Anyone who has seen the wonderfully unconventional Beasts of the Southern Wild already knows that young Quvenzhané Wallis is one of the year’s great breakthroughs. Playing a girl by the name of Hushpuppy in the entrancing family drama — which earned raves from the like of TIME’s Richard Corliss — Wallis skewed vulnerable, philosophical and fearless. Even more astonishing: She was only five years-old on the set, as she played a girl coming to grips with an ailing father, an absentee mother, a vicious hurricane and the onslaught of global warming.
(SEE: where Quvenzhané Wallis ranks on TIME’s list of 2012′s best performances)
After learning she came to the project as a non-professional, I became fascinated by the young star, and I was delighted when I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk about the movie with both Wallis (who is now nine years-old) and director Benh Zeitlin (who also composed the film’s ravishing score). I had originally been planning to publish the interview the morning of the Oscar nominations. But that’s when I read about the recent spat with the Screen Actors Guild, which deemed the Beasts cast ineligible for its awards. The SAG situation could well hurt Wallis’s Oscar hopes — which would be a shame. Hushpuppy is one of the best characters of 2012.
Does Wallis know about all the awards politicking? Sure didn’t seem like it. But I do. So I’m posting this well ahead of the Oscar deadline, in hopes of catching the attention of voters:
TIME: I know you’ve been talking about this movie all year, but I’m wondering if you can take me all the way back to the start. Which I think was four years ago — how did you decide to get involved with a movie?
Quvenzhané Wallis: It was actually thanks to my mom’s friend. She called and said that they were having this audition for a six- to nine-year-old. So I just went in there and gave it a try and they just kept calling back — and back. But I was surprised because after one time my mom said, “I don’t think that’s what they wanted” because at one of the auditions…
Benh Zeitlin: You’re talking about the game we played.
QW: Yeah, and I said, “Get up on your own two feet and fix your own breakfast!” And she said, “But I don’t think that’s what they asked, so they’re probably not going to call back.” I said, “Oh well. I tried.” But you kept calling back.
BZ: That was exactly what we were looking for, though.
TIME: What was the game you were trying to do? And Benh, why were you structuring the audition as a game?
BZ: We would do different games. We didn’t want to be reading off a script. We were auditioning kids who were just learning how to read, so we didn’t want them staring down at pieces of paper. We were looking for people who had the ability to be themselves and take control of a situation; it was important for her part that she had all the strength. So in the auditions we would put them in situations where they had the option to either respond defiantly or to cave, and it would give you a good indication of how they would react in these types of situations. So we did this game that they were familiar with — where an adult played a kid, and the actors were the parent, trying to wake the kid up. We would reverse the roles.
TIME: And so Quvenzhané, you were playing the parent? You were like, “Get up, it’s time to go.” What did your kid in that scene say?
QW: He’s on the floor, and he says, “I’m not getting up.” And I was like, “He gotta be kidding!” And I just looked at him and yelled: “Get up!” And then he said, “Go fix my breakfast.” And I’m like, “Get up on your own two feet and fix your own breakfast. Not me, uh-uh.”
TIME: Was it immediately apparent to you, Benh, that she had the spark you were looking for?
BZ: Well I wasn’t at that audition — that was the first. We had about eight different teams literally going door-to-door, knocking on doors in search of our star. For nine months, we would put flyers in delis and churches and go into schools. We looked at about 4,000 kids total, including many on video. I finally met her at her first callback.
TIME: And how did the callback go?
BZ: That was where it was clear immediately that she had the part.
TIME: It only took two auditions?
BZ: Yeah. The first callback, it was clear. And then we went through the process of trying to find a compatible father and building the team of kids around here. We started with Quvenzhané — the entire film started with her and built out.
TIME: So Quvenzhané, after they called you back and you got the part, what made you decide that you’d like to give acting a try?
QW: I really don’t know. My head was just blank. I was so surprised. But I was like, I’m just going to give it a try and be a little kid and go with it.
