Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor.
A 20-minute phone interview with Dwight Henry—better known to his New Orleans neighbors as “Mr. Henry”—seems wrong, somehow. A conversation with Henry should be long and slow and surrounded by the luscious comfort-food smells at his restaurant, The Buttermilk Drop Bakery Café. You need a strong cup of coffee and maybe a couple of the house specialty doughnut nuggets. What’s your hurry, Hollywood?
Mr. Henry, 45, is telling the story of how a baker with no acting experience landed a leading role in a surprise-hit independent movie called Beasts of the Southern Wild, the story of little girl Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Henry), struggling to preserve their life and their bayou land in a Katrina-strength hurricane. That little film is certainly gaining the attention of some Oscar voters, and this Southern gentleman is going to let the tale unfold at his own pace, in his own way.
AWARDSLINE: So you had no acting experience before this?
DWIGHT HENRY: None before. It’s just some sort of natural ability. The guys from Core 13 [Ed. note: the New Orleans-based production company behind the movie], they seen some sort of natural, magical, mystical abilities in me.
AWARDSLINE: How did they discover you?
HENRY: I own a bakery. When I first actually met them, I owned a bakery called Henry’s Bakery, right across from the actual studio where they used to do the auditions at. And a lot of the guys in the company used to come over to the bakery and get breakfast and buy doughnuts. And then one day, (producer) Michael Gottwald came in there and said, “Mr. Henry, can I put these flyers in your bakery?” And I said: “Yeah, that’s cool.” And the flyers read: “If anybody wants to audition for this upcoming feature film, just pull a number and give us a call.”
I used to stare at the flyer every day, being in the bakery, and I’d watch people pull a number, and jokingly I said, “One day, Mike, I’m going to come over there and audition for you. “ But time went by; I never had time.
Then me and Michael Gottwald, we were sitting in the bakery, and I said, “Michael, I’ve got some time, I’m going to come over.” He said, “All right!” So I went over there; he had a script for me. We sat down, and he interviewed me on camera. I talked about my whole life—how I stayed back after Katrina, and talked about family. I didn’t expect to get the part; I was just going over there, being friendly like I am. So they called me back about two weeks later: “Mr. Henry, Mr. (Benh) Zeitlin, our director, he loved what he seen in the reading, and he wants you to do another read.” I said, “Hey, Michael, that’s a callback—when you get a callback in this industry, it’s serious!”
AWARDSLINE: What happened then?
HENRY: I went in and did another read, (then) I went back to the bakery like nothing happened again. So it was about a month and half, two months—I had moved my business from across the street where the studio was to across town, to a bigger location. The neighbors told me (that) they were asking, “Where’s Mr. Henry?” They wanted to give me the part, but nobody couldn’t find me.
Two days after I opened up my new location, Michael Gottwald walks in through the door and says, “Mr. Henry, we’ve been looking at you for a month now to give you the part.” I was overwhelmed, ecstatic, glad, grateful—but I couldn’t take it, because I had just opened up my business two days ago. I had to turn them down for the part because I had worked so hard to build this business to pass down to my kids, and I just couldn’t see myself sacrificing my children, who I love more than anything in the world, for a possible movie career for myself.
To make a long story short, I turned them down three times, but they believed in me, and eventually I was able to work things out.
AWARDSLINE: It must have been a surprise to get anything, much less a lead role.
HENRY: Never in a million years that I thought that I would get the lead part in a feature film. But Mr. Zeitlin thought I was so perfect for the part. If you brought in someone from Hollywood or New York, (the actor would have) heard about what a storm is, but never been in a storm, never been in a flood, never experienced 130-mile-per-hour winds coming at you, with your roof flying off. It makes us tougher. Some people on the outside, they don’t understand why when a storm’s coming, we’ll throw a party in the middle of a storm. We’ve got a Category 5 storm coming, and people throwing a party.
AWARDSLINE: Your co-star, Quvenzhané Wallis, who was only 6 at the time, also had no acting experience. What was it like working with her?
HENRY: It was great, we developed a bond, and I have a daughter her age. We’ve endured a press tour; we’ve been all over the country together. We do interviews together, she actually called me Daddy, and I really look at her like she’s my daughter now. [Ed. note: Henry’s real family includes a 10-year-old daughter; three sons aged 3, 5, and 17, and wife Carmell Anderson Henry, a lab technician].
AWARDSLINE: Do you plan to continue acting?
HENRY: Yes, I’m back at the bakery, but I do plan to continue acting, yes. I did Beasts, and after that I did Twelve Years a Slave (directed by) Steve McQueen. That’s it for right now. I’ve been going to places that I never dreamed I’d be going. But the one thing about New Orleans, compared to every major city in the world, the one thing I appreciate when I come home is the food.
AWARDSLINE: What does your success mean to you?
HENRY: Hollywood is the glamour life, everything is peachy, but if you go on the other side of that water from Hollywood, across the ocean, they have people who don’t even know what running water is. We take a bottle of water, take one sip of it, and just throw it away. I’ve always hoped if I ever hit the lottery and win $100 million dollars, I am going to be a philanthropist and give it all away. I would get more joy from that.