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Q&A: 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' stars Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry, and director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin

(Lenny Gilmore / RedEye )
July 02, 2012|Matt Pais | RedEye movie critic

Go ahead and call me crazy. Don’t be surprised, though, if 8-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis receives a Best Actress nomination for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” her first-ever acting job. Which she filmed when she was 6. And auditioned for at 5.

Wallis is the remarkable centerpiece of director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin’s debut film, which has picked up plenty of accolades: “Beasts” took home the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and a FIPRESCI prize (given by the International Federation of Film Critics) at the Cannes Film Festival. That acclaim has resulted in tons of press and a schedule that Wallis' co-star, Dwight Henry, a New Orleans bakery owner and fellow first-time actor, describes as, “Interviews, interviews, photo shoots, interviews, interviews, photo shoots, luncheon, reception, go to sleep, wake up, interviews, interviews, get on the airplane, more interviews, photo shoots.”

In the spellbinding, New Orleans-shot “Beasts,” opening Friday, single father Wink (Henry) has one primary purpose: Making sure that his 6-year-old daughter Hushpuppy (Wallis) realizes that her dad won't be around forever. He wants her to be able to fend for herself.

They live in a remote southern Delta community known as the “Bathtub,” where inclement weather constantly threatens to elevate the waters above the heads of those trying to stay afloat. Not to mention prehistoric beasts are thawing and heading toward the Bathtub.

At the Hotel Palomar, Wallis, Henry (who auditioned after the filmmakers posted flyers in his bakery), 48, and Zeitlin (who joined the interview a few minutes late), 29, talked about Wallis' fearless defiance, elements of the movie they lived for real and punching fish in the face.

Benh, you struck gold with casting. What went through your head when you saw these two for the first time?
Benh Zeitlin: It was real different each time. The first time I met Quvenzhane was when she walked in for her callback audition, and she just had this focus and fierceness and also wisdom that was completely outsize[d] for her age. I had never seen anyone that intense and she wasn’t malleable. I think a lot of times when they cast kids they puppeteer them. You can’t puppeteer her; she’s too tough.

And before you walked in today she said she wasn’t even trying.
BZ: Yeah, she just was fearless. It wasn’t like she was trying to be fearless. She actually wouldn’t do a lot of things I would tell her to do.

Like what?
QW: I wouldn’t throw the bottle. He got a little frustrated because—
BZ: You know, I went back and looked at it the other day, it was actually a stuffed animal. It wasn’t a bottle.
QW: Well, they are the same thing.

Why wouldn’t you throw it?
QW: The person I was trying to throw it at I didn’t even know.
BZ: She thought it was not right to do that. It was like morally incorrect to throw something at someone you didn’t know.
QW: But now I would just take something and I would just like seriously look at him and say, “Think fast” and just throw it at him. I would just take this remote [picks up remote control on table] and be like, “Think fast.”
BZ: But you can’t get her to do something that she doesn’t think is right. That was very much how Hushpuppy is, and I was so impressed by that. Dwight I knew beforehand because I had been going to the bakery and I was always impressed by the way that he holds court. Everyone knows Dwight. Everyone’s friends with him because he’s a magnetic presence at the bakery. I knew he had presence in that way, but he brought this real intensity and sort of passion and intensity to this part. But one thing that would happen a lot of times when we would audition people for the role, when we would play these angry scenes and be violent it became ugly. The character could easily drift into someone who’s kinda ugly, but Dwight always had, he’s such a good person, he has such a strong and kind of generous heart, that even in the most violent moments you never lose sight of the fact that he loves his daughter and is trying to take care of his daughter.

I read that when Quvenzhane got tired you’d give her marshmallows to keep her going. How many other Hollywood stars do that?
QW: No one. They would just like go home. They would just quit. I quit, but I would stay.

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