Who da man? Quvenzhané Wallis is the man! The Louisiana-born actor exploded on the scene with her debut as 6-year-old Hushpuppy in 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Her powerful performance earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role, making her the youngest Oscar nominee ever. As a young Black artist, her presence in films like 12 Years a Slave and 2014’s Annie, as well as Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, speak not only to diverse representation for audiences across the world, but also to the type of work she seeks to create.
But what else has the talented young actor been up to since her premiere role? Considering her acting caliber threw her into competition with established stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain — and Hollywood fell in love with her adorable pooch-shaped purses on the red carpet — it should come as no surprise that she’s making big moves while growing up in the public eye. This is the untold truth of Quvenzhané Wallis.
Quvenzhané Wallis is the youngest of four children
Quvenzhané Wallis was born in Houma, La., and is the youngest of four children, according to the New York Times. Her name, pronounced “Kwah-ven-zha-nay,” comes from a combination of her parents’ first names and the Swahili word for “fairy,” according to Hollywood.com. “Anybody calls for Quvenzhané, I know they’re calling me, cause that’s one of a kind,” she quipped in an interview with Roger Ebert in 2012. Raised by her mother, a schoolteacher, and her father, a truck driver, Wallis was hardly old enough to attend elementary school by the time she started acting on the big screen. But as her countless interviews have shown — i-D described her as having a “refreshing lack of formal media training” in 2015 — Wallis and her family have stayed true to who they are.
Wallis’ siblings are as equally talented as the young actor, and WAPT reported that they’re very supportive of each other and “none of them are in the other’s shadow.” According to the outlet, her older brother Venji Wallis played basketball for JSU, her other brother played football for Houston Baptist, and her older sister got her degree in nursing. “She’s the same person before she was famous,” Venji said, adding that Quvenzhané “sends [him] pictures of her working out in [his] shirts and stuff,” and that they remain close.
An audition at a library changed Quvenzhané Wallis' life
When it came to the integral role of Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, director Benh Zeitlin was looking for a child actor between the ages of six and nine (via RogerEbert.com). Quvenzhané Wallis was only five years old at the time, but was able to convince her mother to let her try out anyway. “My audition turned out to be at the library,” she told Ebert in 2012. “We just sneaked in and we walked out like we ain’t done nothin’.”
Wallis impressed Zeitlin, who reworked the role to suit her age and strengths as a performer, according to MTV News. While Newsday reported that there was “debate about whether Quvenzhané deserved accolades for her performance due to her age,” Zeitlin defended her, clarifying that she did, in fact, put on a character and “acting is playing make-believe, essentially.” Even though he auditioned 4000 kids, Zeitlin told the outlet that he’d “never seen a kid who could act like that.” Wallis impressed the crew with her fearlessness which translated in moments like her “ear-splitting scream” and ability to burp on command in the film (via RogerEbert.com). “It’s a miraculous thing and it’s talent,” Zeitlin told Newsday. “It’s not like she just wandered in front of a camera and that happened.”
Quvenzhané Wallis quickly landed on Hollywood's radar
It’s fitting that Beasts of the Southern Wild marked Quvenzhané Wallis’ big screen debut, as her performance immediately solidified her as an industry beast. In addition to becoming the youngest performer nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role at the Academy Awards, Wallis was also the first Black child actor to receive an Oscar nod, per Westside Gazette. “It’s exciting, this is special,” Wallis told USA Today of her history-making turn in 2013. Although she admitted that she “almost missed” hearing her name amongst the nominees as she was sleeping. Considering the adorable thespian was only 9-years-old, we understand completely!
The film, also nominated for Best Picture and Best Director at the 2013 Oscars, follows a little girl (Wallis) who lives in the Louisiana swampland with her sick father, portrayed by Dwight Henry, as they fend off what appears to be an apocalypse in their small community. As director Benh Zeitlin told Entertainment Weekly, the entire cast was made up of first-time actors. “[The whole movie is about] this moral girl who believes in right and wrong so strongly, and has this fierceness and sweetness that are sitting inside her,” Zeitlin said. “That very much comes from Quvenzhané. That’s who she is.” Though the cast and crew would have no way of knowing how the film would be received, by its release, it was clear that, as RogerEbert.com put it, “a force of nature” had arrived.
Armani Junior and Quvenzhané Wallis joined forces
In 2014, Quvenzhané Wallis was chosen as the ambassador of Giorgio Armani’s youth line Armani Junior, making her the “first major child celebrity to be the face of a luxury brand,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Even though she was just 10 years old at the time, Armani was infatuated with the young performer’s larger-than-life attitude, sense of style, and talent. “With her insatiable energy, Quvenzhané made the clothing come alive, interpreting it in her own singular way,” the designer told THR.
