Jack Huston on the light side of things

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It’s not customary for writers to interject themselves in a story. But then again, these are not normal times. The day I spoke with Jack Huston on the phone was March 19, 2020. On that day, the United States confirmed a total of 14,200 cases of COVID-19 and 187 related deaths. The Denver Nuggets and LA Lakers confirmed players had tested positive. NASA suspended work on the moon rocket. The Senate unveiled a $1 trillion-plus economic stimulus package. California issued the first statewide lockdown order. Donald Trump promoted the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine by remarking, “it’s not going to kill anybody.”

Week’s prior to that day, I prepped for my call with Jack Huston the way I would for any story. I knew he was an exceptional actor from his work on Boardwalk Empire. He played Richard Harrow, a veteran from WWI who was badly disfigured and covered half of his face with a painted mask. He approached this role with a stillness that invoked reverence and affliction, all at the same time. Harrow was such a spectacular character, remarkably nuanced and strangely accessible. In our conversation, Jack told me that reading the script for Boardwalk Empire made him realize he was more of a character actor than a “so-called leading man,” which was something he was being pushed into quite heavily. Leading man or not, Jack Huston has an excess of renowned work with projects like Factory Girl, American Hustle, Ben-Hur, The Irishman, Earthquake Bird, and much more. Others such as Fargo, Manhunt and Antebellum are on the way or ready for quarantine binging.

What I didn’t know about Jack was that he’s proportional to royalty, in more ways than one. His mother is Lady Margot Lavinia, a progeny of the first Prime Minister of Great Britain. On his father’s side, Jack is the fourth generation of actors from the house of Huston. His great-grandfather, Walter Huston, was an Academy Award winning actor who was famous for his performance in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. His grandfather, John Huston, directed that film and they became the first father-son duo to win Oscars for the same movie. Other family members in the filmdom of Hollywood include his father, Tony Huston, a writer and director. His aunt, Anjelica Huston, an Academy Award winning actress and forever Morticia Addams in my heart. Then there’s his uncle, Danny Huston, an esteemed writer, actor and director. Although his succession is quite fascinating, what I discovered during our call was much more intriguing—the kind of viscerous details that couldn’t be found on a Wikipedia page.

Jack Huston is kind. He is a family man who put his career on the bylines in order to put them first. He is a perpetual optimist, grounded in judicious and metaphysical intelligence. That’s why he brings a humanistic impression to even the most vile and abhorrent roles. He believes in people, their capacity and inclination towards good. This allows him to go into the depths of his characters’ psyches. Jack is an artist and a dreamer; he aspires to create more beauty and share it with the world. Most notably, he seems to have an inspiring and novel aptitude for looking on the bright side.

As I write this, the date is May 5, 2020. There are currently 1,181,510 cases of COVID-19 and 68,279 related deaths. The White House plans to disband the coronavirus task force. Elon Musk and Grimes name their baby X Æ A-12. Therapy alpacas are visiting the elderly through windows in California. Young New Yorkers launched a delivery service to help those in need. A high school in Ohio holds front lawn graduation ceremonies. A 10-year-old donated her savings to first responders through gift cards that support local businesses. Global greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to fall 8% this year. 

Well then, Jack Huston, here’s to looking on the bright side.

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Hi Jack, how are you? I hope your family and loved ones are staying happy and healthy.

I’m really good dear; you’re so sweet for asking. Yes, everyone’s healthy. Happy. We’re in the midst of practicing social distancing, so we’re kind of locked up at home in LA. But, you know, just keeping safe. Most important thing is the safety of others, those of the older generations. How about yourself? Are you locked up and doing the same thing?

Absolutely, I’m in Downtown LA. I’m doing the same thing, kind of locked myself away in my little loft. It’s quite surreal right now.

It really is. It’s sort of like we’re living in a movie right now. I was leafing through Netflix yesterday and I was seeing that Contagion and Outbreak are like the most watched movies.

Oh, no! How could you watch that?

No, (laughs) I didn’t watch it! I would not watch it. I was like; this is not the time to go on that. I feel like once I start going down the rabbit hole, I’ll probably be at a gunshot in a few days.

I saw the same thing, all of these movies are trending. I’m like, how can you put yourself in that mind space? We’re actually living it right now.

