Interview: First-Time Actors Dwight Henry & Quvenzhané Wallis Talk ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’
When director Benh Zeitlin decided to cast non-actors as the leads in his critically acclaimed film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, he told me that the reason was that “these guys really sort of showed up and shocked me.”
Dwight Henry and 8-year old Quvenzhané Wallis won the parts of father and daughter, Wink and Hushpuppy, and as Zeitlin said, they both “brought like a reality to the character(s) that I was never able to write.”
The story of Beasts follows a father (Henry) and daughter (Wallis) who refuse to leave their hurricane-destroyed home on the outskirts of New Orleans.
Both actors deliver heartfelt performances and you would never in a million years think this is their first time on-screen. Wallis is the cutest little girl you’d ever see and when talking to her, was light-years away from her performance as ‘Hushpuppy.’ Henry is the owner of a bakery in New Orleans and would, at times, go back and forth during production of the film to take care of the business. Henry has received so much buzz about his performance, that he’s now about to work on his second film, Twelve Years A Slave, directed by Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt. He may have to find a manager to work at his bakery.
I talked to both Dwight and Quvenzhané (with a special appearance by Zeitlin) about how they got their parts, working on the film and the crazy conditions they had to endure. And check out the funny story of how, after Dwight’s audition, Zeitlin couldn’t find him to tell him he had the part.
How did you guys find out about the auditions?
Quvenzhané Wallis: It was from my mom’s friend. It wasn’t me. I was just plain old me sitting in my room watching TV.
Yeah, did you want to be an actress or try it?
Quvenzhané Wallis: I wanted to try it but I never wanted to be an actress. That’s something that a kid would like to do, but I’m just not active. But now since the movie, I’m very active.
Quvenzhané Wallis: Yes.
Dwight, what about you?
Dwight Henry: Mine was a little more complicated audition. I owned a bakery right across the street from the production company where they were doing the casting. They used to come over and eat breakfast in the morning and they’d put fliers in the bakery, if anybody wanted to come audition for a part, pull a number and give us a call and then come do an audition.
So, one day Mr. [Michael] Gottwald was in there and I had a little extra time. He used to always try to get me to come over there an audition. So I went over there and I auditioned for the role and never thought I was going to get the role and just went back to the bakery after we did the audition like it was nothing. And he came back like a week or two later. Mr. Henry, Mr. Zeitlin loved what he saw and they want you to do another reading.
So, we got together, we set up another reading and I do another reading. In the process of me doing that reading, I moved my bakery from one location to another location. Within that small time period, it was like about a month or month in a half that it took me to reopen; they were actually looking for me to tell me that I got the part.
Benh Zeitlin: Yeah, we had no idea where he was. [laughs]
Dwight Henry: Nobody can find me, they had an APB out. They would ask neighbors that were around my old bakery, where’s Mr. Henry? My old landlord, where’s Mr. Henry? I had told them where my new bakery was at but I wasn’t open yet. So two days after I opened, one of the producers, Michael Gottwald came in the bakery and he had a calendar and some things in his hand.
Mr. Henry, Mr. Zeitlin loved what he saw, you have the part. He had a schedule. We would have to move out of town for two and a half months and do this, do that, do this, do that. And I had just opened up, so I wasn’t able to do it right then. So I actually had to turn them down. I didn’t want to, but I had to because my bakery is my stronghold and that’s my footing, and I can’t give up that for nothing in the world because I worked too hard to open it up.
But, I was flattered that they wanted me to do the part, so they gave me a little time because they had a little time before they started to do the shoot. So they came back, and I still wasn’t quite ready to leave the bakery yet, so I actually had to turn it down again.
But I started thinking about, you know, they saw some things in me that I really didn’t see in myself and they had so much confidence and belief in me, I started thinking about that. I went back to when I first opened up my first bakery when no one believed in me but me. I couldn’t get money from the finance companies, banks; no one believed in me that I can open up a bakery, be successful at it and couldn’t get anybody to believe in me. Then to think about how much belief they had in me. For the first time in my life I’ve got someone who believes in me and sees some things in me, so I worked it out and you know it’s been wonderful ever since. I worked it out with my partners and was able to go do the film and it’s been wonderful. It’s been so wonderful.
Now, when he was gone for that month, what were you thinking?
Benh Zeitlin: This isn’t such a totally crazy – it’s sort of, New Orleans doesn’t operate on Facebook really, so it’s like it’s not that uncommon, you know, that you can’t find someone. Eventually you find them. The reason we cast Dwight was because at a certain point we felt like this was what was meant to happen. He was meant to play this role and it was meant to be. So I always had faith that he was going to turn up and it was going to work out. I think that’s a very New Orleans attitude towards it but it every time I sort of sense that this is the right thing, it kind of comes true.
