The “Boardwalk Empire” season 4 finale, like the finales before it, was not without bloodshed, including the loss of a regular castmember. I reviewed the finale here, and spoke with series creator Terry Winter about the season, and after the jump I have an interview with the performer who played the deceased character, coming up just as soon as I only know what I read in the papers…
So if you watched “Farewell Daddy Blues,” you know that it ended with a shot of Jack Huston as Richard Harrow, the masked, scarred, damaged master killer, lying on the beach under the boardwalk, dead from gunshot wounds he suffered after botching an assassination attempt on Dr. Narcisse. Last week, I spoke with Huston, who’s busy appearing in a play in his native England, about the birth and death of Richard.
How did you find out that it was Richard’s time to go?
Jack Huston: I had discussed with the producers and the writers about where can he go, where else can we take Richard without using the character the wrong way, or going around in circles. We all decided that there was a possibility this might be the last season for Richard. I got a phone call from Terry, and when you get that message, you usually have an idea of what that might be. But he’s so nice; it was almost a teary phone call, with him saying, “We’re doing what we have to do.” And I have to thank him, because he wrote me the most beautiful ending possible for Richard.
What do you mean when you say you were worried about using the character the wrong way?
Jack Huston: Richard is such an amazing, original character, in the sense of where he came from. It’s very hard in a TV series. If it’s a movie, you can watch someone play something like Richard, and it lasts through the movie. But on four seasons of Richard, there’s a chance where you start repeating a pattern. He fell in love, he saved Tommy and gave up the love, which he found again, it’s basically sacrificing himself this time again for the good of Tommy so Gillian won’t get him back. The story can repeat itself a bit. Richard has a beautiful air to him, which is so unique. I said, “Tragic characters have to die tragically. And that’s how you keep them in your heart forever.” That’s the basics of all tragedy. We wanted Richard not to go on and on and on for seasons where one could maybe not get bored of him, but there is a chance of it becoming old. That character could become old, doing the same thing, being this type of killer. There is that part of you that loves the character so much that you want him to go out in this beautiful, tragic way. I felt that’s what Terry and Howard (Korder) and all those guys wanted to put together. If he was going to die, they wanted him to die when people still loved him – not when he was just another character.
It’s also occurred to me that after we saw Richard cut through Gyp Rosetti’s men last season, he had become so potent that basically any problem on the show could be solved by having Nucky tell Richard, “Go kill all of those people who are bothering me.” I have to imagine that became a challenge for the writers as well.
Jack Huston: And that’s what I mean. If you think about each season, there is a certain amount of that stuff that Richard does. What they did very smartly was to try to take him in a very different direction, which was exploring his family life. And he doesn’t want to kill anymore. After exploring that, for him to come back to killing, it cancels out all the work we’ve done. This season, when he buries his guns and he tells his sister, ‘I can’t do it anymore’ and he can’t even kill his dog, for him to go back to killing would take away all the emphasis of what we planned all season, of where he’s gone. That’s why the beauty is he dies because he doesn’t have it in him to kill anymore. If he can’t kill, what is he? He’s found love, he got married, he’s found all the things he thought he’d never had. He actually got it. He basically had a family, he was happy, and he died saving the people he loved. If he was just wounded and came back, I thought it would take something away from the character. When Terry called me, I said, “It’s the perfect ending for this character, and I couldn’t be happier that you gave it to me.” It really is so touching. The last shot is just heartbreaking, of Richard dead under the boardwalk. …
The last shot is also of Richard in profile, with us only seeing the undamaged side of his face. You played this character for years where, other than a few dream sequences, you had to act with only half your face. How challenging was that?
Jack Huston: I actually quite like it. There are certain affectations I do to break in characters. I like to play something which is completely outside of myself. It is amazing how the mask would completely change me, physically. My entire physicality would change. It was almost like an incredible tool that would transform me into Richard. It became like this safety zone. Once I put the mask on, I was him. It’s an amazing thing that something like that could become so integral to the character. Just having it on your face, you’re so aware of it, as he was. It is obviously hard, because you have to work very hard to convey certain emotions through one eye. But it gave him this incredible deepness, these wonderful images where you just see the mask, and it’s amazing a character can become so apparent just from a mask. The mask is Richard, and it’s him. He’ll be forever remembered for that mask.
One of the other things that’s distinctive about Richard is that remote, strained voice. When you got the part in season 1, how did you come up with that?
Jack Huston: I was on a train with my brother in England, I got sent this part and I just fell in love with this character. It didn’t say he spoke in a different voice, but I assumed that if his face was scarred, it could’ve easily affected his throat as well. So I was trying out different voices on my brother on a train. That voice just came out one second, and he was horrified by it, and I saw that and thought, “That’s something new.” I went and put myself on tape for it in London and sent it to Terry and the guys at “Boardwalk,” and they saw it and said, “Don’t change a thing.”
And what were your expectations for the longevity of the character going in? Richard began as a guest star, then quickly became a series regular.
Jack Huston: I was meant to do three episodes. Anything over three episodes was an utter gift. That I managed to make it through four seasons of “Boardwalk Empire” has been one of the true highlights. I owe everything to this show. It gave me a chance to explore a character, and for people to see me act not as myself, but as something else. I always believed in myself as a character actor. It has been the most incredible platform, working basically with geniuses. These guys, what they do day in and out, I’m just so in awe of them. There were zero bad feelings when I got the phone call from Terry, because it was almost like it had to happen. I knew it before. I just felt very honored that they had kept me for four seasons. It’s been a wild ride, and one I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
Richard had largely been defined by his friendship with Jimmy. When they killed Jimmy off and Michael Pitt left the show, were you at all worried that you would be following him out the door?
Jack Huston: I was! And I was so unbelievably flattered that they did decide to keep me around. It’s funny: when I watch the show, Richard, really, over the last couple of seasons, his story has really been a side story. He hasn’t really interacted very much with the other characters, besides Gillian and Tommy. I was so touched that they decided to explore Richard deeper, because he was a character I felt needed exploring. There was so much inside of him, and every time on set, you’d just discover more and more about this guy’s life and how he would be in this time and this situation. That’s what I thought was the most incredible thing: they gave me a chance to flesh Richard out a lot more, so everyone got a chance to see his true colors. They’ve seen all the kinds of Richard: at home, finding love, losing love, amazing moments. It’s an incredible thing that they took the time out to do that with this character, especially with all the incredible characters they have on the show, which I’m riveted by.
Finally, your extended family (including great-grandfather Walter, grandfather John, aunt Anjelica and uncle Danny) have played some incredibly memorable gangsters and/or killers over their careers. How has it felt to join this particular aspect of the family business so indelibly with this character?
Jack Huston: It’s amazing. I’ve been acting all my life, mainly on the stage. I came out to the states when I was 21. It was really a struggle getting work. In the beginning, people approached me with trepidation, thinking they didn’t want cast someone where they could be blamed for just using a name. But what was normally presented to me were characters who were quite like me, and I would always consider myself a character actor. I always was much better playing characters who were nothing like me. My great-grandfather Walter was a phenomenal character actor, as are other members of the family. It’s nice to get a role like this so people can see this and say, ‘Oh, he can be quite good when he puts his mind to it.” Of course you want to make your family proud, and I’ve always had that inside: I wanted to carve out my own path, but at the same time, honor my family and my legacy. That’s why I owe this so much: it gave me the platform to really explore that. I’ll remember that for the rest of my life. It’s nice, because now I’m with my family, and we talk about things, and I guess I’m taken seriously as an actor right now. Which is a lovely feeling.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com