Quvenzhane’ Exclusive: “It’s not good to assume what your kid wants”
Walking into a room of journalists seated at a roundtable, Quvenzhane’ Wallis surveys the small area. Filled with faces as white as the walls, her scan stops as she looks back and forth between two black faces. One sports shoulder length hair. And the other, a sister with a short afro, looks back as Quvenzhane’ stares through her emotionless with a blank expression. Wallis’ body and eyes are focused like a puppy on guard for one long minute, until her co-star of Annie, Jamie Foxx, enters the room and sits beside her.
“For the millionth time, Ms. Wallis, the exact pronunciation of your name and how badly people have pronounced it?” Asks one reporter, an older Caucasian man with glasses. “What do your friends call you, anyway?”
“Quvenzhane’,” she says matter of factly.
“Yeah, don’t say Q,” says Jamie Foxx jumping in. “’Cause trust me. I’ve…”
“Quvenzhane’,” she says staring at him.
“Exactly. See that?” Jamie looks at the room nodding. “That’s Q.”
“Quvenzhane’!” She stresses louder, correcting Foxx as the entire room cracks up.
“Q-u is for my mom and my sister,” she says breaking it down like she’s done it a thousand times. “V-e-n is for my dad and two brothers. And then Zhane is fairy in Swahili.”
She knows thyself. As the world does too… Sort of. Most can’t pronounce Quvenzhane’ correctly (Kwe-Ven-Janee’) – a name mixed with family love and African roots. But many can properly name her accolades. When Wallis was nine, she became the youngest to be nominated for a best actress Oscar with 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. And now with her new film, Annie, a remake of the 1982 classic, the 11 year old is nominated for a Golden Globe for best actress in a musical or comedy next to seasoned thespians like Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Emily Blunt, and Helen Mirran. A Globe nod often spells “shoe in” for an Oscar. And if this happens, Wallis will once again wow the world as the only African American child ever nominated for an Academy Award. She is among the likes of only 10 black actresses ever nominated for Best Actress Oscars, like Viola Davis, Angela Bassett, Diana Ross, Whoopi Goldberg, Halle Berry, Dorothy Dandridge, Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson, and Gabourey Sidibe. For Wallis, it’s a long triumphant walk from sneaking into a Louisiana audition for Beasts of the Southern Wild at five years old, despite the casting call looking for 6-9 year olds. To prepare for her role in Annie, she purposely made her performance in the film’s opening scenes bigger than the red-headed version we all remember from back in the day. “I did acting classes and some dancing lessons. And with the acting lessons it was really fun. We did scavenger hunts. And we played games,” she says. “And for the 20 minutes we had left, we did acting and we would go over the script and we would do the screen before that. What I heard from Will [Gluck] is he said he was trying to show the Annie he didn’t know. I kinda had to show them what I am. I kinda had to make it bigger.”
“We were just looking for an Annie. It didn’t matter who it was,” says Will Gluck, who wrote, directed, and is one of the producers of the film that many refer to as the “black” Annie thanks to not only Quvenzhane’ and Foxx starring, but producers like Jay Z, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett Smith being behind the project.“ We were looking at all kids everywhere. And at that moment in time when we started our search, and this speaks to how movies get made in Hollywood, this little angel dropped from the sky. There was this little 9 year old who was nominated for an Academy Award for acting. And we’re casting a 9 year old girl who has to act. So she came to my office. We played with her, acted with her, sang with her, and at the end of that day – I remember this was Friday – I went to the studio and said, ‘We have our Annie.’”
In this remake, Wallis shines along with Jamie Foxx who plays modern day Daddy Warbucks, Will Stacks. The daddy/daughter chemistry works, as Quvenzhane’ talks smack with Jamie, keeping up with his comedic timing. She melodically shows vocal chops singing familiar hits that countless kids hummed while growing up in the 80s. And she easily pulls off the new millennium version of a street savvy, sarcastic, New York foster child who’s long on happiness and full of faith in finding her parents.
Although grown-ups may be too jaded to realize it, 2014’s Annie will do the same for children through entertaining and subtly teaching, as 1982’s Annie did for then-babies of Generation X – teaching hope and faith that tomorrow’s sunny skies will follow today’s rainy ways. But the typical adult lack of foresight in seeing what’s needed for youth, turns Quvenzhane’ from actress into voice of the babies. “It’s not good to assume what your kid wants. And it’s not good to push them in your own way. And it’s not good to make them do something that you wanted to do, but you didn’t have the chance to,” she says. “You should listen to what your kids are saying and let them live and let them be themselves. It’s not good to push them in a way. Maybe they have something that they shouldn’t be saying. But sometimes when it comes to something that they want, you might want to listen, because it’s something that might be good for them.”
Annie hits theaters, December 19.
Raqiyah Mays is a proud stepmommy, writer, TV/radio personality and advocate. Her debut novel The Man Curse will be released by Simon & Schuster in 2015.
Follow her on Twitter @RaqiyahMays.