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December 19, 2013 5:55 pm
Most actors dream of becoming a star of the small screen, of the big screen or of the stage. At 31, Jack Huston has been all three – indeed, is all three at the same time. Best known as the disfigured but deadly hitman Richard Harrow in HBO’s much-lauded bootlegging gangster drama Boardwalk Empire, now in its fourth season, he is also currently starring in Strangers on a Train on the London stage and in cinemas in the Beat-era drama Kill Your Darlings and con-trick caper American Hustle , which opens in the UK and US today. In some families this might be considered overachieving but Jack is a Huston – grandson of John, great-grandson of Walter, nephew of Anjelica and Danny.
His Boardwalk Empire role, Harrow – a first-world-war veteran who wears a tin mask to hide facial disfigurement – has become one of the show’s most prominent and popular characters, but it didn’t start out that way. “I was only meant to do three episodes,” says Huston. “Then they wrote five and asked me back as a series regular.”
It’s not hard to see why. Harrow was written as an enigmatic man of few words, but through vocal quirks and facial tics, Huston created a character who is both coldblooded killer and touchingly sensitive soul. In a show short on likeable figures, he represents a human face – even behind the mask. Nevertheless, Boardwalk Empire is a show with a high bodycount – Michael Pitt’s major character was unceremoniously dispatched in series two – and it is always clear that no one is safe. “You’re constantly waiting for your time to come,” admits Huston. “Anyone can die and that’s the great thing about the show – that’s what gives it its tension. You don’t know who’s going to go next.”
It is hard to square the chatty, energetic actor I meet in a central London hotel with the haunted, monosyllabic character he portrays. And this, it turns out, has worked in Huston’s favour. “Luckily what I play is so not me that the best thing the job has done is opened a door to characters,” he says. “People come to me with things that aren’t anything like me, whereas before they wouldn’t.”
There is little danger that he will become overly associated with one character, a fate that has put the brakes on the careers of other stars of long-running series. “If you’re playing the title character it’s very hard to shake that off, especially if it’s what has made you famous. [Boardwalk star] Steve Buscemi going into it was Steve Buscemi before but there are certain actors who will get their fame through a show and it can be hard to shake off, as it can be when you do a franchise.” Chief among the latter category would be Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe, alongside whom Huston appears in Kill Your Darlings , playing a young Jack Kerouac to Radcliffe’s freshman Allen Ginsberg. “Daniel is doing a great job because he’s making choices on the stage and screen that are really shaking it up and going against what people expect. There are going to be times when it doesn’t work and you have to be open to that but at least you can say ‘I’m taking risks.’”
For Huston taking risks has meant a return to theatre. Born in London, he studied for two years at the prestigious drama-oriented school Hurtwood House (in the same year as Emily Blunt) but then skipped acting school itself and worked as a stage manager and understudy before moving to Los Angeles at 20. Small TV and film appearances followed, eventually leading to his big Boardwalk break. He had not done theatre for 11 years when he took on the role of Bruno in Strangers on a Train . The fact that the play is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel rather than on Hitchcock’s film gave Huston more of a free hand and the part is certainly a radical departure from Boardwalk’s Harrow.
“What I’m playing on stage is out there,” says Huston. “He’s a real cad – very gregarious, very flamboyant.” Like many actors, he found the shift back to stage acting something of a jolt. “Whatever I was doing, the director would say ‘go bigger’ and I thought ‘I can’t possibly go bigger.’ On screen, when you think you’re being small you can go even smaller. The screen is amazing at catching every glance of the eye or nod of the head, the most subtle inflections, whereas the stage is the polar opposite. Performing to a thousand people, you’re basically yelling for most of it.”
It was “yelling” that got the family into the business to begin with, when Jack’s great-grandfather Walter ran away from home in Canada to join a touring theatre company, before ending up in Vaudeville alongside the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and the Marx Brothers.
Does Huston get irked by constant references to his acting dynasty background? “Not at all. I was told very early on by my uncle Danny: ‘You don’t want to be the asshole who says I’m just my own person. Be proud.’” Jack was only five when his grandfather John, director of The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, died. His father Tony became a writer, Oscar-nominated for his adaptation of Joyce’s The Dead, but left movies – “He got disenchanted by the whole business of it all.” He now lives in New Mexico and works with falcons – peregrine, not Maltese. Jack remembers childhood visits to sets where aunt Anjelica was working: “I thought, this looks like fun – playing make-believe for a job.”
His own most recent attempt at make-believe is in American Hustle, an experience Huston describes as “going to the circus but in the best possible way”, referring to the unconventional working methods of writer-director David O. Russell. “It’s very easy to get lazy doing film and TV. It’s someone else’s close-up, you’re off camera, you can relax, there’s a lot of downtime. With David he likes to be on the whole time. It’s all shot on Steadicam – you don’t know when you’re on or off camera, you’re always ready, always in character. And across the board everybody brings their A-game. If someone says something to you, you’ve got to be right there to respond.”
It can be a dizzying process for the actors, who in American Hustle include Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro. “Afterwards you have no idea what you’ve done,” says Huston gleefully. “You finish the day and you’re like: ‘What just happened?’ It’s such a whirlwind that you can’t remember any of it.”
The same might be said of Huston’s life, I think as he downs an espresso and is whisked off for a radio appearance. Between plays, series and movies, he also found time to become a father earlier this year. It sounds exhausting – but for a rising star it’s the stuff that dreams are made of.
‘Strangers on a Train’ is at the Gielgud Theatre, London, until February 22, strangersonatrainlondon.com
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