‘It’s a sort of family business’: Danny Huston on being part of a Hollywood dynasty
American actor reflects on growing up with famous dinner guests in Ireland and Rome
You have to feel a little sorry for any branch or subbranch of the Hustons, the Fondas or the Barrymores. Sooner or later somebody is likely to ask you about your father, sister or uncle. These are the downsides of growing up within a dynasty. Every now and then such a person must wish the family had all been plumbers or quantity surveyors.
“No, not at all. Not at all,” Danny Huston tells me from a sunny room in California. “Comparing myself to my father is like comparing myself to a giant. So, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t dare.”
Danny’s dad was, of course, the inimitable director John Huston. His grandfather was the actor Walter Huston. His sister is Anjelica Huston. Over the last decade or so, another subbranch has sprouted from Arbor Hustanium. Jack Huston, Danny’s nephew, has blazed handsomely across Boardwalk Empire and the most recent series of Fargo. Professionals from three direct generations — Walter, John and Anjelica — have won Oscars. Neither the Fondas nor the Barrymores can claim that last trivia gem.
“I always felt he provided a little shade,” Danny says of his dad. “I felt like he was protecting me from the harsh rays of the sun. I am quite comfortable in his shadow. And my sister is just wonderful. She’s so cool. And I am proud of my nephew, very proud. It’s a sort of family business.”
Over the last decade or three, Huston, raised partly in Rome and partly on his dad’s Georgian pile in the west of Ireland, has become the most unavoidable of the Hustons. He did not start acting seriously until his late 30s, but, once he took the leap, he never looked back. The best directors love his rumbling vowels and patrician charisma. You can see him in The Aviator, Children of Men, Wonder Woman and Stan & Ollie. He is among the ensemble of the hit series Succession. Such is his presence as a character actor that there may now be a “Danny Huston type”: imposing, powerful, dangerously charming.
He breaks away from that a little in his latest film as director. In The Last Photograph, Huston stars as an American, now resident in London, struggling indifferently with the death of his son in the Lockerbie disaster. We tease out some unspoken truths about that catastrophe.
“The actual story is fiction,” he rumbles. “It’s two or three stories that the writer took – one of which was his neighbour who lost somebody. As the story progresses, the character reveals an inability to accept what happened many years ago. You eventually feel the inevitable reality of it all.”
Danny first wanted to be a filmmaker. As long ago as 1988, he directed a decent drama called Mr North featuring Anthony Edwards and family friend Robert Mitchum. But it’s been 20 years since he last got behind the camera. Why so long?
“Well, I was dying to get back in back in the saddle,” he says. “One of the reasons I became an actor was just because my projects were taking so long to get made. So friends out of the kindness of their hearts gave me small parts. Ha, ha!”
The film has also something to say about exile. I wonder what “home” means to Danny. He was born in 1962 to actor Zoe Sallis — who had an affair with John when he was shooting the ill-fated The Bible: In the Beginning in Rome – and then flitted between Italy and Craughwell, County Galway. He is back in LA as we speak. Does that have a claim as home?
'Oh, I learned to swim in Connemara Bay – in the freezing cold'
“Well, it’s a transient town. A seasonless sort of place. You can flatline here. Um, there’s obviously a superficiality to it. But my line is: all these people can’t be superficial. Right? It’s become home now. My sister his here. I just spent the weekend with her in the ranch she has near Sequoia National Park”
He thinks a little.
“Well, you ask about home. I grew up in Rome and Galway. Those were my two cities growing up. So many, many childhood memories. England was also important, but Galway… Oh, I learned to swim in Connemara Bay – in the freezing cold. I remember wonderful dinners. Buckminster Fuller would be there or Robert Mitchum. Or just the local crowd. My father was master of the Galway Blazers.”
Everyone who knows anything about John Huston’s time in Ireland know that he rode with that hunting club. Danny allows an embarrassed laugh
“I used to ride. But I am actually a vegetarian now. But, look, those were different times.”
The story goes that John Huston, a proud Irish-American, drifted to the old sod in an oblique protest at Hollywood’s McCarthyite witch-hunts of the 1950s. Eventually, he settled in Craughwell and sent Anjelica (actually, Danny’s half-sister) to school at Kylemore Abbey. Huston took Irish citizenship in 1964. It must have been a fascinating childhood for Danny. Maybe he didn’t realise how odd it was. Did he marvel that John directed Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and Danny’s grandfather in Treasure of the Sierra Madre? Did he appreciate how famous the dinner guests were?
“Probably not. I probably was not aware. It was colourful. And stories were told. Sometimes they maybe were exaggerated. There were fascinating people, but I maybe didn’t know who they were. I remember, after meeting Ava Gardner, saying to my mother that I was in love. My mother playfully slapped the back of my head and said: ‘Of course you are. That was Ava Gardner.’”
There is no sense that he needs to be drawn out on the childhood years. He could turn this into a one-man show.
“The moment I felt there was something special was when the projector came out. Suddenly this beam of light would cut through the smoke. And The Maltese Falcon would come on. Or Treasure of the Sierra Madre. My grandfather Walter would be up there. That was the beginning of my understanding.”
Even before Danny belatedly took to acting, he had met more greats than the average high-end chat-show host. Earlier we were idly talking about the lengthy shoot for The Last Photograph and I mentioned that it sounded as if we were discussing the production of a late Orson Welles film. Of course, he probably met Welles. Right?
'It was magically spooky to hear him talk back to me and I had given him that voice'
“I did. Ha ha!” he says. “With my father. He was fantastic! He laughed a lot. I had the honour of replacing some of my father’s dialogue in his film The Other Side of the Wind.”
That’s right. When, in 2018, Netflix pieced together that unfinished Welles film, they recruited Danny to fill the gaps that hadn’t survived the decades between shooting and restoration.
“It was magically spooky to hear him talk back to me and I had given him that voice.”
He rounds out his vowels to give us the John Huston we remember from that sinister role in Chinatown.
“’Action! Cut!’ all those classic John Hustonsims.”
Danny did make some attempt to break away from the family business. Michael Corleone joined the army in The Godfather. Our hero went off to art school in London. Somehow or other, however, he ended up back at Huston & Co. There was a spell at film school and eventually his current successful career on the other side of the camera. He didn’t feel he was actively pushing that life away, but there was a sense that gravity had had its way with him.
“I was more into art and painting and then I finally succumbed to the film business,” he says. “There was a slight feeling of doom about it. But it’s something I carry with a lot of pride. We have the 80th anniversary of The Maltese Falcon coming up. That’s just great.”
He probably suspects what I am about to say. The next generation of the dynasty is already with us. Later in the year Jack Huston will appear opposite Lady Gaga, Adam Driver and Al Pacino in Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci. How would Danny react if one of his own children threatened to hit the soundstage. Would he welcome them to the firm? Would he beg them to become scientists or pianists instead?
“I have been fantasising that my daughter would come a scientist and I got her a piano, but that didn’t work. I guess I wouldn’t actually encourage it. But I would be more than happy to help if my kids showed an interest. You can learn a lot working as an assistant on a film.”
And he meanders off on delightful memories of watching the rushes with dad.
“I used to make him drinks and I learned as much as I could. In Mexico I’d make him rum and coke. He’d say: ‘No, no, no. The coke should only colour the rum.’ Ha, ha, ha!”
What a life.
The Last Photograph is available to download from April 27th.