JACK BE NIMBLE
“My family has done its best work through nepotism,” jokes Huston.
Jack Huston looks and sounds like what he is: the suave descendant of both Hollywood and British aristocracy. As such, he’s been something of a eugenic gift to casting agents searching for the swashbuckling toff, the vain rake, the well-coiffed douchebag in the bespoke suit, so careless with other peoples’ feelings. I mean, just look at him.
Until recently, those were the only parts he was being considered for (think Royce King in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), and this was getting him down. “I was about to quit,” he says. “I love playing characters, and I consider myself a character actor.” In 2009, at age twenty-seven, Huston gave his agent an ultimatum: if he didn’t break him out of his career prison playing good-looking men with bad values, he was out of the game for good. “I said, ‘Dude, I’m off. I want to move to Brazil and paint. I’m not enjoying this.’”
For Huston, who attended the elite Hurtwood House drama school in England, Hollywood is a family business. His grandfather was the legendary director John Huston, who made thirty-seven films, including The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen; his aunt is the actress Anjelica Huston, who won an Oscar for Prizzi’s Honor, which her dad directed; and his great-grandfather, Walter, won an Oscar, too, after being cast by his son in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. You might also remember his uncle Danny Huston from TV shows such as American Horror Story or Starz’s period drama Magic City.
“My family has done its best work through nepotism,” he jokes. Jack’s father is the actor Tony Huston, who married Lady Margot Lavinia Cholmondeley, whose family lineage branches back to Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister of England, as well as various Rothschilds and Sassoons (who, to add to the dark aristocratic glamour, were once involved in the Imperial opium trade).
In other words, the Brazil-painting-escape notion was a feasible lifestyle option for him. Huston was saved from that somewhat petulantly conceived tropical idyll by a doomed man — a grossly disfigured underworld assassin with a gurgling, resigned whisper of a voice named Richard Harrow — on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. He played the role, his face partly covered by a Phantom of the Opera–ish tin mask, for four seasons.
“I loved that guy,” says Huston. “As soon as I read the part, I thought, ‘He’s perfect.’ That’s the fun part of this job: you get to play people outside of yourself. I try to hide in characters. The time I feel best is when I’m unrecognizable. You can just disappear.” Surprisingly enough, his harrowing Harrow was a beloved character on the show, someone with such a tenuous hold on his humanity that he became profoundly sympathetic. It’s also the part that made Huston famous, even if he’s hardly recognizable on-screen.
“I lived with him for so long,” he says. “I really developed him as a character — almost as a person. He kept expanding and changing and morphing. I remember being so often deeply affected by him, walking from the set back to the trailer and finding myself almost weeping. He was so beautifully flawed. I miss him so much.”
While he was in Boardwalk Empire, Huston settled in New York’s East Village. He and his girlfriend, the model Shannan Click, soon had a daughter. (When we spoke, they were about to have their second child.) He did a few more movies, including David Chase’s baby boomer rock ’n’ roll fable Not Fade Away and a lyrical retelling of the emergence of the Beat Generation, Kill Your Darlings, in which he played a college age Jack Kerouac alongside Daniel Radcliffe’s Allen Ginsberg.
Now Huston’s doubling down on Hollywood: he’s moved to LA, and has made a war film called The Yellow Birds, based on the Kevin Powers novel, in which he plays a “beautifully tortured” sergeant who’s lost his mind after too many tours. He also plays the handsome cad (again?) Mr. Wickham in the film version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. “You want to hate Wickham but you have to like him,” he insists.
But the big news is that he’s just finished filming the latest remake of Ben-Hur. Yes, he plays the part which made Charlton Heston famous (long before he was a spokesperson for the NRA). It was directed by Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian-Kazakh director of the bloodsucker movies Night Watch and Day Watch, not to mention (and few ever do) Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
If that seems possibly inauspicious, Huston assures me that they do Ben-Hur proud. He says the new screenplay is closer to the 1880 novel on which all of the film adaptations — starting with the 1907 silent version — were based. Still, he knows that it’s the 1959 version with Heston to which everyone will be comparing the new film.
“I watched Ben-Hur a lot growing up,” he says. “It’s on TV around Christmas. I’d end up watching the whole thing, often with my dad.” The new version was even filmed in the same place, outside Rome, where the cast and crew spent almost six months. “I had to drop twenty-five to thirty pounds for the slave look and learn to drive the chariot with four horses. We did three months of just chariot work.”
When you re-make a movie like Ben-Hur, you had better get the chariot racing part right. “We had to blow it away,” he says. Bekmambetov is known for his felicity with special effects, but he didn’t want to sacrifice any of the ancient Roman grittiness of the story to CGI. “He wanted the actors to experience as much as possible,” says Huston. “When you’re doing it for real, you know the danger. You feel the exhilaration and excitement.”
Fortunately, Huston grew up around horses. “I was on a horse before I could walk,” he says. “I was very comfortable riding but nothing prepares you for having four horses behind the reins.” For one thing, stopping them took all his strength. “You would put your feet up and basically go vertical,” he says. “On the first day you think, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die, I’m going to die, I’m going to die.’ But by the next day, you don’t even think about it. You have to remove all those feelings and thoughts of, ‘Oh my God, this is fucking crazy!’”
Another helpful chariot racing tip: “They don’t go around corners, they drift.” “The great thing is that when you watch the film, you’ll really see it,” he says, referring to the fact that he risked his neck. “At the very least, it’s a new thing on my résumé.”