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…
There’s a certain pleasure that Ben seems to take in his work and his place. He likes to do business with a smile, even when he’s being completely frightening: do you think he enjoys reminding people that he has this muscle to flex?
Men with that kind of violent power, when they tell a story, or when they want to have a private conversation, the person being spoken to really wants to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible. The sooner the whole meeting is over with, the better, because there’s less room for a potential mistake. I think Ben Diamond loves that, loves to torture people in those terms: “No, please, sit down. Let me tell you another story about yourself.” He likes to toy, like a cat with a mouse, but he also has this Roman emperor quality where you feel like maybe there were grander days. Even though he enjoys playing with people in Miami in 1959, in a way, he’d prefer to be playing a bigger hand.
He’s been slightly diminished and weakened by being confined to Miami and not being able to return to Havana. There’s a slight sadness, a feeling of a man who was king at one point – but who is no longer as powerful as he was. And the characters are proving to be quite surprising in this extremely dark, sexual world that Ben is starting to develop for himself — which also has something to do with the lack of power, of influence, in the crime world. There’s not much he can do aside from lying on his chaise longue by the pool, so he starts to meddle in people’s lives and the steamy angle is — every time I read new episodes I’m shocked! I feel like my mother. It’s getting sicker, more twisted, by the second.
Does it ever feel like a challenge for you to keep a character like this grounded — one whose nickname is “The Butcher,” who isn’t exactly eager to show a softer side? I kind of wondered how you saw the revelation with Stevie at the end of the first season working in — and offering a more complicated look at his character?
There are a lot of complexities to Ben Diamond, I feel. He’s had this past — the orphanage, Chicago, and it will be revealed soon that he worked as a carnie for a while, and so there are a lot of sides to him. I kept seeing where he chose to talk to someone, usually Ike, about where he came from and what he’s about — unfortunately, people are usually not that interested. Usually I don’t portray a villain in a one-dimensional way.
What seems to happen to me is that once I get my head around it, I actually start having a lot of feeling and compassion for the character I’m playing, however horrific they are. The character that I did in “The Constant Gardener,” I had a line of dialogue: “Those patients should have died, anyway.” If I can deliver that line and mean it, you know, then I’ve found a key into Sandy Woodrow… With Ben, I can sort of find these little bits all the time.
I know you’ve appeared in TV series before, but this is your first role as a regular. How has that experience has been for you in terms of differing from film — has it been a positive to be able to stay with the same character character for a longer period of time?
For me, they’re like chapters of a book. It’s like reading a novel, and in a way, we did a volume one and now we’re moving into volume two. They’re not restricted to a first, second or third act format. That’s really exciting for me, coming back for a second season, rediscovering Ben Diamond, and a world that I already know. Usually with a film, everything is so fresh — here, you can say, “Oh yeah, that looks familiar” or “I remember this guy.” That’s just wonderful. I also, truly, enjoy reading the episodes. I get a fresh one and I scurry off into the corner and read it. It has that sort of anticipation when you don’t want it to end. Also, working through cable where you can reach out to a certain number of people without having to worry about that first [box office] weekend, so you can grow, develop, it’s really great. I’m happy with it.