It’s a way of life!” Dwight Henry says, thumping the table of his Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café on a sticky December morning in New Orleans. He’s rhapsodising about the city’s cuisine, and how it’s better than anywhere else in the world. “Music knits people together in some strange way. Same thing with food. We have seafood boils for any reason, just because it’s a beautiful day outside.”
He picks up a promotional pamphlet for Beasts of the Southern Wild, the film in which he stars as the volatile father of six-year-old Hushpuppy, who is finding her place in a remote corner of the Louisiana bayou. On one page his tiny co-star, Quvenzhané Wallis, is striking a wrestler’s pose over a table heaped with crustaceans. “That’s a seafood boil,” he says. “Bags of crawfish, bags of shrimp and cook ’em all outside, throw ’em all on the table and eat.”
Food has been pivotal in Henry’s life since he was a teenager. It was in a bakery near his childhood home in the Lower Ninth – a close-knit but poverty-plagued neighbourhood – that Henry got his first job and fell in love with the trade. Decades later, in another bakery (this time his own, built on hard graft), he met the young film-making collective Court 13 who convinced him to audition for a film that would go on to count Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey among its fans. Beasts also won the Camera d’Or at Cannes and four nominations for next month’s Oscars, including best film and best director.
“If it can happen to me it can happen to anyone,” Henry says, looking back on a year in which he walked down a red carpet with his heroes Chris Rock and Will Smith close behind. Soon afterwards, he was cast in a smaller role in a much bigger movie – Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave, starring Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, due for release later this year – and by the spring, he will have opened one new bakery in Harlem with Nobu’s Richie Notar and another in Louisiana with the actor Wendell Pierce, who is best known for playing Bunk in The Wire. “I’m riding the wave,” Henry says, “and wherever it takes me, that’s fine.”
Meanwhile, he can still be found in the kitchen of the Buttermilk Drop almost every morning – an unflashy place with homemade signs and photos on the walls, situated between two fried chicken shops in the Seventh Ward – producing what many customers pronounce to be the best baked goods in the city. I can vouch for the squishy doughnut holes and I meet people who will make a car journey especially to pick up a half-dozen buttermilk drops.
I’m still licking the sugar off my fingers when Henry emerges: a warm, welcoming presence with salt-and-pepper stubble. He has a gap between his front teeth that shows when he smiles, a musical voice, and an old-fashioned sense of courtesy: nine-year-old Quvenzhané is “Ms Wallis”; Oprah is “Ms Winfrey”. When I tell him that I want his whole life story, he laughs and says: “Let’s do it. Let’s do it!”
Born in Nashville, he moved at the age of two to New Orleans, where he grew up on spicy home-cooked stews – gumbo, red beans and rice, jambalaya. Sometimes shrimp, ham, okra or mustard greens would be added, and occasionally, a squirrel or bird killed on the road.
After high school, Henry worked in bakeries and restaurants all over the city, taking on two jobs at a time to support his family (he now has five children) and putting aside money for a bakery of his own. Unable to get a loan, he saved enough to buy one piece of used equipment at a time over three years, and when Henry’s Bakery and Café finally opened, he treated promotion like a political campaign, knocking on every door in the neighbourhood to drum up support.
The hard work and determination paid off. (They always do, he says.) By August 2005, Henry was set to open a second bakery, but Hurricane Katrina struck the same week, and the Ninth Ward was hardest hit. Henry’s home and both premises were deluged, and by the time he realised the scale of the disaster, it was too late to evacuate. Driven to an island of high ground – a shopping mall in the city’s Gentilly area – he camped out there for two weeks with other survivors, rich and poor together. “You had people who had these big homes, pools in their backyard,” he remembers, “climbing through a damn window to get something to eat.” They broke out frozen hamburgers and barbecues, cooked, played cards and waited for the water to subside.
