Quvenzhané Wallis was only 9 years old when she attended the Oscars for the first time, which probably explains why her only lasting memories of the night are eating candy and meeting two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington. Washington was attending as a Best Actor nominee for Flight; Wallis was there as a nominee too — the youngest Best Actress nominee in Oscars history — for her stirring performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

"I am so thankful and proud of myself and grateful to be the youngest, but I hate that I can't really remember everything," Wallis, now 20, tells A.frame. "But I feel like I remember the important things. I remember the feeling. I remember what it was like to be there and to see all these adults and all these amazing people and being able to sit in a room with them. At nine?! That's insane."

A decade removed from her historic acting debut, Wallis has been through the "whirlwind" of growing up in Hollywood, attempting to balance some semblance of a normal childhood with starring roles in movie musicals like Annie and Beyoncé music videos. Thankfully, her protective mother, Qulyndreia, was always around to shelter her — an experience that plays perfectly into her latest role in the sci-fi thriller Breathe.

Written by Doug Simon and directed by Stefon Bristol, Breathe is set in a future where Earth is left virtually uninhabitable due to a lack of oxygen. Wallis plays Zora, a whip-smart teen who lives in an underground bunker with her parents (played by Oscar winners Jennifer Hudson and Common). But the arrival of a mysterious couple (Milla Jovovich and Sam Worthington) leaves Zora and her family fighting for their survival.

A.frame: What was it about Breathe that sucked you in and made you want to jump onboard?

It was completely different from anything I've ever done. And I immediately connected with Stefon; it was like another older brother to me. But the character Zora was someone I would like to be. She had a personality to her. She's charismatic, powerful, smart — and everybody loves somebody with brains!

Was there something from your own life that you tapped into while playing Zora?

I think it was the family dynamic. I have a really good relationship with my mom, and Zora's stuck in a bunker with her mom, and I know if me and my mom were stuck, it wouldn't be as good as it is right now! [Laughs] We would be arguing, we would be having some beef. So, the mother-daughter dynamic in the movie was another thing that drew me to wanting to invest myself in that environment and relationship.

Not too bad to have Jennifer Hudson and Common as your movie parents! I know you all became very close on this film. What was it like getting to collaborate with and learn from them?

It was so much fun. It was unfortunate that we didn't get to spend too much time on-set filming together, but we did spend some time off-set or around the set just joking around, building relationships, becoming friends. But sometimes when we were filming the scenes that we had together, it felt like I was an outsider looking in. Stefon and I were over there giggling about this parent dynamic, and it was just cute. It was so enjoyable to go through the layers of what it is to have a family stuck in one environment, kind of like COVID, where everybody was butting heads but people were getting closer with their family. That's definitely what it felt like.


You’re in this high-concept, post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie but you are mostly in one location — it's largely contained to the bunker set — with a relatively small cast. So, even though this was a very big idea, did it the filming environment feel rather intimate?

It was something I've never experienced before, to have your main cast be five people and no one else. Like, no extras, no backgrounds — it is just us. And the set made it feel like it was just us. The crew was outside of the bunker and they had the chairs and the monitors and everything set up there. Everything else was outside of our world, and it was so funny to see Stefon walk onto set and be like, "Great job, guys." It feels like an outsider just came in. It was kind of how they do on TV shows where they zoom out and they're like, "Actually, this is everything else that's behind the scenes." Or the music video type of vibe, like "Cut. Great, everybody loves that. Turn the fans off, turn the lights off." That's what it felt like, but it made it fun.

As you mentioned, there are only a handful of actor but it's a pretty stacked cast. In addition to Jennifer and Common, you have the sci-fi queen in Milla Jovovich. What was it like facing off against her?

I would say it was intense, but Milla's not a very intense person. She's very sweet and has this motherly energy around her, being that she has her own kids. Honestly, I learned a lot from her choices when she is being intense, because her character isn't just that. Her character has the side of her that wants to get back home, and, without spoiling anything, she's trying to make it a better place or make something out of nothing. Because they have nothing right now. So, to see her navigate through that, chef's kiss! I mean, it was amazing to watch and I learned a lot about sci-fi and how it all works, and hearing her ideas and the way she sees things was pretty interesting.

