Jeff Smith 4 p.m., Dec. 20
Interview: Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, Stars of Beasts of the Southern Wild
First-time actors Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, the stars of freshman director Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild, sat poolside at the W. The two were in town along with Zeitlin promoting the film that recently took home the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance as well as the prestigious Golden Camera at Cannes.
Quvenzhané plays Hushpuppy, a six-year-old scrapper who lives with her father (Henry) in a post-Katrina New Orleans community called the Bathtub. With her father’s health failing, Hushpuppy is forced to set out in search of her mother and an even more mythical creature known as the auroch. It is a pair of formidable roles executed with purpose and distinction by two locals unaccustomed to performing in front of a camera.
Before the interview ended, Quvenzhané was pulling at my pant leg and making funny faces like any other 6-year-old, but it took some doing. These PA tours take it out of a child, and waking up from an afternoon nap didn't leave the child in the best of spirits.
On the other hand, Dwight Henry is the only interview subject ever to greet me with a bear hug. The big man can barely contain his excitement over the success of the film and the PA tour it generated. Before I know it the arms of his seersucker sport coat engulf me as the palms of his hands beat a strong “Hello” on my back.
Scott Marks: Welcome to San Diego, Henry. So how does a Louisiana baker make the crossover to indie darling?
Dwight Henry: I’m from New Orleans. Before I was cast in the part I owned a bakery called Henry’s Bakery and Deli right across the street from the casting agency where (production company) Court 13 had their studio. They used to come over and have lunch or breakfast in the morning. After a few months we kinda’ developed a relationship. They used to put these fliers in the bakery with a phone number to call if you were interested in appearing in one of their movies.
SM: It was as simple as that?
DH: As simple as that! They used to put them up at my business but I was never interested in auditioning because I’m a restauranteur. If you understand that business you know you don’t have time to do nothing else but that.
SM: So how did you make the shift?
DH: It took some work. One day me and Mike (Gottwald), the producer, was sitting in the bakery. I wasn’t doing much so I decided to go over and cast for this part. He laughed. I did a reading for the part -- never trying to get it or really wanting to get it – just doing a friend a favor and passing time. I go over, do the reading and two weeks later they come back and say, “Mr. Henry, Mr. Zeitlin wants you to do another reading.”
At this point a tired and maybe even a little crabby Quvenzhané appears still wiping the sand of her afternoon nap out of her eyes.
SM: You don’t look like you want to be interviewed.
She shoots me a “who the heck are you?” look.
SM: Oh, boy. Hey, welcome to San Diego!
She sits next to Henry who continues with his story.
DH: I did a second reading and during the auditioning process I moved my business from one location to a bigger location where I had parking and things like that. During that time the production company had decided that I was the one for the part. Nobody could find me. They asked my old landlord and my old neighbors where I had moved to, but I wasn’t open yet. They came there looking for me and nobody is in the building.
Two days after I open my new location, Michael Gottwald walks in with a calendar and says, “Mr. Henry, you got the part. Mr. Zeitlin loves what he sees. Here’s what you have to do: you have to move out of town for two-and-a-half months.” He had a whole schedule blocked out for me: acting coaches, this, that, all these things I had to do. I just opened up a new business. I can’t just close my doors and walk away from a business I worked so hard to build.
They were still casting a few people and it would be some time before they started shooting. I was told that they would try to work things out. He came back a couple of weeks later and I told him that I was sorry because I couldn’t do it. They wanted me so bad that they gave me even more time to work things out with my partners.
Three weeks later they came back and brought everybody. They even brought the accountant with. When they bring the accountant with, they are serious! They brought the accountant, all three of the producers, and the director. They came in my place and demanded that I sit down. “Mr. Henry, you are perfect for this part and we want you to do it. You bring something to the part that nobody else can bring.” They obviously saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. They believed in me so much that I was able to work things out with my partners. Did you see the film?
SM: Last night.
DH: The contemplated bringing in professional actors from New York or California to do my roll, but they wouldn’t have brought the passion to the film as someone who went through this on a regular basis. I was in Hurricane Katrina in neck-high water. I have an inside understanding for what this movie is about. I brought a passion to the part that an outside actor who had never seen a storm or been in a flood or faced losing everything could have.
