by Max Bisantz
photography by Alison Dyer
When we first meet Ben “The Butcher” Diamond in Magic City, he is stretched out poolside smoking a fat Cuban cigar. His newest trophy wife is swimming freely and nakedly under the hot Miami sun as he laps up the rays, wearing only a heavy gold ring and a small black Speedo.
“We are who we are,” he says, popping on tanning goggles. “And I want more. That’s what I’ve always wanted. I’ve always wanted… more.”
This is how I choose to imagine Danny Huston, the devastatingly charismatic actor who plays the role of Ben Diamond on the highly addictive Starz series. He is a member of the distinguished Huston family and the face behind some of the most malicious, bastardly roles ever caught on film. Of course there is something disappointing in meeting the man behind the curtain, the sudden disillusionment in hearing that menacing voice turn to something softer, more human.
“I’ve just gone to the fridge. I’m going to pour myself a glass of white wine,” he begins. “Let’s start.”
Well. Maybe not.
Danny Huston never intended to be an actor. Son of legendary director John Huston and brother to Academy Award-winner Anjelica Huston, Danny started out emulating his father, going to film school and directing features. His first film, Mr. North, was produced by his father and turned into a string of films in the 1990s. Yet despite some early success, his career was not taking off and he found himself floundering.
“I was in LA in a sort of slightly seamless time in my life. Also LA has a way that can kind of trick you. You can go from one meeting to the next and you actually think you’re being productive, when after the fact a year has gone by.”
It was a couple of director friends who first offered him bit parts which then snowballed into a steady acting career. Still, he’s hardly a product of nepotism. With an array of award nominations under his belt and a slew of meaty roles, Danny Huston is a refreshing style of actor: curt, smart, and unapologetic. Perhaps it’s his approach, an outside-in way of working that stems from his directorial background. Perhaps it’s just not giving a damn. But whatever it is, it’s certainly in his blood, so to speak.
“There’s also sort of a mythology of it all,” he explains of his famous family. “That is what interests me. And I never met my grandfather but I can see him through the films that he did. And so it’s centered around my connection with my past and the past before me… Which is the route of story telling.”
The most recent story he’s telling is on Magic City, the highly stylized 1950s mob series which returns for its second season this summer. Huston fits slickly into the role of the formidable Jewish mob boss, playing one of the most volatile villains ever constructed on screen. (In the first season he shoots a dog in the face and watches his wife have sex with another man.) Apart from getting to escape any and all moral boundaries, playing Ben Diamond also comes with unexpected benefits.
“I sometimes have elderly Jewish men giving me these lecherous looks with sort of slight grins. I’m like ‘What are you looking at?’ and they go ‘Ben Diamond!’”
With the help of Magic City creator Mitch Glazer’s writing, Danny Huston has unintentionally won the approval of the toughest critics on Earth: old, curmudgeonly Semites. Living in a white on white on white apartment during the filming of the series, the actor lives a true Miami lifestyle, which he cites as his source of inspiration.
“I think it all has that sort of South American kind of pulse to it, doesn’t it, Miami. There’s something wonderfully musical about it… The temperature there has sort of a lawless quality, the balmy nights, and it all really helps for me to establish this sort of sweaty Ben Diamond character.”
Still, this isn’t the first villain Mr. Huston’s played with aplomb. Looking through his past career roles is like taking stock of some of the greatest assholes in recent film history. From his sniveling corporate cheat in The Constant Gardener to the dreaded “Dog Man” in The Proposition, he’s managed to make a career out of playing despicable men. It’s something of a conundrum, because from what I can tell, Danny Huston isn’t a particularly bad man; he’s probably even a nice one. He doesn’t seem to harbor any deep dark secrets and there’s no discernible trace of a Russian accent or handlebar moustache. So why is he so good at being such a prick?
“That’s a double sided question…” he laughs. “A triple edged… Ever since my childhood I’ve always liked sort of the Edward G. Robinsons. There were certain sorts of character actors that when they came onscreen there was something rich about their villainous nature.”
It takes a certain type of person to be attracted to the anti-hero: not a bad person, per se, but not necessarily a good one. There’s a certain level of curiosity needed, as well as a surprising amount of empathy. It’s easy to like the romantic lead – they’re incredibly likable, with their bleached teeth and movie star hair. It’s another thing entirely to feel for the enemy, let alone make a career out of playing one.
“I always felt that they’re not necessarily repulsive,” he says of his past roles. “There’s a reason why they behave that way. And as a character study, I always find it interesting to sort of pry them open with a scalpel and talk and see where it is that they feel and why they feel that way.”
I won’t begin to speculate what attracts him to these outsiders; that’s between Mr. Huston and, perhaps, a psychotherapist. Still, his roles consistently test the strength of a character’s moral fiber, often tearing it to shreds. It’s a timeless quandary, this battle between good and evil, and one that Mr. Huston’s grappled with many times in his work, often to biblical proportions (is there any mistake that his father directed The Bible?)
Most will remember the 2001 surprise sleeper hit Ivans XTC that helped launched Mr. Huston’s career as an actor. Most will not, however, recall that it is one of four films starring Mr. Huston that serve as adaptations of Leo Tolstoy’s writings. They all line up in succession: Ivans XTC, The Kruetzer Sonata, Boxing Day and most recently Two Jacks, which co-stars nephew Jack Huston of Boardwalk Empire fame. True to the original stories, these films grapple with the big issues: the existence of God, moral obligation, the final judgment. It’s a helluva lot of heft and a lot of weight, and it puts Mr. Huston’s “bad guy” acting into perspective. There’s certainly nothing flippant or moustache-twirling about his characters, and there never has been. There is, however, a sort of heightened danger in his work, an indication that these wayward men have weighed their cosmic options and are willing to deal with the consequences.
It’s probably why he gets paid the big bucks.
“I kind of scurry off to a dark secret corner to read the new episodes when they come out, with appetite,” he says of Magic City. “And at times I’m really taken aback… even to the point where I’m not completely at ease with it. But then somehow on the set – and Mitch Glazer is a friend of mine, we trust each other on a fundamental level – and somehow it makes some horrible twisted sense.”
Next on the docket for the actor is a return to his directing roots. With two films in pre-production, he’s eager to get back into that saddle and reconnect with his earliest passion.
“Well some of it I go, ‘Here it comes again.’ You get the budget and the budget gets cut and you’re back to reality in a sense… But I do feel in a way that I’m returning back home, back to where I started.”
Luckily, though, he continues to be an in-demand actor. With the upcoming film Libertador co-starring former Moves-profile Edgar Ramirez, as well as the sci-fi flick, The Congress, 2013 promises to be a busy year for Mr. Huston, and as well it should be. He’s paid his dues and he’s reaping his rewards. No longer does he take endless parades of meetings all leading to nowhere. These days he’s a 1950s mob boss, a corporate tycoon, a king, a god. That may be overkill, but whatever he is, he’s certainly not taking any shit.
“I remember in Miami going to the liquor store and buying a couple cigars, Cuban cigars actually, and the guy behind the counter said ‘Thank you Mr. Diamond.’ And I just gave him a good, clean, cold stare back…You can’t help but play into those moments a little bit and give people a little bit of what they want.”