By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Oscar presenters, pundits and fans may struggle to pronounce Quvenzhane Wallis' name, but they are going to be hearing it a lot in the next six weeks.
The 9-year-old breakout star of independent film "Beasts of the Southern Wild" on Thursday was among the handful of new faces who will compete against veterans for an Oscar statuette next month.
Wallis, whose first name is pronounced "kwa-ven-jan-eh," became the youngest best actress nominee in the academy's 85-year history for her portrayal of Hushpuppy, a fierce young girl living in the swamps of Louisiana in "Beasts."
"Thank you to all you Oscar folks, from me, my mom and my dad ... Beast it!," Wallis said in a statement.
"Beasts" producer Michael Gottwald, whose film was nominated for best picture, told Reuters he knew audiences enjoyed Wallis' performance in the film, but was surprised by the academy's warm response.
"Of all the nominations, that may be the most special because it's historic and we looked at her after looking at 4,000 girls for that part ... she had never been on any sort of ride like this before, so that's a real unique honor," he said.
Wallis will be competing against veteran French actress Emmanuelle Riva, who at 85 years old became the oldest lead actress nominee for the harrowing French language drama "Amour."
"Lincoln" and "Les Miserables" were expected to be nominated, but mythological indie drama "Beasts" and "Amour" were two surprises in key categories, including best picture, directing and screenplay.
Director Benh Zeitlin, a first-time filmmaker, and "Amour's" Michael Haneke will vie for best director honors against Steven Spielberg for "Lincoln," Ang Lee for "Life of Pi" and David O. Russell for "Silver Linings Playbook."
Oscar-winning filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper, Quentin Tarantino and Ben Affleck were overlooked in the director category.
"I feel like my house just crashed on the yellow brick road and everything just turned color ... it's a beautiful thing for independent filmmaking and for creative freedom everywhere," Zeitlin said on Thursday.
CHASTAIN RETURNS TO RED CARPET
Jessica Chastain, 35, who was an Oscar nominee last year, will return to Hollywood's Dolby Theater on February 24 after she received a best actress nomination for her role as a dogged CIA agent in Osama bin Laden-thriller "Zero Dark Thirty."
Bradley Cooper, 38, best known as the star of raunchy comedy "The Hangover" and People Magazine's 2011 "Sexiest Man Alive," will walk the red carpet after landing his first best actor nod for his role as a bipolar teacher in quirky crowd pleaser "Silver Linings Playbook."
"To be a part of this group of actors who have put forth incredible performances this year. ... It's a moment I'll cherish and never forget," Cooper said in a statement.
Broadway star Hugh Jackman, 44, got his first Oscar nomination after shedding weight to play petty thief-turned-do-gooder Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables."
Two-time Oscar-winner Robert De Niro scored his first Academy Award nod in 21 years for his supporting role as an eccentric father in "Silver Linings Playbook."
After landing her first Oscar nomination for best supporting actress in 2010 for "Animal Kingdom," the academy included Australian actress Jacki Weaver, 65, in the supporting actress category on Thursday for her portrayal of De Niro's long-suffering wife in "Silver Linings."
"To be nominated twice now is incredible," Weaver said.
(Reporting By Piya Sinha-Roy, editing by Jill Serjeant and Stacey Joyce)