Benh helped me so much to bring what I go through in real life into that part. He helped me with the transition. I was two-years-old when Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans and my parent had to put me on the roof of the house. An outsider couldn’t have brought the passion to the role that I did.
Quvenzhané appears to be waking up.
SM: Good morning, Quvenzhané.
She lifts one shoulder and grunts.
SM: I am thrilled to meet you. You are an amazing actress. It’s impossible to look at anything else when you’re on screen.
Quvenzhané Wallis: (Softly) Thank you.
SM: You make one movie and now you’re sitting poolside at the W like you’re the next Dorothy Dandridge.
SM: What was the most challenging part about making this movie?
Both shoulders shrug. Henry jumps to my aid.
DH: Tell him about some of the elements you had to deal with? Mosquito bites, and the water we had to go in.
SM: Acting isn’t easy.
SM: Did you like making a movie?
SM: Is this something you think you’d like to do for the rest of your life?
SM: How come? What is it about acting that you like?
QW: You get to be different people.
SM: How much of Hushpuppy is you?
QW: Not that much.
SM: (Laughing) Good! What did you find inside you to bring out to make this character so believable?
QW: The way in which she acts and does things and moves around is me.
SM: Are you enjoying the promotional tour?
SM: You’re 8-years-old and you’ve been to Cannes. I can’t even afford to go to the can. You make one film and they fly you to Paris and San Diego! Have you been to our world famous zoo yet?
SM: Is your mom going to take you?
SM: How about Sea World? Have you been there?
QW: Not yet. Tomorrow.
SM: How was it for the two of you to get along. On screen you appear to be a real life father and daughter.
DH: It took some doing. She actually turned down two other actors that were supposed to play her father. She didn’t feel comfortable with them. She’s the star and ultimately the decision on who would play her father was left up to her. I had to figure out a way to win her heart over. I’m either gonna’ bring her two bags of toys or, since I own a bakery, two boxes of pastries. I decided to box up a whole bunch of cookies and brownies and things. As soon as I saw her, I handed over the pastries and smiled. She smiled back and I knew I had her.
SM: So the quickest way to your heart is a box of cookies?
SM (Laughing): You’re not Hushpuppy at all.
(Finally, big smile breaks across her face.)
SM: You’ve met a lot of people and made quite a splash. This is a real performance. Both of you give genuine performances. Where do you go from here? What do you want to do next?
QW: Do more acting. But first we have to go to another place and when we’re finished there we have to go to another place to promote the movie.
SM: Do you know how many different cities you’ll have visited when this is over?
QW: I don’t know how many places. A lot.
SM: Throughout the movie Hushpuppy talks about wanting to leave her mark. What kind of mark does Quvenzhané Wallis want to leave on the world?
SM: Okay…Let’s go in another direction. What’s your favorite movie of all time?
QW: Happy Feet 2.
SM: Happy Feet 2 as opposed to Happy Feet?. Interesting. You know, in most cases the sequel is nowhere near as good as the original, but you’re telling me Happy Feet 2 is the Godfather Part 2 of contemporary animation? What is the subtle differentiation? Why does Happy Feet 2 get the edge?
QW: It has more human characters.
SM: I bet you’d love to do voices for cartoons. That would be a lot of fun for you.
SM: And you’d be great at it. What’s your next move, Dwight?
DH: Back to business. Back to my bakery. I’m basically going to ride the wave wherever it takes me. We have enough production going on in New Orleans where I can stay in Louisiana do a little work in the film business. I’m going to try and keep a good balance between business and film, because I would love to do more movies.
Beasts of the Southern Wild opens today at Landmark's Hillcrest and La Jolla Village Cinemas. Click for Showtimes.
More like this:
- Destin Cretton talks about his long-term commitment to Short Term 12 — Sept. 11, 2013
- Penning Teller: An interview with the spectacular Miles Teller — Aug. 19, 2013
- Interview: Mike Tyson — Feb. 27, 2013
- For a good time, read this interview with Ari Graynor, Lauren Miller, and Katie Anne Naylon — Aug. 31, 2012
- Interview: Benh Zeitlin, Director of Beasts of the Southern Wild — July 13, 2012