Wallis was first introduced to Armani in 2013 when she sported a blue dress from his youth collection on the Academy Awards red carpet. According to Entertainment Weekly, Wallis was the first starlet ever to rock a dress from Armani Junior. “It made me feel like a princess,” she told THR of the gown. After attending Armani’s New York Prive fashion show, she was able to meet the iconic designer whom she described as both “thoughtful” and “such a nice man.” The encounter led to Wallis’ stint as the brand’s face, and it seems that the endorsement may have also scored her some brownie points with her school-age peers, as she told THR, “My friends are going to want to borrow all my clothes.”
The sun came out when Quvenzhané Wallis played Annie
Following the awards show buzz of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Quvenzhané Wallis scored the role of Annie Stacks in Sony Pictures’ modern retelling of the classic Broadway musical Annie. Wallis became the first Black actor to play the beloved orphan in a big screen adaptation when it hit theaters in 2014. The film also starred Jamie Foxx as William Stacks, a tech entrepreneur running for mayor of New York City and a twist on the Daddy Warbucks character, as well as Cameron Diaz as the villainous Miss Hannigan. The remake was a commercial success, grossing over $130 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. The adaptation was also recognized at the 2015 Golden Globes where Wallis scored a nod for best actress in a musical or comedy.
Both Foxx and Diaz were impressed by Wallis’ performance and on-set etiquette, with Diaz saying that she didn’t think the young star took on any of the pressure of “reviving such an iconic character” (via The New York Times). In fact, Wallis’ age and honesty continued to be part of her charm. When asked by ABC News if she had watched Annie as a “little girl,” Wallis quipped, “I’m still a little girl.” While trolls on Twitter may have created a fuss over the film’s colorblind casting, the movie was largely seen as a positive step for representation and Hollywood diversity. The sun will come out tomorrow, indeed!
Quvenzhané Wallis' acting résumé is quite impressive
While Quvenzhané Wallis is largely recognized as Hushpuppy and Annie Stacks, her filmography extends beyond her notable roles. “There’s nothing bad about being an actress, it’s been really fun for me so far,” she told i-D in 2015. Wallis portrayed Margaret, the daughter of Black man Solomon Northup who’s kidnapped and sold into slavery, in 12 Years a Slave. The powerful period piece went on to win Best Picture at the 2014 Academy Awards. Wallis also appeared in Boneshaker, a short film selected for the 2013 Sundance Film Festival (via Indiewire) and 2016’s Fathers and Daughters, a lukewarmly received drama starring Amanda Seyfried and Russell Crowe.
Wallis also tried her hand at voice acting, starting with 2014’s The Prophet based on Kahlil Gibran’s enduring prose poetry collection. “When you’re doing the voice for someone, you can even wear your PJs,” Wallis told i-D. “Of course I didn’t actually go to the studio like, ‘What’s upppp!’ in my PJs, but I’m just saying.” She’d hit the studio once more for 2016’s Trolls, portraying Harper Troll amongst an A-list cast of stars like Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, and Gwen Stefani. Wallis described her character as “creative” and “just completely lit” in a tweet.
You want accolades? Quvenzhané Wallis has got 'em
Quvenzhané Wallis only made her acting debut in 2012 with Beasts of the Southern Wild, but she’s already racked up a long list of accolades in addition to her history-making Oscars nod. According to the actor’s website, Wallis has received awards from industry organizations like the African American Film Critics Association, Broadcast Film Critics Association, Hollywood Film Festival, Women Film Critics, and the Satellite Special Achievement Award for Outstanding Talent. Per IMDb, Wallis has received 24 awards and 42 nominations between her performances in Beasts and Annie.
When she was just 14 years old, Wallis was invited to join the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, per Variety. As the outlet noted, this was following the Academy’s goal to “double the number of women and diverse members of the Academy.” She was among an all-star class of actors including Mindy Kaling, Tiffany Haddish, and Dave Chappelle. Despite her impressive list of achievements, since a young age, Wallis has maintained that her career’s success was all of her own volition, telling i-D in 2015 that her advice for adults was to not “ever push your children to do something that you wish you’d done in your childhood.” Wise beyond her years!