So crazy. I spoke to a friend of mine who was with his 15-year old son who hadn’t seen all these movies. He was like; we basically watched 28 Weeks Later, Outbreak and Contagion to prepare him for the war. I was like, what have you done to him? Oh, please, please. Let’s put positive thoughts out there for a quick, speedy and safe recovery.

“A life without cringe-worthy moments is no life at all, really.”

I feel like that’s something my parents would do. They’d be like, listen, watch these movies, we are only trying to protect you.

I think I’ve seen all those movies so I still have them in the back of my mind. I feel they prepared me a little more, but you know, it’s so funny. There’s two ways to look at this thing. I’ve been watching online, a sort of beautiful coming together of communities, like in Italy. They’re singing songs and passing coffee to neighbors. I was like, that’s beautiful. Suddenly people are sort of coming together, humanity surprises you. Then, you’re seeing things like the canals in Venice. Clear water and you’re like, wow, this is amazing. Maybe it’s a moment where Mother Earth is getting a break for a second and has a moment to clear up a little. In all of the pain and suffering, which is just horrific, sort of like bizarre silver linings. And that’s the sort of thing that I guess we have to look for, silver linings.

Absolutely. You know, I actually had the same exact thought as you. I haven’t said it out loud, so I’m glad that you said it first. I have these moments where I think the world is moving so fast and maybe Mother Earth is just like, I need you all to pay attention to what you’re doing to me. Maybe it’s a good thing that we’re taking time out. It’s what everybody needs, you know, to slow down and connect.

I think life in general isn’t it? I mean, obviously there’s the horror of what something like this does and the lives lost in it. That’s never going to be a good thing because there’s so much fear and we can be consumed by it. Fear normally leads to rather dark times. Whereas if you try to find some semblance of life or humanity or beauty, I think in a sense, cleanses the soul and makes one appreciate what we do have. And I’m really all for this whole thing after seeing the ice caps melt, the sea level rise and the pollution reaching an all-time high. It’s amazing that literally in the space of two weeks, you see the canals cleaned up and pollution, sort of disperse for a second.

Truly, I completely agree. I have to say, it was really interesting because as a writer, of course, I have to do some investigatory work before a chat like this. I actually had no idea you had such a dynamic and artistic family. Would those be appropriate explicative words to describe them?

Wow, that’s a lovely way to describe them. I think they’d be very happy with that description.

I found your family fascinating. I was curious, did you ever have a moment where you were like, my family is just not like other families?

It’s interesting because I grew up in England, as you can probably tell from my accent. Growing up there, I was aware of it. I wasn’t mired in it, if that makes sense. If I was in America when I was growing up, I think that could play a different tune cause we’re in the heart of the film business world over here. But, I was so lucky I could see it from afar and on school breaks, come over and visit my aunts, my uncle, my father and I got to experience what they actually did. It always was magical to me. I was rather lucky; I got to experience it from afar. And it was also very much my choice to enter into the so-called “family business”. I just fell in love with all aspects of filmmaking. 

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“I’ve always taken on characters that I felt I haven’t done before. I like it when it scares me and I think, oh my God, maybe I can’t do this.”

Yes, it’s really incredible and I think it’s remarkable that you have this kind of awareness of how special it is.

I feel like it’s incredibly special that someone gets to experience their great-grandfather in that way. Not many people can watch 20-30 movies and sort of see their great-grandfather perform and do these sorts of amazing things. And he was one of the great character actors. I was thinking now for my children, they can watch their great-great-grandfather on the screen and few people can do that. It’s a real blessing and something amazing.

I remember your performance on Boardwalk Empire. It was really phenomenal. I’m wondering, after hearing you talk about this, if you could go back in time and give the younger version of yourself a bit of advice, what do you think you would say knowing what you know now?

Relax, probably. When I say relax, I mean everything happens when it’s meant to happen. I’m quite a believer in fate. I’m never someone who felt necessarily bad if I didn’t get a role because I normally felt that it wasn’t meant to be. And the roles that I did get I always thought that it was meant to be. If I could tell my younger self something it would be, you’re not right for everything. So just relax, take your time and appreciate those moments where you get a glimpse of something that you really can do something special with. Everyone’s on their own path. Everyone’s got their own journey. And how you get there is part of the fun.

It’s one of those things that you learn as you progress in life and in your career. It seems like acting has always been kind of at the forefront for you. Do you have any secret talents we should know about? Like, if you weren’t acting, what do you think you would be doing otherwise?

