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Jack Huston on Not Fade Away, Boardwalk Empire, and How He Won Over David Chase

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 06: Jack Huston attends
Jack Huston. Photo: Andy Kropa/2012 Getty Images

Jack Huston might be a little hard to recognize in David Chase’s first feature film, Not Fade Away — because we finally get to see his whole face. As disfigured vet sniper Richard Harrow, Huston is the best thing on Boardwalk Empire, but he’s usually obscured by a half-mask and a gurgled voice. His voice is still a bit obstructed in Not Fade Away — he’s the not-quite-talented singer of a garage band in sixties New Jersey who loses his top spot when he swallows a lit joint and can’t do the vocals at a local gig. But the role gave the actor a chance to live out one of his dreams (“Everyone wants to be a rock star. It’s just fucking cool”). Huston chatted with Vulture about his trouble auditioning, Steve Van Zandt’s rock-star boot camp, and killing a brothel full of gangsters on the season finale of Boardwalk.

So I hear it was a bit of a struggle after your first audition to get the part in Not Fade Away?
I had six or seven auditions! David sort of liked me for the movie, and I flew to New York, and then he didn’t like me at all for the movie anymore. I was like, I blew it! [Laughs.] So then I put myself on tape, and he considered me again. He said, “Do something with the accent, go further with the accent,” but then I went too far. “Okay, let’s bring it back a bit.” And then we did scenes — he made me do like every scene in the movie. It was quite the process. I would have done twenty auditions to be in the movie that David Chase wrote and was directing, do you know what I mean? Sometimes you’re not always on or at your best, especially during auditions. So if you go in and you don’t nail it, even if they’re like, “We don’t need to see you again,” get a friend, get a video camera, and film you doing the stuff again.

Which was harder for you: learning guitar, or trying to be a singer who’s not that good?
Very different, bizarrely. Three months before the movie started, we were at [Van Zandt]’s studio for six hours a day, seven days a week, for three months. David would come with his wife Denise and they would lie on the floor in the back [to watch], which was so cool. We would just jam out what we were learning that day. When we started, we could barely strum the chord of E. And they all gave us the confidence that we were a band, so we could enjoy it. It’s great when you rock out and you really do nail a song. Steven had the E Street Guys come in and record the tracks, and we had to replicate them perfectly, even the solos and stuff like that. It was pretty cool. And Steven said to me the night before, “Don’t get much sleep. Don’t worry about your voice. And here’s what we’ll do — we’ll use the first take.” Because after that, by the second take, your ear adjusts to the song, and you naturally would just sing well. But we wanted it to be off. We played a few of them really off, like he’s struggling, but he would never admit it, because he’s too much of an egomaniac.

Do you make playlists for different characters?
Yes! A hundred million percent. Normally I’ll end up with about 30 songs, and then I whittle it down to 18, and those I play on the way to work and on set. They’re so important, good playlists. When I was just doing Posthumous [with Brit Marling], we were listening to a lot of Asaf Avidan, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Dizzie Gillespie. A lot of jazz stuff, because I thought when the character was working, it was a jazzy-type thing, even though he’s a sculptor.

What about for Kerouac for Kill Your Darlings?
That was all over the place. Probably a lot of jazz, and finding things with a beat. And I also read every single thing of his, and everything written about him — but only up to the point where the film ends. I didn’t want to give myself any preconceptions of what he was like after this. He had written a million words, but he hadn’t published a thing yet. He was in and out of Columbia University, and he was in and out of military service — that was this part. Anything later was when he became the voice of a generation, the Beat warrior poet. We haven’t seen Kerouac like this, because this is before the Kerouac we know. He was a little younger, a little cockier, not quite so sullen. I hope I’m not going to be beaten up by avid Jack Kerouac fans who are all, “You’re nothing like him! Get out of here! Quit!” We’ll see.

What about Peter Quill, since you’re up for Guardians of the Galaxy? What would be on your playlist for him?
That’s hard, because I haven’t got there yet! It’s not my part! That would be fun, though, wouldn’t it? Jesus. I don’t even know what you’d call that one! That’s like space-future-whatever it is. I tell you what, I would love to do it. [Grins.]

I’m sure Boardwalk would be flexible enough to allow you to do that, like how they accommodated this film.
I’ve still got to watch the last season.

You haven’t seen the last season yet?
I was away making a movie! [Laughs.] I saw the first three episodes, and I’m quite looking forward to seeing the rest.

This won’t be a spoiler for you, but your character got a lot of action by the end.
[Chuckles.] Thank God for that last episode, right? I mean, I couldn’t have gone with just killing Manny the whole season. No. Great to start it off, but then my kill count just stayed completely like nothing. It just flat-lined. And then boom! I got shot back into life. And then they gave me so many people to kill. They were like, “We’ll just save it up all season and then he can kill everybody.” So that was cool. And I thought the last scene was like The Searchers, just kind of walking away, and now maybe he really feels like he has nothing to lose. He found love, he found the kid, he thought he found happiness, and, in my eyes, he realized that he can’t have this. He can’t have any semblance of a normal life.

Not Fade Away’s Jack Huston on David Chase