HOUMA, La. — She was just nominated for a Spirit Award for her leading role in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and there’s buzz that Golden Globe and Oscar nods could be next. But these days, Quvenzhane Wallis is more concerned about picking up long division in her math class than trophies in Hollywood.
“I actually had to learn what an Oscar was,” Quvenzhane said over a lunch of fried shrimp and crawfish at the 9-year-old’s favorite seafood restaurant in her hometown of Houma, La., about 60 miles southeast of New Orleans.
Quvenzhane — pronounced Kwuh-VIN-juh-nay — said she was shown a picture of what an Oscar looks like and came up with a nickname: “I call him ‘the golden man,'” she said, crossing her arms across her chest emulating the posture of the iconic statue.
If given the opportunity to go to the Oscars, Quvenzhane certainly knows what to expect. The fourth-grader has walked many red carpets since “Beasts” first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won a grand jury prize, and then played at the Cannes fest, where the film took the Camera d’Or prize.
Quvenzhane, who had never acted before and doesn’t watch much television, said she didn’t know who Susan Sarandon was when the actress presented her with a New Hollywood Award in Beverly Hills last month. Nor did she know Ben Affleck and Kerry Washington when the actors congratulated her at another ceremony.
“I’m just like, OK I got an award, nice to know. And then I just go back to what I do,” she said.
In the bayou town of Houma, that means cheerleading and school, where her favorite subject is math. It also means being picked on by her two older brothers and spending Halloween dressed in an orange and black tiger costume, roasting hot dogs and marshmallows with her friends and family.
“I’m just normal,” she said. “I’m just this girl who always fights with her brothers, like normal, always tackles the big dog that’s always in the house, like normal.”
She’s the youngest of four children — ages 9 to 19 — to a teacher mom and truck driver dad who have been married for 20 years. During the “Beasts” publicity run, her mom has been traveling with her while her dad stays behind with the couple’s other children — two sons, and a daughter in college.
“We’re still us,” said her mom, Qulyndreia (Kwah-LIN-dree-uh) Wallis. She said being a teacher has helped keep Quvenzhane on track with her studies while traveling, and her family’s distance from the entertainment industry has made it easy to keep their youngest child grounded.
“This is all still so new to us, so we are totally on the outside,” Wallis said. “We just go with the flow.”
Quvenzhane was just 5 when she auditioned for the film’s lead role of Hushpuppy, a little girl with a wild imagination struggling to survive in the southern Delta with her ailing father as a storm approaches. Dwight Henry plays the father and like Quvenzhane, he had no prior acting experience. It was also the directorial debut for Behn Zeitlin, who co-wrote “Beasts.”
Quvenzhane had turned 6 when the film was shot in Pointe-aux-Chenes and Isle de Jean Charles — the last inhabited speck of land at the end of a winding highway south of Houma. She gripped the hearts of audiences around the world with her portrayal of a little girl fighting for her physical and spiritual survival in a big, hard world — often wearing little more than underwear and white rubber boots.
Although it was her first time on a film set, Quvenzhane read her lines and took direction like a pro, said Henry.
“She has something inside her that is so very special,” he said, joking that one day he’ll be old and in a wheelchair and will be watching Quvenzhane on TV. “She has such a bright future ahead of her, and I look forward to seeing her in film again and maybe possibly working with her again.”
The pair landed parts this summer in the Steve McQueen-directed film “Twelve Years a Slave,” which was being shot in Louisiana. Starring Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, the movie centers on the true story of a free man who was captured and sold into slavery in the mid-1800s,
Though they didn’t share scenes with each other, the “Beasts” co-stars say they enjoyed getting in front of the camera again.
Quvenzhane said the set was more serious than in “Beasts,” where she was free to run and play between takes. But she was up for the challenge: “I’m 9 now, and 9-year-olds are like kind of serious but don’t play much,” she said.
Quvenzhane says she would like to be a dentist “to see people smile,” but won’t be giving up acting, which so far has given her plenty to smile about as the honors for her and “Beasts” just keep coming.
But whether she or the film will be nominated for an Academy Award, “that’s not in my head,” she said.