LOS ANGELES – “Beasts of the Southern Wild” star Quvenzhane Wallis is an actress of talent, poise and maturity well beyond her years.
She was only 5 years old when she auditioned and 6 when she played the part of Hushpuppy, a little girl of fierce strength and resourcefulness living with her daddy in a squalid slab of Louisiana swampland known as The Bathtub. She was just a regular kid from nearby Houma, La. – she’d never even acted before, and actually pretended to be a year older than she was to be considered.
Now, at only 9, Quvenzhane is the youngest best actress nominee at the Academy Awards. Altogether, “Beasts” has four nominations at the Feb. 24 ceremony, including best picture.
While her presence is undeniable, Quvenzhane’s nomination raises the question: How young is too young to compete for an Oscar, the film industry’s highest honor, which has eluded performers with decades more experience and acclaim? Is a child really capable of acting, with craft, or do these performances reflect uncanny instinct?
Director Benh Zeitlin doesn’t think 9 is too young for such an honor. Zeitlin, who is up for a best-director Oscar himself with just his first feature, praised Quvenzhane for the incredible sense of self she displayed from the beginning. But he also recalled one day when she seemed to be struggling on set, and he took her aside to ask what was wrong.
“ ‘I know. I can’t snap it today. Normally I can snap it,’ ” he remembered her saying. “The fact that she had an internal sense of when she’s in character, when she’s getting the emotions right and feeling it, is really special even in experienced actors, but especially someone of her age to have that sort of self-awareness.”
Justin Henry, who remains the youngest Oscar nominee in any category for 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer,” said that in some ways it’s a purer form of acting at this age.
Henry was just 6 years old and had never acted when a casting director came to his Rye, N.Y., school looking for someone to play Billy, the little boy at the center of Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep’s custody battle. He was 7 when he shot the film and 8 when he was nominated for best supporting actor; he lost to 78-year-old Melvyn Douglas for “Being There.” (Tatum O’Neal is still the youngest Oscar winner in any category; she was 10 when she earned the supporting-actress Oscar for 1973’s “Paper Moon.”)
A voting Academy member, Henry said he thought it was “awesome” to see Quvenzhane get nominated for the acclaimed Fox Searchlight indie drama, which he called the best movie of the year. Now 41 with a 7-year-old daughter of his own, he looks back at his own nomination and acknowledges: “I didn’t even know what it meant. ... I just remember being nervous as hell about having to give a speech in front of 3,000 people.”
“That’s the great thing about acting: In some ways, it’s a child’s game,” said Henry, who went on to play Molly Ringwald’s wisecracking younger brother in the John Hughes classic “Sixteen Candles” and now specializes in web video distribution. “You’re just pretending, so sometimes it’s easy when you’re a kid. You just kind of follow your instincts.”
Tracy Tofte, who was only 11 when she was chosen to play daughter Heather Owens on the 1980s sitcom “Mr. Belvedere,” agreed that she didn’t understand the enormity of what she was doing. She’d started acting at 9 under the stage name Tracy Wells and booked 17 national commercials in her first year, including a Pepsi ad in which she danced with Michael Jackson.
“From the adults around me, I took off their energy that it was a big deal,” Tofte, now a 41-year-old real estate agent in Santa Clarita, Calif., said of being cast in the series. “As an adult, I look back and I totally get it but as a kid, no. You’re just, ‘Wow, my mom and dad are happy and my agent’s happy and this’ll be fun.’ ”
Tofte hasn’t seen “Beasts” but said of Quvenzhane: “I’m sure this young girl did a phenomenal job and deserves the nomination, but there are veteran actors and actresses who have never had those accolades and they’ve been working their craft and dealing with the ups and downs of this industry.”
Intriguingly, Quvenzhane is up against the oldest-ever best actress nominee, 85-year-old French veteran Emmanuelle Riva of “Amour.” Rounding out the field are Jessica Chastain for “Zero Dark Thirty,” Jennifer Lawrence for “Silver Linings Playbook” and Naomi Watts for “The Impossible.” The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences declined a request to comment on Quvenzhane’s youth.
Thelma Adams, contributing editor at Yahoo! Movies and a longtime awards prognosticator, points out that Shirley Temple was already well on her way to a career by the time she was 6, the same year she earned an honorary juvenile Oscar.
“There was a lot of craft to what she was doing,” Adams said. “With (Quvenzhane’s) performance, it’s kind of a life force. They’ve captured this wonderful little girl ... but it’s not an acting performance.”
“I’ve seen her at parties,” added Adams, the mother of two teenagers who perform. “I know she can get up in her party dress and charm, but I also saw a little girl who’d rather be riding a pony at a kids’ party. ... To have her nominated, it’s not good for her, no matter how great she was in the movie — and she was terrific — but this red carpet thing is a grind.”
But it’s exactly that kind of passion that drives such extraordinary kids, said John West, headmaster at The Mirman School for highly gifted children in Los Angeles, whose alumni include actors Crispin Glover, Masi Oka (“Heroes”) and David Dorfman (“The Ring” movies).
“I’m not sure they fathom the importance of the honor. They fathom the importance of the work they do — that’s far more important,” he said. “Any of our students who have been engaged in the arts don’t do it because they’re looking for approval or glory. They’re doing it because the work itself in some unique way touches them in their own lives.”
West has no problem with Quvenzhane’s nomination: “People throw around all the time that someone is an old soul packaged in a very young body, and as cliched as that may be, it’s true.”
But Zeitlin said Quvenzhane was still very much a little kid on the set: “She would say things to me like, ‘Benh, I’m only 6 years old, you need to use smaller words,’ or ‘I’m gonna get cranky sometimes.’ She had this awareness almost like an observer of a child.”
He also points out that Quvenzhane is nothing like the girl she played.
“Hushpuppy as a character is going through unbelievable circumstances. She’s damaged, she’s morose, she’s contemplative, she’s quiet, she has this great burden on her shoulders,” Zeitlin said. “Quvenzhane Wallis is the most carefree, fun-loving, goofy, playful person you can imagine, and she had to put herself in that skin on a consistent basis.”