Interview: The stars of Beasts of the Southern Wild

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Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry are the unlikely heroes of Beasts of the Southern Wild, this year’s unexpected Sundance darling. Neither Wallis (who is only 8 years old) or Henry had any acting experience when they were cast as Hushpuppy and her father Wink. This actually works to their advantage and fits with the feel of the rest of the film: there’s nothing too formal or scripted, the emphasis is on the organic and the raw.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is told from Hushpuppy’s point of view as she deals with her father’s failing health, the possibility of extinction, and the erosion of The Bathtub, the bayou community she lives in. It’s not quite a fantasy film since it’s grounded in reality, but its child’s-mind POV evokes the vibe of Miyazaki, Gilliam, and Jonze. Look for our interview with director Benh Zeitlin tomorrow and our review of the film on Wednesday.

Along with three other journalists, I got a chance to chat with Wallis and Henry about the film. Henry’s main line of work is running his own bakery in New Orleans. He brought in some of his signature buttermilk drops for us to sample — sort of like round, glazed buttermilk bars. They were delicious (so help me, I ate five or six, I couldn’t stop), but we were told they were even better straight from the oven. As they entered, we started talking about those addictive buttermilk drops, and how a Hushpuppy version of them is in the works.

[Editor’s note: I omitted or reworded some questions and responses in order to avoid spoilers.]

Were you a fan of his pastries, Quvenzhané? [Editor’s note: Her name is pronounced “kah-venge-ah-nay,” though she also goes by the nickname Naizie, which rhymes with “daisy.”]

Quvenzhané Wallis: Yeah, I just got finished having one.

[laughs]

Dwight Henry: That was one of the first things they told me when I was going to meet Naizie for the first time — I had to box up a whole bunch of goodies to bring to her. I had to win her over.

[laughs] So you guys weren’t actors before this. What did you guys learn about the experience of acting?

DH: Well, for me personally, like everybody knows, I’ve never acted before, but these guys seen some natural things in me that I didn’t see in myself. You know, I hope to continue doing some things, but I’ll never put aside the business that I built for 13 years to pass on to my kids. I’ll never jeopardize that for any selfish career of my own. But I would love to do some other projects. Yeah, you know, they see some things in me, some natural things in me, you know, that I didn’t see in myself.

And how about yourself, Quvenzhané? What did you learn from acting that you will continue to use as you grow up?

QW: Never think that people are different from you because you’re always supposed to have fun.

So it was fun, huh?

QW: Yes.

What was the audition process like for both of you?

DH: Well, for me, the casting studio was right across the street from my bakery, so the whole production company used to come over to the bakery to get breakfast in the morning — we’d sit down and talk, they’d get a newspaper, come get lunch, and things like that. And they used to put flyers in the bakery: if anyone wants to audition for our upcoming film, just pull a number and give them a call and they’ll set up an audition. And I always wanted to go, but I basically let them put the flyers up there for my customers to see; I was always interested in going over there and doing it but never had a lot of time to go do it. And one day, me and Michael Gottwald, the producer, were sitting down, and we was talking. Just like, “Michael, I’m going to come over and audition for the film.” So I went over and auditioned for the film. He gave me a script, he gave the actress a script, he had this little camera, and, you know, I finished. We did the dialogue, then I went back to the bakery like nothing happened. So he called me back about two weeks later: “Mr. Henry, umm, we want you come back and do another reading. Mr. Zeitlin liked what he’s seen in you.” So I said, “Another reading, it’s getting serious now.”

[laughs]

DH: You get a call back, it’s getting serious. So I went back, did another reading, went back to the bakery again like nothing ever happened. I was already in the process of moving my business from one location to a bigger location because I was expanding. Within that two-month time period, they were looking for me to give me the part, but no one knew where I was at! They was asking the neighbors, my old landlord — nobody knew where Mr. Henry was at because I took a little time off. Because the first eight years I was in business, you know, I worked 365 days a year. So when I had that little period, I kind of disappeared from everybody. And when I opened up my new location — two days after I opened up — Michael Gottwald walked into the bakery and was like, “Mr. Henry, you got the part. We want you to have the part.” And it’s like, I’m flattered, and I want to do it, but I can’t right now, because I just opened up and I can’t just sacrifice my business that I’m building to pass onto my kids for a possible movie career. So I actually had to reluctantly turn them down for the part. He said, “Mr. Henry, you got a little time before we start shooting, just think about it, see if you can work things out.” He came back a couple of weeks later and I had nothing worked out; I had to reluctantly, again, turn them down. Long story short, I turned them down three times, reluctantly turned them down, and they pursued me — they seen some things in me that I really didn’t see in myself, and they had so much belief in my that I could do this part. So within that time period, I kind of worked things out with my partners; they made concessions, I made concessions, [the film] gave me a driver to bring me back and forth to the bakery whenever I needed to come back — they made all kinds of concessions. I was able to do the film, and it’s been wonderful ever since.