I actually got a scholarship for art when I was younger and I was and still am quite an avid painter. I was going to go into the arts one way or another. It was just a matter of whether that was going to be with a pencil or a paintbrush in my hand, or if it was going to be performing. What I’ve been working on a lot recently is writing. We’re in the middle of negotiating our third project that we’re about to sell and get into production. I really enjoyed the whole process because I think I have always wanted to write and I have an eye for directing as well. I’ve been very fortunate to work with and lucky enough to call some of the great directors, my friends. I could very happily sit back on a set and just watched these guys and girls, you know, work. So long story short, whatever I would have done, I think it would have been in the arts.

What you said, for me, that resonates so much. We’re very lucky that we’re surrounded by fascinating, interesting, artistic people who want to bring beautiful things into the world, like yourself.

Oh, that’s so sweet. It’s like when you go to a party or a dinner party, you have a conversation every now and again that’s so uplifting and so sort of unexpected and you’re like, God that will keep me going for a while. You know what I mean? That alone will keep me going because I think, you know, someone, probably someone like me who just enjoys that experience, the contact.

I want to flip it on the other side because I feel the beauty of everything that you get to do, but I’m curious. You have such an amazing career, obviously. If you think back, do you have a moment where it makes you cringe or you’re just like, ugh, that was just terrible.

You know what, it’s so funny. There’s so many of these perfect cringe-worthy moments. Those mornings or those days where you do something, where you wake up and go, did that happen? Well, there’s two ways to look at. One, I always say, is it makes me who I am today. So you know, in a sense it’s in your chest. A life without cringe-worthy moments is no life at all, really. The other is the Harry Dean Stanton philosophy, which is we’re all nothing. And I say that not so much in a nihilistic way. I say that in a rather beautiful way. I think about the universe and us being on this minuscule planet in comparison to what our galaxy, let alone in the universe is. In a million years from now, none of it really matters. So all we have is the present and what we have is to live for today. As soon as we get into regret or cringing and stuff like that, then we’re losing precious time.

I feel like that really ties back into what you’re saying about your younger self to just relax, because these things are going to happen and you know, what can you do but be present?

Some really good advice? It will always feel better tomorrow. Everything across the board, it all gets better over time.

Speaking of things getting better, I started watching Manhunt during my quarantine. I am a huge true crime fan, so this is just perfect. How were you able to prepare for a role where you have to connect to a character like the Unabomber? Especially somebody we can’t completely understand, really. What was that process like for you?

That’s a really good question. Especially on something like Manhunt cause you know, Eric Rudolph was despicable. He was an interesting one for me cause I’d never played someone quite so terrible. After reading his manifesto, the accounts from various people who had interactions with him and his family members, what surprised me was that no one expected this of Eric. No one thought it was him. But, what you found out is that he must’ve been planning this for years. He had a god complex is what it came down to. He wanted to be famous. He tricked everybody and that to me, is a true sociopath. If you sit down and speak to him, you wouldn’t know he’d done anything wrong. He didn’t even blink. He was able to kill without rhyme, reason or guilt. He would use certain versions; like he was doing it to save babies or he was doing it because it was a God’s wish. And, none of it was true. The man was a killer, and he was horrific.

It’s such a crazy, crazy story and you just can’t stop watching. I know you have another project coming up with Janelle Monae, who I admittedly am obsessed with. I actually don’t know much about this project. Can you tell me a little bit more about Antebellum?

You know what, we’ve been sort of sworn to secrecy.

No, tell me all your secrets!

It’s by the producer of Get Out and Us. I played this role before I went into Manhunt and it gave me an insight into playing somebody truly awful. This isn’t giving anything away, but he’s a real character. I’ve always taken on characters that I felt I haven’t done before. I like it when it scares me and I think, oh my God, maybe I can’t do this. This was the first time I actually broke down on the phone with the directors because the script had such a serious effect on me. I said to them, I don’t know how I can do this. But, that’s what makes me want to do it that much more. So, I used my hatred for that character as my tool. And Janelle’s just a tour de force. Sadly, the release got pushed. Understandably, but I think it’s a film that people are gonna want to go sit and watch in the theater because it’s cinematic, it’s an experience.

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“If I could tell my younger self something it would be, you’re not right for everything. So just relax, take your time and appreciate those moments where you get a glimpse of something that you really can do something special with.”