Milla's other half here is Sam Worthington, and you have to really tap into some heavy and emotional moments with one another How did you approach diving into that material with him?

Because I am a big Avatar fan, you never really think about what he looks like when he is Sam. It was strange to see him as a person, getting to such a deep and dark place on set. It was like I was scared, but at the same time, I know it's him behind all of that. Because of the wig and the costume and the energy that he brought with everything, and the way he carried himself when he was in character, it made it so much easier to do my job.

In the scenes where I have really emotional times, I was actually going through stuff in my personal life, and so I came to set one day with shades on and I was already upset and Stefon was like, "You ready for today?" I was like, "Yes." We filmed the scene and Sam was like, "That was amazing; you really carried your own. You matched me there, you met me at my intensity." And I was like, "I'm trying! You're too great for me right now!" And doing the scenes over and over again with him, nothing was ever the same. Nothing. He's mind-blowing.


You were introduced to the world as a child and everyone so vividly remembers you at that age, as Hushpuppy. What has your journey been like since Beasts of the Southern Wild, growing up in Hollywood and working to evolve as an actor and performer?

It's been a whirlwind. It's been ups and downs for me, personally. Going through puberty, growth spurts — all of those things were challenges that I didn't think about when I was five. I also had my mom shelter me from a lot of the stuff that goes on in Hollywood, and once my mom took away some of that shelter, I started seeing more. Social media was a whole other thing in terms of being able to scroll and see what people think and say, and trying to figure out my presence in this industry. It was just a lot.

But I'm thankful that I had 15 years of being able to go from being in Hollywood and taking breaks and being normal — going to high school, playing sports, doing the things that I love — and get to develop who I am as a person. I'm not constantly in a character or concerned about what Hollywood is and what it can get you wrapped up and involved in.

What are you looking for in characters and projects now as you're reaching adulthood? Are there certain things you hope to do or explore?

The thing I'm looking forward to the most is real stunts, training, diets, working out. I want something very serious that I have to involve myself in before I'm even filming. I don't know, something about that seems challenging to me. In my personal life, I sometimes have a hard time with dedicating myself to something every single day and not being able to stray from it, so I feel like that'd be a challenge for me as an actor and I could learn from it and apply it to my life, too.

I mean, Breathe producers Basil Iwanyk and Erica Lee are also behind the John Wick franchise, so you might need to share these goals with them!

Exactly, that's what I'm looking forward to!

Quvenzhané Wallis poses with Halle Berry on the red carpet at the 85th Oscars.

You’ll always have a special connection to the Oscars, having become the youngest ever Best Actress nominee when you were 9 years old. Admittedly I can't remember that much from when I was 9, so how much do you actually remember about attending the 85th Oscars?

In retrospect, I hate that I was so young and that I can't remember anything that much anymore. I am so thankful and proud of myself and grateful to be the youngest, but I hate that I can't really remember everything. I see it in little flashes of the things that I really remember, like the snacks and seeing the people and what the auditorium looked like from my perspective. But it's also so much of a blur that sometimes I have to have my mom remind me. And when she does, it comes for a second and then it goes away. I think about when I met Denzel Washington and sitting next to Jamie Foxx, who I was meeting for the first time. [They would go on to co-star in 2014's 'Annie.'] When I think about it, I'm like, "I kind of remember that for a second," but that's about it. [Laughs] Everything else is a blur.

You almost wish you could have waited a few years, been a few years older and settled for being, like, the third youngest nominee — just to ensure that you had more detailed memories of it.

I don't want to give that up, because I hold that with so much pride! I just have to take the compromise and sacrifice of not really being able to remember much. But I feel like I remember the important things. I remember the feeling. I remember what it was like to be there and to see all these adults and all these amazing people and just being able to sit in a room with them. At nine?! That's insane.

By Derek Lawrence


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