Danny Huston is one of those actors who sort of snuck up on us. He’s been around a good long time. He’s a part of one of Hollywood’s most cherished families. He’s been in dozens of high profile projects from esteemed filmmakers of all shapes and sizes and his performances have covered the entire spectrum. He’s one of the most reliable character actors there are and having him on an ongoing television series is a major coup for Mitch Glazer and company. In Magic City he plays a ruthless and devilish criminal named Ben Diamond who has his hands in everything going on in the Miami scene and the role really allows him to tap into his inner fire and dish out some really crazy work. I had a chance to chat with him for a while and the man who emerged from my phone line was a pleasant and candid fellow who could have easily been vague and standoffish considering a life spent so close to the public eye for so many years.
Nick Nunziata: So you play kind of a dick on this show.
Danny Huston: (Laughs).
Nick Nunziata: Seriously, it has to be a blast to play that character.
Danny Huston: I truly enjoy the whole setting of the piece, that time in America. The political goings on and these characters. The Meyer Lansky/Bugsy Siegel types which not only belong to history but film. Yet the subject of 1959 in Miami is a fresh one. It’s great to play these characters that belong to our history that are somewhat undiscovered and to portray them in a way that doesn’t just portray them as… as a dick. He has all the prickly qualities of a character of that kind. I love playing his darkness, I love the wonderful text that is often provided by Mitch Glazer. The dialogue is almost at times Biblical. I love having Ike (Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s character) stand in the heat as I deliver another parable and he doesn’t know if it’s the last time he hears anything. There’s a wonderful dynamic between the central character and my character.
Nick Nunziata: It is a lot of fun to watch. Having been a film actor for so long and having worked with literally the best filmmakers in the world. How has it been developing and nurturing a character over the long form of television? In the past working in the medium was almost considered slumming for film actors and now it obviously isn’t. Has all that time to invest in a character changed your approach?
Danny Huston: It’s something I was cautious about. I read the first three episodes before becoming attached. It has, as you say, become a wonderful long form. Like reading a novel. You can enjoy each chapter and in that sense you’re able to play these characters out more. Investigate them more instead of being trapped in the same act structure of film. It’s wonderful to explore but I was a bit scared because as an actor I work backwards I like to know what the end is so I can create whatever it needs to lead up to that end. Mitch is a friend and such a gentle and wonderful soul so I’m receiving these episodes and am incredibly shocked at the delight he takes in taking my character Ben Diamond into extremely dark places. The steps in which Mitch Glazer is taking the character is real rollercoaster for me. I clutch these screenplays and rush to whatever corner I can find to read them.
Nick Nunziata: I love how Ben has a very unique code. We’ve seen a lot of bad guys and shades of gray archetypes in cinema but there’s something weird about this character which we’ve really only cracked the surface of.
Danny Huston: Yes. I agree in the way in which you’re asking the question. I like query each time I read what his diabolical nature actually is. On one sense he knows how to work this criminal world I suppose in the way a great poker player plays. There’s a lot of bluffing. You don’t know quite where you stand with Ben Diamond at every given moment. It can all turn so quickly. But he understands the criminal world where at times he seems unreasonable but it’s perfectly logical.
Nick Nunziata: It’s an interesting time with television filled with so many big and iconic characters and coming into that tapestry with Magic City is daunting. Having been through these first eight episodes you folks have really set yourself up to have something with a foothold all your own, which is really hard to do.
Danny Huston: Oh yes.
Nick Nunziata: Was there any trepidation on your part stepping into this world?
Danny Huston: I’d worked twice with HBO with John Adams directed by Tom Hooper and I did You Don’t Know Jack with Al Pacino. I realized we were able to reach a really wide audience with a very difficult subject. Theatrically it’d be impossible to get that kind of exposure. Cable has great marketing tools. We were able to approach difficult subjects for a wide audience. I realized then how strong and exciting cable is for subjects that are risque and taboo.
Nick Nunziata: Starz certainly doesn’t shy away from those things.
Danny Huston: No! Not at all. Quite the contrary. Scenes like the proof of my villainy where I shoot the dog. In films we can shoot as many people as we like but shoot a dog and it’s a no. Starz has no fear, but rather encourage that kind of approach. We are able to do whatever the hell we want and are encouraged to do so. That’s rare in a world that is so sensitive.
Nick Nunziata: That shooting of the dog wouldn’t have made it past the first test screening. There’d have been so many notes.
Danny Huston: I don’t think so. There’d be a lot of crosses on those cards. When you turn to cable you’re looking for something more daring. It’s not only that, but being able to explore a politcal time, subject or era that a novel would. You have liberties there. You can have an eight page dialogue scene. Episodes that are slower than others. So much different than a feature film.
Nick Nunziata: You had one of the more breakneck schedules of any actor I’ve ever seen so I can’t imagine you have the time to digest much of the media that’s out there but are you a fan of a lot of these shows in the new era of television?
Danny Huston: Absolutely. I watch my nephew Jack in Boardwalk Empire. His performance is stunning. Just to keep the nepotism healthy here, I watch my sister in Smash and we’re able to express ourselves in cable and television in a way we wouldn’t otherwise. Not that feature films… nothing better than a great movie. I just finished working with Hopkins in Hitchcock and that was a true joy and honor.
Nick Nunziata: I can’t wait. That book was so good and that is such a daunting and cinematic role. I can’t wait to see a new audience awakened to that man and that world.
Danny Huston: I’m in the shower and Hitchcock, Hopkins as Hitchcock… it’s hard to tell if he’s playing the character or the character is playing him. I’m in the shower with he and Helen Mirren as he’s stabbing me and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
Nick Nunziata: You’ve worked with Sayles and Hillcoat and Scorsese and the list goes on and on, a list of genius filmmakers in an era not known for their kind of individual works. You ever sit back and just digest the sheer body of work with these people you’ve amassed?
Danny Huston: Yes, when you mention it one does to take a moment’s pause. I’m so lucky to work with all these great guys and as a kid growing up watching my father work. It was absolutely fantastic. I love reliving those memories in a moment of quiet. I remember the time in Morocco with Michael Caine and Sean Connery and Christopher Plummer as my father made The Man Who Would Be King. To be around those kind of men as a teenager was sublime.
Nick Nunziata: How do we keep that style of filmmaking alive today?
Danny Huston: I think the men we spoke about and certainly I know my father was incredibly interested in digital. I think we kind of have to look forward. We can’t really make those films anymore. They don’t exist. The whole system is entirely different. But we can make films that are also extraordinary in different ways. In today’s age you can do things without a whole studio system behind you. It’s an exciting time.
Nick Nunziata: Can you give us a teaser of what to expect from Ben the Butcher next year?
Danny Huston: Ha, more darkness. It’s incredible how such a sweet spirit like Mitch Glazer can take this character and spiral into such unknown darkness. I recoil when I read it. The story of the hotel is a microcosm but these episodes are opening wider. The world is opening up as the world is coming down on this hotel.