The first-time actor details his story of New Orleans café owner-turned-actor, in the film Beasts of the Southern Wild, and comments on his newfound respect for actors and his future movie plans.
Actor Dwight Henry
Tavis: The likelihood of Dwight Henry starring in a critically acclaimed film and award-winning movie could not have been more remote. The New Orleans resident and small business owner not only survived Hurricane Katrina but his bakery became one of the first businesses to reopen after the storm.
The producers of a new film set in New Orleans met him and they asked him if he would be interested in starring in their movie. He said no. The producers insisted, and now Dwight Henry is the unlikely star of one of this year’s most acclaimed films. It’s called “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” now playing in select cities. Here now, some scenes from “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
[Film trailer for “Beasts of the Southern Wild”]
Tavis: So the first question is, who’s baking the good stuff? Who’s baking the cookies while you’re out on tour talking about your film?
Dwight Henry: Yeah, I got two partners over there; they’re holding it down for me while I’m on this press tour promoting the movie right now.
Tavis: I’m glad to meet you.
Henry: Nice to meet you too, Tavis.
Tavis: So I want to just jump right in, because these stories are always fascinating for me, how something comes together so organically and it ends up being such a success that it wins at Sundance, it gets all kind of acclaim at Cannes, it makes a star out of you, but it’s your first time acting.
Tavis: I’m going to screw her name up –
Tavis: Quvenzhané. (Laughter) Quvenzhané Wallis.
Tavis: It’s so much easier to say “Hushpuppy,” the character she plays in – the little girl, Hushpuppy. So Quvenzhané, her first time acting, your first time acting, the director, his first feature at 29 years of age, and all this goodness has come out of it, all this acclaim. What do you make of that?
Henry: Well, for me personally, me living in the New Orleans area, living in the region that I live in, we have to go through these things. Being from New Orleans, we used to have to always go through possibility of evacuating, the possibility of losing your homes, losing your loved ones, losing your business. So living in New Orleans, we show a resiliency living down there, the same type of resiliency that these people have in the bathtub. They refuse to leave the things that they love more than anything in life.
So I brought a certain realness to that movie, being from that region, that an outside actor they could have brought in, which they tried to do. They tried to bring in outside professional actors to do this part, but it didn’t feel right because they never went through these things that we go through living in that region.
So that was one of the things that helped the director, Mr. Zeitlin, choose me, because I go through a lot of these things living in that region I’m living in.
Tavis: So how did this happen for you? How did you end up in this role? Take your time and tell me the story.
Henry: Well, it’s a long story, now.
Tavis: I got a few minutes.
Tavis: (Laughter) I ain’t going nowhere. How about you?
Henry: Well, first I owned a bakery called Henry’s Bakery and Deli, and we was located right across the street from the casting studio where Court 13 did the casting at. So all of the people, Ben, Mr. Zeitlin, the producers, they used to come to the bakery every morning, get doughnuts, get breakfast in the morning, and they used to put flyers in the bakery.
If anybody want to come audition for a upcoming feature film, pull a number and give us a call. So one day I’m sitting in the bakery, I actually put that up there for my customers, but one day me and a producer was sitting in the bakery and I decided to pull the number and go over there and cast.
So I went over there, he gave me a script; he gave an actress a script. He was on the camera. I went back and forth with the dialogue with the actress, and I did it well, and I said, “See you later, Michael,” like it wasn’t nothing. I went back to the bakery.
So about two weeks after that, Michael Gottwald, he called me back for another reading, because he said, “Mr. Zeitlin, the director, loved what he seen in your reading, and wants you to do another reading.” So I went back, did another reading, and I said, “See you later again, Michael,” like I did him last time. Never thought I was going to get the part.
First-time actor, feature film, never thought I was going to get it, so I just basically, “See you later, Michael.” Within that time period I had moved my bakery from the St. Claude location to a bigger location, and within that two-month time period they was actually looking for me to give me the part, but nobody knew where I was at. (Laughter)
They was asking all the neighbors in the neighborhood, my old landlord, “Anybody know where Mr. Henry at?” Nobody knew where Mr. Henry at.