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I have to say, I think that’s brave. You know, it’s incredible that you pushed yourself to go there. Well, thank you for sharing as much as you can. As you’re talking about this, I have this thought. You have played so many different dynamic characters and I’m wondering if there’s something that you’re dying to try out?

It’s funny because one of the films I have written is an animation. I’ve got children and I wrote a movie that my kids would want to go see. It was such a fun thing to do and be a part of, and I would love to voice a character. I’ve always had such fun playing characters and I believe that a lot comes from the voice. It’s amazing that our voices are as recognizable as someone’s face. And that voice tells you so much about who they are, how they speak, the tone, the pacing. So a lot of my characters that I’ve played have stemmed from, or started with what do they sound like? That’s why I love animation.

That sounds like it’d be a lot of fun. And then later in the spring, which I actually was able to watch, you have Above Suspicion coming out.

Oh, I didn’t know you’ve watched that. Oh, how cool. I haven’t seen it.

You haven’t watched your own movie?! I must know some important people.

I saw a very, very early cut, like ages ago. I’ve always found it quite hard to watch what I do. I like watching it earlier on when I’m not watching myself and I’m sort of helping with the editing process. I find it actually cringe-worthy to watch myself. But, I’m very excited about that movie.

I do have to say, I am so excited for Fargo. I’ve watched only a few episodes, but so far my thoughts are, there is such a range in this season. Like there are moments where it’s just deep and heavy and it really resonates because it connects to so much that’s going on in the world. Like, our social climate. But then there’s this, there’s this nuance where the humor is kind of perfect. I would love to hear your perspective on working on this project.

Well, it’s amazing. It’s the first time I went for a meeting because I am such a fan of the show. I’ve known Noah Hawley, who you can literally say is a genius. That man, really, I don’t even know how he does it. He’s just a surprise across the board. I went and sat down with him and he very vaguely said, I’m thinking about a couple of characters that you might be right for. What do you think? And for the first time, I was like, I’m in. If you want to put me in it, I’ll do it. I’ll do anything. I don’t need to read anything. He’s somebody you would pay to go and work with them.

You’re like, I will clean the set afterwards. Whatever you need me to get involved.

I will walk in with a glass of water and I will serve it happily. He wrote this role called Odis Weff, who’s a detective in 1950’s Kansas City. And I would say it’s the closest to Boardwalk Empire as any character that I’ve done. So, I really got to let loose. My character, he suffers from severe OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. But, this is a time where they hadn’t diagnosed OCD. I don’t want to use the word “freak”, but that’s what they thought of him. They see him twitching, doing certain things. One character says to him, have you got the devil in your heart? They think of him in a horrific way. But, he’s a wonderful character because there’s so much heart inside of him, and he falls between the lines of good and bad. It was so out of body, which I always sort of search for when you’re playing a character, where you can truly lose yourself. Fargo tows the line between comedy and drama so perfectly in this dark and precise way. It’s shot in such a way that’s obviously homage to the Cohen brothers who do it so seamlessly, empathically. Anyway, you’re surrounded by actors like Chris Rock who’s just doing something that you’ve never seen him do before. Everybody’s playing a character, like a real character. I can’t wait to see what everyone has done.

I have to be honest. This season it is so, so good. And again, I’ve only seen a couple episodes, so I’ll be binging while we’re social distancing. Since you know what I’ll be up to, what would we find you and your loved ones doing if we popped in one evening?

Um, well at the moment, my kiddies go to a French school in Los Feliz, but we’re doing homeschooling. It’s close quarters right now where we’re all rather on top of each other, but I’m such a homebody. There’s nothing I enjoy more than being home with the family. So much that I actually took a year off work. I’d been working so much and decided to retire for a year just so I could take them to school and put them to bed every night.

That’s so nice! Like you said, as terrible as everything is there are some elements for us to find some hope and joy. I’m definitely wishing you and your family and everyone the best during all of this time.

Oh, you too Sam. That’s so sweet of you to say. And you know, stay safe cause they are saying social distancing is the way that we can stop it in its tracks. So, hopefully we get over this with as few casualties as possible. At least we will come together and we can help those in need. All those nurses, doctors, the people who are going in and working tirelessly all this time. It just shows that we really do have a lot of good in the world.

Well, thank you so much, Jack. I’m wishing you all the best.

Anything else you need? If you need dogs, maybe, I’m around. I’m not going anywhere, you can call me anytime.

I’m sure we’ll be chatting again sooner than later.