Jack Huston’s Journey to the topBritish-born actor Jack Huston couldn’t be more at home in Hollywood these days. But, as he takes on his first lead role in this summer’s high-octane remake of Ben-Hur, it’s clear the 33-year-old didn’t choose to get there the easy way
Sitting in Hollywood’s infamous Roosevelt Hotel, the ballroom of which hosted the first Oscars ceremony back in 1929, Jack Huston is a man who seems at home where most would be overawed at the history surrounding him. But then, he’s a man who has forged his own way against the weight of expectation.
The grandson of legendary Hollywood director John Huston, and the nephew of Oscar-winner Anjelica Huston, his surname carries a reputation that could have opened many doors in Tinseltown. The English actor also has significant connections on the other side of the Atlantic, as his mother is a member of the British aristocracy.
But the 33-year-old has never traded on his famous name or privileged background, proving his own worth as an actor the hard way – with various complex and testing roles. Most notably he played the haunted and disfigured war veteran Richard Harrow in HBO series Boardwalk Empire – a role which required him to cover half his face with prosthetics, as well as taking on the role of beat generation icon Jack Kerouac in Kill Your Darlings, alongside Daniel Radcliffe.
These aren’t the choices of a man preoccupied with fame, but one choosing to define his own future. This approach has led Huston to his biggest part so far, the title role in the remake of Ben-Hur.
For many actors, their first starring role would come loaded with apprehension and risk, but Huston isn’t one to be intimidated by a challenge. He sat down with The Red Bulletin to talk about out what does scare him, what pushes him onwards and how driving a Roman chariot isn’t all that different to Formula One…
THE RED BULLETIN: We’re shooting in The Spare Room, a popular Los Angeles hangout. Do you have any other favourite Hollywood haunts?
JACK HUSTON: I had my own Hollywood haunt, a place that was called The Writer’s Room. It’s not around any more, but it was in the back of Musso & Frank. My granddad, F Scott Fitzgerald, [William] Faulkner – all these guys would go have dinner at Musso & Frank and then they would move to the back room where they would drink whiskey and talk ideas and write, and it was known as the Writer’s Room.
So we for a while turned it into a cool private club/bar. They hadn’t used the space in something like 70 years, so we got all the stuff out and then turned it into the greatest place. That was like an old-school spot. I have lots of other places that I’ve been going to for years, but I’m now a homebody. I like to be at home most of the time. I think that’s the great thing about LA – people come to see you or you go to see them.
You’re reinterpreting one of the most famous roles in cinema in Ben-Hur. Was that intimidating?
I’m one of those rather welcoming people where cinema is concerned; one of those people who realises it’s an art form, it’s a landscape. And if four painters look at the same landscape, you’re going to end up with four very different paintings. It’s a beautiful thing to be open-minded about this stuff. As an actor you look for roles that are even half as good as the role of Judah Ben-Hur, it’s one of the great roles. The reason why it’s been done so many times is because it’s just one of the great stories. The last version, the 1959 version, marked the first time anything of that size had been done. It was this spectacular, it was this grand, amazing, sweeping epic. They built the real set, they had real extras. But the style of acting and everything else changes through time, and on this one I was very pleased to ground the character in reality. I tried to bring a very serious realism to the character of Judah Ben-Hur. People try to change, but they really don’t. What I mean when I say that is we still love, we still hate, we still find redemption, we still find the little nuances in life. Even though it was 2,000-plus years ago that the story was set, Judah was still a man. And I tried to find the reality of who he was as best as I possibly could.
It’s also a tortured character in many ways. You’ve played many tortured men in the past, such as Richard Harrow. How do you draw on your own life to inform these performances?
It’s funny, it’s something within us, that trick of the mind that can use our own experiences to bond with the character. I always come to these parts from a place of love. I have to ‘fall in love’ with the character to play the character. If you fall in love with the character, you start to feel certain things, and I always become very attached to the characters I play.
With this role, like with Richard Harrow, I started to feel things that I didn’t know existed when I first read the script, or subsequent readings. It was six months of a brutal shoot – it was beautiful, but I lost 14kg during the shoot to play the slave, and when you see our faces in the chariot races, that’s really us in the chariots, there’s no green screen. When you put yourself in those situations and, at the same time, have this deep love for the character, I felt we started to get quite honest about the situation our characters were in.
So it’s really you driving chariots in the film. What was that like?
It was mad. I mean, when do you get the opportunity to do that in life? [Laughs.] That’s the crazy thing about this business; you get to experience things that you wouldn’t normally get the chance to experience. With the chariots, we really trained on those things, starting on a seated cart with two horses, then a seated cart with four horses, then you progress to a standing chariot with two horses, then finally with four horses. Whatever anyone tells you, it is hands down the scariest thing to do initially, and then you find your way. It was exhilarating, but absolutely crazy. There are moments where you’re absolutely convinced you’re going to die, but I think that only adds to the experience. The way I look at it, these guys were like the F1 racers of their time, it was like NASCAR. This was the first real sport, with the spectacle of the arena and the crowds, and we were feeling what they must have been feeling when we were doing it.
How do you cope with that fear? Are you naturally a bit of a thrillseeker?
Yeah, I’ve done lots of thrillseeking things. I’m quite an active person as you have to be in this business. With the chariots, like most things that are scary, the first day is the worst, the first day is always the hardest. Then, when you make it through the first day you think, “Oh, maybe I can get through this.” Rather than being scared or fearful, you start to embrace and enjoy it. I found such enjoyment in doing the chariot stuff; it was a beautiful thing.
There are many actors who would, and have,used their family name to get a leg up into the spotlight, but you haven’t. You’ve forged your own path and taken interesting roles that have defined you individually as an actor. Was it always important to distinguish yourself this way?
I remember something I was told by my uncle when I was very young. He said, “Don’t be one of those arseholes who feels ashamed of what your family has done – embrace it, be proud of it,” and I have always been incredibly proud of what they did. So I think that I’ve always been trying to make them proud, stand up and do the best possible work I can do. To achieve that, I think not going the average route makes real sense, because you have to take chances. Playing certain characters meant me taking a big chance, a real risk in some ways for my career. But if I didn’t think I could bring something interesting or new, I wouldn’t have even dared to step foot on a film set. The greater the risk, the greater the pay-off.
For every Ben-Hur there must be a lot of roles you didn’t win, how do you deal with disappointment?
It’s very hard to get started in this business, so there is a heck of a lot more disappointment when you start out. It’s an uphill battle and you’re just trying to make your way. I’ve had disappointments, but I think I became so attuned to it, I became a bit of a realist about it. You’re never going to be right for every role, so the ones you are right for are the ones worth fighting for.
This is one of the roles that you’ve fought for and won. Are you ready for the type of attention a successful blockbuster can bring?
It’s one of the few parts of this that I find quite difficult, because I’m kind of a homebody – I’ve got my kids, I’ve got my partner [American model Shannan Click]. I’ve also seen it from that very young age, going to visit my aunt, my grandfather, my uncle. So I understand what comes hand in hand with it. I think there’s a healthy dose for everything. I’ve always loved the work, I’ve always enjoyed the creative aspect, but I recognise that there’s a public persona as well as a private one. I think if you can stand by your work, that’s the most important thing.