Quvenzhané, what was the audition process like for you?

QW: It was fun because it was something that I just wanted to try. There was a call from my mom’s friend and she said there was an audition for 6-to-9 year olds. So I just went to see if I could get the part, but I was only 5. So I went in and we kind of didn’t put the right age — we put 6 — on the paper, and acted like I was 6. I went in and did the audition, and during the audition, they wanted me to act like one of the producers, Michael Gottwald, was my son and it was his first day of school and I had to wake him up. And he asked me to fix his breakfast, and I said, “No, get up on your own two feet and fix your own breakfast!” And we did the audition and I walked out. My father and my two brothers and my sister was outside. It was something that I just tried and it was something that a kid would never have an opportunity to do. And they called back like two days later and said they were looking for Nozzy [Editor’s note: They mispronounced it Nah-zee], and my mom was like, “Who’s Nozzy? You must be looking for Naizie.” And then my mom was like, “Okay, I know you’re looking for Naizie, but her real name is Quvenzhané, and you got her name mixed up.” And they were like, “Oh, I must have called the wrong person,” and they almost hung up! And my mom caught them from hanging up, and my mom said, “Oh, she must have told you Naizie, but her real name is Quvenzhané.” And they were like, “Yes, that’s who we’re looking for: Naizie.”

[laughs]

QW: My mom was like, “[sighs]!”

[laughs]

QW: And she was like, “I know my daughter auditioned there.” So that’s something that almost got away.

Could you explain your role a little bit in the film, Quvenzhané?

QW: She’s just a very little girl who’s trying to follow her father’s footsteps.

And your role, Mr. Henry?

DH: I’m trying to do everything for her. I’m dying through the course of the movie, and I’m doing everything in my power because she is the most important person in the world to me. I want to teach her how to survive in a volatile region when her daddy’s not going to be there, because she don’t have her mother in the movie. That’s all she has — her dad. And I’m doing everything in [my power] possible to teach her to survive when all of these different catastrophic things happen in our region. She has to be strong, [and I’m] teaching her how to be strong; you have to learn to feed yourself when the storm comes in, because everything’s going to die. So just throughout the course of the movie I’m always, constantly, emphasizing to her the importance and the urgency of knowing how to do all of these things because your daddy is not going to be there.

How did you two bond? I know you play a father that’s kind of strict, but I was curious how you guys connected.

DH: Well, I have a daughter. [Quvenzhané] was 6 years old when we started shooting, and I have a daughter that’s 7 years old. So, I was able– And I have a 2 year old, a 4 year old, a 9 year old, an 11 year old, and a 16 year old. So–

You’re not making a baseball team, are you? [laughs]

DH: Exactly! [laughs]

That’s a lot of mouths to feed! You gotta put them to work now! [laughs]

DH: That’s right! So, it was easy for me to relate: how to interact with a child, how to make a child happy. Because when they told me that I was going to meet Naizie for the first time, they had two other guys in line to play my part who she didn’t feel comfortable with. So ultimately whoever had to play the part, she was 6 years old, and she had to be comfortable with them. So when they told me I was going home to meet her, she had scratched the other two guys, she had the ultimate decision on who was going to play her father. The other two guys, she didn’t feel comfortable with, they was gone. So if she didn’t approve of me, I was gone too!

[laughs] She was tough, huh?

DH: Yes!

QW: I MAKE THE DECISIONS.

[laughs]

DH: That’s right! So when they told me I was going home to meet her for the first time, I just went back to the same strategy I used with my daughter: if she have a problem with me, I’m going to Toys “R” Us, getting me two big bags of toys, and that works every time. So I went to the bakery, I packed up all kinds of sweets — brownies, buttermilk drops, cupcakes, everything — and I brought them to her. When I see her in the room, I put a big old smile on my face and handed her them two bags; she peeped in there, she showed me them big white teeth right there. [Editor’s note: At this point, Quvenzhané smiled, broad and toothy.] I knew I had the part then.

So what did you like about him, Quvenzhané?

QW: The sweets!

[laughs]

DH: Told y’all — it worked! That or the toys work. It worked for my daughter — every time.

QW: You could have brought me the toys.

[laughs]

DH: If that didn’t work, I was going to do the toys next.

You might have to now.

DH: Yes.

Did you learn about the cave painting, Quvenzhané?

QW: I didn’t even know what a cave painting was.

Oh, do you know now?

QW: Yes.

