The ‘American Hustle’ actor discusses Richard Harrow’s tragic departure from the HBO series
Spoiler alert: This article contains major plot points from this past Sunday’s season finale of Boardwalk Empire, including the fate of Jack Huston’s character, Richard Harrow.
Toward the end of Boardwalk Empire’s first season, one of the leading characters, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), met fellow WWI veteran Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) in Chicago. Unlike Jimmy, who suffered from a mere leg injury, Richard, a talented sharpshooter, returned from Europe with half his face blown off, forcing him to wear a tin mask at all times. With his gravelly voice and anti-social behavior, Richard was an odd addition to the Boardwalk crowd, but his multilayered back story and killer-with-a-heart-of-gold persona soon made him a fan favorite. By the start of Season Two, Huston had been promoted to principal cast member, and Richard wound up outlasting his friend and compatriot Jimmy for two whole seasons. This Sunday night, however, Richard’s tortured existence came to a peaceful end after sacrificing himself in order to save his wife, Julia (Wrenn Schmidt), and their surrogate son, Tommy Darmody (Brady and Connor Noon). The British-born Huston, scion of the famous Hollywood family (Oscar winner Anjelica is his aunt), is currently starring in a production of Strangers on a Train in London’s West End, but was gracious enough to call up Rolling Stone to discuss his bittersweet exit from the 1920s-era drama.
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How is Strangers on a Train going?
It’s going well so far. We only opened on Tuesday, so it’s the first week right now. It’s a lot of work and it’s very emotional and quite a taxing role. So I’m sort of exhausted from it, but it’s always amazing to go back to the stage.
You were raised in England, but you make your home in the U.S. How is it being back in England for such a long stretch of time?
It’s amazing. I’m going to be here for five months altogether. Since I’ve moved to the States this will be the longest consecutive period I’ve been home in those 10 years. So it’s lovely. I’ve got my seven-and-a-half-month-old daughter, Sage, and my girlfriend Shannan [Click], and we’re in a house in Holland Park, just around the corner from where I grew up.
When did you find out that Richard was getting killed off?
I was told on that episode. You find out right before it happens. When there’s a call saying, “Terry [Winter, Boardwalk Empire creator]‘s looking for you,” you’re prepared for it. It’s funny, it’s something I’ve been talking about for a while, just sort of openly. With [director] Tim Van Patten, and Howard [Korder, producer] and Terry, we were always a bit concerned about where Richard could go. I mean, I was meant to do three episodes and I’ve ended up going a full four seasons, whatever it is – it’s amazing how far we went. We explored so much with him. This season he gave up killing, and he sort of did that a bit before and then he came back and took the boy – and you don’t want to regurgitate the same story. He actually found love, he found a family and the only thing that could happen, for the greater good, for the show and for the character, was that he die, tragically, because he was a tragic character. I think they wrote the most unbelievably beautiful ending, and it made so much sense. I was honored by the ending rather than upset. I was very, very touched. I was very happy that Richard was going to go out the way he was, and while people still loved him.
Are you looking forward to watching Boardwalk now as a spectator?
I will always watch it as a spectator. I am so in awe of the show and getting to work with these people for as long as I did was such a treat. I owe so much to the character; it opened up so many doors for me and people saw me in a completely different light as an actor and that’s really down to Terry and these guys. And you up your game when you’re around those amazing creative geniuses, it’s just such a beautiful experience to have had. The start of my acting career was Boardwalk Empire.
It was your breakout role. How does it feel to let go of a character that you embodied so wholeheartedly?
It’s so funny; I could just jump into Richard at any moment. After four years, you can’t help but have that happen, they sort of live inside you. It’s such a lovely thing to have created something so memorable. As I say, I loved Richard, I really loved him. That’s how I played him, I played him through love. Even though he was a stone-cold killer when he wanted to be, everything came from a place of love in a certain way. So it is very sad to say goodbye to him.
Did you get to keep the mask?
I have a mask. I’m going to have it properly mounted, because it really is amazing to see. It’s such a beautiful thing to have.
You think you’ll keep the mustache for a while?
Yes, I still have the mustache because I’m wearing it for Strangers on a Train. I’m like the go-to guy for characters with mustaches; I just have one in most things I do. When I finished Boardwalk, I flew to London and the director of the play said, “Oh, I love the mustache, keep that.” I was like, “Oh, it’s for longer now.” So I am quite looking forward to having a good shave.
In addition to Richard, you tend to play characters from the first half of the 20th century (Royce King in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, Jack Kerouac in Kill Your Darlings). When are you going to show up on Downton Abbey?
