Acting for Beasts–the Dwight Henry and Quvenzahane Wallis interview



By Gary Murray

Dwight Henry and Quvenzahane Wallis are very comfortable around each other.   The two actors play father and daughter in the new independent film Beasts of the Southern Wild, The film has been a hit at a few film festivals and will be soon released nationwide. 

The story of Beasts of the Southern Wild is of Hushpuppy (Quvenzahane Wallis) a child who lives in an area of very Southern Louisiana called ‘The Bathtub”.    Dwight Henry plays her father Wink.  As a storm approaches, the two confront his impending demise.  He tries to educate the child in the ways of surviving in the swamps and bayous.  It is a tale of fathers and daughters and how parents relate to their children. 

For both actors, this is their first roles.  Quvenzahane is a 3rd grade elementary school student and Dwight is the owner of Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Café in New Orleans. It is their first press tour in Dallas but they have been traveling on behalf of the film.

The movie was a hit at both the Cannes Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival and the two novice performers have been around the world promoting the movie.   Quvenzahane said it was fun to meet all the different press and she prefers press conferences to learning her lines because she can be herself. 

The film is shot on location in the lowest locales of the mouth of the Mississippi River.  “We had to deal with a lot of elements,” said Dwight.   Some of the scenes took place in a makeshift raft made from the bed of a pick-up truck and oil drums. 

Being a child, Quvenzahane said that the water scenes and the burping were the most fun.  Dwight said that the mosquitoes were another element to overcome.  Quvenzahane said that working with the fire was the worst element of making Beasts of the Southern Wild

Dwight has a daughter about Quvenzahane’s age so he could relate to her.  He said that he treated her in much the same way he treated his daughter. “She had to feel comfortable with the guy who would play her father,” said Dwight.  “When they told me I had to meet Quvenzahane for the first time, I brought lots of pastries (from the bakery).  I handed it to her with a big old smile and I knew I had her then.”

Being a neophyte actor, Dwight had to work to get the performance to come about.  “We had to deal with a lot of difficult elements.  Mr. Zeitlin didn’t want to simulate situations.”  They were in the Mississippi bayous and in the woods.  “It brought a realness and authenticity to the movie being right in there,” said Dwight. 

“It was hard getting some of these emotions out of me,” said Dwight, “Especially the ones with the storm and the flooding.”  Being from New Orleans, he knows the possibility of losing everything and not wanting to leave.  “It is an ongoing thing that we go through being on the Gulf Coast.  That brought a certain realness and passion that an outsider could have never brought to this film.”

He refused to leave from Hurricane Katrina.  “We are not going to leave the land that we love.  Our family is buried in this dirt.  I worked so hard to build my bakery up–you think I’m going to walk away just because you tell me I have to walk away.  They will have to drag me out of there.”

There is resilience of the people who live on the coast that Dwight wears with pride.  During the course of filming this movie was the BP oil spill.  The people who live in the area are facing a dire situation and having a party.  Dwight explained that they are making a stand for what love. “When you believe it something,” he said, “you stand up for it.”

Dwight, having grown up in the lowest parts of Louisiana, conveyed a certain passion and realism that a trained actor would never have brought to the work.  The experience of going through these challenges cannot be faked.  Dwight said, “Denzel Washington could not have come in and done my part.”  

Quvenzahane, Dwight and director Benh Zeithlin went over every part of the script to make sure that the dialogue came out naturally.  “He would have the same thing but in our words, the way we would naturally say it,” said Quvenzahane.

Dwight saw the film as the ultimate in bonding between father and daughter.  “I’m dying in the movie and she is the most important thing in the world,” he said.  “You have to learn how to do these things because Daddy is not going to be here.  We are going to do everything in our power to be able to survive on your own.” 

On the future, Dwight said that opportunities are coming but he never planned on being an actor.  “This is something I never expected,” he said.  “The bakery is my foundation.  It is something I can pass on to my kids and my grandkids.  I cannot pass an acting career on my children.  When I’m in Heaven, they can run a bakery and everything is okay with them.  Nothing in the world would jeopardize that.  A movie career would be selfish.”


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