How was the filming? You filmed in New Orleans…

DH: Well, I’m from New Orleans, but we filmed in Terrebonne Parrish, right outside of New Orleans. It was a good shoot, but a lot of things, the way Benh directs–

QW: [laughs]

DH: You know, one particular scene that we shot, our first scene that we shot, was one my most difficult scenes. He had to get the toughest scene out from me first. You know, we could have did this scene… The way Mr. Zeitlin– like, he wants everything to be so natural and seem so real. He don’t like to simulate no situations, so we could have shot that [first] scene in a warm swimming pool, and we could have made it look like the Mississippi River, and nobody would have ever known that we wasn’t in the Mississippi River. But he wanted to be in there. We was in the Mississippi River when we shot the first scene, the water was cold, we was in and out of the water — me, not Naizie, though — I was in and out the water all day. And, you know, it was difficult, but it was fun. That was one of my difficult scenes, because every scene that we did, just like a lot of scenes that we shot in wooded areas, we could have simulated wooded areas and nobody would have ever knew. But [Benh] wanted everything to be so organic and so natural. He wanted to be in there, he wanted you to see the mosquitoes and things like that, and make it natural and organic. We got bit by a few mosquitoes, but that’s the life down there living in the bayou.

How was it for you filming, Quvenzhané? Did you have any favorite scenes or difficult scenes?

QW: The difficult scene was whenever I was in the cardboard box. And [my favorite] scene was whenever I had to scream and burp and eat the crawfish with all the other guys.

Did you like the crawfish?

QW: Yes.

DH: Oh, we ate them crawfish.

[laughs]

QW: That whole bucket!

DH: That whole table. We ate that whole table.

QW: We ate every-thing. All you saw was peelings.

DH: We went to France, and me, Quvenzhané, and Quvenzhané’s mother, we were sitting at the table. We ordered some crawfish.

QW: It was some crawfish, and they brought it, and it was like three shrimp–

DH: They put three of them on the plate.

QW: [laughs]

DH: They gave us a fork and a knife with four crawfish on the plate.

QW: Three!

DH: All three of us looked at it and was like, “What is this?!”

QW: It was shrimp! [Editor’s note: Quvenzhané’s mother smiled and said, “It was crawfish.”]

DH: It was supposed to be crawfish but it looked like shrimp. When they brought them to us, all of us looked at each other like, “What is this? What are we going to do with this fork and this knife?”

[laughs]

DH: We’re from Louisiana! We throw a sack on the table, we get lemons and garlic, and we pop them with our hands!

QW: Or we just put it on the tray and we just dig in!

DH: Yeah! Nobody does it like we do it down there.

Who’s minding your bakery?

DH: My two partners.

So what do you guys think about having your hair that way?

QW: It’s not that hard. All you gotta do is just wash it, dry it, and it’s done.

DH: We clean up well.

[laughs]

DH: Yeah, we clean up very well. That’s not the way neither one us dresses, that’s not the way we live, so a lot of things we did in the film was acting because neither one of us live that type of way, act that type of way. I live that type of way to a certain degree because I love my children and I love [Hushpuppy], and I do everything in my power to make sure they’re okay like I did in the movie with her. But, you know, we don’t live that type of way on the flipside of it. We don’t live that type of way.

You going to hire Quvenzhané to do one of your commercials?

DH: She’s going to be the cashier–

QW: And the ice cream chef!

DH: In the ice cream area, she’s gonna be the manager.

I think she should be doing the commercials for the…

DH: She’s going to do that too because the name of my new location is going to be–

Both: Wink’s Bakery and Bistro.

QW: That, and I’m gonna be on roller skates!

[laughs]

DH: Got it down pat!

QW: With my little apron on.

DH: But what about if you’re in Hollywood? How you going–

QW: I ain’t going to Hollywood!

DH: You don’t know.

QW: I ain’t going to Hollywood. Even if they tell me to — I ain’t going.

DH: Hollywood gonna come to you.

QW: I’ll say I’m gonna stay with my big daddy! [laughs]

DH: Hollywood gonna come to you.

QW: [mumbles and sighs]

[laughs] By the time she’s 12 she’ll be directing movies.

DH: She already–

QW: I’m writing one called–

DH: She’s writing one right now! What’s the name of the movie you’re writing right now? Fat Kids Don’t Get No Pres

QW: No! It’s this way: Fat Kids Don’t Get Gifts on Christmas.

[laughs]

Quvenzhané’s mother: Make sure that you state that the family’s last name is Fat, it’s not that they’re fat–

QW: Tummy Fat!

Quvenzhané’s mother: The last name is Fat.

Okay, we got that clarified. [laughs]

QW: Their last name is Tummies.

Quvenzhané’s mother: Tummy Fat. The Tummy Fats is the name of the family.