Emmys 2012: Danny Huston on Embracing His Inner 'Badass' as Villain of 'Magic City'
Huston, a part of an acting dynasty that dates back a century, says his character on the Starz series reminds him of the villain his father played in "Chinatown."
At the end of the 1950 film The Furies, the character T.C.—played by Walter Huston, one of the most popular and respected movie stars of the 1930s and 1940s—lays dying. With his final words—which also proved to be the last words that Huston himself would ever offer on the screen—T.C. tells his daughter, “And don’t you go naming my grandson T.C. It’s too big a bag for him to carry. He’ll have too much to live up to, ’cause there’ll never be another like me!” Like T.C.’s decscendants, Huston’s offspring also inherited a high bar to meet, but met it they have.
Whereas Walter today is primarily remembered as the old man who danced a crazed jig in the 1948 film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (for which he won the best supporting actor Oscar), his son John Huston, who directed that film, is regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived (he, too, won an Oscar for Sierra Madre, for best director); his granddaughter Anjelica Huston is a veteran actress who can now been seen on NBC’s Smash (she won the best supporting actress Oscar 26 years ago for Prizzi’s Honor); and his grandson Danny Huston, though still Oscar-less, has become one of the finest character actors in the business—and, at present, a serious contender to score a best supporting actor Emmy nomination for his role as Ben “The Butcher” Diamond, a deliciously evil villain in 1950s Miami, on Starz’s Magic City, one of the most well-received new shows of 2012.
(For the record, there’s yet another Huston to keep on your radar: Walter’s great-grandson Jack Huston is a highly touted young actor who plays a maimed World War I veteran on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.)
I recently spent an hour chatting by phone with Huston—who was in London with his mother and daughter during a month off from work—about his experiences navigating the film industry in the footsteps of giants. Like his father, the actor, who turned 50 in May, possesses a gravely voice and storytelling ability that make even the most mundane chatter—“I have a slight cold, so forgive me if I stutter from time to time”—sound mesmerizing. Of his grandfather, who he knew only through screenings of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he says, “That’s the way I thought he was!” As they say, He who laughs last laughs best.
Danny Huston was born in Rome on May 14, 1962. His family was on the continent because his father, who was already 55, was at work on several films. Huston laughs, “I was conceived during Freud, born around the time of The Bible, and teethed on The Night of the Iguana.” His father had a home in Ireland and his mother loved Italy, so he was raised between the two places. While still a toddler, he began wandering onto his father’s sets, sitting on his father’s lap, and reading the scenes that he would shortly thereafter watch come to life. He recalls watching one of the first cuts of The Bible: “My father was also doing the voiceover for God, and my mother was dying in the desert, but she was the mother of some of other child. This caused a certain amount of confusion for me at an early age.”
Huston was drawn to the creative side of filmmaking, but also deterred by the strain that he saw the business side of it taking on his father, so he initially decided to pursue a different art form: painting. “I loved painting and I thought it would be a way to get away from all that kind of bullshit,” he says. “And then, as I proceeded with my painting career, I realized, after going to a few gallery openings and sipping on too much warm white wine, that the fact is there’s just as much bullshit involved in the art world.” Consequently, he finally “succumbed” and enrolled at the London International Film School, with the goal of becoming a director like his father.
After completing school, Huston set off on his career, and, with the help of his father, quickly obtained some prominent gigs. At the age of 21, he was tasked by his father with enlivening the opening credits sequence for Under the Volcano, which his fathered wanted to be eerier. (“I had a solution, which was using the camera to move around the figures, and it was called a snorkel camera, which I came across at film school. And, by moving the cameras around these papier-mâché dolls, I was able to make it look as if they were moving… That was my first paying job. I got paid for it.”) Three years later, he directed his first feature, a TV film called Mr. Corbett’s Ghost (1987) that starred his father, Oscar winner Paul Scofield, and Oscar nominee Burgess Meredith. (“We did have a couple of hiccups regarding the financing, and that’s when my mother stepped in by getting to people in high places. She spoke to Paul Getty, who was able to give us a little extra spare change to complete the budget.”) And then he helmed Mr. North (1988), an adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s semi-autobiographical last novel—a property that he had independently pursued—in which his father was set to star before falling ill and dying. (John had asked his pal Robert Mitchum to fill in for him in such a situation, and Danny recalls that “Mitchum arrived practically the next day.”)
During Huston’s first years in the business, there were certainly whispers about nepotism being responsible for his opportunities, and he doesn’t deny that it was a major factor. But he says that his father reminded him that his own father had really given him his first break, with the opportunity to direct The Maltese Falcon (1941), and, having been given a chance to show what he could do, he had quickly eradicated any doubt that he deserved the opportunity to do it. As a result, Huston says, “We, as a family—which includes my sister and also my nephew Jack—we take advantage of [the family name], kind of shamelessly. We’re not that bashful, in regards to trying to use our name to pursue our career. And it really helps getting your foot in the door, you know?”
After Huston’s father passed away, he found himself at a crossroads. “I always thought that my father was sort of a giant next to me, protecting me, and being in his shadow kind of protected me from the harsh rays of the sun.” But then his father was gone, and he found it increasingly hard to get his projects to the big screen. He recalls, “Time was passing by—years were passing by—waiting for financing. [So] I did some book on tapes. I did a couple of voiceovers for some documentaries. And then I just got these small parts… really out of the kindness of my friends and fellow directors.”