Tavis: Before you go further, next time you move, let Negroes know where you going to be.
Tavis: If he couldn’t find you, there are customers that couldn’t find you too.
Tavis: But I digress. Go ahead, I’m sorry.
Henry: Nobody couldn’t find me. So two days after I open my new location, I renamed it to the Buttermilk Drop and I moved to a bigger location, and he walked in two days after I opened up. “Mr. Henry, you got the part.” And I was flattered, thank you, but – and he gave me a schedule where I had to move out of town for two and a half months and do all of these different things.
So it’s like, “Michael, I can’t take the part. I’m sorry, I’m flattered, but I can’t take it right now because I just opened up my new business and I can’t just walk away from it like that.”
So he said, “Mr. Henry, you have a little time before you start shooting. We’re going to work it out. We’re going to try to give you a little time to work things out at the bakery so you can take the part. So he came back a couple of weeks later, still didn’t have nothing worked out. I had to turn him down.
To make a long story short, I had turned him down three times. Didn’t want to. I was flattered, I wanted to take the part, but I really wouldn’t sacrifice the business that I opened up to build, to pass on to my kids and everything, I wouldn’t sacrifice that for a possible acting career.
But I thought about how they seen some things in me that I really didn’t see in myself, and they came to me, the last time they came to me they came to the bakery with all three of the producers, the director came, they even brought the accountant with them.
They set me down in the bakery, (laughter) the accountant said, “This is the maximum we can give you to do this part,” this and that, and they has so much belief in me and confidence in me, I worked things out with my partners. I was able to go do the film, and it’s been wonderful ever since. Told you it was going to be a long story.
Tavis: No, I’m going to fast-forward from this story and come back in a second. We’ll talk more about this film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” in just a second. So from that humble beginning, where this story started, he’s now shooting a film right now. He just took a couple days off to come talk to me.
Shooting a film now with some guy named Brad Pitt. (Laughter) Just thought I’d throw that in there for good measure. The guy who didn’t want to do it is now hanging out with Brad Pitt –
Tavis: – on the set of another film he’s got to get back to once he finishes talking to me and whoever else he’s talking to on this media round. So what do you make of the fact then that after going through all of that there is such a beautiful response and such acclaim on this project?
Henry: Well, it’s a beautiful film. It’s a film that means something. It’s a deep, meaningful film that means something. People can relate to people that’s resilient and people that love the things that they love. That’s things that people can really, really relate to.
So it’s a good film that people can really attach themselves to and love and your whole family can actually go see it and enjoy.
Tavis: My producer, Chris McDonald, came to me in preparation for this conversation. Of course, they provided me a copy to watch it at home. But Chris saw it first and said to me, “I just want to warn you – you’re going to love the film, but it’s a little tough to watch.” It was tough to watch for him because he had a hard time just processing the way that people live, in that kind of extreme poverty.
You mentioned earlier that there’s so many people in the New Orleans area who are struggling every day, trying to put their lives back online. But this can be tough for certain people to watch. I think what gets them through it, what got Chris through it, what gets the viewer through it, is reveling in the humanity of these people.
Henry: Yes, definitely.
Tavis: And what you said earlier, that they love what they do, they love their lives, but that struggle is hard for some people to relate to.
Henry: Well, being from that area and that region, being from New Orleans, we’re not like a lot of other places in the United States. We’re different, and we’re different in our resiliency. The more things that we go through, the tougher we get. The more storms that we face, the tougher we get.
Just like people don’t understand sometimes when a hurricane come, we have a party. We have a hurricane party. People don’t – “Well, why they partying during this hurricane?” (Laughter) But it’s a resiliency that we have to show the storm that we’re not going to let you change our lives. We was partying before you decided to come and interrupt our lives, and we’re going to continue on doing this.
It’s just a certain resiliency that we have. We’re not going to let things disrupt our lives.
Tavis: When you got a chance to read – so when you first go in they give you what we call sides.
Tavis: So learned all these new terminologies, huh?
Henry: Yes. (Laughter) All of that movie talk, now.
Tavis: Now that you’re an actor, you know these terms.
