The Airline Skate Center, next to the Jefferson Gun Outlet on a dusty strip of highway in suburban New Orleans, is Quvenzhané Wallis’s favorite place to hang out. They serve her favorite food (pizza) and she can listen to her favorite song (Ariana Grande’s“Break Free”) while indulging in her favorite pastime (roller skating). And on this sticky afternoon in October she never once complains — not even 50 laps in — about feeling dizzy or nauseous or the least bit achy in the calves. Like most sixth graders, Wallis could swerve and spin and twirl around to a soundtrack of Pharrell and Justin Bieber all day long with only occasional pit stops to fuel up on orange soda. Unlike most sixth graders, she has to slow down every now and again to answer questions from a breathless journalist about how it feels to be the youngest Oscar nominee ever. “I’m not gonna name names,” she says, “but sometimes when reporters are talking it gets a little boring because I don’t have any jokes to tell because the questions are so serious.”
Inquiries into inspiration and motivation elicit eye rolls. At one point, while discussing the director and co-stars of her new film, “Annie” — Will Gluck is a “really nice man,” Jamie Foxx is “a really nice guy” and Cameron Diaz is “really nice” — she lets out an exasperated yawn. Then she gets up in her pink Nike hightops and sparkly pink top (her favorite colors are turquoise and pink). “Why doesn’t a bike stand up on its own?” she asks. Even on her tiptoes, the 5-foot-2 actress looks very much like a young girl. “I’ve got it!” I find myself yelling, apparently desperate to make an 11-year-old think I’m cool. “Because it’s two-tired!” Despite my better judgment, I go in for a needy high-five.
Wallis’s precocious, at times petulant charm — littered with as much toilet humor as schoolyard sagacity — is her secret weapon, and it’s what makes her stand out from all the pretween beauty queens who’ve been trained to follow a script. She couldn’t even read one when she went to an open audition in her hometown of Houma, La., for the part of Hushpuppy, a girl struggling to care for her dying father, in the filmmaker Benh Zeitlin’s magical-realist odyssey “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” She delighted viewers during the 2013 movie awards season, when she consistently appeared with puppy-shaped handbags slung over her shoulder, in large part because her affect so easily swings between wide-eyed sweetness and sniffy ennui. While she’s undeniably natural when bringing the inner life of a child to the screen, it’s a little early to tell if that’s because she is a child. Recalling why he cast Wallis in “Beasts,” Zeitlin says, “It was just the feeling behind her eyes.”
That way of “showing emotion without using words” convinced the director Will Gluck that she had what it took to play the world’s most famous orphan (or, in this version, foster child) in “Annie,” with Jamie Foxx as the Daddy Warbucks character and Cameron Diaz as the mean-spirited foster mother Miss Hannigan. “There were certain moments when I read the script with her, when she’s supposed to be optimistic, and she was able to do it on her face without being like, ‘I’m optimistic!’ ” Gluck says. “I was really concerned about not casting Broadway kids. We didn’t want anyone who knew how to emote to the back of the house.”
While some critics interpreted “Beasts” as a post-Katrina parable, the “Annie” remake, Gluck insists, isn’t trying to make any sort of socioeconomic statement. “Every character in this movie really was cast race-blind,” Gluck says, explaining that his main goal was to introduce Annie’s story to a new generation of moviegoers. “It’s funny, because adults always call this a rags-to-riches movie, but when kids see it, that’s the last thing they think. Annie hates Miss Hannigan, she hates her experience, but she never complains about being poor. All she cares about is finding her family.”
Right now, all Wallis cares about is finding the two tokens she needs to play a new round of Hoop Fever, which she’s infuriatingly good at (basketball, she says, is also a favorite). When I swear under my breath after losing yet another game, she holds out her hand. “You owe me a dollar,” she says. Her mother, Qulyndreia, adds, laughing, “She made a killing on the ‘Annie’ set.”
Read more over at T Magazine.