In Mitch Glazer’s Magic City, the Starz drama set in sun-soaked Miami Beach circa 1959, Danny Huston plays Ben Diamond, a ruthless gangster who preys on a desperate hotelier (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The accomplished actor and director is just the latest member of his famous family—his father is the prolific director John Huston—to try their hand at television, joining sister Anjelica, who stars in Smash, and nephew Jack, who plays the two-faced assassin-with-a-heart Richard Harrow on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Here, Huston discusses the joy of playing the villain, growing up with a legend for a father, and why he decided to take his talents to South Beach.
You and Mitch Glazer are long time friends. What was your reaction when he called you and essentially said “I want you to play a psychopath for me”?
As you just expressed, yes he’s been a family friend for a long time, and both Mitch and I have stared into the abyss together from time to time. But here, what he first presented me with was the first three drafts of the series, and I read them and just enjoyed them the same way one would enjoy a novel, and Ben Diamond was an important part of it, a delightful psychopath.
What’s the most appealing aspect of playing a villain like Ben Diamond?
There’s a long history of wonderful actors that have played characters like Ben Diamond. I suppose my father played around with a character similar to ben Diamond in a film called Key Largo. There are a lot of areas where one can pay homage, or—if one wants to call a spade a spade—steal from other villainous characters. Also the Meyer Lanskys, the Bugsy Siegels, these kinds of people are so rich, so there’s a lot play with, so that’s really what’s enjoyable.
What is it about mobsters that make them so compelling to watch on screen?
I think their rebellious nature, the above-the-law attitude, the uniqueness, the Robin Hood quality about it, where you feel that things are not just, so they take matters into their own hand. It’s that Bonnie and Clyde freedom. We sometimes in our daily lives, feel so trapped by our own circumstances, that to see someone break out and be their own master is exciting, no matter how vicious the character actually is.
What’s your favorite mob movie?
Oh wow. I suppose, because it’s very much in the forefront of my mind, Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo. I’ve certainly focused on that recently. And of course, Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
Do you watch Boardwalk Empire?
Very much so. I’m an avid fan, and I love watching my nephew Jack.
Have you guys compared notes on how to kill someone?
He’s coming over to L.A. this weekend, so that’s a good idea.
Why do you think so many film actors have pursued roles on television?
Because I suppose, it’s a miracle to get a feature film going, and there’s a lot of commercial pressure on that first weekend, and a film is usually broken up into just three acts. But there’s this long form that television offers where you can really play the character out. You just don’t have that time in a feature film, that opportunity for development.
What do you think Magic City’s greatest strength is?
The setting, and specifically the hotel where we’re introduced to all the various characters. Also, the year 1959 was such a revolutionary time, especially politically, from fighting for human rights, to free jazz and the invention of the atomic bomb, and everything else that was happening that year. We are very much living in the aftermath of all that. I have a line in an episode about Castro that goes ‘Dictators, they come and go like the weather down here.” As we now know quite the opposite happened. So it’s a way to reflect on a time which is also very present.
Do you see any similarities between 1959 and today, in terms of the world undergoing significant change?
Yes, very much. In a way, Ben Diamond represents capitalistic greed, which is something we’re still suffering the repercussions of, the desire to want more. So yes, I think the show deals with things that are very relevant today. And yet there’s a strong nostalgia, for the constant smoking and drinking without a care, for the wardrobe, and clothes that aren’t the same as they are today.
What are some of the differences between the Miami your show portrays and present day Miami. Is it a love letter, condemnation, or a bit of both?
Probably a poisonous love letter. It combines the two. But what Miami has now that Miami had then is the tropical weather, and the balmy nights that somehow inspire a sort of freedom and recklessness, and a feeling that you can do whatever you want.
If you could go back in time and live any one time period, what would it be?
I hate to be over philosophical, but I try and enjoy the period I’m in, and experience the now as much I can. Forgive my spiritual answer.
I had a chance to speak to Dominik (Garcia-Lorido), who plays Mercedes on the show, about growing up with Andy Garcia. Did the two of you ever trade stories about what it was like growing up with famous fathers?
Um, no, but I’m a good friend of Andy’s and we all try to take good care of Dominik because we adore her and respect her father. It’s great having him come visit the set, and at the premiere in L.A. he played his congos and drums, and we had a Cuban-flavored evening. There’s a feeling that he’s a bit of a Godfather to us all, and he also understands the period better than anyone, so it’s great having him give us the thumbs up.
Did being an actor and filmmaker ever feel preordained for you because of your family?
I resisted acting for a long time. I was directing and writing, and really had no intention of getting in front of the camera. Other directors out of the kindness of their hearts saw me sitting around, waiting for eternal green lights, and offered me small parts in their films, and the parts got bigger, so acting was never my intention. I really got into it to observe the way other filmmakers work. I always loved hanging around film sets, spending time with my father, and watching him work and how he worked. So I use it as an opportunity to watch people I admire like Scorsese.
Do you have any advice for struggling filmmakers who sometimes feel like the mountain may be too big to climb?
I think the opportunity of being able to pick up a camera, where the quality is just incredible, is fantastic. When I started filmmaking, you really did require a certain amount of money, large or small, to make your film, so there were certain compromises that you had to make. Now you can make a film for a minimal amount of money, and if the story is good, and the performances are strong, you have a good chance at having it seen and getting into the industry, which is an opportunity that previous filmmakers never had. I rememeber when I was a little kid, I had a Super 8 camera and I was filming practically everything, and my father said ‘Stop, stop it’. And I said ‘Why?’ and he said ‘When you look from left to right and right to left, what do you do?’, and I said ‘I dont know,’ and he said ‘You blink, you blink, that’s a cut. Concentrate on what it is that you’re trying to say and focus on that.’ And that really was my first film lesson, which I still apply to everything I do, including my acting.