Quvenzhané Wallis
Photo by John Lamparski
Emerging Masters

Quvenzhané Wallis: “Not perfect, but better”

Short Profile

Name: Quvenzhané Wallis
DOB: 28 August 2003
Place of birth: Houma, Louisiana, United States
Occupation: Actor

Quvenzhané Wallis' new film Breathe is in theaters and on digital now.

Quvenzhané, you once said that you approached your Oscar-nominated role in Beasts of the Southern Wild without fear because at nine years old, you didn’t really feel nerves in that way. Is that still true for you these days?

I would love to be able to say that that's true for me now! But I definitely don't have the same fearlessness that I did when I was that age. These days before a film, I can get very, very nervous. I can definitely feel doubtful of myself, I get anxious, but what’s good is that when I start working up to it, I start hyping myself up, I tell myself, “Okay, I can do this. I can do this.” And usually that works out. I've always had a really big personality, but actually, the older I get, I think I’m becoming more shy.


Yeah, I don’t know, I still like to have fun, I still have that spunky energy but it’s not consistent, I can be more reserved these days especially on set. If I have a scene that requires me to be very vulnerable, it can be hard for me to get into that. When you have all the cameras on you and then the person behind the camera watching you go that deep, it can be very distracting. And also you start to become overly aware of yourself and it takes you out of the moment. So I definitely think that's a challenge for me, being more shy or more reserved these days.

“If I have a scene that requires me to be very vulnerable, it can be hard for me to get into that. You start to become overly aware of yourself and it takes you out of the moment...”

Have you ever had an experience on set where you’re not able to get past that initial fear or moment of reservation?

Yes, of course! I remember it happened when I was filming the first season of Swagger, there's a scene where I'm crying in the bedroom, and honestly, it felt like we did 50 takes before we got the one that you see on the show, because I just could not focus, the camera was so close to me, I just could not get there, it felt like there was nowhere for me to go. I was starting to get frustrated, but then with the frustration came the emotion that I was trying to get out. So it kind of worked in the end! (Laughs) And then for my latest film Breathe, the scene that I had the most emotion in, I was actually having a really bad personal day, so it was really easy that day to get to the emotion I needed! I saved up all my tears for the scene and just let it out.

It sounds like you let a bit of yourself, or at least your own experiences, seep into the character, whether you want to or not.

I definitely look for some way to relate to whatever character I’m playing, whether that be me or even someone that I know. But it’s funny because a lot of the roles that I’ve played have somehow just lined up or reflected the point of my life I was in. With Beastsof the Southern Wild, I was very much a wild child, I was outside with my brothers all the time in dirt and mud — that was me! And then you kind of move to the adaptation of Annie I starred in a few years later, and that was when I was like my biggest personality, wanting to run around and jump off of walls. It was the perfect way to get all of that out on set. With Swagger, where I played a high school basketball player, that was probably the role that was most different to me. That's an attitude that I had to adjust, but Crystal being who she is and the hardships she experiences as a woman in sports, unfortunately, a lot of women experience that in different ways. So I can relate to that in some ways, too. There’s always something.

Is it easier to develop and grow into a character when you’re playing her over the course of a couple seasons, versus a film which is a bit more contained?

It depends, actually. Because with Breathe, I had been talking to the director for almost two years before we actually filmed it, so I had quite a bit of time to really read the script and have this deep connection with my character, Zora. But obviously there are also times where you audition and maybe a couple months later, you start working on the film, and in that case, yeah, it's completely different! You don't have as much time as you would like and it can be hard to feel like, “Okay, I know this person.” So it really just depends on the longevity of each option, and it’s true that working in television, you get to grow your character. Another thing is that you get to grow with your cast mates and the crew, and have a better understanding of each other.

“That’s the environment that I really hope for, like a whole bunch of friends, getting together to make a movie and have fun. Anytime I’m on set, that’s what I like to bring to the table.”

Apparently that bond and connection with your colleagues is something that is really essential for you as an actor.

Oh yes, that's the environment that I really hope for, like a whole bunch of friends, getting together to make a movie and have fun. Anytime I'm on set, that's what I like to bring to the table. I like to bring this sense of family. No one's too busy for anyone else, everyone has time to talk to you or just see what you're doing. I love to try and ask the cameraman how everything works or speak to the lighting guys about how to do this, what does this do… Teach me about it, I want to hear about it! I want to hear what they are passionate about. But it also makes it better because we can have that understanding with each other, and I can grow my craft too.

You’ve worked with some incredible co-stars as well: Jennifer Hudson, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Milla Jovovich… Are you learning a lot from them on set as well?

I feel like I learned a lot from them as actors, but I’ve also learned a lot from them behind the scenes. I remember being so starstruck seeing these big Hollywood actors, especially Jennifer Hudson — I loved Dream Girls growing up! But then when I would get to know them on set, I realized they're just as normal as me. And that’s the part that really keeps me grounded, seeing these actors having normal relationship with their co-stars and the crew, you know, being genuine. It gets me back to feeling like we’re all human, we’re all here for the same reason.

What else keeps you growing and developing your skill as an actor? Or would you say you’re drawing more from natural ability?

Well, the thing is, I feel like if you have something you're good at, you can't just be good at it and expect it to get better over time. You have to put in that practice, you have to put in work. I started acting when I was really young, even outside of film, I've always been playing jokes and fake crying to get my brothers in trouble! (Laughs) So some of that does stem from natural ability — but it couldn't just be that. I have to put in the work and the time and the effort to make it better. Not perfect, but better.