So after these guys were cast, did you rehearse?
Benh Zeitlin: It was a combination of we did a lot of interviews, not even interviews, but me and Dwight would hang out in the bakery all night long and share stories about our lives and relate those stories to the script and rewrite the script based on things that he told me about and that sort of process of adapting the script to something that made sense to both of us. And then beyond that, the three of us would rehearse. We would rehearse a scene that was written and certain things wouldn’t feel right and he would change words and he would change words and we would rehearse it and rewrite the script based on improvised rehearsals until we felt like the scene worked and then at that point we would write it and it would become the scene and that’s what we would shoot when we actually got to the shoot. But we rehearsed pretty much every scene in the movie.
Dwight Henry: He would take a script like this and he would write it and he would say, how would you say this in your words, versus trying to say it in his words. He wanted it to be the way we would say it and he would rewrite it to the way we would say it, not the way he would say it. But it would say the same thing, but in our own words. It always seemed more natural when it’s coming out, just like me and you are talking, and it’s so natural coming out because it’s my own words coming out. But if I was trying to talk to you with somebody else’s words, it wouldn’t seem as natural.
Did you always want to be an actor? Had you tried it before?
Dwight Henry: Never, never before. I never tired it. I never had aspirations to go and act. I never did. They say it came so natural. Like I said earlier, they seen something in me that I didn’t see in myself, that the part was perfect for me. It was a good fit.
Quvenzhané, you had a lot of lines to memorize.
Quvenzhané Wallis: Yes.
How did you do that? Did you work on it with your mom? Or did you know them like before you did the movie?
Quvenzhané Wallis: We would go in the back of the boat and read the script – all three of us the director, Dwight and me and we would go in the back and we would like read. I would be on the bumper and we would put the back down and we would read and we would keep it in our mind. And we would stop for a little while and go chill, finish doing that and then we would read it again, that one time, and then we would go do the scene. So really, it wasn’t that hard.
I’m an actor as well and just like memorizing these monologues – you had some huge stuff to memorize – what about you?
Dwight Henry: Well, you know, I actually had a lot of help. I had acting coaches on the set with me every day.
After we shoot a scene, my acting coach was on set with me, if she would see something I need to do, we’d critique it and get it right and after we finished shooting, we’d meet at the condo and go over the script. Even when I was at the bakery, even before we started shooting, they sent acting coaches to work with me at the bakery. Twelve o’ clock at night, they’d meet me at the bakery while I’m doing pastries we’d work on the script — different techniques, how to change emotions and all types of different techniques from professional actors. I got a crash course from some real talented actors on certain techniques I need to learn and things like that.
Quvenzhané, what was your audition like?
Quvenzhané Wallis: It was just like a regular audition but I had to do different things.
Quvenzhané Wallis: Like kiddy things and they would ask me what I would usually do, like over the summer, so I told them what I would do. And then they would take something from out of there and they’d put it in one of the audition things and we would do that.
When you got the phone call that you got the part, were you excited?
Quvenzhané Wallis: Yes. And then I went right back to what I was doing.
What were you doing?
Quvenzhané Wallis: Playing on the computer.
So you’re on the computer, your mom tells you that you got the part and then you said, oh, okay, I’m going back to Facebook.
Quvenzhané Wallis: I don’t have a Facebook. I wish I did.
You guys worked around a ton of water and just crazy conditions. What was that like?
Dwight Henry: It was a lot of difficult conditions, I mean, because the way Mr. Zeitlin directs, he wanted, like for example, the first scene that we shot was in the Mississippi river. We was actually in the Mississippi River, water was 40 or 50 degrees, cold water. We were in the water all day, in the water, out the water, feet on rocks and things like that, but we could have simulated it. We could have been in a nice warm swimming pool, made it look like it was the Mississippi, but you and millions of other people would have never knew. But Mr. Zeitlin, he wanted it to be as real as it can possibly be, so he actually wanted you in there. So we actually shot it in the Mississippi River in the cold water.
The movie, some of the scenes where we shot in the woods, that was actually in the woods, hundreds of mosquitoes biting us and we could’ve simulated that, but the movie wouldn’t have felt the way it felt and been as authentic as it is, as if we had simulated things. Just like with our animals, you know, we trained our animals, we trained the dogs, the chickens, the pigs. We didn’t get puppets and animals that was trained already and things like that, you know? It was a family of people and we did things, you know, the natural way.