(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?
DH: Never, but these [film producer] cats seen things in me that I didn't see in myself. Nazzy (Quvenzhané) was 5 or 6 years old when blessed with this opportunity [to be cast], like she hit the lottery. I hope both of us can have an impact on some younger children … on some of the older people that's depressed in my community, who don't have hope at all, that are like, "Damn, Mr. Henry, look, he in his 40s and he in the newspaper."
Make a long story short, I actually turned them down three times for this part. I wanted to do it, but I had just opened up my new bakery, so I wouldn't sacrifice something that I'm building to pass on to my children. I can't pass an acting career down to them. But [the filmmakers] wanted me so badly. I worked things out with my partners.
TR: Was it difficult to relate to such a young girl?
DH: I have five kids [ages 9 and under]. It was easy for me to relate to her because [of] some of the same things that I do with my 7-year-old daughter … we have a wonderful relationship. I brought the same qualities and same interactions to the screen with Nazzy. Ultimately she had the say-so for who was going to play her father because she was 6 years old. She has to feel comfortable with who she's working with.
TR: What did you do to make Quvenzhané feel at ease?
DH: I had to use strategy. So I did some of the same things that I do with my daughter. When she's mad at me for whatever reason she's mad at me, I go to Toys R Us and get two bags of toys — that's a rap, she's good. What I did when they first told me [I got the part], I packed up all kinds of pastries in a box from the bakery and everything — like four big boxes — and when they brought me in to meet her, I looked at her, I handed her the boxes, put a big ol' smile on my face and laughed. She looked at me, looked in that box and put that big ol' smile on her face, and I knew I had her then.
Brett Johnson is The Root's associate editor.