Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis deliver simply amazing performances as father and daughter in the dramatic film Beasts of the Southern Wild, winner of four awards at this year's Cannes Film Festival. And come the year-end awards season, it's likely the film from first-time feature film writer and director Benh Zeitlin will find itself back in the spotlight.
The official synopsis: "In a forgotten but defiant bayou community cut off from the rest of the world by a sprawling levee, a six-year-old girl exists on the brink of orphanhood. Buoyed by her childish optimism and extraordinary imagination, she believes that the natural world is in balance with the universe until a fierce storm changes her reality. Desperate to repair the structure of her world in order to save her ailing father and sinking home, this tiny hero must learn to survive unstoppable catastrophes of epic proportions."
Zeitlin cast his film which is set in New Orleans with local talent, something his two lead actors say helped Beasts of the Southern Wild play as authentic as possible. Together to discuss the film, Henry and Wallis talked about what it means to be from Louisiana and how they bonded on and off the set.
Exclusive Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry Beasts of the Southern Wild Interview
Dwight, is the fact that the film affects audiences who aren't from Louisiana important to you as an actor?
Dwight Henry: "Yes, and that it brings an awareness of some of the things that are going on down there in Louisiana, because this is something in the film that we actually go through. I'm from New Orleans and this is something that we have to go through yearly, the possibility of losing your home, losing your business, your family being displayed - the possibility of actually really losing people to death from the catastrophes that go on in the New Orleans area on a yearly basis. That brought a certain realness to the film, [casting] people that actually go through these things. They could have got actors from outside the Louisiana area but they wouldn't have brought the passion to the film of somebody that actually goes through this. I've been in neck-high water and seen people floating in the water, dead. I've actually seen these things and it brought a certain passion to the film that an outsider could never have brought in a million years."
How easy was it for you, Quvenzhane, to figure out what the movie was about?
Quvenzhané Wallis: "It wasn't hard. Each scene [writer/director Benh Zeitlin] would tell me what it was and at the end of it, I would put it all together and I would figure it out."
Did the two of you do anything special to bond?
Dwight Henry: "We did some things and the director did things to help us bond together. Just like, one day when we actually weren't shooting...I'm a chef and I love to cook and love to bake, and so what he wanted me and Nazie to do was he cleared out the actual kitchen that craft services did all the cooking in and he gave us the kitchen. We put on the aprons and baked cookies; we did stuffed bell peppers and macaroni and cheese. We laughed, we ate, and we just had a wonderful time. And the different things like that that we did during the course of the shoot made us kind of bond together like father and daughter. We took walks together. We talked together. Mr. Zeitlin pulled us aside together. He used different techniques to bring us closer together."
"One of the techniques that I used when they first told me I was going to meet Nazie for the first time...I had to use a little strategy because she actually turned down two guys that were actually going to play the part of the father. They narrowed it down to three guys - me and two other guys - and she didn't approve of the two other guys because, you know, they have to have a rapport with her because she's the star of the movie. Whoever is acting with her, they have to have a good rapport with Nazie. So what I did is I own a bakery so I packed up some sweets. I could have brought toys but I said, 'I'll pack some sweets.' I packed up four boxes of sweets and as soon as I saw her, I walked up to her with a big old smile on my face. As soon as she opened that box she had a big smile and I knew I had it."
Do you think Beasts of the Southern Wild adequately captures that particular geographic area?
Dwight Henry: "Yeah. It captures not actually the way we live in the New Orleans area - because we don't actually live that particular way - but it captures the essence of what we go through in that area. There's a lot of difficult things that we go through, just like during the course of our shoot we had to stop filming because of the BP oil spill. The oil spill happened and that was another thing that almost devastated our lives because we depend on - especially the town where Nazie lives - they really truly depend on the seafood industry. The seafood industry where she comes from is so, so important. And to lose an industry like that would have devastated their whole community, because their whole community survives off that industry. It almost devastated the whole Gulf Coast along that area right there, and that's just an example of some of the things that we go through in that area."
You sound so passionate about the area and that seems to be the way most people feel who are from New Orleans and the surrounding communities. But to an outsider, it's sometimes difficult to understand why no one seems to want to leave.
Dwight Henry: "It's a resilience that the people in Louisiana have. We have a certain strength in our culture. We have a real deep culture that is like a magnet. For example, most of the production company of Court 13 are from New York and up the East Coast. Half of the production company that came down to shoot the film, half of them are still living down there and are New Orleans residents. The director, Mr. Zeitlin, is a New Yorker - all the way a New Yorker. He moved to Louisiana and he stuck. He has a Louisiana drivers license; he's a registered voter for Louisiana. He refused to leave, and that's a certain magnetism we have."
Quvenzhané Wallis: "We care about each other."
Dwight Henry: "We care about each other. We love people. We have hospitality. We have a certain love and caring. Same thing with the production company. Court 13 is not like a production company. I keep using 'production company' but I try and catch myself because it's more like a family. One of the things that I'm going to hold dear to my heart if I never do another movie again, I have some friends that I met with Court 13 that I'm going to hold dear to my heart for the rest of my life. That's more important to me than another film. Friendship, family, that's what is important to me, and that's the attitude we have in New Orleans and what keeps us there."
What do you like about acting?
Quvenzhané Wallis: "You get to meet a lot of people."
But it's a lot of work, right?
Quvenzhané Wallis: [Laughing] "Not really. It might be a lot of work but it's a lot of fun."
Is Hushpuppy someone you would hang out with if you met her on the street?
Quvenzhané Wallis: "Yes. She's cool."
What was Benh Zeitlin like as a writer/director?
Dwight Henry: "He's brilliant. My word for him is 'brilliant'. When he first decided that he wanted me for the part, I didn't know much about him and he didn't know much about me. But we sat down in the bakery on 20 different occasions for hours and hours and hours, from midnight until 6 or 7 in the morning just talking about each other's life. The good times, the bad times, loved ones, family, we covered every ground. We talked about things that made both of us cry. He wanted to know everything. I couldn't understand why. But he took some of the things that we talked about at night and he took it and put it in the script and put it in the film. I started to understand when we started shooting why we had these talks. It really brought us closer together. He got a good understanding of me and I got a good understanding of him through all the different long conversations that we had. I can sit down and talk to him all day because a lot of things mean something to Mr. Zeitlin. He has a lot of passion in his heart."
I'd like to see what happens to the character Hushpuppy in a few years. Would you want to play her again?
Quvenzhané Wallis: "Yes."
What do you think happens to her when she grows up?
Quvenzhané Wallis: "She is the king of The Bathtub."
What one day stands out as your favorite day of shooting?
Quvenzhané Wallis: "The day I met the girls. We would run around and mess with each other. It was fun being with them, and I wish they were here now."
You also had to work with the animals in the film. How'd that go?
Quvenzhané Wallis: "I liked the Chihuahua."
But you also had a pig you had to handle.
Quvenzhané Wallis: "I didn't like the pigs. And then after I had to touch the pig, I started liking the pig. It was big and fat and hairy. I like the small ones, not big ones. That's the only big pig I will ever touch or think about."
So in the sequel there will not be any pigs.
Quvenzhané Wallis: [Laughing] "No."