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How Beasts of the Southern Wild (and Its 8-Year-Old Star) Became a Film-Fest Phenomenon

Quvenzhané Wallis

Standing ovations happen every year at the Cannes Film Festival, but rarely are they as long and as loud as the one that erupted following last month’s Cannes premiere of Beasts of the Southern Wild—a low-budget, magical-realist adventure about a little girl and her community struggling for survival on the southernmost edge of Louisiana as a storm rolls in.

All of this was, of course, a bit lost on the film’s star, 8-year-old acting novice Quvenzhané Wallis. (It’s pronounced Kwe-VEN-zhah-nay, and means “fairy” in Swahili, but you can call her Nazie—NAY-zee.) “It felt like I was in a cage!” she says of being in a theater on the French Riviera, surrounded by towering, applauding adults. “It was crazy! They were all looking at me and clapping for seven or ten minutes, just standing up for meeeeee!” Mid-ovation, Beasts director Benh Zeitlin lifted her up, eliciting even louder cheers. “That was fun because the lights were in my eyes, and it was like this”—Wallis squints hard and pretends to go blind. Less fun was the celebratory dinner afterward, when she tried what the menu said was crawfish. “And it was shrimp!” she says, putting her hands on her hips mock-indignantly, then dissolving into giggles.

But Wallis is just the charismatic front woman for a movie that’s getting plenty of attention in its own right. Six months ago, Beasts had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival with negligible pre-buzz. It is 29-year-old Zeitlin’s first feature and was made for a paltry budget with a crew of friends and a star-free cast of locals, most of whom had never acted before. It seemed an unlikely contender for the festival’s Grand Jury Prize for dramatic feature, but it won anyway after screenings left audiences weeping and Fox Searchlight acquired the U.S. distribution rights. The accolades continued at Cannes, where the movie picked up the prestigious Caméra d’Or for best first film.

The praise is more impressive given a plot that’s nearly impossible to describe without making it sound incomprehensible. Essentially, Beasts is an epic fable told through the eyes of a 6-year-old girl, Hushpuppy (Wallis), who lives with her hard-drinking father, Wink (Dwight Henry, another first-time actor), on a marshland nicknamed “the Bathtub,” cut off from civilization on the wrong side of the levee. When Wink gets sick, Hushpuppy’s world crumbles and reality and fantasy collide. A storm hits, floodwaters rise, and aurochs (prehistoric cattle) emerge from melting glaciers, charging their way to Hushpuppy’s door. But Beasts is anchored by a fierce, naturalistic performance from Wallis, who appears in almost every scene and narrates the action like a miniature Terrence ­Malick (“If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted”). When I joked to her at Sundance that the movie was making her famous, she replied, “Oh, I know that!”

Wallis was five when she auditioned for Beasts, which means she’s been making and promoting the movie for almost half her life. She’s learned a little French (“Merci!”), but otherwise not much has changed over the past few whirlwind months. She’s still agentless and lives with her father and mother, a truck driver and junior-high teacher, respectively, in Houma, Louisiana, about an hour southwest of New Orleans. (Her mother, Qulyndreia, accompanies her everywhere.) She’s on the honor roll at her elementary school, reads Judy Moody books on her Kindle, and plays basketball with her teenage brothers, Venjie and Vejon. She’d like to do another film, but more for the fun of being on a set than honing her craft. “I didn’t even know about acting,” she says. “That was just me [in Beasts]. Bored. Happy. Sad. Mad. ­Angry. Everything just popped out of me.”

The attention hasn’t stopped her from being a kid. On a beachside carousel in Cannes, I found her going four rounds in a hand-powered spinning teacup. Soon after, she charmed Beasts cinematographer Ben Richardson into taking a lesson on how to strut like Beyoncé, taught on the Croisette promenade before amused passersby, despite Richardson’s pleading that dancing “is the one thing I am most afraid of in my life.” Wallis rolled her eyes. “Just breathe. It’s just a bounce.” She demonstrated. “Go with the rhythm, then you can add some more steps to it.” It did not go well. “Look!” she said, showing him again. “A dog can probably dance better than you.”

Why did she want to do the movie? “I don’t know,” she says. “My mom’s friend found the casting in the library.” She pronounces it lie-berry. They’d happened upon one of the thousands of flyers distributed during an exhaustive, nine-month search to find the one kid in the region that was smart, self-sufficient, and emotionally astute enough to play Hushpuppy. “I think our goal was to see every kid in south Louisiana. We only saw 3,500,” Zeitlin says. Then they saw Wallis.

