In his prime, Danny Huston has found his calling as an actor.
It all started as a way to make a few bucks while waiting for his directing gigs to come together. But in the Huston family tradition of his Oscar-winning grandfather Walter (“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”) and half-sister Anjelica (“Prizzi’s Honor”), Danny Huston has become a fiercely compelling actor.
“I’m happy to be coming to acting at this point in my life rather than starting too young,” the 43-year-old says over a cup of afternoon English tea at Victor’s, just below his home in Los Angeles’ Bronson Canyon. “It’s hard to have the pathos if you haven’t lived somewhat.”
The self-described bon vivant has lived a colorful life. He started out following in his Oscar-winning father John’s footsteps as a director. John Huston was in his early 50s and Danny Huston’s actress mother, Zoe Sallis, was in her early 20s “when I came about,” he says. Huston grew up in Ireland, Rome and London, where he studied art and film; he has inherited his father’s rakish charm as a raconteur.
After jumping onto casting directors’ radar with his painfully exposed 2000 performance in “Ivansxtc” as a glad-handing Hollywood talent agent dying a lonely death in the Hollywood Hills, Huston has delivered a string of juicy roles for such directors as Martin Scorsese (“The Aviator”), John Sayles (“Silver City”), Jonathan Glazer (“Birth”), Mike Figgis (“Time Code”), Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (“21 Grams”) and, most recently, Fernando Meirelles (“The Constant Gardener”). Next month, John Hillcoat’s “The Proposition,” a bloody Australian Western co-starring Huston as a larger-than-life sociopathic killer, opens stateside. The actor also has four completed films coming up beyond that, including Sofia Coppola’s Cannes competition entry “Marie-Antoinette.”
“It felt natural,” says Huston, who plays Emperor Joseph II. “She’s family in a Mafia Hollywood dynasty way. I feel like I’m her cousin.”
Huston’s directing career never quite took off. At age 24, he directed his father in British TV’s “Mr. Corbett’s Ghost,” followed by the 1988 indie drama “Mr. North,” starring Anthony Edwards, Robert Mitchum and sister Anjelica. But while filming the 1991 Euro-pudding production “Becoming Collette” and the horror flick “The Maddening,” Huston “made a few compromises,” he admits.
Next, he had lined up a great cast for his adaptation of Graham Greene’s “A Burnt-Out Case,” including Ben Kingsley, Richard Harris, Denholm Elliott and the young Catherine Zeta-Jones, but, he recounts, the financing collapsed. Instead, Huston took on an ice-skating movie for German TV, “Die Eisprinzessin,” starring Katerina Witt as Cinderella.
After that “I locked my heels,” Huston says. “I wanted to make the next thing my way. I wouldn’t compromise or bend.” So began a long sojourn in limbo. “L.A. has a seasonless quality,” he recalls. “Years go by, and you don’t notice it. You have meetings here and there. I was writing but not doing much. My fellow directors started giving me parts out of the kindness of their hearts.”
Huston recalls days spent with videomaker Bernard Rose “having a few drinks and bitching about the system while we were waiting for eternal green lights.” Finally, Rose (“Red, Red Wine”) and Huston bought a new Sony digital 32 fps camera, called in some favors and shot “Ivansxtc” (loosely based on Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”) in their own backyards. For many, Huston’s knowing portrait conjured up the late Jay Maloney, the former CAA agent whose struggle with drugs led to his suicide. “It’s the study of a man when he is dying,” Huston says. “It could be any man. It’s a poison letter to Hollywood. It’s a little punk.”
No one was more surprised than Huston when the no-budget movie landed him a nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards, the art-house world’s version of the Oscars. And so his new career was born.
“Thank God I’ve got a filmmaking outlet,” he says. “I’ll latch on to a film in whatever capacity if it excites me as a story. And I love spending time on set in between shots watching directors work. Just like I loved watching my father at work. I may have learned more than I realized.”
Without ever having taken an acting lesson, Huston started getting offers “from people I really respected,” he says, like Scorsese, who pulled virgin prints from his library to screen for “The Aviator” cast and crew, including a Howard Hughes picture, “The Outlaw,” starring Huston’s grandfather.
And it was on the drive back from Anjelica’s annual Christmas film festival at her ranch house near Sequoia National Park, where Meirelles’ “City of God” had just shared best picture honors with “Hotel Rwanda,” that Huston got a callback for Meirelles’ next feature, “Constant Gardener,” in which he played the sleezy villain role.
Although he plays lead roles in Sayles’ “Silver City” and Oliver Parker’s upcoming “Fade to Black,” Huston insists he is content to play supporting roles for directors he admires. “The problem with your classic lead is you’re asked to portray characters without flaws,” he says. “I don’t know how to study that. It’s an immature desire to see a character who is invincible and heroic. I feel sorry for actors who have to fulfill audience expectations of who they are as heroes. Things can only go wrong. People can only abandon you. If I were to enter that fairy tale world, I’d be after Captain Hook.”
Playing famed actor-director Orson Welles in the ’40s thriller “Fade to Black,” from a fictional screenplay by Parker and Sayles, was a big stretch. “I feel a great deal of reverence toward Welles,” Huston says. “I was fearful. I had no idea how to portray a genius. The key into playing Orson was the magic of the man, the way he played into his own mythology, the smoke and mirrors, the slight of hand. That liberated me.”
Huston went straight from playing Welles to playing a very Wellesian art collector opposite Clive Owen in Alfonso Cuaron’s futuristic thriller “Children of Men.” “It’s a small part, but a rather grand one,” he says. More nervous-making was co-starring with his first wife, Virginia Madsen, in Joel Schumacher’s “The Number 23,” starring Jim Carrey as a man who is jealous of the attentions Huston’s character pays to Carrey’s onscreen wife.
“Virginia and I are friendly, but we had not spoken for a long time,” he says. “We met working, and it was great to be working together again. It was odd to be constantly coming on to Virginia. We had a few awkward and funny situations.”
Working with sister Anjelica on her recently aired TV miniseries “The Hades Factor” also was strange. “I was playing a special agent and she was the President of the United States. I look up at her and I think, ’Anjelica has finally lost her head; she thinks that she’s President of the United States and she’s redecorated her ranch to look like the Oval Office.’ We loved working together.”
Huston had no qualms about going to the dark side on “Proposition” because Nick Cave’s script “was a lyrical biblical classical Western,” he says. “How can you not do such a mythical character? Like Kurtz in ’The Heart of Darkness,’ he’s already dead. He knows he has to be stopped.”
All this acting has taught Huston that as a young director he was less than understanding. “I didn’t know the insecurity that an actor feels,” he admits, “and how a little attention from a director will go a long way. I had an inbuilt impatience toward the actor’s ego. I thought they were too concerned with makeup and hair. I thought I wanted a real man’s job.”
While happy with his current lot, Huston also is anxious to get back to his first love, directing. He is going through his father’s old papers — where he found a newspaper clipping about a terrible car crash describing the young driver as “Walter Huston’s son” — rewriting an old script and meeting on a book adaptation. “I’m looking for a lull,” he says.