Tavis: So they give you sides to read when you first go in, but at some point, obviously, you see the entire script.
Tavis: You got a chance to read the script and see what the storyline was, the narrative. When you saw the script, what did the script say to you? What turned you on about what this movie was going to be, what it was going to say?
Henry: Well, I wanted people around the world to understand some of the difficulties that we go through living in that region, and a lot of things that we go through living in that region we don’t have to go through, because a lot of these things, like the island that we shot the movie on, that’s the levees are protecting everything but that particular island.
Certain things like that are manmade problems that we have, and they don’t build levees to protect the whole area. They just build them to protect certain areas. Just like the first day I was shooting, the BP oil spill happened. We had to move a lot of our boats to where we launched our boats at in the water; we had to move them because of another manmade problem that happened in the Gulf of Mexico.
So I hope it creates an awareness around the world that people can understand some of the things that we’re going through down there.
Tavis: Were you at all concerned, since he’s not here – hopefully he’s not watching right now for this one question, or maybe he’s flipping channels right now – since he’s not here, were you at all concerned about putting your theatrical future in the hands of a first-time feature film director? This is a kid. This guy’s 29 who’s directing this project.
Henry: Well, he actually put his career (laughter) –
Tavis: In your hands.
Henry: – in my hands, so it was vice-versa.
Tavis: Touché, touché.
Henry: Touché – we put it in each other’s hands, so it seemed at the bottom line, things worked out very well for both parties.
Tavis: Yeah. What can you say about – tell me about – I want to meet this little girl – but tell me about, again, Hushpuppy, as I can’t say her name, Mr. Wallis.
Tavis: Quvenzhané. I’ve got to keep working on that. So young Ms. Wallis, tell me about her.
Henry: She’s a great young actress with a bright, bright future ahead of her. She’s very, very smart, very talented, and I would love to work with her again. She’s just been amazing. She was five years old when she auditioned for this movie. She was six when she started shooting, and to see a six-year-old girl do some of the things that she done in this film is just amazing. It’s amazing.
Tavis: She lives in the New Orleans area?
Henry: She lives in Houma.
Tavis: She’s from Houma.
Tavis: Not too far, yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah. So this project, now – I’ll come back to this people, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” in a second, but I referenced earlier that you’re doing something with Brad Pitt now. So does that mean that you’re about to give the bakery and you’re going to become a full-time thespian?
Henry: No. I’m actually – oh, no, I’m actually about to open up another bakery called Wink’s Bakery and Bistro.
Tavis: Oh, Wink – the character in the film.
Henry: Naming it after my character.
Tavis: Oh, okay.
Henry: We’re going to be located on Common and Loyola Street in the Central Business District in the New Orleans area. Named it after my character and I’m developing a little pastry called the Hushpuppy, so.
Tavis: (Laughter) You a smart man. I like that. That’s how you – that’s called “branding.”
Henry: Trying to capitalize, trying to capitalize.
Tavis: That’s called “brand extension.”
Tavis: I love how you’re working that out. So you got a product called the Hushpuppy and the bakery’s called Wink’s.
Tavis: So you’re going to stick with your –
Henry: Well, I’m going to stick with it. I’m actually just riding the wave right now, wherever it takes me, because we have so many productions going on in Louisiana right now, so it’s not really necessary for me to move out of town to be able to do another acting role.
Just like the last role that I have in “Twelve Years a Slave,” it’s shot right in Vacherie, Louisiana, (unintelligible) City, at some of the plantations in the area, and I’m just 30 minutes away, I can shoot back and forth.
Tavis: Between making Hushpuppys.
Henry: Between making Hushpuppys. (Laughter) It’s not like I have to move, pack all my bags and move to Hollywood. We got Hollywood down South right now.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. What did you make of the experience, the acting experience? I raise that because while this film depicts life in the region, as you said, what I love about New Orleanians is if they are nothing else, they are authentic. They are real.
Henry: And we’re natural.
Tavis: They’re natural.
Tavis: They are as advertised. What you see is what you get when you talk to – to quote Flip Wilson. What you see is what you get when you talk to New Orleanians. Acting requires you to do this three, four, five, six, seven, eight times, do it over and over and over again until you try to get it right or give the director what he wants, so what did you make of this experience of having to create this versus being who you really are?
