Danny Huston on playing villains, Nick Cave, and more
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: As the son of legendary director John Huston, it probably didn’t surprise anyone when Danny Huston decided to step behind the camera himself, though his slow, steady transition from director to actor was one that did surprise Huston himself. Since appearing in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas as “Bartender #2,” Huston has gone on to play the heavy in several films, including X-Men Origins: Wolverine. He can currently be seen as Ben Diamond on the Starz series Magic City, which is currently filming its second season.
Magic City (2012-present)—“Ben ‘The Butcher’ Diamond”
Danny Huston: Mitch Glazer, a dear friend of mine and a family friend, said, “I’m developing something that you might be interested in, but I want to approach you with it in the correct manner and speak to your agent or something like that.” And I said, “No!” [Laughs.] “Give me the script!” And he said, “Well, I’ve got [episode] one, I’m working on two, three is almost finished…” “Give me all three! Give me as much as you can!” I started reading them, and the character of Ben Diamond is so rich that I became excited very quickly.
The A.V. Club: You’d done films and miniseries, but you’d never done a proper TV series. Had you been looking for one, or was it strictly a case where Mitch offered you something you couldn’t resist?
DH: I wasn’t looking for a series at all. The whole thing of doing a TV series, I find it very daunting not knowing where the story’s going. Also, from an acting point of view, not being able to… If you know there’s going to be a big shootout at the end, you can do a slow burn and you can kind of taper these things, because you know where the story’s going. That’s really all I’m interested in, ultimately: the story. The acting is secondary. So this whole thing, I found it strange. But having read the first two or three scripts, I could see it was going for more of a long form. The character doesn’t explain everything about himself, so there’s mystery to him. He’s pretty bad. There are no good qualities to him. [Laughs.] And I don’t think they’ll suddenly come out. Which is another thing I like about him.
AVC: Not that you haven’t played bad guys in the past.
DH: I love playing bad. But my whole thing is usually villains that don’t know that they’re evil. I think this guy does. [Laughs.] He’s bad, and he knows it. And he’s kind of a realist about it. I think in terms of Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. Edward G. Robinson is someone else I thought about a lot while approaching Ben Diamond. I just didn’t want to make him that likeable. Which I think, ironically, is why people do like him.
AVC: Well, this is an era where anti-heroes have become heroes.
DH: Yeah! And what’s great, too, is that Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s character is not necessarily good, either. It’s not like I’m the Devil taking advantage of some poor soul. He’s more than happy to sell little bits of his soul, and I’m delighted about it. You would not want Ben Diamond to do you a favor. I think even if he offered to open the door for you, you’d be like, “No, no, that’s okay!” You’d do well to stay way away from Ben Diamond.
AVC: Particularly if you’re a dog.
DH: I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and asked if I can take care of their neighbor’s dog for them. [Laughs.] It seems to be a quality that doesn’t belong exclusively to Ben Diamond, that element where something or someone who makes a continuous sound can lead to murderous results.
AVC: The killing of the dog almost felt like a “so now do you see how bad a guy he is?” moment.
DH: I think you’re right; it is a defining moment. And people seem to enjoy the… I won’t say the horror of it, but the cold-bloodedness. And it’s odd, isn’t it, how somehow we’re used to shootouts and people killing each other in large numbers, but when it comes to pets, to dogs, we’re aghast?
AVC: It’s certainly not the worst thing he does in the first season, but it does seem to be the one that caused the most people to go, “Oh, he is just awful!”
DH: Well, there’s also the way he quite logically says, “I’m on the phone.”
AVC: You mentioned that you’d basically seen the first three scripts before you ever signed on to the show, but what aspects of Ben Diamond’s storyline proved the most surprising to you as the season progressed?
DH: Well, I must say that I’ve known Mitch for a long time, and he’s the sweetest, most polite, kind, and thoughtful person. And every time I read a new episode, I feel utterly surprised. Surprised that this kind of material comes out of someone who’s such a gentle spirit, but also surprised at the direction he’s taking it. It’s a real page-turner. The show really speaks to me, to the point where every time I get a new episode I literally hold the script tightly in my hands and rush to whatever corner I can get to as quickly as possible and read it. Usually, I’m shocked and sometimes need time to recover from the direction that he’s taking Ben Diamond. And the thing that always surprises me is how, somehow, it’s logical. As with the way Ben says to his wife Lily, “I’m on the phone,” it makes some horrible sense. So it doesn’t seem gratuitous, like he’s just taking it in some certain direction for shock value, but it does seem to reflect the core of the character. And he even takes that further, insofar as his inner sexual darkness and the way that this relationship between Ben, Stevie, and Lily has been turning. It’s a love triangle, one which I’ve never really seen before.
