Nazie Wallis, age 8, stars as Hushpuppy in the new movie "Beasts of… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)
NEW ORLEANS — Compared to Schwab's Pharmacy — the old Sunset Boulevard drugstore where legend has it that a teenage Lana Turner was discovered at the soda counter — the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Cafe doesn't display a ton of show-business shine.
Occupying a former seafood eatery in the city's hardscrabble Seventh Ward, the restaurant has but a few tables. Its tile floors are chipped, the windows a bit dingy. But the food — the signature dish a deep-fried, oversized doughnut hole called a buttermilk drop — is so superior that it draws a steady stream of Garden District foodies and other hungry locals. Among the bakery's most devoted diners are the filmmakers behind"Beasts of the Southern Wild,"which is how 47-year-old baker Dwight Henry came to star in the acclaimed drama set in the Louisiana bayous.
"Beasts" director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin's first feature is populated with mythical creatures called aurochs and unfolds in a mythologized land called the Bathtub, but the two lead actors are real people, not professional actors. Henry plays the film's single father, Wink, while 8-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis costars as his daughter, Hushpuppy. Their debut performances have helped galvanize critical opinion around the film, which won awards this year at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals.
VIDEO: 8-year-old star of 'Beasts' comes to Hollywood
It was no easy matter finding Henry — known to almost everyone here as Mr. Henry. And Quvenzhané delivered a first audition so average that she barely survived the first cut.
Ultimately, the young girl (whose first name is pronounced Kwa-VEHN-ja-nay but goes by Nazie for short), proved to be a natural in front of the camera. But Henry, who repeatedly declined the part at first because he was opening a new restaurant as the film was preparing to start, required hours of training. Most of the homework was conducted over several months in the middle of the night at the Buttermilk Drop Bakery, with Henry running lines with acting coaches as he prepared the next morning's calorie-laden offerings.
"I had a script right here with jelly on it," Henry said one morning a few weeks ago in his cafe's kitchen. He spoke while resting on a bag of raised doughnut mix, having been up all night preparing cream cheese beignets, buttermilk drops and cinnamon raisin squares. "I have been working 15 to 20 hours a day for the last 15 years."
For all of the magical realism in "Beasts," which opened in New York and Los Angeles last weekend and expands to half a dozen cities on Friday, Zeitlin wanted to find performers who felt authentic, part of his overall effort to "change the paradigm of filmmaking" and construct a creative bubble into which scant Hollywood artifice could intrude.
To find those performers, the "Beasts" casting department followed the canvassing model employed by President Obama (several members of the team even worked on his 2008 election). But even as they spread their net far and wide, the casting agents and producers struggled to land leading players.
After looking at some 4,000 children for the role of Hushpuppy, the team encountered Quvenzhané in a meeting room in the main branch of the Terrebonne Parish Library in Houma, a little more than an hour southwest of New Orleans. The audition notice called for girls ages 6 to 9, but Quvenzhané was only 5 at the time. Quvenzhané, who had been a part of a Christmas musical at her elementary school but had little other performing experience, showed up anyway.
Zeitlin's casting department gave Quvenzhané, the daughter of a junior high math teacher and a truck driver, the lowest score to earn a callback — 3.5 points out of a possible 5. And she got that mark chiefly because she looked the part. But once she was in a room with Zeitlin, the director was smitten.
In one audition test, Quvenzhané — the youngest of three children — was asked to play the daughter to a sleeping grown-up. "I had to wake him up," she recalled. "And then he asked me to fix him breakfast. And I said, 'Fix it yourself.'" In another improvised scene, Zeitlin asked Quvenzhané to throw something (it was either a water bottle or a stuffed toy, depending on who's telling the story) at producer Michael Gottwald. "I wouldn't do it, because I didn't know him that good," she said.
Zeitlin loved her attitude. "It was an incredibly defiant thing for a 5-year-old to do," Zeitlin said. "And she didn't lose this look. She stayed in character."
Those who have seen the movie know the look to which Zeitlin refers. Hushpuppy is nearly all alone in the world, as the dying Wink frequently leaves his daughter to fend for herself. If Hushpuppy is cracking a crab or refusing to back down in a fight, Quvenzhané has a don't-mess-with-me stare, borne more out of courage than anger, that is hard to forget.