The new premises were a write-off, and he was uninsured, but Henry rebuilt the old bakery himself. A group of film-makers led by director Benh Zeitlin set up offices a while later in an abandoned school across the street. They got to know what Zeitlin calls, “this amazing community centre that [Henry] holds court over” and left casting flyers. One day, thinking he might get a part as an extra, Henry auditioned.
Zeitlin was charmed by Henry’s combination of charisma and grit (by “seeing how my mouth run,” is how Henry puts it) and asked him back for another reading. But by the time he was offered the central role of Hushpuppy’s father, Wink, he turned it down. “I couldn’t chase this movie career with these young movie people from New York,” he remembers thinking. “First feature, don’t have but a million and something dollars, and I’m going to sacrifice my bakery?”
Zeitlin persisted, promising to shoot around Henry’s baking schedule. “They had me thinking I was the only person who could play the part,” Henry remembers. “They had themselves believing it.” Finally, he agreed.
Organising the shoot around the lead actor’s day job was difficult, producer Michael Gottwald admits with a weary laugh – they ran through lines in the middle of the night as he rolled dough, and there was a driver on standby to take him back to the bakery whenever he needed – but Henry’s positivity was infectious. “He will just work and work until he gets it right,” Gottwald says, “and no complaining ever.”
His depth of experience was also crucial. To get both lead actors in the right emotional frame of mind for one scene, Zeitlin asked Henry to tell a harrowing story from his life. “I was crying listening to him,” Zeitlin says. “Our boom operator was crying, the cameraman was crying, [Wallis’s] mom was crying in front of the monitors, everyone was bawling.” The story itself isn’t a part of the scene, in which Hushpuppy is facing the possibility of her father’s death, and Zeitlin doesn’t repeat it, but Wallis’s reaction was recorded as she listened. She’s trying to look fierce as her eyes fill with tears; it’s a moment in the film that’s hard to watch without crying, too.
Henry’s first glimpse of the film was at its premiere at Sundance, where it received a standing ovation. The response at Cannes was more rapturous still, and was followed by the Oprah appearance (it was Obama who recommended the film to her), profiles of Henry in the press, and then Twelve Years a Slave, which was shot in New Orleans. Now he’s continuing to promote Beasts, which has been generating Oscar hype all year, and making business plans.
“We’re bouncing ideas off of each other all the time,” says Wendell Pierce, another New Orleans native who is opening a chain of grocery stores in parts of Louisiana that lack access to fresh food, and wants a Buttermilk Drop in each one. (He has also just wrapped the final series of Treme, in which he plays a jazz trombonist, and is busy building low-cost, eco-friendly houses in his old neighbourhood, Pontchartrain Park.)
Pierce says that he and Henry share a love of New Orleans, “a desire to do something in the midst of the recovery of our city,” and a spirit of optimism. They have plenty to talk about. “I’m asking him about baking and running the restaurant and he’s asking me questions about acting. I say, ‘Just make it as authentic as you are.’ And I think that would be the operative word with him. He’s his own man.”
When I return to the bakery a few days later, a customer is congratulating Henry on winning the LA Film Critics Association prize for best supporting actor the night before. He laughs and jokes with her, but he also seems touched by the accolade. When he repeats the news to another regular, an employee comments sardonically: “See how he’s getting?”
There’s fondness in the remark: it’s hard to imagine anyone less likely to be changed by fame. When I ask where he wants to be in five years, Henry doesn’t mention movie deals or restaurants, but charitable work. “There’s something burning up inside me to help,” he says.
There’s a world of opportunities now open to Henry, but he’s adamant that he’ll never abandon his bakery, which he wants to pass on to his kids, and that he’ll never leave New Orleans. He’d miss his beloved American football team, the Saints, the smell of the air, and, of course, the food – crawfish étouffée, stuffed shrimp, soft-shell crab, frogs’ legs. “That’s the kind of people that we are down here,” he says. “I was in LA last week: Beverly Hills, the Four Seasons hotel, room service, limousine downstairs waiting on me. But from the time I leave here and get on that plane, I’m ready to do what I got to get done and come back home.”
Beasts of the Southern Wild will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from 11 February