In New Orleans' Seventh Ward, folks line up early to get one of Dwight Henry's buttermilk drops, a pastry so tasty that his bakery is named for it.
Until recently, Henry could usually be found in the kitchen of the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café crafting soul food, doughnuts, king cakes and buttermilk drops that rival beignets as the Crescent City's favorite wake-up sweet.
Then he became an unlikely movie star in the indie darling of 2012.
Without any experience or ambition to be an actor, Henry landed a pivotal role in Beasts of the Southern Wild, now playing at Tampa Theatre and Woodlands 20 in Oldsmar. He plays Wink, the stern but loving father of a bayou pixie named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) in a remote, storm-flooded community.
As a proud baker, Henry prefers keeping the recipe for his buttermilk drops a secret.
As a first-time actor feted at Cannes and Sundance, and now touted as an Oscar contender, Henry loves sharing the ingredients of his unexpected success.
"Hollywood literally came to my doorstep; customers of mine, initially," said the lifelong New Orleans resident who professes to be 43, although his memories of surviving Hurricane Betsy in 1965 suggest he's fudging.
Production offices for Beasts of the Southern Wild were set up across the street from Henry's then-bakery (he was in the process of moving to a larger place). Henry helped spread the word to customers that they were holding open auditions for the roles of Wink and Hushpuppy. After being asked and declining several times to audition, Henry gave it a try.
Producer Michael Gottwald "gave me a script, gave an actress a script and we went back and forth with the dialogue and taped it," Henry said. "I went back to the bakery, said, 'See you later, Michael,' like nothing never happened."
As Henry went about his business moving the bakery, Gottwald and director Behn Zeitlin decided that no one else but Henry could play Wink, but for weeks they couldn't find him to tell him.
"Nobody knew where I was at," he said. "They was asking everybody in the neighborhood, 'Did anybody see Mr. Henry?' Asked my old landlord where I was at and no one knew."
Two days after opening in the new location in the Treme neighborhood, Gottwald walked in, offered Henry the role — and was promptly turned down.
"I was so flattered," Henry said. "I'd just opened up my business and couldn't just walk away for a possible movie career. I worked so hard for so many years and I wasn't going to sacrifice that."
Preserving Big Easy pastry traditions — like his buttermilk drops, a spherical doughnut with an outer crunch — is important to Henry. Buttermilk drops were made famous in dozens of McKenzie's bakeries, but they closed in 1990. (See recipe adaptation from Cook's Illustrated.)
"The buttermilk drop went along with them," Henry said. "When they closed down (that many) stores in one city, they left a void in the industry. Being a baker, I was obligated to bring some of this stuff back to our community.
"I kept focus, stood strong with what I wanted to do and was able to get it done."
The same goes for his acting. Henry eventually agreed to play Wink, with pledges that shooting schedules would be arranged around his baking hours. A driver shuttled Henry from backwoods locations to his kitchen. Acting coaches worked with him during baker's hours when most folks sleep.
"They seen some things in me that I didn't even see in myself," Henry said. "They had so much belief in me. It's hard to find people that believe in themselves, less of all to find other people that believe in you."
Besides, from Henry's point of view, acting isn't all that much different than cooking.
"It's all about working on your craft, learning how to do things from different people and listening well," he said.
"Put a lot of love in it."
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.