BZ: Confidence wasn’t anything we needed to teach her. That was there from day one. One thing that jumped out at me right away — we were asking kids to play other people, to step into someone else’s shoes. And she could just bend it on the fly. I remember that I’d have her playing this role where she’s a scared kid, and there’s someone trying to steal her money. And then I’d yell, “You just stepped on a pin!” And she would react and limp, but she wouldn’t laugh or fall out of character. She could pivot, adapt — she was a good actor from the start.
TIME: So what happened at the second audition?
QW: I’m having a hard time remembering. I was just five years-old.
TIME: Ha! That’s right, it’s half a lifetime ago for you.
BZ: In the second one, we moved onto things that were actually related to scenarios in the film. So we used the scene where she’s brought the medicine to her father. And here, almost everybody else made it very cute. But the way she did it, again, it was almost defiant: “You’re going to take this medicine.” And she wasn’t going to take any back talk.
TIME: Was it weird for you to come back years later to see the film play at Sundance?
QW: We got the call [that the film got accepted to Sundance] and I remember that we were in the hallway and were jumping up and down we were so happy. [Benh] was tickled pink. He actually looked really pink. And it was so cool when we went — so exciting to be there and to meet everyone.
TIME: Can we talk about all the improvising on the set. Given how much improvisation was required, why did you decide to base the film around such a young character?
BZ: The story comes to you, and that’s it. I knew this was the mouthpiece for the story. Originally, we played things a little safer. I think in the original script we wrote the character at 10. But through the audition process, we just started to realize that was too old. The voice we were trying to capture and the perspective on the world were trying to get, that just wasn’t a 10 year-old’s point of view. With Hushpuppy, there’s a little more wonder to everything. Here’s this kid who is extremely intelligent and philosophical, but she hasn’t gotten to the point where anyone’s explained what death means. And so she has this strange idea about what it means to lose someone. It was all about those lines in the film — like when she’s looking for her dad and says, “You know, my dad could have turned into a tree or bug.” I remember being six and thinking everything was connected in the world. And just by having Quvenzhané on the set, she brought so many ideas to the character.
TIME: Did you have fun making the film? What was your favorite scene?
QW: I loved every scene with pets and seafood. I only had one pet at the time — Sammy, a Yorkie-Poo, and then I went on the set, and there were so many animals.
TIME: What was the scariest scene?
QW: I think the storm scene, with the rain coming into the house. They turned on the water and started banging on things, and it definitely got scary.
TIME: Benh, are there any key scenes that came out far differently than you expected thanks to Quvenzhané’s ideas?
BZ: She could communicate so much silently. It wasn’t something we thought we’d find in a kid. So we took so many lines that were in the original script out, thanks to her expressiveness. The fact that Hushpuppy can be so quiet but thinks so much isn’t really something that comes from her actual personality — it’s just the way she approaches the character. She would be much quieter than the character was written. And so she became this much more philosophical, and interesting, character.
TIME: What were the most notable ways the film changed?
BZ: We often ended up cutting things where we’d do the rehearsal and she’d say the line and it just didn’t seem natural. A lot of times our words wouldn’t sound right, and we’d ask her to put it in her own words instead. But there were also ideas — we would talk about the heartbeats of animals and I would say, “Describe the difference between a young animal’s heart and an old animal’s heart” and she would just talk about it, about her own a ideas, and a lot of that just became the language of the character.
TIME: So what were your most difficult scenes?
QW: It was just the stuff about where we were making the movie. The mosquitos and the mud and like the dirty stuff that I’m not used to — the dirt in the woods. Well, we have woods near our house, but it’s just a small little cut-out and you can come right back out. But this was way different. And I had to learn how to swim, and he told me to never point anything at the lens.
BZ: Which was tricky when we actually needed her to point the sparklers in that opening sequence.
TIME: Are you surprised by how much people have liked the movie? Do your friends like it?
QW: Well I’m pretty excited because now people can watch it on cable. I was just talking to my cheerleading coach and she said she liked it.
She wasn’t the only one, Ms. Wallis.