Hollywood's New 'It Girl' Keeps It Real

Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

(The Root) — On the night before the Oscar nominations, Quvenzhané Wallis was a 9-year-old hopeful working the room at the party Quincy Jones threw for filmmakers at Spago in Beverly Hills. Two days later, after she became the youngest person ever to be nominated for best actress, Wallis, now a seasoned pro, entered the ballroom of her hotel with an entourage.


Her mom Qulyndreia and her "HAMUG" — hair and makeup girl.

Having already won the Critics Choice Award for outstanding young actress for her role as Hushpuppy in Sundance-winning Beasts of the Southern Wild on the same day she was nominated for an Academy Award, Wallis was a bit over the intrusion of electronic and print reporters routinely mispronouncing her name in hopes that she would utter some memorable soundbite. Alas, instead of being able to watch her favorite cartoon at 9 a.m. Saturday, she was playing host to more media outlets, including Vogue's André Leon Talley.

"I think I know who he is," she told The Root, speaking barely above a whisper. "I think I saw him last night."

Fortunately for Wallis, her ever-present mom and the Fox Searchlight publicity team are making sure that Hollywood's preteen "it girl" has ample time to just be a kid, one who enjoys simple pleasures like "aggravating her dogs" and industry perks such as attending a taping of her favorite show.

"I got to go to [Disney Channel's] A.N.T. Farm!" the Houma, La., native said when asked how much fun she was having. "That was the best part. I got to meet the cast!"

Don't get it twisted, however. She is fully cognizant of her place in history. Not only is she the youngest nominee ever in her category, but she's only the 10th African American in 85 years to get a best actress nod. Halle Berry remains the only winner in this category.


"I know what the Oscars are," said Wallis, who was half-asleep when she saw her name scrolling down the screen on television when the nominees were announced. "I was kind of surprised on the inside but not on the outside."

Wallis' performance as an orphaned child struggling to survive on her own in the Louisiana Delta following a devastating hurricane is undoubtedly brilliant. And the fact that she was only 5 when the film was shot makes it even more so. She lied about her age to snag the audition because the producers were only interested in seeing 6-year-olds. Beasts producer Josh Penn is glad she did. Wallis beat out 4,000 other hopefuls.


"She just brought immediately who she was in the room," Penn told The Root. "She's not like the character in a lot of ways, but she's very wise. She just has this wisdom. She took the part of Hushpuppy and immediately changed it. She made it kind of about her character's emotional world.

"She's just a natural," he continued. "When she wasn't on screen you wanted her to be."


Unlike most nominees, however, she's not really concerned about winning or losing or what she's going to wear. "If it happens, it happens," she said. "If it doesn't, it doesn't."

At press time, Wallis didn't have any upcoming roles booked, but she'll be seen next in Twelve Years a Slave. Directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard and Paul Giamatti, the film is based on Solomon Northup's book about a free man (Ejiofor) living in New York City during the 1800s before he is kidnapped and sold into slavery.


So, until she books another gig, she'll resume the life she led in Houma, a typical sleepy little Southern Louisiana town with magnolia trees lining the streets and Cajun seasonings accenting the grub. The fourth-grader will go back to her public school, play sports and eat as much pizza as her parents will allow, but after her recent successes, she might not be able to ride her scooter down the street without encountering a reporter.

Last week a tabloid TV show discovered where the Wallises live, and now Qulyndreia is even more protective of the youngest of her four kids — so much so that she's stopped giving interviews.


Nazie, as Quvenzhané is called by her family, however, seems to be adjusting to the eminent changes. Well, sort of.

"More things and phones and things and phones and things and emails and phones and things and phones," she said when asked to describe how her life has changed since Beasts. "It's just too much."


That said, she doesn't want to it all to go away just yet. "I like it," she said emphatically. "I like it a lot."

Miki Turner is the author of Journey to the Woman I've Come to Love. She is based in Los Angeles.