UPDATE: Quvenzhané Wallis wins 2013 Oscar nomination for best actress - full story
It's very disconcerting meeting a talented actress, who's just impressed and moved audiences on both sides of the Atlantic with her debut film, who's already won at Sundance and is being talked about in the same breath as Oscar as Awards season looms, and who is sitting neatly opposite me with a glint in her eye... and who just happens to be nine.
Quvenzhane Wallis is a "force of nature" in Beasts of the Southern Wild
Quvenzhane Wallis was only six when her performance in 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' was filmed, inciting film critics like the revered Roger Ebert to admire this "force of nature, uniquely and particularly herself". Her role as Hushpuppy, one of an isolated bayou community cut off when the flood waters come in rural Louisiana, defines the film - so did the director Benh Zeitlin ever worry he'd given her too much to do?
"I don't know what we were thinking," he agrees ruefully. "We were trying to find any film that had been led by a 6-year-old, so maybe it was madness or being naïve, but we had a faith that the story was going to find its way, that we could will miracles into existence, so we just searched and searched, and we found her."
Wallis with Dwight Henry who plays her father Wink in the film - "he brought me sweets"
The miracle in question is sitting politely during this homage, pretty as a peach in her stripey jumper and jeans, but it's clear she's no Disney kid, with an attitude all her own. "He's probably going to steal my line..." she mutters when I ask them both about their first encounter. "He brought sweets and that solved everything," she remembers of her first meeting with the stranger, baker Dwight Henry, who would play her father in the film.
So, during the six-week shoot, what was the hardest bit for her?
"Doing the long lines," says the actress of her debut film. "It looks easy when actresses do it, they just say it straight up, looks like they do nothing wrong, they just keep going, but it's not like that."
"It was a collaborative process," Zeitlin is quick to add. "I'd get stuck, not have a line, so I'd ask her. A lot of the best stuff in the movie are lines she wrote."
Now back at school, Wallis has resisted to tell her school pals what she's been up to...
"Only one friend's seen the film, he's my cousin. But they all kind of noticed, they asked 'Why are you out so much?' I said 'No reason.'"
Why's it a secret, I wonder? "Because whenever you tell someone, and they don't know, they'd be like 'stop lying' and 'go girl' - they'll just freak out and stuff, so it's just easier," she says with the certainty only people under ten have access to.
Wallis's schoolfriends are going to be surprised when they next go to the cinema...
Whatever the logic, they'll all know soon enough. So has this one-off got her eye on a film career now?
"I'm just going to keep going," she shrugs, obviously not a member of the Mickey Mouse Club just yet. "My favourite film was 'Robots', then it was 'Princess and the Frog' and now it's 'Happy Feet'. I love penguins.
"I love them too," adds Zeitlin. He turns to his protégée. "Want to play a penguin?
Beasts of the Southern Wild is in UK cinemas from Friday 19 October. Watch the trailer below...
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