WASHINGTON — It’s not Oscar time yet, but one best actress nominee has already won a major prize.
First lady Michelle Obama welcomed nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis as well as actor Dwight Henry and director Benh Zeitlin from “Beasts of the Southern Wild” to the White House Wednesday for an interactive student workshop.
Michelle Obama said she saw “Beasts” last summer and considers it one of the most powerful and important films in years.
“It makes us think deeply about the people we love,” she said.
The first lady spoke about the movie to 80 middle and high school students from Washington and New Orleans, where the Oscar-nominated film was set. She said the film’s inspirational themes should encourage them to work hard and aim for greatness.
“I deeply love and believe in all of you,” she said. “Dream big, aim high. But then you have to turn that dream into reality.”
Obama, however, also said that they needed to go to school, read and maintain a healthy diet to succeed. One of the first lady’s major initiatives is a campaign against childhood obesity called Let’s Move!
The film’s two leads and the director continued this theme during a workshop in the State Dining Room conducted in honor of black history month. Wallis, Henry and Zeitlin answered students’ questions and shared their own experiences in a discussion moderated by Rachel Goslins, executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
Wallis sat calmly through the hour-long event in a vibrant pink sweater, only stifling the occasional yawn. She told students to remember the basic things in life, like family and friends.
“Keep your head up, not down,” Wallis said. “And believe in God….He’s always there.”
Wallis is the youngest Oscar nominee in history. She is up against Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain and Naomi Watts.
Benh Zeitlin said that none of the actors in the film were professionals. Wallis was a five-year-old when she auditioned for the film, and Dwight Henry still owns the bakery he built prior to landing the role.
While Henry said he hopes to continue acting, his first priority is the bakery that he plans to leave for his children. It was also where he learned an important lesson that helped him win the role of Wink, father of the Wallis character.
“I just kept getting rejected everywhere I went,” he said after Wallis playfully nudged the microphone closer to his mouth. “But don’t ever give up on yourself. Believe in yourself and anything can happen.”
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” follows a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy who struggles with her father’s fading health but also must cope with rising sea levels that flood her ramshackle community, unleashing ancient beasts.