Baker-Turned-Actor on Newfound Stardom

Dwight Henry stars in the acclaimed Beasts of the Southern Wild, set in Katrina-torn New Orleans.

Quvenzhané Wallis (Hushpuppy) and Dwight Henry (Wink) (Jess Pinkham)
Quvenzhané Wallis (Hushpuppy) and Dwight Henry (Wink) (Jess Pinkham)

(The Root) — As Wink, the excitable single father in the lauded new film Beasts of the Southern Wild, Dwight Henry, 42, plays a man quite literally living on the edge. Residing in a community of outliers beyond the levees of New Orleans on the fictional island known as the Bathtub, his character forages for his own food and struggles with a mysterious illness. He also raises his feisty young daughter, named Hushpuppy (played by the astonishingly charismatic newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis), with healthy doses of tough love as he prepares her for life’s hard truths.

Henry’s high-energy performance in the movie, which explores their father-daughter relationship as Hurricane Katrina rips through the region, is so bursting with passion that you’d think he was a veteran of the big screen. However, the role is Henry’s first acting job. A baker by trade (he owns the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café in the city’s 9th Ward), Henry answered a casting call on a whim and got the part.

The Root caught up with the “Nawlins” native in New York’s Crosby Hotel, and he explained how he connected with his child co-star and what it’s like to start his Hollywood career in a film about the resilient nature of his hometown people.

The Root: Director Benh Zeitlin is a white New Yorker who moved to New Orleans in 2006. Did it surprise you how well he was able to capture parts of the black experience in New Orleans?

Dwight Henry: No, because being [in] that region and understanding their culture down there, he captured the essence of people. These people that live down there, ya know, they don’t see color — black, white — because you have Native American, French, African Americans, you have so many. It’s like a whole gumbo.

[In the film,] these people have so much culture and love for each other under the worst circumstances in the world — a dire storm is coming, flooding, hurricane, apocalyptic creatures coming to hurt everybody … they still show resiliency and strength [in refusing] to leave. I’m from New Orleans, and I got that same strength. We have hurricane parties … because we are defiant. We are going to show this storm that we not gonna change our life.

TR: Did you ever have aspirations to be an actor?