Beasts of Southern Wild: Casting Hushpuppy
The whole film hinges on the singular, curious creature named Hushpuppy. The film’s success weighed entirely on finding someone to fill this character’s tiny yet simultaneously massive shoes. That was the first impossibility encountered: what child could conceivably carry this considerable fable on her diminutive shoulders?
The search began in early 2009 in New Orleans, in an abandoned classroom set up as an audition space, where so many talented kids were found that Court 13 actually began an after school program to teach them acting and filmmaking. Sessions with kids of all ages played out more like interviews and game-playing than traditional auditions – but they still could not find the purity of performance needed for Hushpuppy.
After four months without a Hushpuppy, the operation expanded beyond the city into the bayou communities where the film would eventually be shot. Ultimately stretching into eight parishes in the span of a year, Court 13’s volunteer casting army canvassed towns, passed out flyers, and combed through bowling alleys, congregations and classrooms; in some areas they even went door to door, holding auditions at libraries, community centers or on-site at schools.
4,000 girls later, the hard work paid off and they had themselves a Hushpuppy, who emerged right from the film’s backyard of Houma, Louisiana. She wasn’t between the age of six to nine–she was just five years old when she first auditioned. Clearly endowed with a striking imagination, Quvenzhané Wallis was a micro force of nature with unparalleled focus and emotional intelligence.
“Our mantra was to look for a combination of imagination, fierceness and creativity–for someone with the resolve to stick up for herself but also the capacity to wonder about the world,” recalls Michael Gottwald. “Quvenzhané’s first audition showed that she had the imagination, and then it took a second round to figure out she also had that fierceness.”
“Her resonance in the quiet moments was unparalleled to anyone else – no one had come close to that,” adds Zeitlin. “The look in her eyes and the intensity and amount of feeling you could see going on inside was so powerful. She had this huge will of her own that I couldn’t control.”
It was so big that it in fact influenced the very trajectory of Hushpuppy. “Quvenzhané has this incredibly strong sense of right and wrong, and that wasn’t in the character to begin with. That was something she brought to the character. When I saw that in her, I started to think about how powerful it could be, and Hushpuppy now leads the moral charge in the movie,” says the director. “She’s the moral backbone, even though everyone else is older. She always does the right thing, and never wavers.”
Zeitlin found that working with someone so young, yet so uncompromising, was one of the more intriguing of his myriad challenges. “It was good for me because I knew that if the set wasn’t fun, if she wasn’t having fun, she wouldn’t be able to act,” he notes. “If I was nervous, she would sense it immediately and shut down. So it was a real lesson for me to stop being stressed-out. And I saved any moment of relaxation on the set for her because I knew that’s what she needed.”
Watching Quvenzhané tackle all that Hushpuppy goes through was a revelation for everyone. “A lot of people told us coming into this that we should cast an older child, but one of the central things we wanted was to actually see a young child faced with these circumstances,” says Janvey. “It’s one of my favorite things about the movie: She goes through this extraordinary set of circumstances with incredible bravery. Quvenzhané has that same courage Hushpuppy has.”
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