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The Romanoffs’ Jack Huston on His ‘Bad Experiences’ With ‘Tough Directors’

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The Romanoffs’ third episode, “House of Special Purpose,” is a horrifying metafictional fun-house mirror. Set on the toxic set of a mini-series about the Romanoff family, the episode follows the arrival of Hollywood star Olivia Rogers (Christina Hendricks) and her power struggles with actress turned director Jacqueline (Isabelle Huppert), who seems to snap and becomes possessed by her Romanoff ancestor. The same thing happens to Olivia’s co-star Samuel Ryan (Jack Huston), who is suddenly possessed by the spirit of Rasputin while shooting a scene with Olivia and violently attacks her.

Ahead of the episode’s premiere, I spoke with Jack Huston about filming that upsetting assault scene, whether a “tough director” and “bad experiences” are worth it if they create good art, how hard it is for actors not to take their work home with them, and why he appreciated The Romanoffs creator Matt Weiner’s famous micromanagement. (Also, I enlightened Huston about the fact that he was wearing a Pokémon hat.)

I like your Pokémon hat.
It is Pokémon? It really is?

Yes, it really is. That thing on the side is a Poké Ball. You throw them and that’s how you catch the Pokémon. And there are teams in Pokémon Go.
Is blue a good team? This is so funny. Someone said this to me the other day, like, “Hey, cool Pokémon hat.” I was like, “I don’t know what that means.”

You should know it does make you part of a specific team.
Shit, man. I’m deep in Pokémon without even realizing. I’m deep blue! Deep blue team.

I’m glad that I could clear that up for you.
Wow, that’s mad. I can’t believe it. Here I am, everyone’s like, “Jack, he’s an avid Pokémon fan. He’s seriously into Pokémon.” I’m sitting at home playing, or doing, what would I say? Doing Pokémon? Could I be a Pokémon, or that doesn’t make sense?

No, you’d be a trainer. Anyhow, your character assaults someone in this episode of The Romanoffs.
Yes, I do. I do … yes, exactly, on from Pokémon to assault.

How do you film a scene like that so everyone involved feels safe?
It’s a really good question. Matt [Weiner] is so specific in what he writes. He also has his thumb in every part of every single thing. Although within the episode, my character’s meant to be overtaken by the spirit of Rasputin and everyone’s going off the rails, we went through every beat of what we were gonna do. Me, Christina, and Matt together. It was so specific.

Carefully choreographed.
Very. Oh my God, every single part. I was like, “Is it funny we’re doing something that’s meant to be so unchoreographed and so, like, Oh my God, what’s happening? And yet we’re choreographing it to the finest T?” Everything was like that.

This is meant to represent the worst possible set you could ever be on, you know what I mean? But a lot of this rings true. There’s certain bits, you’re like, God, that kind of reminds me of this person, this director, this actor. I think that’s why it was so brilliant. It’s exaggerated, but at the same time, it’s things that everybody knows or can relate to.

This is a [fictional] set that’s going out of control, but this [real-life set] was the most controlled set. When I say controlled, it was like everything was talked about, read through, and he’s specific to the finest detail. Micro-specific.

Can you give me an example?
Your costume, the way your hair is, even the movements. If you walk, Matt will be like, “Raise your arms just a little bit higher.” He knows exactly the lighting, how it’s gonna be said, the tempo, the speed, the voice, the level. It’s amazing.

It seems like a scene like this would be safer when the director is carefully micromanaging every tiny action, right?
You can’t do a scene like that without micromanaging every single bit of it. I think it would be foolish. Any time someone’s like, “Go and do what you want,” something goes wrong. Especially reading that scene, you realize the context of the scene means that’s the wrong thing to do. So we can’t do the wrong thing.

The other great thing is also such a shorthand that Matt has with Christina. They worked together for years. I think the only person who could’ve played that part was Christina. He obviously wrote it for her, because he’s like, “I need to be working with someone who will know exactly what’s going on.”