AVC: What did you think when you learned of his sexual predilections?
DH: Well, the watching them through the glass… It’s fun in visual terms, of course, and has sort of a delicious darkness to it. But the voyeuristic quality that he has and the triangle that’s developed between these three characters is virtually insane. It’s wonderful.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)—“Bartender #2”
AVC: You’d directed a few films by the time you turned up in Leaving Las Vegas, including Mr. North and Becoming Colette, but that seems to have been a turning point in terms of you deciding to go in front of the camera on a regular basis.
DH: Yeah, I started behind it and I had no intentions at all of getting in front of it, but years were going by as I waited for the eternal green light to get my films made. I think that a fellow director out of the kindness of his heart saw that I was struggling, and he said, “You know, you do books on tape, you’ve got a good voice, maybe you can help us out and do this little role.” And that’s how Bartender #2 happened, and then other small roles happened.
Ivansxtc (2000)—“Ivan Beckman”
DH: This whole advent to digital and being able to shoot films without having to ask the studio’s permission was very exciting, and with [director Mike Figgis], we wrote the script on music sheets for Timecode, trying to explore this new medium. I also played the security guard and would dress up and try to help the actors with their timing. So ending up in that film was almost sort of an accident.
Then I did this thing called Ivansxtc with my friend Bernard Rose. He had finished making Anna Karenina in Russia and wasn’t happy with the way the film turned out. And he and I were just sitting around and bitching and moaning and groaning about the state of the film world and how hard it was to make anything and how we always had to get permission from somebody else to make anything and the amount of money it cost. Basically, we just wanted to stop bitching. And his girlfriend at the time said, “Why don’t you guys shut up and make a film?” And we’re like, “Honey, it’s much more complicated than that.” [Laughs.] But she said, “No, it’s not.” She was a documentary filmmaker, and she said, “I just picked up a new Sony camera. Why don’t you guys try using that?” So we thought of Tolstoy, having just finished working on Anna Karenina, and we thought, “Well, there’s this sort of long short story called The Death Of Ivan Ilyich that may convert into a Hollywood story, and we can just shoot it in our backyard.” So we shot some tests, and we thought, “Yeah, maybe we can do it!” And we did. It was done without any expectation, we weren’t being ambitious; we just were true to our feelings and emotions and made the film that we wanted to make. And it was picked up, it got great reviews, and I got an Independent Spirit Award nomination. So suddenly I was recognized as an actor, which wasn’t my intention at all!
John Adams (2008)—“Samuel Adams”
DH: It was great working with Tom Hooper. Paul Giamatti was great, of course. It was also great playing Samuel Adams—the man, not the beer—and getting to play in that period. You know, the great thing about acting or, indeed, filmmaking in general, is that we’re all given a reason to do research. You kind of have to, really, if you want to know what you’re doing, but it opens up this whole new understanding. It was great filming in Virginia, but it was hard. It was really long hours, which is another reason I’m so impressed with Paul Giamatti. The dialogue kept changing and he had all of these big speeches. It really was incredible to watch. Tom Hooper is quite a taskmaster. The sets felt very authentic. Nothing was starchy. But I don’t think we used any original locations, unfortunately. Everything was built.
DH: Right. What was I in it for, a few seconds? [Laughs.] One of the reasons I did the first one was because I was so sure there was going to be a second one. Well, that and I loved the mechanical owl in the original when I was a kid. But the idea that I could stand around on Mount Olympus with Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes, all of us pretending we’re gods, was just something I couldn’t refuse. It was just too much fun. Regressing back to my childhood a bit. As for the second one, I believe I did at least get a few minutes that time.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2004)—“Ty Caulfield, Casino Manager”
DH: Wow! Yes, that was a fun scene. It was a friend of mine who said, “They’re looking for someone to play a baddie for CSI,” and I just raised my hand and said, “Here I am!” [Laughs.] And it was a nice dialogue-heavy scene. I’d love to do more of those kind of one-off appearances. You’re like a butterfly, just kind of fluttering from place to place. You grab a quick taste, then you get out of there.
