was just pretty hard to do. Because you have to think about some of the questions.

MH: I heard that after the first screening, everybody loved it.
QW: Yeah, everybody was clapping. You would walk, and you would just see everybody having tissues for every single tear that fall.

MH: Did you have people recognizing you outside of the screening?
QW: Well, after the movie was done, people would be like, “Great job, great job. I loved it. I loved it.” And they had a vote, and everybody would come and say, “I loved it. I loved it.” And one person said, “I teared up.”

There was so much buzz after the first screening of Beasts that it overtook the festival. One person remarked to me that even a cab driver asked if he’d seen the film already. Because of such a strong reaction, there was an expectation in the air that the film would win several awards at the end of the festival.

MH: And then it won the biggest prize at Sundance.
QW: Yes!

MH: Was that unexpected?
QW: Yes, very. And then the cameraman got a prize, too. So the movie got a prize, and the cameraman, oh, he got surprised! He ran up and was just surprised. He didn’t expect that to come.

MH: Did you expect it?
QW: A little bit. It took a long time for them to call our name. I fell asleep. They were calling each [award] and everyone would cross their fingers and stuff. And everybody was just like, “When are they gonna call us? When are they gonna call us?” Then I started thinking, “They’re never gonna call us. They’re never gonna call us.” So I went to sleep. Then they called us, everybody started tapping me, I woke up and was like, “What? What? We won!”

Her mother says she didn’t actually fall asleep, but her active mind had started to wander after sitting still for so long. The film didn’t win any of the awards announced early, so the waiting game began. The film’s first award went to Ben Richardson, who won for Excellence in Cinematography.

MH: Because the director’s name is “Ben” as well, you called Ben Richardson “Ben Ben,” right?
QW: Yes. But then they have Ben Ben Ben, and then they have Ben Ben Ben Ben. Then they have Ben Ben Ben Ben Ben, I think.

MH: They need to hire some guys named Steve next time.
QW: Yeah, Steve. And then, Steve Steve!

After it was announced that Beasts of the Southern Wild had won the Grand Jury Prize, the most prestigious awarded at the festival, Quvenzhané took the stage with all of the Court 13 filmmakers. Director Benh Zeitlin held her up to the microphone to offer the first word and she said, “I ain’t got nothing to say! That’s why I told you to talk to the mic!”

MH: What are you going to say next time?
QW: “Thank you for all you did, and thank you for giving us this award.”

MH: If you have an agent, and a manager, you gotta thank them too. And you have to always thank Mom!
QW: “Thank you mom, and thank you for everybody else who supported!”

MH: Down here in Louisiana, when we heard about it, everybody was so thrilled. It was a really big deal.
QW: Yes, a very big, humongous deal.

MH: After all of this is over, will you want to make another movie? Do you want to be an actress or is this a one-time thing for you?
QW: Yes, I think I want to do it.

MH: Are there any actors that you look up to?
QW: Meagan Good and Henry, Dwight Henry.

MH: But it sounds like you just kinda want to be your own person.
QW: You always gotta be yourself. Cause if you don’t be yourself, you gonna get in some bad trouble. Bad trouble.

MH: What are some of your favorite memories from filming Beasts of the Southern Wild?
QW: Being able to see nature and what the world is like. And trying to help the world and be healthy, ‘cause I’m normally not healthy. And reading. I never liked reading. I would just always put the books to the side and just have fun. And then, soon as I went there, they started influencing me to start reading.

MH: Are you a big reader now? What are you reading now?
QW: Yes! Judy Moody, and I’m reading The Ugly Duckling.

MH: What was the most surprising thing you learned about making movies?
QW: That you always have to have lines. Always. Even if you’re an extra. The extras would have to just yell, and concentrate, and watch. I would like to be a extra, but I like being the star.

MH: Being the star is a lot more fun.
QW: Yeah, a lot more fun. You just get all the fun stuff!

MH: Is there anything else you want to say to the people who are going to read this?
QW: Thank you! Thank you for everybody who’s watching, for everyone who voted, and thank you for watching and thanks for my family and whoever supported. And thanks Mr. John, and Miss Robin and Mr. Pat! And The Swelling Storm. Remember The Swelling Storm! I love you all!

The Swelling Storm, a name that dovetails well with the film’s narrative, is a basketball team that Quvenzhané’s brother plays for in Houma. It is coached by former Saints player Patrick Swelling.

MH: Well, thank you so much for doing this interview with me.
QW: You’re welcome.

MH: You did an excellent job, I have to say.
QW: Thank you!

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film about a Hushpuppy who lives in the Bathtub. Moreso, it’s about a girl who lives in her head and thinks with her heart. As a child should.

The film will receive a premiere in New Orleans prior to its theatrical release in Los Angeles and New York at the end of June. It will open in theaters in New Orleans on July 4. After being shot and set in Louisiana, starring Louisiana locals, I can’t think of a film that deserves your support more than this one. For more, visit the film’s official website at www.beastsofthesouthernwild.com.