Quvenzhané Wallis got the Beyoncé seal of approval
The world stopped when Beyoncé dropped 2016’s Lemonade, her Grammy-winning surprise visual album documenting how she overcame infidelity in her relationship, as well as “the strength found in communities of African American women,” according to Biography. Of the notable cameos in the film — which also featured Black female powerhouses like Serena Williams, Zendaya, and Amandla Stenberg — Quvenzhané Wallis’ was one of the most impactful, as she appeared alongside Bey’s daughter Blue Ivy Carter. “We got a call from Beyoncé’s publicist and it was kind of top secret,” Wallis told Wendy Williams in 2017. “We didn’t really know until like a few weeks before.”
The LP’s legacy extended far beyond its release, with the AP naming it album of the decade in 2019. Wallis told W in 2018 that she’ll never forget “standing under the tree holding hands and playing with Blue, while the women were surrounding the tree,” adding that “to be around so many powerful and positive women was amazing.” Talk about Black girl magic!
Quvenzhané Wallis is an established children's author
Quvenzhané Wallis took on the writing world at 14-years-old with the publication of her first children’s books. In 2017, she released Shai & Emmie Star in Break an Egg and A Night Out With Mama, the latter of which was inspired by her big evening at the Oscars, according to the AP. Wallis has gone on to write two more Shai & Emmie chapter books, which is a series about two female best friends who attend a performing arts elementary school. Wallis worked with co-author Nancy Ohlin on the projects, with Wallis and her mother coming up with the “interest or story line,” and Ohlin assisting in putting it all together.
A career in writing was a natural progression for Wallis, who was already a bookworm and wanted to encourage kids her age to do the same. “Reading is one of my favorite things to do,” she said during a book tour appearance, per AP. “It’s something I would want everyone to do, especially teenagers my age. I don’t think we read as much as we should.”
Black-ish welcomed Quvenzhané Wallis to the family
After taking a break from acting, Quvenzhané Wallis returned in 2019 with her TV debut in season five of ABC’s Black-ish. She portrayed Kyra, the cousin of Anthony Anderson’s character, who moves in with the family after her mom is unable to watch over her (via Deadline). Wallis appeared in five episodes as Dre (Anderson) and his wife Bow, portrayed by Tracee Ellis Ross, take her in and struggle with having “different approaches to helping her adjust to suburban life,” according to ABC (via Entertainment Weekly).
According to foster care entertainment and media coalition Foster More, Kyra’s storyline helped show “how having the love and support of a family can help youth reach their full potential.” For her part, Wallis had a blast filming with the Emmy-nominated cast. “Hate to have to say goodbye, but I am so grateful for the chance to be with the [Black-ish] family,” she wrote in a post she shared to Instagram and Twitter.
Quvenzhané Wallis is doing quite well for herself
Quvenzhané Wallis enjoys a “normal life” in Louisiana, participating in cheerleading, basketball, volleyball, and dance at her school, according to her website. Although her expansive career certainly sets her apart from her peers — the young actor is worth $500 thousand, according to Celebrity Net Worth. In addition to the blockbuster films she’s known for, Wallis’ net worth is also bolstered by her work as an author and Armani Junior ambassador.
She’s also appeared in major commercials for Maserati and Sony’s 2014 Super Bowl campaign, per her website’s résumé page. Although she’s a bankable superstar, that doesn’t mean she’s gone full-on Hollywood diva. Wallis maintains a fairly run-of-the-mill life in her downtime, attending private school in New Orleans, according to Evening Standard. “I like everything I have,” she told the outlet in 2014. “And I’m not going to be that snob that’s like, ‘I hate everything, like everything.’ I’m like, ‘This is cool.'”
The sky's the limit for Quvenzhané Wallis
From rollerskating with reporters for Annie press days, to her more mature turn as Kyra in Black-ish, Quvenzhané Wallis has grown up gracefully in the public eye. And while the teenage actor remains down-to-earth, she also understands the importance and power of her platform. “We are Black ladies … we don’t tear down other Black ladies,” she wrote in a post on Instagram in 2020. “We have felt the pain of being torn down and we have decided we will be deliberate about building others.”
Although she keeps her personal life private — she told Wendy Williams that she wasn’t “boy crazy” in 2017 and her mom got her “a man and cake” for her seventeenth birthday — Wallis seems eager to expand on her empire. “Imma just grind even more and achieve more,” she wrote in a lovely Instagram post at the end of 2019. The following July, Deadline reported Wallis is hitting the court as Crystal, one of the top basketball players on an AAU team in Kevin Durant’s Apple TV series Swagger. As WAPT noted, her older brother helped her prepare for this role.
It seems the Wallis recipe to success is a mix of family, talent, and awe-inspiring work. We wouldn’t be surprised to see another Oscar nod in the history-making actor’s future, because there’s no going back now that the world has learned how to say her name.
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