Beasts of the Southern Wild—this year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner—debuts in theatres (with limited release) tomorrow, June 27. Filmed in the Louisiana bayou by New Orleans-based filmmaker, Benh Zeitlin, the film stars Quvenzhané Wallis from Houma, Louisiana as Hushpuppy, and Dwight Henry (of the famed Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café in New Orleans) as her father, Wink.
In the film, Hushpuppy is left to make her own way in the world as she is forced out of her home, coming face to face with her father’s failing health. Wink shows no small amount of tough love to his daughter, as he attempts to prepare her for a future without him. We caught up with Dwight about his role in the movie, his own pride of place, and the legacy he hopes to leave for his children.
SL: Where are you from?
DH: I’m from New Orleans, born and raised. A lot of the things in the film—about the resilience of the people, the allegiance to land that they love, the things they built with their hands—are true to life. I’m living in a volatile region, prone to floods and disasters. It would take the whole army to pull me away from my business. I’m just resilient in that same way.
SL: You’re the baker/owner of Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café in New Orleans. How did you get into the film industry?
DH: The production company had their casting studio right across the street from my bakery. They’d get doughnuts for the crew in the mornings. They put flyers in the bakery, saying ‘pull a number if you want to audition.’ I put it in the restaurant for my customers. I wanted to audition, but I had baker’s hours.
One day, the casting director and I were sitting in the bakery, and I decided to do a reading. Two weeks later, the director wanted me to another reading. I did it, they gave me a script, and we went back and forth. I went back to the bakery like nothing ever happened.
Meanwhile, I had moved the bakery. They were looking for me, asking the neighbors. They were trying to give me the part, but no one knew where I was at. I took a vacation until I opened up the new business. Two days after I opened the new location, they came in and told me that I got the part. I had to turn it down because of my obligations to my business. I want to pass it down to my children. I turned it down three times. I wouldn’t sacrifice my business. I’m an integral part of the business.
But, they saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself. They offered me a driver (no matter what time it was) to drive me to and from the bakery. They made all types of concessions. I finally worked things out, and I was able to take the part.
SL: Is there anything about the film’s setting that accurately depicts life in New Orleans after Katrina?
DH: I brought a passion to my part in the film because of what I experienced in real life. Storms, floods, hurricanes. [In the film], the group of people refused to leave the things they loved most in life. When I was two years old, my mom and dad had to put me on the roof when Hurricane Betsy came and flooded the whole Ninth Ward, and we had to wait for boats to come and get us. When Camille came, I was seven, and we had to leave all of things behind. I brought a real life passion, because I’ve lived it.
SL: Tell me a bit about your character as Hushpuppy’s father. How (if at all) can you relate to him?
DH: I have a seven year-old daughter. She is the most important person in the world to me. In the film, I’m trying to teach my daughter to survive in a volatile region where you don’t have anybody but yourself. My health is deteriorating; I’m trying to emphasize the urgency. I wanted to teach her self-sufficiency because I’m not going to be here forever. That’s what we do as fathers in real life. I’m trying to set a legacy for my children. When I’m in heaven I want to look down and know I was able to teach my kids how to make it without depending on anybody.
SL: How was it watching the film for the first time at Sundance?
DH: I was nervous as hell, because I want people to like it. People put a lot of heart and effort into the film. I’m sitting in the audience, nervous, my hands are sweating. I don’t know how people were going to react. Fifteen hundred people stood up and applauded and whistled, and they wouldn’t sit down. A couple of tears dropped out of my eye. It was so satisfying. It made all of the hard work worth it.
SL: What does the future look like for you?
DH: Hollywood is already at my back door. There are plenty of things being filmed in New Orleans right now. I can do things without having to pack my bags. I would love to do other films, but I don’t think I’ll ever leave my five children behind and go be selfish to chase a movie career. I’m trying to establish my business as something that I can pass onto my kids. They’re the most important things in the world to me.