Children Of Men (2006)—“Nigel”
DH: A wonderful film. You know the Pink Floyd album with the flying animals? When Alfonso Cuarón said, “We’re going to shoot at this place called Battersea Power Station,” I said, “You’ve gotta be kidding! Can we have a flying pig?” He said, “Absolutely! That’s a great idea!” The human race is basically going to be extinct, and this man is saving this art, including the statue of David. It was just too wonderful a thing. But primarily I feel that the film was so relevant to me. It was when it came out, and it still is now. It’s a really wonderful, hard look at the potential future. I really loved it, and I was very honored to be part of it.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)—“Stryker”
DH: I do like the character, I suppose. He’s twisted, one could say, and villainous. But I like to try and validate what is and isn’t the cause of a character’s evil or insanity, and Stryker uses being a parent—or, later, having a parental-like love—as an excuse, in a way. He’s a bit complex, with the love/hate that he has.
AVC: How was the big-budget superhero-movie experience?
DH: Oh, it was an absolute delight. It’s great to be able serve that large palette. Magic City is like that a bit as well, given that the hotel is kind of a microcosm of what’s going on in the world politically and represents the time, if a handsome one, with the wardrobe and the sets.
Marie Antoinette (2006)—“Emperor Joseph II”
DH: Yes, I believe I tried to offer the king a key into his sexual awareness. And it was great to work with Sofia [Coppola].
The Number 23 (2007)—“Isaac French / Dr. Miles Phoenix”
Hitchcock (2012)—“Whitfield Cook”
DH: Ah, yes, The Number 23. Again we’re back to darkness. [Laughs.] There, I’m fulfilling the paranoia that Jim Carrey’s receiving around him. I played that more as sort of a fantasy. I’m also fulfilling Hitchcock’s paranoia in the soon-to-be-released Hitchcock. I play Whitfield Cook, who’s a friend of Hitchcock’s wife, played by Helen Mirren, and Hitchcock has fantasies of killing me in the well-known manner from the shower sequence from Psycho.
Fade To Black (2006)—“Orson Welles”
DH: Oh, wow! You know, I think it was Marlene Dietrich who said that you should cross yourself before even mentioning Orson Welles’ name, and I felt sort of similar reverence, so I was petrified to step into Welles’ shoes, even for an instant. I had the luxury of meeting Orson Welles through my father, and I kind of waited for him to give me the okay from the heavens, then I finally felt some semblance of a gentle nudge and said, “Why not?”
AVC: How did you approach the task of playing him? People who cast large shadows often lend themselves to broad interpretations.
DH: Well, I avoided trying to do any sort of mimicry, per se, and just tried to play him in a sort of heartfelt way. Luckily, it was set in a period where he wasn’t that successful and wasn’t the mythical Welles that we’ve come to know, so he was sort of a weaker version of himself, kind of a downtrodden version. He’s embroiled in this real-life thriller, not dissimilar to one he made. I suppose it’s somewhat of a conceit. Now that I talk about it, it was the same approach as Hitchcock, where his life becomes not dissimilar to his film.
The Proposition (2005)—“Arthur Burns”
DH: I suppose evil is his lover, but he doesn’t necessarily see himself as that. He’s quite a romantic, in a cosmic kind of way. He has a strong sense of family. He has his own family values. He’s like a mystic. Yes, maybe a little psychotic, but I have great affection for Arthur Burns. I really do. He’s somebody who I think has a way of seeing the world that’s maybe not necessarily what we want to see, but it is a truth.
AVC: How was Nick Cave to work with?
DH: Fantastic. Nick would come in in his suit in the middle of Australia, and it was very hot. Beer has never tasted so good. But he was there for the rehearsals with Guy Pearce, and I said, “So how long have these guys been in jail? When did they come over?” Things like that. And Nick would roll his eyes and say, “Well, I don’t know!” [Laughs.] Well, okay! You know, I think of all the films I’ve done, it’s the one that stayed the closest to the original script. I wish it had gotten a bit more love, because it’s a film I absolutely adore. But with that said, Nick also said one of the most annoying things about it: “It took me three weeks to write the script: one week to figure out the script-writing program and two weeks to actually type out the story.” I’ve never had a script come that easy!