She landed the part by lying about her age: Quvenzhane Wallis was five, and the filmmakers were auditioning only girls at least six years old.
But they believed her fib and tried her out - and were blown away, giving her the starring role in the low-budget Beasts of the Southern Wild over 4,000 other hopefuls.
And now she could become the youngest winner of the best actress Oscar, at the 85th Academy Awards, the climax of Hollywood's annual awards season, next weekend.
"It was very clear ... you don't meet six-year-olds who have that quality," said director Benh Zeitlin. "She just had this natural charisma and focus and fierceness and wiseness and morality.
"Coming out of a body that small and a mind that young, it's almost alien and alien in a way that goes kind of straight at your heart. It's her perspective that unlocks the truth in the film."
That charisma is obvious when you see Wallis being interviewed to promote the movie, even before it was nominated for four Oscars, including best picture.
"I was in my bedroom half asleep," Wallis told Jay Leno, about waking last month to learn she was nominated alongside Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence, Naomi Watts and Emmanuelle Riva, the oldest ever best actress nominee, at 85.
"So nothing reacted on the outside, but I was like flipping cartwheels and stuff on the inside," she told the talk show host, whom she admonished - cutely - for asking her a question more appropriate for the director.
In the movie Wallis plays Hushpuppy, living in the Louisiana bayou with her hot-tempered and ailing father Wink, in a community threatened by floods driven by melting ice-caps.
The movie's setting was close to Wallis' home: the actress was born in Houma, Louisiana, on August 28, 2003. The "zhane" part of her name means fairy in Swahili.
Wallis is the youngest best actress Oscar nominee by four years: the next is Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was 13 when nominated for Whale Rider in 2003. The youngest person to ever win an Oscar is Tatum O'Neal, who was just 10 when she won best supporting actress prize in 1973.
Wallis is already on her third film - Twelve Years a Slave with Brad Pitt, due out in September. She has also made Boneshaker, a short about an African family lost in America.