Dwight Henry appears at the Cannes Film Festival in May following his successful film debut in "Beasts of the Southern Wild."

Story highlights

Dwight Henry lands his first acting role with "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

Henry has been a baker and owns a bakery in New Orleans

Henry: "They say I have this gift, and I have to take it for what it is"

He just finished shooting another film, "Twelve Years a Slave"

CNN  — 

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a film of first-time triumphs: It’s writer/director Benh Zeitlin’s first feature, and the first acting roles for two of its stars, Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry.

The movie follows Henry’s Wink, a father struggling with illness who tries to impart valuable survival skills to his daughter, Hushpuppy (Wallis), as a storm disrupts their life in a sheltered community called the Bathtub on the Louisiana Gulf Coast.

Henry’s performance is raw, unsettling and powerful and all the more remarkable for someone new to acting. Wallis, 8, also turns in a phenomenal performance in her debut.

Following a limited opening in New York and Los Angeles last month, “Beasts” has received nearly universal critical acclaim, becoming one of the summer’s most-talked about films. It’s carving out space in between superhero flicks and “Ted,” the movie about the stuffed talking bear, as it expands into theaters across the country.

Henry, 45, a baker (and the owner of the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Cafe in New Orleans), will tell you in his cool, Southern drawl that he’s taking everything in stride. But after the film won the Sundance Film Festival’s grand jury prize, the Hollywood doors have opened up. Henry just wrapped his second film, “Twelve Years a Slave,” working alongside director Steve McQueen and actors Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt.

Quvenzhane Wallis plays Henry's daughter in "Beasts of the Southern Wild," one of the summer's most acclaimed films.

CNN spoke to the baker/actor from Los Angeles about his new career on the big screen as well as some theories as to the success of “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

CNN: Growing up, what types of movies were you into?

Dwight Henry: I liked the westerns. I was into Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson type of westerns. I always worked a lot, but I had time to watch a lot of cowboy movies. I like a lot of Morgan Freeman’s movies and Russell Crowe. “Gladiator” is one of my all-time (favorites). I can watch “Gladiator” at least once a month.

CNN: I read that you turned down the role of Wink three times.

Henry: Reluctantly, I turned it down. Reluctantly. Not turned it down like snubbing my nose turning it down. I was obligated to my business; it had just opened up, and it was hard to leave. But it was what they seen in me … They had me believing that I was the only person who could do this part. After I turned them down, reluctantly, three times, they really convinced me that no one could do this part but me. They sold me. They had so much belief to put their whole film, millions of dollars, into my hands.

When I finally took the part, I remember all three of the producers came into the bakery, the accountants came in with them and they were like, “You gotta do this.” They seen something in me. I worked things out with my partners and moved out of town. I just finished shooting another film, “Twelve Years a Slave.” Steve McQueen directed the movie. Steve was telling me, “Man, they’re right about you.” I have to believe what certain people say. They say I have this gift, and I have to take it for what it is.

CNN: What was the first day on the “Beasts” set like? Were you nervous?

Henry: Not really. I’m not the type of person. … I wouldn’t say I was nervous. It was something new to me – cameras on me, people watching me. I’m more the type of person that accepts challenges, and I believe in myself because I wouldn’t have the success I’ve had in business without believing in myself.

CNN: The film takes place in a very specific place, within a very specific culture, after an event we all recognize as a significant storm.

Henry: You have to be from down there to relate to some of the difficulties and challenges that we face, living on the Gulf Coast, in that region. There (are) particular parts to that region that are protected to a level where they can always recover, but there (are) parts of that region that are forgotten about, unprotected.

CNN: In the course of your life in New Orleans, you must’ve come across people who were very similar to the characters in “Beast.”

Henry: Yeah. I know some resilient people. Resilient people meaning under the worse circumstances in the world, they won’t leave the things they love. We often have to go through that. Just like that last situation we had with Hurricane Katrina. A lot of people refused to leave. We’re not just going to walk away from these things. I’m one. I stood back, I was in neck-high water and got stranded down there and had to run for higher ground, trying to stay back and protect the things I loved the most. I understand a lot of what the people in that movie, who live on that island, what they go through.

CNN: But a lot of people that are not from that area are responding to the film, the performances and the story.

Henry: But you know something? … This is a story that has a lot of love in it, passion, a lot of family unity. All of these different things, people naturally respond to these things. Everywhere we went, from the East Coast to the West Coast, all the people responded the same to it. It’s a movie that you get a lot of feeling when you watch it. It’s a movie that everybody can go see, the Baptists, the Catholics, the Republicans, the Democrats, the blacks, the whites. Everybody can go see and love.

CNN: Before acting, have you always been in the restaurant world?

Henry: Always been. When I got out of school in the 11th grade, I started working at the … Sunrise Bakery. It was a local bakery in the Ninth Ward. I fell in love with the bakery business and went from bakery, to restaurants, to other bakeries. That’s all I ever did, my whole life. Never tried to do nothing else. I loved it and I love what I do, where I worked hard and put something together and opened my own business. I was already blessed.

CNN: Wink is the first person you’ve brought to life on-screen. What do you think is remarkable about him?

Henry: The love, the passion that he has. He has a heart the size of Texas. He loves the people that’s on that island with him. He loves his daughter more than anything. He loves the ground, the land, the dirt. He just loves everything about everything. He’s not going to be on the Earth that long, and the most important thing in the world is for her to survive.

CNN: What’s on the horizon for you?

Henry: I have another business I’m about to open up in New Orleans called Wink’s Bakery and Bistro, down in the Central District. I have some different things. If the right part comes along, I’d love to do more film. But it has to be something special.