By Bernice Elizabeth Green
After a whirlwind search to find that special actor to play Wink — a raw, strong “warrior” of a man with an Ol’ African soul — for Beasts of the Southern Wild, director Behn Zeitlin discovered he was talking to his “star” all along. Over the biscuits and coffee Dwight “baker-now-also-actor” Henry prepared for the crew at his then Henry’s Bakery & Deli, across the street from the film production office in New Orleans.
When they went to tell him the news, the place was closed, and no one knew where Dwight Henry could be found. Court 13 producers soon realized that Mr. Henry lives “baker’s hours,” sleeping when everyone else is awake; awake when everyone else is asleep.
And even after he awoke to the news about “Wink,” he didn’t accept the role right away, turning it down three times. “I was not going to give up my baking for a movie career. I turned it down flat.” But the team persisted and he relented. He kept his business going all throughout the prepping, priming for the part from 1am – 4am in the morning.
Says Zeitlin, “My approach to making movies is about crafting an energy, a feeling, and a way of life that the people that make movies with me can live. It’s about inventing a reality and populating it with the best people I know. I want to fill my life and my films with wild, brave, good-hearted people. Whatever amount of chaos and disaster that leads to doesn’t matter, because you’re going through it with the people you love, and in the end, no matter what, the movies come out wild, brave, and good-hearted.”
So he chose Henry, and Quvenzhane Wallis, 6, “ to take charge of our heroes” Wink and his daughter, Hushpuppy.
“When you look in their eyes, you see fearless warriors, and you know they can do anything. Even though you revise the script as you learn from the actors and settings along the way and change everything about your approach, it doesn’t matter, because those elements were superficial in the face of accurately capturing the fierce spirit that the film needed to articulate. That principle was applied to every decision.”Like nearly everyone else, Mr. Henry was asked to audition after they put up a flyer in his bakery. The audition consisted of telling personal stories, and Mr/ Henry told of his experience in Katrina New Orleans and his determination to keep his bakery going. He stayed behind for two weeks after the Hurricane, protecting the business from looters and then fleeing to higher ground in a parking lot. “There were hundreds of people, sitting there. I had to take charge.” Mr Henry has survived things and gone through things that require enormous internal strength and bravery. He’s fearless. Nothing makes him self-conscious; nothing embarrasses him.”
Observes Mr. Henry: “Wink is a leader. When something needs to be done in the town, everybody looks to Wink to save the day. Go ask Wink. And I’m the same way. When something needs to be done at the bakery, everybody comes to me. He has a certain love for that town and I have the same love for my town . . . he refuses to walk away, just like I refused to walk away from my business after Katrina.”
Mr. Henry has lived in New Orleans most of his life. He is the son of Dr. Victor Arthur Henry, and his mother is Etna Henry. He has five children: Dwight Jr., 16; Darius, 11; Cameron, 8, Dwayne, 5; and D’juan, 2. He says he incorporated his experiences as a father of a girl into his role. “I go through these same things on a daily basis, trying to teach my daughter how to make it, to be self-sufficient and independent,” he says. “I want her to be able to survive on her own and that’s what Wink wants Hushpuppy to learn”
A self-made businessman for the past 15 years, he is the current owner of the Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Cafe, located at 1781 N. Dorgenois Street, in New Orleans seventh ward. His passions are cooking, baking, and sports. And now, acting. Soon after completing his role in “Beasts..,” he was asked to co-star in Twelve Years a Slave, about a an African living in New York who was captured in 1841 and enslaved in Louisiana. He appears with Chiwetel Ejiofor starring as Solomon Northup, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Garret Dillahunt, Sarah Paulson and Scoot McNairy. Production completed recently.
And he won’t give up his craft. These days, Mr. Henry is still baking but partners are handling it while he’s away. At the “Beasts” Sundance premiere, he gave out 1,200 buttermilk drops. He is opening more Buttermilk Drop Cafes in Louisiana with the first open in Gretna, a New Orleans suburb in October. He also plans to open a restaurant in downtown New Orleans called Winks. “Expectations and opportunities are coming my way, so I’m gonna have to raise the bar.”
And lastly, he likes his new roles in life, he’s more thankful that the film is bringing attention to an endangered way of life in Louisiana, and the brutal struggles faced by people there.
We are natural survivors down here,” he said. “Do we pack up? Leave? If not, how we gonna make it? But we are tough-minded, resilient people and nothing will take that away.”