She first impressed during a play-­exercise—the auditions were unscripted—in which she pretended to be the mother of a hungry kid, played by one of the movie’s producers. “I told him he can use his legs and go fix his food hisself,” Wallis recalls. In her callback, Zeitlin asked her to throw a bottle at the same producer. She refused. “She was like, ‘You’re not supposed to do that. That’s wrong,’ ” says Zeitlin. “And it was just this moment of, This girl has this internal morality already. She’s not going to take my orders because she knows the difference between right and wrong. And that’s so much of Hushpuppy, too.”

For the role of Wink, Zeitlin tapped Henry, by day the owner of New Orleans’s Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Café, who has a daughter Wallis’s age and, in a move similar to his character’s, stayed behind after Hurricane Katrina to help preserve what he could of the neighborhood. According to Wallis, though, he was well cast for an additional reason: “He had a box this big with doughnuts, brownies, and cookies,” she says, remembering their first meeting.

For all his attention to verisimilitude, though, Zeitlin is bound to get some flack for being a nerdy white Wesleyan University grad from Hastings-on-­Hudson making a movie about hardscrabble black folks from the South. Amid the acclaim, there have been whispered charges of cultural misappropriation, and the director is braced for more: “Lena Dunham [creator of HBO’s Girls] is getting a lot of shit for being a privileged white person who only has privileged white people in her show,” Zeitlin says. “I assume I’ll take shit for being a privileged white person who doesn’t have white people [in my movie]. We’re so obsessed about race and class in this country.” But he considers the debate irrelevant. “The film doesn’t have anything to say about being a poor black person,” he says. “To me, the Bathtub is a different society where money doesn’t exist. It’s not like some people have money and others don’t. It’s a place where people feel tremendous pride in living off the land. Beasts is a celebration of that.”

As for being privileged, Zeitlin isn’t quite a trust-funder. His parents help run the New York nonprofit City Lore, dedicated to preserving modern folklore, which fueled his interest in traditional bayou culture. To shoot his pre-Beasts short film, 2008’s Glory at Sea, he moved to New Orleans nine months after Katrina and maxed out his credit cards to the tune of $37,000. He was able to get out of debt thanks to an insurance payout that came after a drunk driver hit his car on the way to Glory’s South by Southwest premiere. (He won an award; his friends brought it to him in the hospital.)

Most of Beasts’s small (for its scale and ambition) $1.3 million budget came from New York nonprofit Cinereach. They’d seen Glory at Sea and decided to fund Zeitlin’s next movie, giving him full control over casting, two years of editing time, and final cut. Still, money was tight, hence the amateur cast and an 80-plus person crew made of seasoned professionals and friends working for next to nothing. Zeitlin estimates that if Beasts had been shot conventionally, it would have cost between $10 million and $14 million.

The production’s biggest challenge, though, was keeping its young star happy and safe under less-than-ideal conditions. They were shooting during storm season, amid a plague of gnats and mosquitoes, in water that contained flesh-eating bacteria and, as of the first day of the shoot, toxic oil. The BP spill started on the same day as the production, forcing Zeitlin and his crew to fight for access to locations that were being overtaken by the Army and the containment effort. “Suddenly it didn’t feel histrionic to be making a film about the apocalypse when the world was very aggressively disintegrating around us. We weren’t sure whether those locations were going to be around in four months,” says Ray Tintori, Beasts’ special-effects unit director, who was busy wrangling costumed piglets that became, via trick photography, the massive titular beasts. “It was like putting on a puppet show inside a war zone.”

Wallis was sheltered as much as possible. To encourage a natural performance, though, Zeitlin let her wander the set freely, with cameras rolling, in hopes of capturing playful moments between takes. They kept her energy up with little games and sugary snacks, yet there were still days, says Henry, “when she went on strike. She sat down, folded them arms, put them lips on, and wouldn’t say nothin’. She ain’t working right now.” That’s when Zeitlin pulled out the big guns. Says Henry, “Once he was like, ‘When we get this done, we gonna have us a pizza party!’ Then she was like, ‘Let’s do it!’ ”

Wallis’s only hard-line limitation was her ability to memorize dialogue. At night, Zeitlin says, “I’d sit down with her with the script, and she’d say, ‘This line is too long. I can only go this far.’ ” If she found a word too hard to say, they’d pick an easier one. They’d have deep, grown-up conversations about what was happening in a scene or her character’s motivation. “She’s such a wise, strong person. I just feel like she’s a friend of mine,” says Zeitlin. “It’s not like she’s a little kid to me.” But Wallis never let him forget who he was dealing with. “I’d say, ‘Okay, ­Nazie, that was good, but I need you to do it with a little more subtlety,’ ” he says. “And she’d go, ‘Benh, I am 6 years old. You think I know what “subtlety” means?’”

This story appeared in the June 25, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: Daymon Gardner