Quvenzhané Wallis Says Few Fans Recognize Her 12 Years After Oscar Nomination: ‘I Grew Up’ (Exclusive)

The youngest-ever Best Actress nominee at age 9 for ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild,’ Quvenzhané Wallis says fans tell her, “You look so different now!”

<p>Jess Pinkham/TM/Fox Searchlight/Courtesy of Everett; Josh Brasted/WireImage</p> (Left-right:) Quvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild"; in 2023

Jess Pinkham/TM/Fox Searchlight/Courtesy of Everett; Josh Brasted/WireImage

(Left-right:) Quvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild"; in 2023

Quvenzhané Wallis has a remarkably distinct Hollywood career — as both the first person born in the 21st century to receive an acting Oscar nomination and the youngest-ever Best Actress nominee at age 9.

At 20, she's been an award-winning actress for roughly half her life since breaking out in 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. The Louisiana bayou-set indie film, Wallis’ first, launched her onto the Oscars red carpet and beyond, with a subsequent appearance in 12 Years a Slave and the starring role in 2014’s movie musical Annie opposite Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz.

But now that she’s all grown up, Wallis tells PEOPLE, “When people see me, it doesn't register that that was me. I get this all the time: ‘You look so familiar. I feel like I know you from somewhere,’ ” she says.

Related: Quvenzhané Wallis Still ‘Checks in’ with Jamie Foxx 10 Years After Annie: ‘He’s Always Cracking Jokes’ (Exclusive)

With a laugh, Wallis says she never lets on. “I'm like, ‘I couldn't tell you.’ ”

After starring as an adult in her Apple TV+ series Swagger and the sci-fi thriller Breathe (in theaters now), it takes an eagle-eyed audience member to remember she once walked the Oscars red carpet with a paw-dorable puppy purse.

“When they do recognize me, it's like, ‘Oh, my God, you look so different now!’ And I'm like, ‘Yeah, I grew up,’ ” quips Wallis.

<p>Gregg DeGuire/WireImage</p> Quvenzhané Wallis at the 2013 Academy Awards

Gregg DeGuire/WireImage

Quvenzhané Wallis at the 2013 Academy Awards

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In Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Wallis played Hushpuppy, a wild child living on an island beyond Louisiana’s levee system. Although that year’s leading actress Oscar ended up going to Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook, both Wallis and fellow nominee Emmanuelle Riva made history as the category’s youngest and oldest contenders.

She was only five years old when her mother, Qulyndreia, booked her an audition for the film. As the Breathe star tells PEOPLE, she couldn’t have handled the sudden Hollywood spotlight and “big things that were going on” at that young age without such support.

“She's my guardian angel,” says Wallis of her mother. “If I didn't have her, I don't know where I would be. When I first started, she was a teacher, and she dropped all of that to travel with me and work with me, and neither of us had any idea what we were doing.”

<p>Courtesy of Breathe Productions Inc.</p> (Left-right:) Quvenzhané Wallis and Jennifer Hudson in "Breathe"

Courtesy of Breathe Productions Inc.

(Left-right:) Quvenzhané Wallis and Jennifer Hudson in "Breathe"

Related: Quvenzhane Wallis, 9, Thanks Her Babysitter at Essence Awards

The support of family and friends was also crucial during Wallis’ “hiatus of not really working,” she says, between Annie and Swagger. Although she did other things in that time — including publishing four hit children’s books — Wallis recalls, “That was really the most pivotal moment in my career and in my life, because I was auditioning, and I was trying to get out there, but it was constantly ‘no.’ ”

Her advice for other child actors? “Don't let the ‘nos’ deter you. It was five years of hearing, ‘No, you don't fit this,’ over and over again, and I lost myself in that. That would just be my advice to anyone: Don't let [that] deter you… Just keep going forward and follow through with your passion.”

Director Stefon Bristol’s Breathe, costarring Jennifer Hudson, Milla Jovovich, Common, Raúl Castillo and Sam Worthington, is in theaters and available on digital now.

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