Danny Huston may have a famous Hollywood last name, but not a lot of movie fans know who he is. It would seem, however, that all that is about to change for the 43-year-old actor, whose father is late director John Huston and is half-brother of the lovely Anjelica Huston. In John Hillcoat's Australian western, The Proposition, penned by fellow Aussie Nick Cave, Huston plays a killer outlaw whose brother, played by Guy Pearce, is sent into the Outback to kill him to save their simpleton brother (Richard Wilson) from the gallows. All comparisons to Brando's maniacal Col. Kurtz in Coppola's Apocalypse Now aside, Huston puts his nice-guy looks aside and steps confidently into the role of the film's key character and makes a lot of those inevitable comparisons valid ones. He took the time to talk with Cinematical during a promotional stop in Boston last week.
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Was 'The Proposition' a challenging shoot?
It was in regards to the fact that it was a couple months around Christmas, which is summer in Queensland, Australia. Winton, the little opal mining town where we were based, was so remote that it was 100 miles from closest mine. The heat was extraordinary. In that scene with [reprehensible bounty hunter] John Hurt, the flies all over him were real. It was all very challenging, and the combination of the heat and those flies gave us a great sense of atmosphere, as well as a great pace to one's acting. That's something you don't often achieve in a cooler space or film lot.
What was it like shooting a western in another country?
This particular western was very much the work of Nick Cave, and he made sure it belonged completely to that country -- it needed to be told in Australia. It features themes of mistreatment of the Aborigines and British imperialism, but it also has Biblical qualities, in that its story is about a man killing his brother. I suppose it is a tale that could be told anywhere, though the palette was very, very Australian. I loved working there -- you feel like you're on the edge of the Earth, and it was delightful to be so removed.
How do you think the film breaks out of the Western mold?
I think that Nick Cave -- who also wrote the music for the film -- is really the person who has created this particular type of western. Like his music, it's lyrical and tells a story, with a lot of "Caveian" qualities, which you'll recognize if you're into him. It also has a savage humor to it, with, the flies crawling everywhere, with people desperately clinging onto something civilized, like the rose garden in the middle of the desert that [unraveling soldier] Ray Winstone and [hot wife] Emily Watson have. Also, the scenes between Winstone and one of his men reminds me of Leone-type humor; it's almost crass, but then delicate. It all has a complexity that's very much Nick Cave.
What about the story appealed to you to make you want to be involved?
He's a mythical character, and for an actor, one couldn't conjure better. There's a great first act, and Nick plays down clichés and brings down the mythology to help find the man. It's grand in a way -- [Arthur is] a psychopath with a heart of gold. He believes strongly in family, and is almost sentimental about it, but will not hesitate in stomping your head in.
Disregarding parallels to 'Apocalypse Now', describe your character and how he affects those he interacts with.
Horror has become his lover in a way. He's gone far into other side, a habitat of darkness. He certainly has Kurtz-like qualities, which is why Nick and I were so concerned about having to live up to one of the greatest performances of all time, not to mention one of the greatest entrances. I was very interested in portraying Arthur in sunlight rather than darkness, where you don't often see face. We see him whimpering, afraid of losing his brother, making it clear that he would rather die by the hand of his brother than at the hands of his enemy.
How long did you live in Italy?
My mother had a home there for 20 years, and I would visit frequently. My father lived in Ireland, and I spent a lot of time there and in England. Growing up, I spent a lot of time on film sets all over the world. Now, though, I finally live in LA.
What was your best experience on set with your father growing up?
That would have to be on The Man Who Would Be King. I was a young boy hanging out in the Atlas Mountains with my father, Sean Connery, Michael Caine and a lot of blue people. It was a really exciting and adventurous time for me.
What was your relationship with your father like?
We were buddies. He was very supportive of me, and I enjoyed our quiet times, playing backgammon and just hanging out. I loved spending time with him, and when he passed, I lost a friend as well as a father.
As much as you love him, do you ever get tired of being asked about him?
No, because talking about him keeps him alive for me. I'd rather talk about him than myself, and sometimes I just get tired of my own voice. Talking about my father lets me derive happiness from him. While living in the shadow of a man like him can be overwhelming, I see it more as him protecting me from the harsh rays of the sun.
What kind of things did you learn from him that you use in your work?
I regard him very highly as a filmmaker. When I was really young, I shot a lot with my Super 8. Usually, I'd be shooting every direction, and one day, my father asked, "What are you doing?" He then told me that when making a film, shoot like you're looking from left right left. A blink is a cut, and you should focus on what you're trying to tell. That was the beginning of my learning how to tell a story, and it is the way that I have approached directing. Also, in my acting, I feel very much like a storyteller, exploring the flaws of the characters that I interpret. I look for the imperfections, and I love a character that is just so flawed. I guess I've played a lot of failures, which is a Huston quality, I guess. I love losers, though, and have never met anyone who hasn't been one sometime. I'm always looking to understand them, and my father had an extremely keen eye to be able to dissect and bring that forward in the way he told his stories.
How do you approach playing a heavy-hitter like Orson Welles [in the upcoming Fade To Black]?
Marlene Dietrich said that one should cross oneself when in the presence of Welles, and I approach the role with the same kind of reverence. Playing a genius was terrifying, but after some time, in a Wellesian moment, if you will, I understood what a magician and trickster he was. He used a lot of smoke and mirrors, and in a way, the film is a conceit, a lie. The moment I got the humor and lightness, I felt liberated in a way and was able to portray his spirit rather than carry the weight, which probably would have crippled me.
Do you plan on returning to directing?
I'm itching to direct again. I'm waiting for a lull in acting career, though, but I'm sure some time like that will come. For the moment, things are quite busy for me, and I'm enjoying garnering relationships. Some day, I hope to be able to apply them, because it's so much easier to ask favors of a fellow thespian.
Read Martha Fischer's review of The Proposition here.