Henry: Well, just like when I first found out I got the film, when Mr. Zeitlin, he did his interviews, like, he told people he seen some natural things in me. Like a lot of people, they’ll go to school for three, four, five years to become an actor, go to drama school, take drama classes, but he seen some natural things in me that didn’t require me to be able to have to go to school to learn a lot of these things that I needed to do for the film.
But they actually brought in acting coaches from New York, professional actors in to work with me at night at the bakery because we used to actually try to work during the course of the day, to work on different acting techniques and acting skills, but they had a hard time catching up with me because I was always tired from baking at night.
They used to always try to catch up with me in the morning to work with me, but they couldn’t catch up with me so they brought the acting coaches in at midnight at night. While I’m making doughnuts, baking bread, we’re reading over the script, working on different acting techniques, learning how I need to change emotions and different things that I needed to do to be able to perform this part.
Tavis: Did your respect for actors go up?
Henry: Yes, it did. My respect –
Tavis: They work hard, don’t they?
Henry: My respect for acting, for actors, actresses, is tremendously high, because I thought they had an easy job, (laughter) but their job is not easy.
Tavis: So what’s harder, baking bread or acting?
Henry: Acting is harder. It requires a lot of concentration, a lot of focus, a lot of determination. If you want to work on your craft and do it right and be professional about it, it takes a lot of focus, a lot of concentration, yeah.
Tavis: Now Brad Pitt, of course, has hung out a lot, he and Angelina hung out a lot in New Orleans.
Tavis: Had a house down there and all that good stuff and they’re cool people. But how do you, speaking of cool, how do you stay cool when you end up in a Brad Pitt film?
Henry: Well, I just keep myself grounded. Keep myself grounded and keep myself focused, but it’s a tremendous experience going from the movie that I just did, “Beasts,” which is doing great.
Henry: Then to be able to do a film on that same level, it’s amazing, because a lot of times a lot of actors, they have to start at the bottom, extras, doing different things. For me to get thrown into a film that’s getting all of the praise like “Beasts” is getting, and working with Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt, that’s just taking my career to another level. It’s amazing that it’s happening to me. It’s like hitting the lottery.
Tavis: When did you first see “Beasts” when it was completed? When did you first see it? Where were you?
Henry: Well, my first time seeing it was at the Sundance Film Festival.
Tavis: So you saw it the first time at Sundance?
Henry: Yeah, because the director, when they was watching dailies, he didn’t want me to watch dailies. He explained to me he didn’t want me to watch any dailies because he didn’t want me to critique myself. He didn’t want me to watch the dailies and look at myself on the screen. It’s like, “I need to do this different or I need to do that different.”
So he loved the way I did everything, so he didn’t want me to watch that to critique myself. So my first time seeing it was at the Sundance Film Festival. I’m sitting in the audience, they got 1,500 people in the audience, it’s packed, and I’m nervous, my hands sweating, because I don’t know how people are going to react to the film. This is the first time we showing it to anybody.
So I’m sitting in there, they’re showing the movie, and people looking, and I’m nervous, and when the film got over and 1,500 people, they stood up and they clapped for about 10 minutes, they wouldn’t sit down, they whistled, they shout, people was crying, they had tissue paper everywhere. (Laughter)
It was a tissue paper moment. It was unbelievable, and I needed some tissue. It was unbelievable, the response that we got from the Sundance audience. It was amazing, and I kind of had to catch myself from getting emotional, because it was great.
Then we went to Cannes, we got even a bigger response from Cannes than we got from the Sundance audience, because people told me when we was going to Cannes, all right, Sundance was great, but the audience at Cannes is a tough audience, and they’ll walk out on you (laughter) and they don’t like American films too well.
Henry: So I’m sitting in the audience again that time and I’m not knowing what to expect again. When the film got over, it was unbelievable, the tremendous response that we got from the French audience. They stood up for, I’m not exaggerating, 15 minutes. They stood up, applauded, whistled, shouted, threw balloons in the air with amazing and joy at the film.
