Jack Huston plays a hit man viewers can’t help liking on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and now he’s coming at murder from a different angle on the London stage. The British-born scion of the Huston acting clan (he's a nephew of Anjelica and Danny) is currently co-starring in Strangers on a Train, the stage adaptation of the 1950 Patricia Highsmith novel that spawned the creepy Hitchcock film the following year. Huston and Laurence Fox play the title “strangers” who bond over an affinity for murder, with Imogen Stubbs and Miranda Raison lending strong support. The warm and engaging actor spoke to Broadway.com about delivering celluloid thrills at the Gielgud Theatre, coming from a famous family and coupling his professional stage debut with the other notable arrival in his life, baby daughter Sage Lavinia, born in New York on April 6.
You’re on screen everywhere these days, playing Jack Kerouac in Kill Your Darlings, a supporting role in David O. Russell’s forthcoming American Hustle and masked hit man Richard Harrower in Boardwalk Empire. Why, then, this play?
God, my first love was always the theater! All I did growing up was play after play after play. Once I started working professionally, I got more into TV and film, and it felt like doing a play had to be something that was going to grab me—as [Strangers on a Train] has! This is the play I’ve been waiting for.
And it re-teams you with Laurence Fox, who plays Guy Haines, an architect with blood on his hands.
I was Laurence’s understudy in 2002 in Peter Hall’s revival of Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the Strand Theatre. I was 18, and it was my first job out of school, so I basically did everything: stage management, helping with the scene changes, running around backstage. Laurence’s grandfather died during the run, so I got to go on a couple of times. I remember him thinking, “I can’t not be there for the show” and me replying that actually he had to go say goodbye to his grandfather.
Despite having a large cast, the play almost feels like a two-hander—three, if you include Miranda Raison, who plays the second wife of Laurence’s character.
Yes, that’s one of the things I love about it. We’re able to focus the material down to something very intimate while at the same time being part of a big production. And we’ve got a lot of scene changes carried off by what must be the hardest-working stage crew known to man.
Your character, Charles Bruno, is an intriguing set of contradictions: suave and smooth on the outside but also desperately lonely and insecure.
He’s a very troubled human being in that he comes from a nice if rather sheltered background and then meets this guy on a train and starts pouring forth a great many rather large ideas, many of which aren’t entirely ethical [laughs]. I think he’s one of the great characters in that he’s utterly fueled with passion at all times.
There’s a distinctly homoerotic subtext to the film, which transfers to the play, as well.
Absolutely! This is a love story at its heart. As far as I’m concerned, what happens is that Charles Bruno develops this sort of sycophantic obsession with Guy Haines and it builds from there. It’s actually quite sad.
Much has been made of your show being based not on Hitchcock’s film but on the novel that came before.
This is definitely based on Patricia Highsmith’s book, which I have read many times, and really isn’t like the film at all. We’ve taken certain artistic liberties prompted by the book, not the movie, and there are differences, too, that relate to the killing. I can’t say anything more than that! [Laughs.]
Was it important to you to bone up on the Hitchcock film?
Well, I’m not one of these people who won’t watch a movie when doing a play connected to it. I watched it in order to see what I could bring to Charles Bruno that’s unique, so I could turn him into something that’s not been seen before. What’s good, at least from my perspective, is that I feel as if I’m not at all like Robert Walker, totally brilliant though he was in the film.
What a sad, short life he had—dead at 32.
I know, and to think that he didn’t even get to see the film come out! It’s an amazing story, and so deeply sad. Apparently he was the loveliest human being ever.
Interestingly, you speak with a British accent, though you mostly play Americans.
Yes, it’s strange, though I was British in [the TV series] Parade’s End and one or two things since then. I went to school in England, so this really was home up until I turned 21. I’ve been in the States almost 10 years, so the run of this play will be my longest period back since then. I’ve got a daughter who’s seven months old and has a British passport, but her mother’s American, so presumably she’ll grow up facing much the same issue I have.
With a surname like Huston, you must feel as if you’ve entered the family profession, though you’re probably too young to have known your grandfather [legendary film director John Huston] in any meaningful way.
That’s exactly right. I was five when my grandfather died, so I have memories that are more like images, really. What’s nice is that his life has been painted for me so well, whether by Danny or Anjelica or my own father [Oscar-nominated screenwriter Tony Huston]. They’ve told me so many things that I sort of feel as if I know him a lot better than most people know their grandparents.
It seems, over time, as if film was more the family vocation than theater.
True, although my great-grandfather Walter [Oscar winner for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, directed by his son, John] started in vaudeville and did plays all the time, returning to the theater regularly even once his film career took off. He was the first to perform “September Song” on Broadway—when he was on a bill with the Marx Brothers and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, that song used to end his act.
What can you tell us about the Oscar-bait movie American Hustle, which stars Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence?
To be honest with you, I don’t know anything about it! The way David O. Russell works is that you only get sent your part, so you don’t have any idea what else has happened along the way. I’m going to fly out to the L.A. premiere in December so I’ll see it all then, which is cool.
How are you juggling your burgeoning screen career with the demands of theater?
What’s nice about this play is that once we open, I’ll be working maybe three hours a day—six or seven when we have matinees—so I’ll get to spend lots of time at home with the little one [baby daughter Sage]. That’s the best gift of all.