Rock Center   |  January 24, 2013

Quvenzhané Wallis on making Oscar history

Louisiana natives Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry share an incredible bond after starring in the Academy Award-nominated film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Nine-year-old Wallis made history with her Oscar nomination for best actress. NBC News’ Ann Curry interviews the first-time actors about their breakthrough success.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> with the youngest actress ever nominated for an academy award , and win or lose, maybe the nicest thing about her nomination will be that more people will seek out the movies she's in. it's called "beasts of the southern wild" and it's part fable, part clear-eyed view of nature and nurture, love and death , poverty, family, the environment. it's her first film performance. it's a small movie, make no mistake, compared to a 007 or a "lincoln," but it leaves a big mark on you. as ann curry reports tonight, the only thing more compelling than her work on screen is her story in real life .

>> okay.

>> all right. so this is how you do it.

>> reporter: you probably don't recognize quvenzhane wallis. over a platter of crawfish, she's pure louisiana.

>> you put it right there and then you suck the head.

>> reporter: you are looking at the youngest person ever nominated for an academy award as best actress . and she is 9.

>> how many do you really eat?

>> about five pounds. i can eat about five pounds.

>> really?

>> reporter: quvenzhane was 6 when she played the role of hush puppy , the lead in the critically acclaimed film "beasts of the southern wild."

>> in a million years when kids go to school, they'll know once there was a hush puppy and she lived with her daddy.

>> reporter: she was only 5 and just beginning to read when she was selected out of 3500 children who tried out.

>> you have to learn how to feed yourself.

>> reporter: the movie is about the bond between father and daughter .

>> okay, this is your punching hand. ball your fists up in case you have to whack them when they come out.

>> reporter: hush puppy is growing up in a bayou at the end of the earth they call the bathtub. her father is dying and he is hell-bent on teaching hush puppy how to survive on her own.

>> got it, got it! yeah! look what we got! look what we got! gotcha! we got it, say i gotcha.

>> i gotcha!

>> yeah!

>> reporter: quvenzhane, the daughter of a truck driver and schoolteacher is the youngest of four.

>> we want to go get some buttermilk drops.

>> reporter: and she can credit some of hur her success to the man inside the buttermilk bakery. dwight henry is the man who plays her father. she calls him mr. henry and he is an equally unlikely co-star. a baker in new orleans for 30 years, like her he had never been in a movie before. but before he got the part, she had to approve working with him.

>> quvenzhane, how did you know when you first met mr. henry that he could be the man who plays your father?

>> he brought me sweets.

>> he brought you sweets? from his bakery?

>> mm-hmm.

>> when i walked in the room they say there she go right there. i put that big smile on my face, i had all them bags in my hand. i hand them to her. she puts that big ole smile on my face and i knew i had the part then.

>> what is that look? i see you two give that look a lot to each other. is that your own language?

>> yes. and signs.

>> see, we do that, we don't even have to say a word. we know what that means.

>> which means to be strong.

>> strong, yes.

>> look how strong i am.

>> reporter: dwight henry has a daughter about the same age as quvenzhane, and he treated her as his own.

>> that was fun. do it again.

>> your character wink is facing incredible hardships, and he needs to help his daughter, hush puppy , toughen up.

>> come on! come on! let me have it! ahh! you the man. who the man?

>> i'm the man.

>> who the man?

>> i'm the man!

>> you get very tough.

>> you have to understand, she's the most important person in the world to me. she doesn't have her mother. i'm all she has, and she's living in a region that's so dangerous. i know i'm dying. and in real life , if her father is dying, he's going to do everything in his power to make sure our children are okay when we are not here.

>> she understands that he's saying that he's dying and everything is not going to happen the way you want it, it's just going to have to go the way the world wants it.

>> reporter: that reality hits home when hush puppy faces saying goodbye to her dying father.

>> when he dies, you're dying with him because you're always with him and you're never going to leave him.

>> and when you watch that scene together, do you think you did okay?

>> i do. i don't know about him.

>> you know, these emotions that we had in some of these scenes, they wasn't things that we put in our eyes and things like that. we were just thinking about things, people we lost, and that brought up some real heart-felt emotions that we felt. you know, that was real tears.

>> don't cry, you hear?

>> no crying.

>> i was thinking about the time when i lost my father and she was thinking about someone that she lost that was dear to her at the same time.

>> the cameraman was crying. that's why you saw like the scene kind of shaking a little bit. the director was crying. he was just like this, rubbing all the tears. and like it was all of us just crying.

>> reporter: how did someone so young turn in such a performance? we talked at a nearby library.

>> do you know where you get your strength?

>> my dad.

>> because he's physically strong or you mean he's emotionally strong?

>> both. he's always, like, you better do that. and then like he's -- he sometimes is kind of like --

>> so you're saying that hush puppy -- playing hush puppy , you were influenced by your father?

>> pretty much. my father and my fake father are kind of like the same.

>> so you're saying mr. henry was very similar to your real father.

>> pretty much.

>> and that made you more comfortable?

>> yes.

>> it sounds like you were thinking about your dad and how strong he was.

>> and my mom, because they put them together and it's kind of like made the hush puppy because i was nice in the film and that's my mom. and i was kind of strong in the film, and that's my dad.

>> hush puppy --

>> is --

>> both. and you're kind of both. so what does your mom and dad tell you about not letting all that attention change who you are? are they tough about that?

>> they say don't -- don't think about it. don't -- and they just tell me not to, and just do what you're supposed to do. just don't worry about other people, just worry about yourself and what you're supposed to do.

>> you're saying that they are very firm parents? they give you that look? what's the look? is that from your mom or your dad?

>> both.

>> how do you imagine going to the academy awards will be like? is it your time to shine?

>> my time.

>> you'll be shining too, mr. henry .

>> of course he will.

>> it's a long way from being a baker to sitting at the academy awards .

>> yeah. sitting with my little hush puppy .

>> daddy.

>> she is going to win, no doubt about it.

>> our thanks to ann curry , mr. henry and hush puppy . find a way to see this movie.