Opening in theatres this Friday is the film BEATS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD that tells the story of a little girl who lives in the Delta of Louisiana in a place called The Bathtub. Raised by her father alone, Hushpuppy knows no other life than the one she is in now. The film is surrounded by love, destitution, family, strength and a word Mr. Henry likes to use a lot – resilience.
Having seen the movie I was thrilled to be able to sit down with the two main stars of the film – the very young Miss Wallis who plays Hushpuppy and Mr. Henry who plays her father Wink. We talked about emotions and the realties of the film – but also catfish catching!
I saw you both last night with the film, what was it like to handle such a harsh film young lady?
Wallis: It was fun. I was use to all the crowding and going to different places is very exciting because you don’t know what’s going to happen.
Do you like to meet all the people that want to talk to you?
What grade are you in?
Wallis: Third about to go into fourth. I’m a busy girl.
You’re already to smart for most fourth graders.
Wallis: Yes, I am. I’m just working on school.
How was it working with Ben?
Wallis: Fun, because he would do things to keep me active.
Did you need to be moved along? <laughing>
Mr. Henry, I heard you are a baker at heart?
Mr. Henry: Yes, I own a bakery called “Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café” in New Orleans. I’ve been in business for 13 years. I owned a business across the street from where Court 13 used to do the casting and they use to come over and eat breakfast. That’s how I first met them when they would put flyers up asking if anyone wanted to audition for a part. Michael use to come over and eat and we’d talk and always try to get me to cast. I never had time because I was running a business. One day I did a reading for them and never thought I was going to get the part, I was just doing a reading for a friend. He came to my business so I thought I’d come to his business. He came back a couple of weeks later telling me that Mr. Zeitlin wanted me to do another read. I was surprised, but they saw some things in me that fit the character that they could use for the part. In the time that they wanted me to do another read I moved my business from location to another. So during that time they had an ABP out on me <laughing> and wanted to know where I was at asking the neighbors and other businesses. It took me about a month and a half or so to open the new location and Michael Gotwald walks into the door with a schedule. I never told him I was going to do the movie but he still had a schedule for me. He said, ‘Mr. Henry, you got the part! Here’s your schedule and you’ve got to go away for about two months”. I told them I couldn’t do that because I just opened a new business a few days ago. He gave me a little time and before they started the shoot I was able to work things out with my partners but things didn’t work out again. I turned him down three times actually before he came back one more time. He came back strong bringing other people with him.
You know he’s serious when they bring more to talk you into it right?
Mr. Henry: Absolutely, there was like seven men and they sat and explained why I needed to do the part. They had so much belief in me and I had to do this. When someone believes in you that much you have to do it. When I opened my bakery no one believed in me, not the banks wanted to help me or finance company, and I proved them wrong by being in business for 13 years and successfully. I thought about that, how Ben and everyone believed in me when no one else did. I worked things out with my partners and they gave me the opportunity to do the film. The best part are the friends that I made if I never do another film again I am going to hold dear to my heart the friends I made at Court 13 because they are now family.
Do you and Nazzy live near one another?
Wallis: I live about and hour and a half from Mr. Henry in Louisiana.
Mr. Henry: I am in New Orleans.
So once in a while you go to the bakery?
Wallis: I went there once.
Mr. Henry: I was out of town and she came. She always takes the pastries. When they first told me I was going to meet Nazzy I wanted her to be comfortable with me playing her father. I mean she is a six-year-old girl and she needs to be comfortable. She first told them she turned me down. So I knew the next time I knew I was going to have to make a good impression. Either I was going to bring a bag of toys or boxes of pastries. So I brought the pastries to her and I handed to her and smiles.
Wallis: I would have taken the toys.
I would have taken the toys too.
Mr. Henry: Yea but when I handed her the pastries I knew I had her! See how she’s looking now, I knew I had her.
Did you enjoy working with Mr. Henry?
We were talking about the area you live in and the politics of where you live?
Mr. Henry: We are not making a political stand at all.