Obviously, you hope no one has been on a set as bad as this one, but you were saying you can see resonances with some real-world sets?
It’s the business. We’ve all been through it in our own way. We’ve all had bad experiences, we’ve had great experiences. In a sense, it’s made me stronger because there’s sometimes where you’re like, This is crazy. I can’t do this anymore. But the lovely thing is coming on a set like this, which was the complete opposite. We were in Prague, the most beautiful city. Everyone was just so happy to be there. I’m like, Shit, I’m in Prague right now with some of the best actors and directors and writers known to man right now.

But you say you’ve had bad experiences. Have you seen actors get manipulated?
I’ve had it. I’ve had tough directors. I mean, it’s funny — I come from a family that, you know, one might say some stuff about my grandfather [director John Huston]. He was known as a tough director, he was a maverick, but he was brilliant in his own right.

Do you think directors gaslight actors?
You can’t generalize.

I don’t mean everyone. But do some directors behave that way?
Sure. I won’t say what, but I’d say the best performance I’ve done was with a tough director who was very tough on me. But he knew that he was getting something out of me.

Is it worth it?
That’s a great question in everything. Is it all worth it? Is it? I know that’s not what you mean.

I mean, this episode is about a crazy director who’s doing a terrible thing because she wants to create an amazing performance.
It’s a really good question. Do you know why? For all the times I thought it wasn’t worth it, when I have seen something which rings true to me — that feeling, as an actor, is like the nirvana. You’re like, That’s what I’ve been working for. For a moment of — this is gonna sound so corny — pure truth, in a sense. But for that, weirdly enough, you’re like, It was worth it.

At some point, though, is there a point where the effect it has on you isn’t worth it?
What, like Daniel Day-Lewis? I mean, the guy makes a movie once every five years and now retires, because you know what he’s putting himself through for those years getting into the character. It’s probably very hard to rid yourself if you’re playing a tough character, someone who’s really rough, who you don’t naturally want to relate to. But you have to. I think that gets tough. You can say, “Is it worth it?” I don’t think it’s as simple as that. In life, I would say, “No regrets.” As soon as you start regretting something, then it wasn’t worth it. That would be the simple way around it for me.

Do you think you can separate the art from the artist?
No, I think the art is part of the artist. You do take it home. I wouldn’t say I’m a method actor, but there are moments when you’re doing something very emotional, or you’re playing something where you have to reach inside yourself and pull something out that you don’t necessarily want to. I know when I go home after a tough day, it’s still there. And you have to shake it. But it’s not easy to shake.

That goes the other direction too, right? It also means the art is always a reflection of the artist.
Well, the more connection a director has to the material, the better the film. If you’re just doing it for a paycheck, you’re gonna phone it in. You want the connection. You want someone to be passionate, almost to a fault. Hence, why Daniel Day-Lewis has three Oscars. That’s why you look at the great directors and you see why they make so many good movies — the love, love, love, love.

After the assault scene, your character apologizes to Christina Hendrick’s character.
Yeah, he apologizes. And she goes, “What, you’re gonna use the method as an excuse?”

And then she sort of forgives him.
She sort of does. Now people are a lot more careful, but that wasn’t always the case. What’s not acceptable today would have been acceptable once upon a time. I’m saying only the movement now has made us see things like this. And thank God for it, because I tell you what, a lot of difficult situations have been overlooked. And we all got on with it.

How do you think people would actually react to Samuel’s behavior?
I think he’d get nailed. I think he’d get nailed for doing something like that.

No, but that’s the hard thing. Like I was saying earlier, if Daniel Day-Lewis slaps me in the middle of the scene, I’ll fucking shake his hand and say, “Shit, I just got slapped by Daniel Day-Lewis in this scene.” I wouldn’t give a shit, but that’s me. So, it’s about who’s who. You could punch me in the face and I’d feel glad for it. But that’s me. It’s each person, individuals. What are people comfortable with? Now, today, I think it’s a very different thing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Romanoffs’ Jack Huston on Working With ‘Tough Directors’