Quvenzhane Wallis rides the wake of ‘Beasts’

Director Benh Zeitlin gives his young star Quvenzhane Wallis of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" a piggyback ride.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

You can’t blame Quvenzhané Wallis for not knowing what to make of hummus, pita chips and fancily carved crudités. A staple of so many Beverly Hills ladies who lunch isn’t exactly comfort food to the 9-year-old actress, whose preferred diet in Houma, La., is more likely to include a hamburger from McDonald’s.

But like her new food choices, Wallis’ life is becoming a lot more complicated.

The star of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is now considered a favorite to be nominated for a lead actress Academy Award, a preternatural outcome that would put the fourth-grader in the company of likely nominees Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) and Marion Cotillard (“Rust and Bone”).


GRAPHIC: The awards race

Equally remarkable is that the film itself, director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin’s strikingly handmade and nearly experimental look at dying father Wink’s relationship with his young daughter, Hushpuppy (Wallis), has shown equal staying power.

Since its release by Fox Searchlight in late June, “Beasts” not only has been a little art house locomotive — grossing more than $11 million in domestic release — but also keeps collecting trophies at film festivals around the globe. Most recently, the film received two nominations from the Gotham Independent Film Awards, for breakthrough director and breakthrough actor for Wallis.

“Beasts” is now entering its second act, a potentially frantic calendar of awards ceremonies and promotional screenings. The itinerary has left the 30-year-old Zeitlin, who in just a 72-hour period recently trekked from Abu Dhabi to London to Los Angeles, with no time to work on another movie, let alone sort his laundry (his suitcase was still at Heathrow International Airport when he arrived in L.A. recently).

PHOTOS: Celebrity portraits by The Times

Wallis has been less of a vagabond, although she did work for three days on writer-director Steve McQueen’s “Twelve Years a Slave,” compared with the 46 days she spent acting in “Beasts.” The film, due next year, is based on the true 1800s story of a free New York man being sold into slavery; Wallis plays star Chiwetel Ejiofor’s young daughter.

“It was old school,” the actress said of the role, speaking only sporadically between listening to MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” watching an “Alvin and the Chipmunks” music video on her portable electronic device and asking her mother if she could buy an e-book version of “The Fart Book” (“No,” was the answer from Qulyndreia Wallis). Asked what “old school” meant, Wallis said she had to wear period clothes. Many of them. “It was hot, and I had a lot of clothes.”

Because she was cast as a New Yorker, Wallis furthermore had to study with a dialect coach, who worked with the actress to stop pronouncing “ask” as “aks” and instead say, “ahsk.”

GRAPHIC: The awards race

“The director had a different accent,” Wallis said of the British McQueen. “And he said I had to say it this way.”

In “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Wallis played a fictional character, but the precise demarcation between her personality and Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar’s screenplay is hard, if not impossible, to locate.

“Beasts” unfolds in a loosely fictionalized region in Louisiana’s bayous called “The Bathtub,” pushed toward extinction by both man and nature. Much of the narrative shares the kind of magic realism you might find in a novel by “One Hundred Years of Solitude’s” Gabriel García Márquez or “Life of Pi’s” Yann Martel, primarily with ancient animals called aurochs set loose by melting glaciers.

Yet the film’s central plot — the loosening ties that bind Wink (Dwight Henry) to Hushpuppy — is anchored by the real relationship between the two lead actors. And to find the proper Hushpuppy, Zeitlin and his casting team considered more than 4,000 young actors.

The part (it’s a boy in Alibar’s source material play, “Juicy and Delicious”) was originally written for a 10- or 11-year-old girl, and Wallis, known as Nazie by many, was just 5 when she showed up to offer her services. It took more than one audition for her to win the role, but the filmmaking team was besotted early on.

“In that first callback, we knew it was going to be her — it was so far beyond anything that we had seen,” Zeitlin said. “A lot of kids can act while speaking. But it’s much rarer to be able to do it once you’re not speaking. Even if someone would step out from behind a door and scare her, she would remain in character.”

PHOTOS: Celebrity portraits by The Times

To prepare for filming, New Orleans baker Henry required intensive training with an acting coach and struggled in memorizing his lines. Not so Wallis. “She’s truly a natural,” Zeitlin said.

Her instincts are so trustworthy, the director said, that when Wallis and a professional actor penciled in as a possible Wink didn’t click, she was able to explain how she couldn’t connect. “It was clear she knew when she was getting it, and clear she knew when she wasn’t,” Zeitlin said. The professional actor was sent back to New York and a new search for Wink begun.

Zeitlin will include in the bonus features for the “Beasts” DVD, available Dec. 4, Wallis’ auditions, including a first meeting in which she talks about her dog. In a later test, Wallis is asked in a staged scene to walk to get a new father. She can’t do it, she says. Why not? “My legs gonna be hurtin’,” she shoots back. In other scenes, audiences will see that Wallis’ take-no-prisoners stare, arguably her most distinctive gesture in “Beasts,” is very much organic to her behavior, not something affected just for the film.

Thanks largely to her mother, who teaches high school health in Louisiana and travels with Quvenzhané so that her husband can stay at home with her two brothers, the 9-year-old leads as grounded a life as possible.

“Look, you got another nomination, but it doesn’t mean you won,” Qulyndreia said after her daughter was shortlisted for the Gotham award. “We’re taking this one day at a time and see what happens.”


PHOTOS: Memorable red carpet moments

VIDEO: Go behind the scenes with the awards contenders

THE ENVELOPE: Awards insider