For Jack Huston, acting is life. It’s part of his heritage: the last three generations of his family have been Academy Award winners. He took to the stage at the age of six, playing Peter Pan for a school play. He’s since morphed into a big-screen actor, appearing in films such as American Hustle, Outlander, and earlier this year, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
He achieved international acclaim in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire for of his impactful portrayal of Richard Harrow – a former US army sniper, turned gangster, who wears a mask because half his face is missing, stemming from injuries received in the first world war. Huston was originally only signed up for three episodes of the show, but it ended up running for four seasons. “Yeah, they made that decision very kindly,” he says, somewhat humbly for a man whose performance was so convincing they rewrote the script to make him one of the main characters. With the likes of Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese at the helm, Boardwalk Empire was always going to be a hit. But for Huston, simply, “this was a life-changing role.”
This month, Huston is about to hit the big screen in what’s set to be his second career-defining role in the remake of Ben-Hur starring alongside Morgan Freeman and Toby Kebbell. Huston takes on the lead character, Judah Ben-Hur – a role originally played by the legendary Charlton Heston. Judah encounters Jesus as a young carpenter – and the film takes you on a journey in a time when Jesus walked the Earth.
The 1959 film won 11 Oscars, so there’s quite a legacy to live up to. But the new version is definitely not a carbon copy, as Huston explains: “I think our version is a little bit closer to Lew Wallace’s book – it’s a fresh reimagining of it,” he explains. “In ours, you really ‘meet’ Jesus. I know that sounds bizarre. But, you don’t see him as ‘Jesus Christ’, a religious icon, but you meet him as a carpenter and as – in a sense – just a regular guy,” says Huston.
I never really felt any sort of pressure, because [my family] would have felt happy with whatever I did.
Ben-Hur explores the question of who Jesus was and what it would have been like to interact with him. The novel, published in 1880, received critical acclaim, and served as inspiration for many who follow the Christian faith. “I’m not much a religious man, per se,” says Huston. “I’m a spiritual person – in a sense of the greater good and of humanity, and how we treat our fellow man.”
In an age where we turn on the news and witness countless atrocities across the world, Huston emphasises the need for change: “Sometimes you just need to be led into the light, in the sense of being a good human being. How can you treat people better? How can you learn to forgive and move forward? I think that’s a very powerful message – and I think that’s a message we should be telling and putting out there,” adds Huston.
“I’ve seen William Wyler’s wonderful version [Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ] many, many times, and did you know that there were two more versions before that?” he continues. “It’s a real character piece. Judah – through certain circumstances, and through a betrayal – is forced into a very new life, and he’s also forced to quickly grow from a boy into a man,” he continues. “I think it’s really one of the most exciting characters to play,” says Huston.
While filming Ben-Hur, Huston went back to his childhood roots of riding a horse: “I’ve ridden since I’ve been able to walk. I’ve been on horses all my life,” he continues. “But to wheel four horses from a chariot is a very, very different experience. Nothing can quite prepare you for that. But, that was very interesting; it was very tough, but amazing.”
Chariots were one of the first methods of personal transportation: in Jesus’s time, they were used by royalty and dignitaries for transportation, as well as by the military, and in hunting animals. For the general public, though, they were all about the sport: as Huston says, “I guess it would be equivalent to the Formula 1 of those days.”
Huston was born in England. On his maternal side, his dynasty traces back to Robert Walpole, first Prime Minister of Great Britain, and his granddad was Hugh Cholmondeley, 6th Marquess of Cholmondeley. But on his father’s side, his family has a tradition of making it big on the other side of the pond – in Hollywood. His American father, Tony Huston, was nominated for an Oscar for The Dead. Anjelica Huston, Jack’s aunt, won an Oscar for her role in Prizzi’s Honor. His uncle, Danny, was nominated for a Golden Globe for Magic City and American Horror Story. His great grandfather Walter won an Oscar for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, while his grandfather John won two Oscars – including directing his father in 1948 movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
When it comes to living up to this acting legacy, Huston isn’t too worried: “I never really felt any sort of pressure, because they would have felt happy with whatever I did.” Back in 2013, Huston proved his talents on stage at the Gielgud Theatre in Strangers on a Train, a play based on Patricia Highsmith’s psychological crime thriller. The novel was also famously adapted into a film written and directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
After his success in this, he was offered another stage role, but he had to postpone owing to his busy schedule: “I loved doing Strangers on a Train. But you need to give up seven months of your life for a play – so you really have to be able to commit,” he explains. “I still try and watch theatre whenever I’m in town – most times I’m here. Sadly, not this time, as I’m only here for one night. But yeah, every time I get the chance.
“I return to London probably five or six times a year,” he says. “Normally work will bring me here as well, so I spend a good amount of time in London.” Despite eating in plenty of authentic New York pizzerias, Huston enjoys a guilty pleasure when he’s in town: “I like to go to Pizza Express as it reminds me of my childhood. Of course, I also like to meet up at local pubs with my mates, or over at their houses; a lot of my friends have kids now, so I get to spend time with them and their families as well, which is wonderful."
Trace along another branch of Huston’s family tree and you’ll reach Mayer Amschel Rothschild, founder of the Rothschild banking industry, who is ranked as seventh on Forbes’ most influential businessmen of all time list. As to whether or not he could have made it in the banking world: “Well, funnily enough, I was very good with numbers when I was growing up – so who knows? It never really dawned on me,” admits Huston.
The business world’s loss is our gain. Ben-Hur is his biggest role yet – and there’s little doubt that his career is about to go biblical.
Ben-Hur is in cinemas from 26 August