Shelley Marsden speaks to actor Jack Huston, who is back in London for the first time in ten years to star in Strangers On A Train – this time with his girlfriend and 7-month old daughter Sage in tow
YOU just know that a play inspired by Patricia Highsmith’s acclaimed novel, Strangers On A Train – inspiration for the legendary noir thriller of the same name by Alfred Hitchcock – is going to be edge-of-your-seat stuff, and this latest West End production has all the right ingredient.
A seemingly innocent conversation struck up with a stranger on a train soon turns into a dangerous reality for Guy Haines (Fox) when he meets Charles Bruno (Jack Huston). Gradually the journey turns into a deadly nightmare of blackmail and psychological torment that threatens to cost Guy his career, his marriage and his sanity. His choice is a grim one – to kill, or to be framed for a murder he didn’t commit.
Returning to London’s West End after a 12 year absence for this production is acclaimed film and stage director Robert Allan Ackerman. In the West End, Ackerman’s credits include Burn This with John Malkovich, A Madhouse In Goa with Vanessa Redgrave while on Broadway, he has worked on Extremities with Susan Sarandon and Slab Boys with Sean Penn.
The cast is top-drawer too, with Rush star Christian McKay, Imogen Stubbs and Myanna Buring of Twilight fame and in the lead roles, Billie Piper’s husband Laurence Fox and Jack Huston (grandson of director John Huston), who last appeared on stage together in Mrs Warren’s Profession in 2002.
Jack, 30, has gone from being a relative unknown to being on the fast track to stardom – he has just finished working on The Sopranos creator David Chase’s film directorial debut Not Fade Away.
A fan favourite on Boardwalk Empire (he plays the disfigured Richard Harrow), the actor admits he’d been looking around for a great theatre two-hander for some time which, impressive supporting cast aside, this most definitely is. In addition, that it is essentially an obsessive, gay love story intrigued him no end.
“It’s very interesting”, he muses, during a break from rehearsals. “To be a gay man in that period (in the book there’s no doubt that this is a love story), in a park or on a train was, notoriously, where guys would go to pick other guys up.”
“There’s also an exploration of Charles’ unhealthy relationship with his mother – she’s probably the only woman he’ll ever love, as well his utter disdain and hatred for his father.”
Striking, raven-haired, with Received Pronunciation and every bit a Huston (his uncle Danny is hoping to come and see the play, while his charismatic aunt Angelica would love to, but is tied up with promotion of her new memoir, A Story Lately Told, recalling the first half her life).
Jack believes there’s something of the Norman Bates in Charles, who with a rather wicked laugh he describes as a “repressed, homosexual, sycophantic psychopathic!”
Guy Haines, the attractive go-getter Charles spots on the train is, he soon discovers, quite a well-known architect. Says Jack: “Maybe I’ve even read about him, and the more we talk, the more my utter obsession builds. Guy, in his way, himself a social climber, sees me with all this money and thinks he would like to live my life, while I really want to live vicariously through him. That’s a curious dynamic.”
The actor, who splits his time between New York and LA, has attracted some high-profile roles in his relatively short career to date, and when he tells me he’s in early talks about playing swashbuckling Errol Flynn in a story of his life, it’s somehow not surprising. But he says there’s no pressure from his famous family.
“I put that on myself. Sometimes, you want to do your family proud, but that’s you doing that, everyone’s just supportive and following their own path. There’s always been a deep-rooted love of the craft in the Huston family – we do this because we love it.”
His filmmaking grandfather John, who grew to love Ireland so much he renounced his American citizenship to become an Irish citizen, seems like something of a larger-than-life figure for Jack. He died when Jack was just five and, though he met him a few times concrete recollections – much as he’d wish it to be otherwise – are frustratingly hazy.
“I’ve since coloured in those black and white images, through stories retold by my family. He lives on constantly. He’s always been such a character in my life through other people constantly talking about him.”
John Huston owned the rambling estate of St Clerans in Craughwell, Galway from 1954 to 1971, and bred horses which he was known to sell on profitably at Newmarket.
Jack shares his family’s much-documented love of Ireland; his own father Tony still has his Irish passports. His grandfather’s relationship with the place was, he says, something magical.
“It was without a doubt his favourite period of his life, when he lived there. One will always be sorry that St Cleran’s had to be sold and the family move away, but my father still goes back a lot, to speak at the film school that was set up there in his name [the Huston School of Film & Media, a part of NUI Galway]”.
“Angelica goes back a lot, and I’ve been going back and forth my entire life. Ireland’s honestly a place I could see me playing out my quieter years. That gorgeous feeling I get in my stomach when I touch down there never goes away.”
While he’s creeping people out in the West End, Jack’s latest movie is garnering favourable reviews. Kill Your Darlings tells the story of English teacher David Kammerer’s murder by Lucien Carr (Kammerer stalked the Beat writer, another story of obsession), drawing three of the movement’s leading lights into its orbit; Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.
Jack plays Jack Kerouac, but was largely undaunted at tackling the iconic role. He says: “It’s always hard playing someone so well known, but luckily it’s Kerouac at 22 years old, before he became the famous writer. He was a kid at Columbia, trying to find his voice. He’d been writing but was still unpublished, so I could put my own spin on him. There’s no footage of him at that age, so I could be broad with my interpretation.”
The big draw for a lot of movie-goers, of course, is Daniel Radcliffe in the role of Allen Ginsberg. Jack apologies in advance for “sounding boring” before saying of his co-star: “He’s fantastic. It was a very daring role and he just nailed it. He’s just a lovely guy; I’d work with him on anything. Daniel is always, always going to be under severe scrutiny because of Harry Potter, but luckily he’s got the chops to do it. He’s proving that he’s a real talent.”
His play takes place during a train journey and Kerouac’s most famous book On The Road is all about it – has Jack has ever taken off on an epic road trip, the ones American highways seem made for?
“Actually, I did one of those for 6 months when I was turning 21 and had just arrived in the States from London”, he recalls with a chuckle. “I wasn’t allowed to leave the country or work as I was waiting for my Green card, so I spent that whole time with a friend travelling on one of those rather awful Greyhound buses which stop everywhere.
It was a journey that, in every sense of the word, shaped him: “We started in New York and went all the way down to Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, got back to LA, picked up my Green Card, and jumped on another plane to spend some time in Mexico. The characters I met along the way were unreal. It gave me such a great insight into the vast, crazy, colourful place that’s America.”
Strangers On A Train is at London’s Gielgud Theatre now. See www.strangersonatrainlondon.com or call Box Office on 0844 482 5130.