Tavis: What do you think, whether it’s the – you’ve got these two disparate audiences that you’ve just described – what do you think that all of these human beings – that’s the one thing they have in common, whether they’re Americans –
Henry: All people can relate to love, resiliency, toughness, camaraderie, how these people stick together under the worst circumstances in the world. Anybody around the world can relate to these things, so they can relate to a lot of the strength and love that these people have for the things that we love.
Tavis: You have kids?
Tavis: Okay. How did you relate, then, how did you – here where I guess your acting chops come in – you would do anything for your baby in the film, Hushpuppy.
Henry: Yes, definitely.
Tavis: No doubt about that, it’s clear. You’d do anything for her. But you were kind of tough on her, and you’ve got your own little trailer, she got her own little trailer, even though she’s only six. How did you get into character in terms of a relationship with this girl? I assume it’s nothing like the relationship you have with your kids.
Henry: Well, I have a seven-year-old daughter.
Henry: She was five years old and we started shooting – she was six years old when we started shooting, my daughter was seven years old. So a lot of things that I relate to with my daughter as far as loving her, everything that I do in life right now, the bakery that I build, all the business inventions that I have in the New Orleans area, I’m doing that to pass on to my kids, to have a future for my kids.
Something when I’m dead up there in heaven I can look down and say that I have something to pass on to my kid. That’s the same energy that I brought to the movie, that she is the most important person in the world to me. She don’t have her mother. She living in a region that’s volatile and dangerous and her daddy’s dying.
So she have to know how to do a lot of things, know how to take care of herself, feed herself, clothe herself, because I know I’m dying in the movie. So my ultimate passion in that movie is to teaching her how to survive, and I try to tell her these things with an urgency, because it’s urgent in the movie that she know how to do these things, because your daddy’s not going to be here that much longer.
So throughout the course of the movie I’m not being mean to her, because some people think that I’m being mean to her. But I’m passionately trying to emphasize with an urgency that you know how to do these things because your daddy’s not going to be here that long.
Just like if you was living in that same region and if you had a child and you was dying, the most important thing in the world for you would be to make sure your daughter would be okay and know how to make it in that region.
Tavis: Yeah. So how’s Dwight Henry treated these days on the streets of New Orleans?
Henry: People know me now. People knew me then, but people really know me now, because I’m in all of these magazines I’m in and all of these newspapers, and they’re seeing me on the film, and everybody knows me now.
I can’t walk up the street, and it’s like, “Mr. Henry, Mr. Henry, we seen you in the paper, we seen you on TV.” (Laughter) It’s been –
Tavis: The most important question – is it good for business?
Henry: It’s good for business.
Tavis: That’s what I want to hear. (Laughter)
Henry: It’s definitely good for business. Helping business, and –
Tavis: That’s what matters most, are you selling Hushpuppys? That’s the thing.
Henry: Yes, and that’s one reason I’m opening up another one, to capitalize on some of the publicity we’re getting and things like that. I don’t want nobody to forget about Wink’s Bakery and Bistro, coming soon. (Laughter)
Tavis: There you go, there you go. This is a great story. I love sitting here every night. I get a chance to talk to a lot of great people. But every now and then you get a story like this that’s just so –
Henry: Well, you’ve always got to believe in the underdog. We’re the underdog with the film. People didn’t expect it to do as well as it did. It was a low budget, but that’s another thing. You’ve got to pull for a good, heartfelt underdog story like that. You have to pull for the underdog. That’s just natural, for our people to pull for the underdog.
Tavis: Well, they’re going to be talking about this for a while, so you might want to run out and see this as soon as you can, because all your friends will be talking about it. It’s called “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” starring one Dwight Henry. And if you get to New Orleans, check out Buttermilk –
Henry: The Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café, and Wink’s Bakery and Bistro, coming soon.
Tavis: There you go. Some good food to add to your list, as if you need that when you go to New Orleans. (Laughter)
Tavis: Dwight, congratulations, man.
Henry: Nice talking with you, Tavis.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you on, man. It’s my delight. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for tuning in, and as always, keep the faith.
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