It’s so funny that you say that. Julian [Fellowes, Downton Abbey creator] was very close to my mother, and a family friend – he’s known my whole family and has always been such a wonderful supporter. He’s an utter genius, such a wonderful writer. It’s one of those things where I hope that we will get to work together one of these days, fingers crossed. It would be an incredible experience.
When I spoke to Terence Winter about your climactic scene in the Onyx Club, where Richard is trying to shoot Dr. Narcisse, but it goes dreadfully wrong (Chalky White’s daughter, Maybelle, is killed by accident), he said that if Richard hadn’t been fatally wounded he would have committed suicide.
I completely agree with that. To Richard, the fact that he just killed [Maybelle] would have been unforgivable. So it’s interesting Terry said that, because I felt very similar. I was talking with Tim Van Patten, who was directing the episode, about how Richard getting shot was meant to happen. This is how I put it: Richard was a brilliant killer, that’s what he was made to do, it was in his genes, that’s what he was. In the beginning of this season, when he gives up killing, what happens when you give something up and you don’t want to do it anymore is you lose your confidence, you lose everything. So coming back to it, I think it was sort of inevitable – he’s intuitive enough that he knew something was going to go wrong. I feel like he was giving up his life to save Tommy and his family and keep Gillian in jail. There’s a moment where he shoots Maybelle and he just stands there and lets [Chalky's and Narcisse's men] shoot him. They all pull out their guns, he just is looking at her, and he doesn’t flinch. He’s like, “I’ve done that,” and he just sort of waits for the bullets.
I felt he knew what was going to happen too, because of the way he kisses Julia at the train station. He knows he’s making a sacrifice.
Yeah, he really is. And he says “I love you” to Tommy in that way, and Julia says, “What’s that, a goodbye?” And perhaps it was, and of course he doesn’t know, but you’re not going to say, “Oh, I’m actually going to go do this,” he’s just protecting his family. So he does promise [to come to Wisconsin] and he knows that if he doesn’t promise, then she wouldn’t leave. He needed to get them all out of there – that was the most important thing. So in his eyes, they were safe. And what I thought was so beautiful was, he had all these things he never thought he’d have – he fell in love, he got married, he had a family – so it’s rather fitting he dies in the same place he spent the first night with Julia under the boardwalk. In his eyes, he’s finally at peace. He’s always been a man of so many conflicts and he actually got all these things he never thought he’d have, and I love that his heaven is walking toward it. In his scrapbook there’s all these beautiful pictures he collected of families, and in his heaven, he actually had that family. It was his sister, it was her kid, Paul and Julia and Tommy. In a way he reached heaven in his life.
Even though I was sad to see him die, I was happy that the scrapbook became a reality for him, because he wanted that so badly.
Exactly. That’s why Richard couldn’t carry on. With a tragic character, a tragic character ends tragically. There’s no other way to do it, otherwise you sort of ruin the character and it just couldn’t have been anything else, it just had to be. And that’s why it was so OK. I remember Terry’s phone call, and you could just tell, Terry was like, “This is the hardest one I have to do,” and he was just so sweet about it. I was like, “I completely understand and it’s just so right and I just feel honored you wrote such an amazing ending.” So I’m very happy about the whole thing.
Were you bummed you didn’t have another epic massacre scene like in last year’s finale?[Laughs] I feel like I’ve probably done the most killing of anyone in the show.
I’d agree with that!
I think by quite a long shot, I’ve killed the most people, so that was my thing. Like I say, what could we have done with Richard? He could have gone and worked with Nucky, but he would have just been seeing the same stuff we’ve kind of seen him do. That’s why I thought what was so brave of the writers this season was actually giving up the fighting and exploring his real life, the emotional side of Richard.
I recently wrote about the Top 10 ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Villains, but I made a point of saying that just because Richard killed scores of people, that doesn’t necessarily make him a bad person.
I love that. I think it’s absolutely right as well. I never questioned Richard as a good human. I don’t think I ever questioned him, which is so odd. I think that’s the only reason why he was liked so much, because I liked him so much in a way, so I played him with love. That is funny, because when you do that, then I guess in a way he becomes lovable. There were so many emotions underneath that mask.
You will be sorely missed on Boardwalk Empire, but your career is really on a roll right now. In addition to Strangers on a Train, and a turn in David O. Russell’s upcoming American Hustle, what other projects do you have in the works?
It’s funny, I so enjoy playing these characters like Richard and the one I’m doing now, I’m not really into doing anything unless there’s just utter love for the character or where you’re working with great people – although I’ve been so lucky recently to work with such wonderful people. Unless it’s the absolute perfect fit, I’m going to sit and wait for it. I’m enjoying life with the family. There will be a few movies next year, but I’ll hopefully pick the right ones. There’s some good offers out at the moment though, so we’re just deciding.