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A masked man casts a spell on 'Boardwalk Empire'

As an actor, Jack Huston works wonders with just half a face, a gravelly, flat voice and cruel difficulty speaking.
/ Source: The Associated Press

As an actor, Jack Huston works wonders with just half a face, a gravelly, flat voice and cruel difficulty speaking.

Fortunately, those afflictions aren't his but instead are borne by Richard Harrow, the tragically disfigured World War I veteran he plays on the HBO drama "Boardwalk Empire."

Let the record show that, in a recent interview, the 28-year-old Huston is leading-man handsome, expansive and well-spoken in his native British accent. But he says Harrow is a character "that is part of me, who affects me to my core. There is something so affecting about how brave and how lost he is."

Even with limited screen time on the character-packed, actor-rich "Boardwalk" (whose ensemble includes Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Gretchen Mol, Dabney Coleman and many more), Harrow last year had a similarly wrenching effect on viewers, haunting them as a combat-maimed conscience in his post-war America and as the ghoulish psychopath a war creates.

Now, as the series returns for its new season on Sunday at 9 p.m. EDT, Huston has been upgraded from recurring player to a regular cast member, while his character promises to be even more galvanizing as a figure of both pathos and dread.

Harrow made his entry into the "Empire" saga midway through last season, when he crossed paths with Jimmy Darmody (played by series star Michael Pitt), a burgeoning crime boss in 1920s, prohibition-era Atlantic City, N.J.

As it happened, both men were being examined in a Chicago veterans' hospital. Darmody was seeing a doctor for his bum leg, which was blasted by enemy shrapnel in the recent war. Harrow, a fellow vet, was there for — well, the left side of his face had been blown off during trench warfare, so there wasn't much the doctors could do except fit him for a half-mask of flesh-colored tin to shield the awful sight from the rest of the world.

But if much of the rest of the world recoils from Harrow — whether from his injuries, if glimpsed, or from the creepy mask (with its painted left eye and half-lip of a mustache) — Darmody was unfazed. Here was a fellow war casualty, and Darmody took him under his wing and back to Atlantic City, where Harrow, a tender man transformed by the war into a crack marksman, found renewed purpose as part of Darmody's outlaw liquor ring and, when called upon, a cold-blooded killer.

Like much of "Boardwalk Empire," the Harrow character is based on historical fact.

By World War I, "battlefield medicine had become more advanced," says series creator Terence Winter, "and there were an inordinate number of face and head injuries suffered by men who, 20 years earlier, would have died. A lot of men were coming home from the war with horrific facial injuries.

"We said, 'What a great character this would be.'"

In the upcoming season's fourth episode, Harrow has a showcase scene when Jimmy's wife, a painter, asks him to pose for a portrait — without his mask.

And in the fifth episode, he wrestles with total despair, dogged by the question: Why keep on living?

"Would you fight for me?" he asks Jimmy in his halting rasp.

"Of course, I would," Jimmy says. "Right down to the last bullet."

"Then let's go to work," says Harrow, opting for life yet sealing his fate.

Huston vividly remembers his own emotional reaction to doing that scene: "I could barely hold it together. Here is a man completely changed who can never live his life the way he used to. He has to start again. But he has to ask himself: Is it worth it?"

Clad smart in flannel shirt over T-shirt and jeans, his face fashionably stubbled, Huston comes from a distinguished movie-making dynasty. His grandfather was legendary director John Huston. He is the nephew of actors Anjelica Huston and Danny Huston. He appeared in the third of the "Twilight" series, "Eclipse," as well as the films "Outlander" and "Factory Girl," and in the short-lived ABC series "Eastwick."

But he was home in London, disaffected with the acting game, when he got wind of the Richard Harrow role.

The part fascinated him, not least how in the script Harrow's sparse dialogue was broken up with randomly placed periods, displaying graphically how hard it is for Harrow to say things.

"But the rest was completely left to me — my interpretation," recalls Huston, who, with research, soul-searching and acting technique, prepared for his audition.

He wedged a wad of gauze in his mouth to pull his mouth to the side. ("I still do that under my mask, to make it uncomfortable to speak"), and he developed the croaky voice, adding clucks and tics to his delivery ("I imagined that, along with being disfigured, he had his vocal cords damaged"). He pinched shut his left eye to simulate the ruin of that half of his face.

He made a tape and sent it to the "Boardwalk" producers.

"Jack was amazing," says Winter in a separate interview. "Essentially what he did on his tape was the performance you see on TV — and this was with his full face, not yet wearing the mask. It was absolutely heartwarming and chilling, and you just wanted to know more about this guy immediately."

But the audience would get no easy, wholesale revelations. Adding to the allure of this mysterious character (who initially was meant to appear in just two or three episodes), details were spare and dispensed in tiny doses.

Now, this season, much more will be learned in a process of discovery that is being experienced by Huston and the writers no less, it seems, than among the "Boardwalk" audience.

"The character took on a life of his own," says Huston, and, however tormented such a life might be, "that's nice."




EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at) and at