Yes, and we were talking about the effects of the people in that area, how do you feel about that?
Mr. Henry: In New Orleans we often have to go through possibilities of losing everything that we love more than anything in the world. Family, homes, loved ones and we constantly go through it. During the course of our shoot we almost lost our whole community because of the BP didn’t want to put a couple extra screws in a pipe. That’s a constant problem that we have living on the gulf coast. That was one of the real things that being from Louisiana, we brought a certain passion to the film being someone who lives there versus someone that has never been in these situations. You could have got Denzel Washington to play my part but you wouldn’t have gotten the passion of someone who goes through this in a realistic way.
And understand what the people go through?
Mr. Henry: Yes, our culture and our resilience and under the worse circumstances in the world we refuse to leave and things like that. An outsider would have packed up with a storm in the gulf and been gone but being from Louisiana, our souls are resilient. Not only in the film but in real life because he brought real life situations to the film. We are resilient in real life just like its depicted in the movie.
An outsider might see it as stubbornness and not understand how someone could want to hang on so much to what they have.
Mr. Henry: Exactly, that’s resilience and love in our culture. You’ve lived in Alabama so you’ve seen it. Your interviewing us and you understand because you’ve experienced the gulf coast. You have to live that culture to understand why when storms come and there is a mandatory evacuation and 90% of the city still isn’t going anywhere. They say the whole city might be under 22 feet of water because that was the worst-case scenario. We were so resilient that we refused to leave.
Like the scene with Hush Puppy and her mother’s jersey – you may have a room full of things but there is ONE thing you will fight for. To watch this young girl do that, there are people who can relate to that. You can take everything else but you aren’t taking that one thing.
Mr. Henry: Exactly, the one thing you would die for. You can take the jewelry or whatever, but that one jersey meant too much to her. That’s what the land means and the people mean down in the Bathtub. The dirt and the land means more than anything in the world.
Can you actually catfish with your fist?
Mr. Henry: Hell yea! Hell yea I can catch catfish with our hands.
I watched you do that and was laughing when you punched it in her face.
Mr. Henry: You got to know where the barb is at. You got to make sure it goes between your fingers so you grab that catfish and you know how to do it.
And you got to use your other hand to punch it!
You gotta whack it! You have GOT to whack it!
Nazzy, did you think that was crazy to punch a fish?
Wallis: Even in America I think that’s crazy.
But they taste really good though right?
Wallis: Yea, but I’m not going to punch them. <laughing>
The emotional scenes between the two of you, where does that come from inside you Nazzy?
Wallis: Stories that came from my life and people who have died.
You thought about all of that?
Wallis: Yes, it was sad.
And for you Mr. Henry?
Mr. Henry: It goes back to when Ben, the director, use to come to the bakery and he couldn’t catch me during the day so he’d come at night. He would come to the bakery and talk to me at midnight and we’d talk all morning until I opened at 6 a.m. We talked about my life, his life, his family, my family, the rough times we’ve been through, the people we’ve lost. We’d cried together talking about people we loved. Then I didn’t know why we did these things until we started doing the shoot. He pulled so many things out of the conversations that we had and put them into the movie. Like the emotional scene in the end, I mean we could have used onion and all that to get emotion but it was real and genuine emotion that he pulled out of us from things that we talked about during the course of our talks. There is a subject that I can’t talk about now because my emotions but he took that and put it in that one particular scene and brought out things in me that are really heartfelt.
There were really lighter moments in the film as well. Nazzy, can you really burp like a man?
Wallis: Yes, I can.
I know you can scream because I heard you last night and I’m still trying to get that out of my ear. Is that a normal scream for you?
Nazzy’s Mom: Yes it is. At my son’s basket ball games, when the other team is shooting free throws she screams.
That will work! By the way Mr. Henry, the sear sucker suit – I’m applauding you for that.
Mr. Henry: This is a southern suit! I am representing the south, this is a southern suit!
You’re doing it very well.