Unmasking a role
Jack Huston has a lot to hide when he plays gangster Richard Harrow in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” -- particularly his face.
A tin mask with an eerily painted eye, spectacle and mustache covers half of Huston’s face in his portrayal of Harrow, a horribly disfigured veteran who lost an eye and part of his jaw in the Great War. In the 1920s-era Prohibition drama, Harrow is wrestling with both his physical and emotional wounds in rebuilding his life in Atlantic City, N.J. While he is outwardly sensitive and vulnerable, his gentle nature is counterbalanced by his viciousness as a cold-blooded killer.
With his awkward neck twists, soft-spoken raspiness and downcast eye, Harrow’s internal hurt comes through despite the mask. But when the mask comes off, Huston is revealed as the polar opposite of his role -- handsome, talkative and excited about the complexity of his on-screen character.
“Taking this on has been a master class in acting,” said the 28-year-old actor, whose thick English accent has been toned down just a bit from long stints of living in America. “I have such an emotional attachment to this guy; I understood him right away. Sometimes I will do a scene, and afterward just break down on my way to the trailers. He’s so sad. He’s an incredibly good person with a moral code.”
But he is also clear about the dark side of Harrow, which has exploded in some of the drama’s most violent scenes this season. In one episode, Harrow took a knife and scalped a veteran of the American-Indian war who had earlier struck his good friend and fellow thug James “Jimmy” Darmody (Michael Pitt).
“The one thing that Richard knows how to do really well is kill,” Huston said. “To Richard, killing is a job. But his heart is a very different thing. He emotionally detaches when he kills.”
The role has been a breakthrough for Huston, who is part of a prominent show business family: He is the nephew of Anjelica Huston and Danny Huston and his maternal grandfather was director John Huston. He was drawn to acting through his own curiosity rather than the influence of his family. “I sort of discovered it on my own before I knew what my family really did.” Still, early exposure to filmmaking had a solid effect.
“I remember visiting my aunt on the set of ‘The Witches,’ ” Huston said. “It was an absolutely incredible experience. We’re a family that loves movies and the business. When we get together, we don’t talk about the craft. We just watch movies.”
His first high-profile role was in USA’s 2004 made-for-TV movie “Spartacus.” He also appeared in the 2006 film “Factory Girl,” “Shrink” opposite Kevin Spacey and in “Twilight: Eclipse,” where he played Depression-era character Royce King.
“Boardwalk Empire” producers said Huston has become a standout in a large ensemble that includes noted actors Pitt, Steve Buscemi, Kelly MacDonald and Michael Shannon. He was originally slated to do just a couple of episodes, but his portrayal impressed producers who saw potential in developing the character.
“Jack auditioned for us via videotape,” said Terence Winter, the show’s creator. “Director Allan Coulter and I watched the tape, and he basically did the performance that he does on the show. Jack is incredibly charming and handsome -- he’s like a young Errol Flynn. But he completely transforms, his whole physicality changes.”
Winter added, “He’s so naturally likable, then we see him do these horrible things. But you can almost forgive him.”
Huston said his connection to the character was instantaneous: “His emotional gravitas just came off the page. Underneath everything he’s going through, he wants love. And he thinks people are mocking him when they say it’s possible for him to have it.”
Physically, the role is a bit of an ordeal to play: “The mask is uncomfortable. I put gauze on my lip , which makes it hard to talk, so I have unnatural facial expressions. It puts me in the head space of how Richard would feel.”
His head and neck movements are inspired by hawks -- he mimicked the movements he watched as a child growing up in England. “My father was a falconer, and I grew up around hawks,” he said. “Richard was a sniper in the Army, so I base his movements like that bird.”
Although he lives in New York with his girlfriend, Huston said with a chuckle, “I have a nomadic life. I like to keep moving.”
His success in “Boardwalk Empire” has opened other opportunities. Among his future projects is a featured role in David Chase’s debut film, “Twylight Zones,” as well as a role in Al Pacino’s “Wilde Salome.”
But he’s really looking forward to returning to the third season of “Boardwalk Empire.”
“I’ve gotten such a strong reaction with Richard,” he said. “There are just so many layers to him. What’s so intriguing is the mystery of him, what’s behind the mask. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to discover that.”