Danny Huston has played his share of memorable villains in his career, from the cartoonishly sinister Styker in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" to the philosophically brutal Arthur Burns in "The Proposition" to the mundanely malevolent bureaucrat Sandy Woodrow in 'The Constant Gardener." But it's safe to say that none of them seem to be having as good a time as Ben Diamond, the bronzed gangster Huston plays in Starz's period drama "Magic City." Diamond owns a share in the Miramar Playa, the plush Miami hotel belonging to protagonist Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and he's a constant thorn in the man's side, a dangerous, volatile business partner who enjoys having people under his thumb. Ike needs Ben, but wishes he didn't -- and given the way his son Stevie (Steven Strait) is involved in a very hazardous affair with Ben's latest wife Lily (Jessica Marais), he'd do well to figure out a way to extricate his family and the Miramar from the mobster's grasp. But what fun would that be? Indiewire caught up with Huston, who's currently filming season two of the series in Florida, to talk about what makes Ben Diamond tick, finding the humanity in villains and season one of the show, which comes out on DVD and Blu-ray today, October 2nd.
The role of Ben seems to be a particularly juicy one, given the organized crime angle and the trappings of 1950s Miami, but also because he's such a confidently powerful character. Was that what drew you into the part?
Yes, very much. Mitch Glazer, the showrunner and writer of “Magic City,” gave me the first three episodes to read and I was intrigued with the period and this microcosm of a hotel -- and, of course, drawn to the character, Ben Diamond. I saw it as an opportunity to, yes, play another deliciously evil villain, but also to play a character who was dealing with things that were occurring politically at the time, what with [Fidel] Castro moving in and Miami, 1959 -- in a way, how that period has influenced us and still influences us today.
When we first see your character he’s sunbathing, which becomes a motif -- he has this magnificent "I’ve moved back to Miami from someplace cold" kind of tan. How important were physical details like that, the cigars, the silk robes, to finding the character?
The wardrobe, the set, that whole world, and the heat, including the fake tans and the Speedos for that particular scene. Speedos require quite a lot of courage, I might add. They were very helpful in creating ‘Ben Diamond,’ including his diamond ring. It just felt so imperial, in a Roman kind of way. It seemed decadent, and also, something that -- as you point out -- a character who has lived in the cold, from some sort of Dickensian childhood, would wallow in.
How would you describe the changing power dynamic in Ben’s relationship with Ike? Ben seems to clearly know his own identity, but Ike has this outside veneer of being a clean-cut citizen even though he’s not necessarily so upright himself.
It’s sort of a Faustian deal that Ike has with Ben. I think he’s well aware of the kind of deal he’s making, what he’s dealing with. It just seems that he requires, unfortunately, the help of people like me -- you don’t really want Ben Diamond doing you any favors. If he held the door open for you, I recommend walking the other way. That’s the dilemma Ike has, having started the relationship with me. The moment it starts, he’s doomed to have me haunt him forever after.
But I don’t think he’s an innocent; in a way, we’re both very well aware of each other’s roles. I don’t feel that he’s victimized by me. He’s well aware of the steps that he has to take. Because of that, there’s a friendship -- I care about Ike, I don’t think I want to see him necessarily make mistakes. Come the day that I would have to do something to him because he behaved in a certain way, I don’t think I would hesitate. I don’t think Ben Diamond would lose that much sleep if he saw that Ike was doing things that were incorrect. There’s a weird morality to Ben Diamond. The scene where he’s by the pool [in episode four, "Atonement"] and Ike doesn’t want the girl killed -- I think Ben feels that’s an unreasonable request. You know, "How can you ask that? You know how things work." I think Ike is well aware of that. So there’s also a paternal quality. He wouldn’t want to get rid of Ike, but if he had to...