Character Study

10.23.11

Boardwalk Empire's Scene-Stealer

Jack Huston, the grandson of legendary director John Huston (and nephew to Anjelica and Danny Huston), is stealing nearly every scene of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, where he plays disfigured sniper turned hitman Richard Harrow. Jace Lacob talks to Huston about this week’s episode, wearing the mask, and whether Richard still has a soul.

HBO’s Boardwalk Empire revolves around mob feuds, illegal bootlegging, and the corruption and venality that accompanied Prohibition. But beneath the surface, the show is about grasping at the American dream. That quest for happiness has never been more vivid—nor more painfully realized—than in Boardwalk Empire’s disfigured hitman Richard Harrow, a Great War sniper who now kills for profit, wearing a tin half-mask.

This tragic figure has become a breakout character in Season 2 of Boardwalk Empire, and is played with Emmy Award–worthy fury by 28-year-old British actor Jack Huston, the grandson of Hollywood legend John Huston and the nephew of actors Anjelica and Danny Huston.

“I’ve always considered myself a character actor,” said Huston, perhaps best known for straightforward leading-man roles in the Jane Austen biopic Miss Austen Regrets and in ABC’s short-lived Eastwick. “It’s very hard in this business to convince one’s agent or producers that you can play characters until you have done … My eye has always been caught by those kinds of parts. Until now, I’ve rarely gotten to play them.”

Sunday’s episode of Boardwalk Empire showcased Huston’s Richard Harrow with a stark and heartbreaking intensity, displaying a man who believes himself to be a monster, determined to—SPOILER ALERT!—end his life in the woods. “It’s such a delicate character,” said Huston. “The mystery of him, the sadness, and at the same time the hidden light that burns within him.”

The Daily Beast caught up with Huston to discuss this week’s episode. (Warning: CONTAINS SPOILERS for Sunday’s episode, “Gimcrack & Bunkum.”) What follows are excerpts from that conversation, in which Huston discusses creating Richard’s distinctive voice and tics, the mask, what the scrapbook represents, the woods, and what’s coming up for Richard Harrow this season.

What initially attracted you to the character of Richard Harrow and how much of his mannerisms did you create?

Jack Huston: It was probably the best character that I had ever read. It was simply written: a man with an affliction on half his face who wears a tin mask to cover it. It was written with a lot of what we in Britain call “full stops” or what you would call periods in the middle of sentences at weird moments. “My name, period, is Richard Harrow,” which I interpreted as Richard having trouble speaking. I was in London, putting myself on film for the audition. I put some cotton wool in my mouth and came up with a voice when I was on a train with my brother. I imagined this voice because his face was injured, so his throat could have been injured as well. Everything was in [that audition tape]: the clicks, the slurping. I thought, if he had an affliction over half his face, maybe he was missing part of his mouth. I imagined the pain and suffering that someone like that would go through.

What are the challenges involved in the physicality of acting with only half of your face?

Huston: I think you have to emote a lot more. As an actor, your eyes are probably your most important asset. You can almost read any emotion through someone’s eyes. Having one eye, that eye has to do double time. He’s written so well and it comes so naturally: the pain and the anguish, they’re so deep-rooted inside of me now. I feel like when I put that mask on, I transform.

Video screenshot

It’s not just half of Richard’s face that's missing, but also a part of his soul, as we see in the story he relates about his twin, Emma.

Huston: Absolutely. Growing up in rural Wisconsin on a farm with his sister in that time—in the 1910s, 1920s—he didn’t see many people, so he was probably quite isolated as it was. Everything—his life—would have been his twin sister. She would have been his best friend, his confidante; they would have done everything together. Going off to war, as a good-looking young lad and having such a severe affliction to your face, it not only affects you emotionally, but everyone else looks at you, externally, as a monster.

