In an age where TV has made heroes of a serial killer, a methamphetamine dealer and a ruthless mafia boss, how does one go about playing a television villain who really is supposed to be a bad guy?
Don't ask Danny Huston, who describes his bad guy character on Starz's luscious Miami-set drama Magic City the way you might describe a free spirited pal with an uncomfortable habit of making the occasional bad decision.
"What makes Ben Diamond so wonderful, is he's so unabashed," said Huston, describing Ben "The Butcher" Diamond, a ruthless gangster at the heart of Starz's 1960s-era drama. "All the other characters are morally compromised; they have moral issues they struggle with. Ben freely admits he's ruthless as a businessman and there's no honor among thieves; he loves it."
Huston, son of famed director John Huston and half-brother to Oscar-winning actor Anjelica, brings a theatrical flair to playing Diamond, a top Mafia boss running organized crime in Miami. He's a murderous, not-so-silent partner in the Miramar Playa, an opulent, fictional Miami Beach hotel modeled on the Fontainebleau and several other Rat Pack-era South Florida hot spots.
As the second season opens, hero Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is suspected in the killing of a labor leader Diamond actually had dispatched. Worried about Diamond's efforts to take over his hotel, Evans reaches out for help from his partner's boss in Chicago Sy Berman, played by legendary film star James Caan.
So how was it for Huston to play a mobster in scenes with a guy who co-starred in The Godfather?
"He's not at all predictable, … a wonderfully dangerous actor," he said of Caan, who reportedly once joined Magic City creator Mitch Glazer on a research trip to Havana years ago. "I understand how someone might be intimidated by Jimmy, but I felt closer affectionately to these kinds of men. He reminded me of my father; they don't make them like that anymore."
In a press conference with reporters earlier this year, Caan downplayed talk of coming full circle by playing another mobster in a TV show referencing the Mafia and Havana 40 years after The Godfather.
"I had the left-hand corner of Hollywood Squares all lined up, then Mitch called," he said, laughing. "I'm at the point where I care very much about what I do; I still try to maintain some integrity. … This was just well-written and beautifully shot and something I thought would be a lot of fun in a creative way."
In a media world where online sites such as Netflix, Yahoo, Hulu and Amazon are offering original content at relatively low prices, Starz has found itself in a bind.
Standard cable channels such as FX, AMC, IFC and BBC America have all aired Emmy-contending series this year, along with House of Cards and Arrested Development on Netflix. But Starz had to cancel Boss, the Chicago-set political drama that starred Fraiser alum Kelsey Grammer, and newer fare such as the historical drama DaVinci's Demons hasn't caught fire.
Magic City, with its glamorous Mad Men-style fashion and flashes of Mob-connected drama, might be the channel's best bet to get the public's attention.
To that end, Starz is pulling out all stops, adding Caan and Twin Peaks alum Sherilyn Fenn to the cast and getting critics' attention with publicity packages filled with Markers' Mark bourbon and plush robes.
"Every character is so sinful, it's a pleasure to play," Huston said, sounding more like Ben "The Butcher" than you might expect. "I never asked anything of Mitch for my character except to surprise me. And every episode I read, I was always delighted."