It beggars belief that Danny Huston didn't properly commit to acting until he was in his late 30s. It's not just that he comes from one of Hollywood's most fecund dynasties: his dad was John Huston, his grandpa Walter and his sister is still Anjelica. It's not just that he has an uncanny gift for mimicry. There's also the fact that he sounds so much like an actor. Heavy brown vowels colour a voice that could make the voting register sound like Idylls of the King.
Yet it's true. Raised in Ireland and Mexico, the tall, chiselled performer – as charismatic as you'd expect any Huston to be – didn't take a significant role until Bernard Rose's coruscating Tolstoy adaption Ivans Xtc in 2000.
“Ha. Yes, well it certainly is the family business,” he rumbles. “But I was wary – mainly because of the amount of money involved. I watched my father spend years trying to raise money for films. I loved to paint and draw and I thought that I could do that without anybody’s permission.”
With dreams of a different Bohemia in mind, he went to art school in London and, as you might expect, found himself invited to various irritating gallery openings.
“I found myself drinking warm white wine at one of these things and there was just as much networking and – pardon my French – bullshit at these things. I thought, who am I kidding, and enrolled in film school.”
Huston originally set his heart on directing and knocked together a few features before being edged towards acting by his old pal Rose. Cliches featuring the phrase "never looked back" are unavoidable here. He has, over the last 14 years, rarely played the protagonist, but nobody is better at conveying sombre, diverting authority. He's in 21 Grams, Birth, Marie Antoinette and Wrath of the Titans. How did we ever get by without him?
This week, at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, he is one of those trapped in a diving bell in Ron Scalpello's gripping chamber thriller Pressure. Huston will be there to discuss the inconveniences of getting wet for your art.
“I have never been to the festival and it is a long time since I’ve been in Dublin,” he says. “I am so excited I just can’t tell you.”
Huston was born in Rome, after a relatively brief relationship between his father John and actor Zoe Sallis. Happily, Sallis and his father managed to get on pretty well throughout Huston's childhood and he spent "every holiday, summer, Christmas and so on" at John's famous house in Craughwell, Co Galway.
The elder Huston, appalled at the anti-communist witch hunts in the US, made for the old country in the 1950s and fast became part of the local furniture.
"He certainly acted the part," Huston laughs. "He was master of the Galway Blazers. He loved to fox hunt. I remember all the fairy tales and the amazing guests: Buckminster Fuller, Robert Mitchum. Incredible men. It was a way of experiencing that LA showbusiness world without the glitz."
He must occasionally recall some figure from that period who, as a boy, he didn't properly appreciate. "Well, I do remember Ava Gardner being there when I was a young boy," he says, settling warmly into the uncoiling anecdote. "She was wearing Dr Scholl's and not looking very glamorous at all. But I remember just staring at her across the table and falling in love.
“When she left the table I admitted to my mother: ‘I am smitten.’ She slapped me playfully on the back of my head and said: ‘Of course you are. It’s Ava Gardner.’ I had no idea who she was.”
The dynamics of the Huston clan are more complicated than those of most families. Anjelica Huston is actually Danny's half-sister. In a recent, compelling memoir, Allegra Huston, a respected writer and editor, revealed that, although she was raised as John's daughter, her real father was English historian John Julius Norwich.
“It felt natural then as I didn’t know anything else,” Huston says. “All families are dysfunctional. The thing was that my father was such a gentleman. He could navigate the most complicated of waters without seeming hostile. It was certainly a complicated state of affairs. But he wasn’t Noah Cross. Ha-ha.”
Voice of God
Well, quite. The villain that John played in Chinatown – a water magnate who sired a child by his own daughter – remains the most resonant of the great man's acting roles. Danny remembers being puzzled by that. He was more puzzled still by the sound of his father voicing God in his own, famously chaotic adaptation of the Bible.
Such confusion has been going on in the Huston family for generations. Jack Huston, Danny's nephew, is now a significant movie star. Danny's grandfather, Walter, was one of Hollywood's great grumpy old men.
All proper film buffs know that John Huston is the only man to direct a child (Anjelica in Prizzi's Honour) and a father (Walter in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) to Oscars.
"I never met my grandfather," Huston says. "There was always a great palaver when we screened a film. Would the projector work? Would the film break? There would be a flicker and the image would appear on the wall. There was my grandfather in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. For years I thought he was a gold prospector."
After attending film school, Huston found himself mired in the messes that ooze from "development hell". Nonetheless, he did manage to get Mr North, a Thornton Wilder adaptation featuring old pals Robert Mitchum and Lauren Bacall, into cinemas during the late 1980s. He completed a few interesting projects in the 1990s, but those sound like frustrating years.
It is probably overstating things to suggest that Huston reinvented himself when he belatedly became a movie star. It cannot, however, be denied that a new phase was entered. He is now busier than his Oscar-winning half-sister.
“I was stuck in a bit of a rut,” he says. “I didn’t want to compromise on the films I was developing. But LA can be quite seductive in that way. I was having meetings, so I thought I was working. But I really wasn’t.
“Friends – fellow directors – out of the kindness of their hearts said: ‘Do you want to work on this?’ At first the parts were small, but then they get bigger. The next thing I knew I was working with Scorsese. I haven’t looked back since.”
Twice married, with one daughter, Huston is now trying to get back behind the camera. Two projects are currently in development: one revolving around the Pan Am plane bombing over Lockerbie, the other a “seedy tale” set in Mexico.
Before that he gets a chance to return to the old sod. He hopes to make a nostalgic trip to Galway and have a gawk at the old house when he is in the country. The family ties are clearly still strong.
“Yes. That’s true. Anjelica was always my protector. And now Jack is in Rome playing Ben-Hur? Can you believe that? Can you believe that?” he says with gee-whizz enthusiasm. “We are tight as a family and we all believe in a healthy dose of nepotism. Ha ha.”
See? He really is an Irishman.
Pressure is being screened as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival in Cineworld on Friday, at 9pm. Danny Huston will be in attendance with director Ron Scalpello and co-star Alan McKenna