Huston’s acting career began as humbly as any—as “bartender #2” in Leaving Las Vegas (1995), a film in which even he can barely spot himself these days. After a few years, though, “the parts got a little bit bigger, and then a friend of mine, Bernard Rose, and I made a film together—one of the first digital films—based on a Tolstoy novel called The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and we called it Ivansxtc.” In the film—the title of which is pronounced “Ivan’s ecstasy”—Huston plays a Hollywood talent agent who rediscovers his soul on his deathbed. The film was critically well received, and he was recognized with an Independent Spirit Award nomination for best actor, after which his opportunities improved markedly.
Over the next decade, he would star in indie films opposite the likes of A-list stars Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts, and Rachel Weisz, and under the direction of first-rate directors like Martin Scorsese, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and Alfonso Cuaron. Among the standouts of that period: Inarritu’s 21 Grams (2003), which Huston notes was “the beginning of my collection of working with great Mexican directors”; John Sayles’ Silver City (2004), one of the first films to satirize the presidency of George W. Bush; Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2004), as “a character that had a slow burn, if ever there was one… the crescendo being a fight with a 10-year-old”; Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), which he says “was like returning back to my experiences working with my father—he is one of the greats”; John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), in which he plays a “wonderfully psychopathic” character that he regards as one of his favorites, and the making of which he recalls was an “an experience of true grit”; Fernando Meirelle’s The Constant Gardener (2005), as the admirer/antagonist of the activist played by Weisz, who would win an Oscar for her performance; and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006), in which, he says, “I felt I was servicing a visionary director.”
Many have labeled these characters collectively as a bunch of losers. “I suppose that’s somewhat true,” Huston acknowledges, “but that’s not really what drives me—whether they win or lose. It’s how they behave in certain circumstances. Usually, it’s the misfits that I’m interested in.”
Which brings us to Magic City.
Prior to the Starz series, Huston had appeared on television—most notably as Founding Father Samuel Adams in the HBO mini-series John Adams (2008) and as attorney Geoffrey Feiger in the HBO film You Don’t Know Jack (2010)—but never in a regular series. To explain his reservations about the medium, he refers to the famous denouement of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: “The end is so important to me. To know that the gold is going to be blown, the wind is going to catch it, and it’s going to turn into dust and mingle with the dust—to know where the ending is, for me, is of paramount importance. So not knowing where the story is going is what I found incredibly daunting, and one of the reasons I’ve never really wanted to pursue a series.”
But when Magic City’s creator and showrunner Mitch Glazer, a longtime friend of Huston’s, told him that he was working on a semi-autobiographical series and had a part in mind for Huston—a ruthless Miami mob boss—that he planned to send to his agents, Huston told him not to be silly and to instead deal directly with him. Glazer sent him the first three or four episodes, and Huston was intrigued about “the way that he unapologetically introduced Ben Diamond” and that the character “is also kind of a little larger than life” with “a lot of texture.” Before long, Huston realized he was willing “to sort of just give up this idea of knowing what the ending is or where we’re headed, for that matter, and really trust Mitch completely—that he’d be taking me somewhere that may surprise me… It kind of became less plot-driven for me, and more about analyzing the character within different circumstances and kind of evolving the character through the different circumstances, as each episode allows me to do.”
Another appeal for Huston was the fact that Starz is run by Chris Albrecht, who ran HBO when Huston made John Adams for the network, and that Albrecht clearly believed in Magic City: he guaranteed eight episodes before anything was ever shot, and ordered a second season before the first episode of the first season even aired. (Unfortunately, the first episode of the series, which some have over-simplistically called “a Jewish Mad Men” or “a Jewish Sopranos,” aired on the first night of Passover, which kept many Jews from tuning in.) Huston explains, “Chris Albrecht is kind of an old-style studio boss, in the sense that there really is nobody in-between Mitch and Chris. So if it’s okay with Chris and it’s okay with Mitch, that’s it. There’s no big sort of corporate committee making those kinds of decisions. And there is such a wonderful sense of freedom that one gets because of that. “He goes on, “There’s no censorship. In fact,” he chuckles, clearly thinking of the nudity, sex, and violence that pervade the series, “Quite the opposite!”
No character in the series pushes the edge more than Huston’s. We don’t know much about why Ben Diamond became “The Butcher”—just that he had a Dickensian sort of childhood, growing up in an orphanage in which he was literally kept in the dark, which might explain his predilection for sunbathing by his pool in Miami. Huston, who says he usually takes “ a great deal of pride in dissecting my character like getting a scalpel out and prodding their organs and seeing what it is that they feel,” eventually resolved to “just give that all up and play him like the badass that he is.” (Case-in-point: his great monologue about “the scorpion and the frog.”) He says he also has drawn bits and pieces of his characterization from the lives of real-life gangsters Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, and Johnny Rocco, the fictional gangster that Edward G. Robinson plays in the 1948 John Huston-directed film Key Largo.
As our conversation winds down, I hesitantly ask Huston if one other person factored into the formulation of his character: Noah Cross, the villain that his father played in Chinatown (1974). The two characters strike me as similarly patriarchal, condescending, calculating, menacing, and unpredictable, to the extent that I almost expect to hear someone say to Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s character, “Forget it, Ike. It’s Miami.” Huston agrees. “It’s uncanny. I suppose it’s because I am my father’s son. [Ben] has this sort of slightly reptilian thing—these movements, these arm movements… I just see my father’s movements in me… Is it my father, is it Noah Cross? Is it my father, is it Noah Cross? It sort of reminds me of Faye Dunaway’s line, ‘I’m her mother! I’m her sister!’ You know, the back and forth?”
With one last bit of help from his beloved father, Danny Huston is making his own mark.