You sort of act like how people treat you, or you hide away. He probably wasn’t the most social person anyway; hence, why he was a sniper, because he could be on his own. I feel like he lost everything when he was at war. He lost his soul, his confidence. All he wants is a normal life. Everybody always wants what they can’t have; that desire shapes the show. It’s interesting when he comes back. He can’t connect with anyone, even his sister, because now, externally, he sees himself as a monster.

If he has lost his humanity in the war, is Richard just a killer now? Is he doomed?

Huston: I think he’d love to find it, but I don’t think he believes that he will, so he fictionalizes it and he manifests it in his scrapbook, almost like a fairy tale or a daydream he might have. I think that deep down, Richard is a really caring, good person. There was and will never be another war like the Great War: hand-to-hand combat, trench warfare. It was bloody and horrific. For most of these soldiers—18 or 19 years old—when you’re sent to something like that, it’s very hard to live a normal life, doing what you’ve done. With him, I think he has a really good heart. But now he can only do the one thing he’s good at, which is killing. It’s the only thing he’s capable of relating to, essentially. If you’re good at something and you haven’t got anything else, what can you do except that? And his guns are his friends. He’s so methodical about listing those guns; they are what have filled up those missing parts of his soul. It’s where he feels comfortable living.

Richard spends much of his time hiding; why does he choose to reveal himself to Angela (Aleksa Palladino) and sit for her portrait?

Huston: He says of his sister, “She took care of me but I didn’t love her anymore.” I think it’s not that he didn’t love her; it’s that he didn’t love himself anymore, and because she’s his twin, he can’t love her anymore. Angela is the first person that he sees looking at him as a person and talks to him as a person. I think he desperately wants to reveal himself. You do things to hide yourself but you also want to show someone who cares. I don’t think it’s a sexual thing; it’s the first woman—apart from Odette, who was a hooker he lost his virginity to—who is talking to him and speaking to him as a person, who is actually kind to him and doesn’t look at him like a monster. He wants to show her.

Is it his intention to go into the woods to kill himself or to be saved? Why does he react so strongly when the dog takes his mask? Surely, he doesn’t need it anymore.

Huston: I think he definitely went into the woods with the intention of killing himself. Absolutely; there’s no question in my mind. I read a lot about suicides and it’s funny about those moments just before something happens. Anything can be a turn of fate: it’s so funny, I’m saved by the dog. I’m about to kill myself, so I shouldn’t say, “I need that mask.” But I think there’s that part of me that obviously doesn’t want to kill myself; it gives me that last bump to run after the dog.

Richard encounters the men in the woods, who tell him, “These woods are for living.” It’s perhaps the first time that Richard chooses life.

Huston: It was such an interesting choice by [executive producer] Terry [Winter] and everyone. The bit with the nomads in the woods and the dog, it is such a surreal moment, with him putting the bones in his pocket. It’s almost a rebirth. Sometimes it takes a stranger to make everything so much clearer. I thought it was a lovely choice to put it in such a different context to Atlantic City, to put it in the woods, which is a place of life and death and rebirth.

What was your reaction to seeing Richard’s tin mask for the first time?

Huston: It was a strange feeling, putting it on for the first time. Just walking around with a mask, which takes away half your vision, being attuned to something like that, it is so incredibly difficult. But the thing is that your peripheral vision becomes so much greater, so you see a lot more with your eye. Distances are very hard to gauge, where things are, shade are all very awkward to begin with, but you become accustomed. The mask was awesome.

What’s coming up for Richard in the second half of Season 2?

Huston: In the show, because it’s such a vast cast, each person—apart from obviously Nucky [Steve Buscemi] and Margaret [Kelly Macdonald] and Jimmy [Michael Pitt]—we each get a bit of light shone on us for two or three episodes. The rest of it is very much about me and Jimmy and our relationship and how that pans out. My big stuff is what you saw, that’s my big stuff. The rest of the season gets into some rough areas. Season 3 is going to be a hell of a season, because the last episode [of Season 2] is just going to blow people’s minds. The last episode, everyone who read it, said, “No fucking way.” It’s awesome. It’s crazy. It’s amazing. It will blow people away.