POSTED August 28 2012

Quvenzhane Wallis and the startling art of child actors

Quvenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild

Earlier in the summer I had the privilege of interviewing Quvenzhane Wallis, the startling young lead of Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. (You can read the feature here.) Now a self-possessed eight years old, Nazie (that’s her nickname) was six when she filmed Zeitlin’s allegory of Hurricane Katrina.

When I asked this natural-born actress about the difference between acting and pretend, she gave a sophisticated answer. “Pretend is dressing up and playing at being someone else. Acting is being someone else.”

This is the best description I’ve ever heard of the startling art of child actors, performers — usually nonprofessionals — who are so present that the audience is with them 200 per cent.

I’ve thought about Wallis’ performance all summer, about how it grounds Beasts as little Enzo Staiola’s grounds The Bicycle Thieves and Christian Bale’s does Empire of the Sun or Haley Joel Osment’s does The Sixth Sense. These are lightning-in-a-bottle performances, capturing both the magic and terror of childhood. For adults, the emotional effect is ravaging: When I watch these young actors I both want to protect their vulnerable characters and can’t believe the courage with which they greet adversity.

Other notable child actors on screen would include pretty much every youngster in recent Iranian films, most recently Sarima Farhadi in A Separation,  Ivana Baquero in Pan’s Labyrinth, Josh Hutcherson and  AnnaSophia Robb in Bridge to Terabithia, Anna Paquin in The Piano, Peggy Ann Garner in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,  Jaden Smith in The Karate Kid, Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon, Hayley Mills in Whistle Down the Wind, Natalie Portman in The Professional, Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas in E.T., Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet.

Which child performances astonished you? Why?


  1. HENRI says:

    If you go that far back (“National Velvet”? What’s wrong with “Lassie”?!), I certainly would add Jean-Pierre Léaud in Truffaut’s “400 Blows”!

  2. admin says:

    Carrie here: Oui, Henri, definitely JP-Leaud. Such pain and mischief in his eyes.

  3. Tom Avril says:

    I would add the kid who played Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.

  4. admin says:

    Carrie here: @Tom: Mary Badham really makes To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s all in her eyes.

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