Q&A: Danny Huston on the Mob Mentality of 'Magic City'

Son of great film director John Huston recalls his father playing God

Danny Huston
Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Variety
Danny Huston
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In Starz' Magic City, set in Miami just following the Cuban revolution, Danny Huston plays local mob boss Ben Diamond alongside Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Ike Evans, the owner of the beachfront Miramar Playa hotel. The son of director John Huston and half-brother of actress Angelica, he delivers a perfectly bronzed, cigar-dragging, usually poolside fallen emperor, a man so vicious he could order a hit by raising an eyebrow. The second season premieres tonight. Rolling Stone spoke with Huston (who is actually very lovely in real life) about Faustian deals, Roman emperors and channeling his father.

Ben Diamond is very evil.
I take great pride in literally taking a scalpel out and opening my characters up and prodding them, especially the villains, and seeing where it is that they feel. In regards to Ben Diamond, I thought you know, I'm going to give all that up. I'm just going to play him for the badass that he is, because it makes him so unapologetic and somehow honest, amongst all these other characters that are morally compromised. But the sexual depravity is sort of lonely and desperate in an imperial Caligula, narrow kind of way – what is it that he needs now to get turned on?

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Going into season two, it feels like he is no longer holding himself back.
I suppose it's a Faustian deal that Ike made with Ben Diamond, but it's not like he pulled the wool over Ike's eyes. Ike is really very much aware of what he's doing and the game that he's playing. And as the second season develops we'll realize, I suppose, what a player Ike is and how deceptive he can also be. And now there's the Chicago element that's been introduced with Sy Berman [played by] Jimmy Caan, so that's going to cause pressure for him. In a way, the Sy Berman character is like the Meyer Lansky to my Bugsy Siegel. So I'm a little bit out of control.

Why do you think he's named the Butcher? There are a couple of theories presented in the show.
He talks about this Dickensian kind of childhood that he had. He was an orphan, and he was rejected by his mother. And we'll find out more in regards to his sexual quirks where that stems from. So that will soon be revealed.

I know that it's pay cable and I know that Miami is hot, but it almost feels like the nudity is its own character.
I didn't want to scandalize the crew, but I thought to myself, 'You know, if you think in sort of Roman bath terms, there's no reason why he would be wearing anything when he's at home lounging by the pool.' I mean, I suppose the next thing would be him leafing himself with the eucalyptus leaves.

So it was your idea to float in the pool naked?
Yeah, and [creator] Mitch [Glazer] was like, "Yeah, absolutely." I also thought it would balance things out a little bit with women's nudity. I thought if they're doing it, there's no reason why Ben would be bashful. It also helps the lounging aspect, and the bit of a reptile he is. And there's power, I think, to him being exposed and doing nothing.

The New York Times pointed out that Judaism is significant to this story, and these characters are more Tony Soprano than Larry David. How do approach playing a Jewish gangster?
I find the bad Jew an interesting topic. I've found a lot of Jewish men sort of flattered by Ben Diamond's performance. Why do all gangsters have to be Italian or of that sort of ethnicity? There's something kind of cool about a bad Jew. And historically, if you look at the Meyer Lanskys and the Bugsy Siegels, they were very prominent.

You read up on Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. Did you take anything in particular from them? 
Yes. I wear a ring which is not dissimilar to Bugsy Siegel's ring. I try to bring a certain bit of a show-off, proud – somewhat creating an empire, in that sense. There's a sort of regal quality to him.

We obviously know the Italian gangster really well. How is the Miami gangster different? More cigars?
I think it stems from the gambling in Cuba. There's the wonderful tropical lawlessness about it, which has a swagger that you only get in the heat. And without a doubt, cigars taste better in a humid environment. The balmy nights have an air of freedom and recklessness to them.

You grew up in Rome and, I imagine, similarly beautiful parts of Los Angeles. Are you familiar with this world of gorgeous women and tanned, rich men sitting by the pool?
I suppose the late Sixties is where my memory starts. I was born in '62. There was that dolce vita, loose feeling. And all those influences from films – Key Largo and Edward G. Robinson. I think there's a little bit of Edward G. Robinson in Ben Diamond. There's an opening scene in Key Largo where he's in a bath, and he puts this towel around his neck. I stole that for a scene where I get out of the pool.

You've said that you were conceived during Freud, born during the preproduction of The Bible, and teethed on The Night of the Iguana. What was that like?
One of the first cuts I saw of a film was The Bible, and my father was playing Noah. But not only that, he did the voiceover for God. Now, I supposed every kid sees their parents or their father as God, but I was actually, literally hearing the voice of God as a child. My mother was dying of thirst in the desert, and she had this kid, and it wasn't me. So really I've been sort of scarred, I think, for life. I'm muddled insofar as to what is fiction and what is reality.

At one point Ben Diamond actually refers to himself as God.  Do you find yourself channeling any aspects of your father? Not in the sadistic, killer sense . . .
Sometimes. And God strike me down, or my father strike me down for saying this, but for me, one of the great villains in cinema was Noah Cross in Chinatown [played by my father]. He was just fantastic, and scared the bejeesus out of me and my sister insofar as there are a lot of elements of my dad in that performance. And sometimes I see Ben Diamond, as a character, and I see elements of Noah Cross there. 

How do you approach it differently, not knowing where your character is going?
I find that daunting. I asked Jack [Huston], my nephew, actually, for advice, because he already did, on Boardwalk Empire [playing Richard Harrow]. I said, "How do you do it?" He said, "I approach each episode as its own film." I thought I'd take on that advice.

But like life, as you've said.
I mean, you could go out and turn a corner, and something could happen. But it's a shame, because you can't smile and look up at the sky if a bus is suddenly going to hit you. You want to set it up a little bit.