Actress-director Anjelica Huston

Part of a third generation of Hollywood talent, Huston explains why she decided to write about her unusual upbringing.

When she won an Oscar for her performance in 1985's Prizzi’s Honor, Anjelica Huston continued the Huston family legacy—her father and grandfather had also won one. It was also evidence that she'd come into her own as a powerful actress. She's had memorable turns in film and on TV and also followed in her father’s footsteps as a director, earning acclaim for her debut with Bastard Out of Carolina. Huston spent most of her childhood in Ireland and England and relocated to the U.S., where she modeled for several years. Given her unique upbringing, she has many stories to tell, some of which she shares in the first volume of her fascinating new memoir, A Story Lately Told.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: (Laughs) Oscar-winning actress Anjelica Huston is part of a legendary film dynasty, of course, and she chronicles the first 20 years of her exceptional upbringing in a new memoir. It’s titled “A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York.”

She is, of course, the daughter of acclaimed director John Huston, and the granddaughter, for that matter, of Oscar-winning actor Walter Huston.

But Anjelica has carved out an impressive acting career of her own, including her Oscar-winning turn, of course, in “Prizzi’s Honor,” directed by her father, as well as roles in “The Addams Family” and in the Emmy-winning miniseries “Lonesome Dove.” It is an honor, Anjelica Huston, to finally have you on this program.

Anjelica Huston: Thank you so much, Tavis.

Tavis: It’s good to see you. I was saying to you when you walked on the set, when I first got this book, which is a good sign, I think, for a book, I just stared at that photo on the cover.

Can you push on that, Jonathan? I want to just – this picture is – you know the old adage, “The eyes on the window to the soul?” What was in your soul that day? Because your eyes are so expressive.

Huston: Well, I was newly in New York. I’d just met the man that I was going to spend the next four years with. My mother had recently died in London. So I think there was a lot of sadness in me at that time, but also new beginnings. I was young.

Tavis: When you say “sadness,” we’ll get into the story here in just a moment. But given who your father was and your grandfather, your lineage, given the way you were raised in this beautiful castle in Ireland, what is there for a white girl who’s been raised in the environments that you were raised in to be sad about?

Huston: (Laughs) Well, first of all, I’d lost my mother recently, and so that was a very deep sadness for me. Something I think that you don’t really recover from at any age, but at 17 it was a huge thing for me.

Tavis: Sure.

Huston: Also, I was virtually alone at this point. My father kind of disapproved of my penchant for a lot of eye makeup, and I dressed like a hippie, and I liked to go out to rock and roll concerts, and I was generally pretty – well, I thought I knew what I wanted at the time, and I don’t know that I really did, and he sort of disapproved. So I think I virtually felt very lonely at that time.

Tavis: Tell me about your mother. Because it’s impossible to read the book, at least in my read, it’s impossible to read the book and not feel for her, but that’s my own sense of it. But tell me about your mom, or your mum, as you -

Huston: My mum, yeah.

Tavis: – Your mum, as you put it.

Huston: My mum was a ballet dancer. She grew up in New York with an Italian father called Tony Soma, who had a speakeasy during the war, and then it became a restaurant called Tony’s Wife.

His wife was called Angelica, and she died when my mother was four years old. But my mother grew up with the intention of being a ballerina, and was actually dancing for Jerome Robbins and for Balanchine.

She was the youngest member of the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet when she was, I think, 14, 15. So that’s who she was, yeah.

Tavis: There are a number of powerful and poignant stories in the book, which is why everybody’s talking about this. But the story of when your mother birthed you and a message is sent to your father while he’s on a movie set with Katharine Hepburn – I’ll let you tell the story.

But I want to ask you about this story, but let me ask you to tell the story first of how your dad finds out about the birth of this daughter, who will be named Anjelica.

Huston: Well, my dad was making “The African Queen” in Uganda, in the deepest, darkest heart of Africa, and nobody went on location in those days. Everything was done in the studio.

So this was an unusual thing, for a big studio to allow a film director to take an A-list cast down to Africa, to the Belgian Congo. I was born a big, healthy, bouncing baby girl at The Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles.

The news was cabled to the township of Boutaiba, where a barefoot runner ran for three days through the jungle, finally arrived (laughter) at my father’s location, and handed him a telegram, right?

So my father read the telegram, put it in his pocket, and Katie Hepburn said, “For God sakes, John, what does it say,” and he said, “It’s a girl, her name is Anjelica.” (Laughter)

Tavis: When you heard that story, how did you process that – your father getting the cable and -

Huston: And not saying a word?

Tavis: – and just sticking it in his pocket. How did you read that?

Huston: It was typical of my father. He was a master of understatement, yeah, and he liked to drive people crazy, and probably everyone had been saying, “So, what’s happened,” and “Have you heard the news.” It was very typical of my father just to sort of prolong the tension a little bit.

Tavis: Yeah. I suspect the easy question to ask you, and I suspect you’ve been asked this more than once, so I will not ask this question, which is how you find your own voice, your own way, in the shadow of a father like John Huston.

But there is, again, a poignant story in the text here about your father directing you in something that you didn’t even really want to be in. There are a lot of people I can imagine who would love the opportunity to get a leg up, so to speak, because their dad is John Huston.

But you were reticent about that. You did it, critics slammed you after you did it, so I’m sure you felt I knew I shouldn’t have done this. But tell me more about how, even though your father is John Huston, obviously there’s joy in that, but there’s also – my word, not yours – some difficulty, discomfort, in trying to negotiate that. Is that fair?

Huston: Yeah, a kind of reticence.

Tavis: Reticence, okay.

Huston: Well, it was a particularly difficult time, because he didn’t, as we sort of discussed before, he wasn’t too crazy about the fact that I was chasing the Rolling Stones and wearing a lot of makeup. (Laughter)

So we’d had a few differences of opinion over this. Meanwhile, I’d illustrated myself as wanting to be an actress, and as a matter of fact there was a school search going on for Juliet for Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and I’d been asked to come back a couple of times by the producers.

Meanwhile, my father had been offered a three-picture deal with 20th Century Fox and he’d done the first movie, and the second one seemed to him like a great idea to put me in and direct me in.

It was the part of a young girl in 15th century war-torn France, France during the Hundred Years’ War, very romantic; I thought incredibly corny. (Laughter) I wanted to go to Italy with Franco Zeffirelli and be Juliet, a situation which I didn’t know anyone, so I could invent myself.

But my father wanted me to go to – well first it was going to be France, but then the student riots broke out in ’68, so we wound up in Lichtenstein in Austria. I did not want to be in Austria with my father telling me what to do, basically.

So I went in a very reticent frame of mind into this film, and I wasn’t any good in it. I was stubborn, he was insistent. We just weren’t hitting it off, what can I say?

Then the reviews were simply terrible, and actually, that was kind of good. It was my personal vindication, those bad reviews. (Laughter)

Tavis: “I told you I shouldn’t have done this, Dad,” yeah.

Huston: Exactly. “I told you I’d be bad.” (Laughter) So I didn’t work as an actress for I guess five or six years after that.

Tavis: So let me jump ahead and we’ll come back. So juxtapose then for me, Anjelica, how that story turns out with being directed by your father years later in “Prizzi’s Honor,” and an Academy Award comes from it.

Huston: Well “Prizzi’s Honor” was a very different state of affairs. My father’s producer from a film that he made called “Man Who Would Be King” was a great sort of supporter of mine for no apparent reason, because he hadn’t seen me do anything.

His name was John Foreman, and at a certain point he offered me a part in a film called “Ice Pirates,” which was kind of a B movie at MGM, but I gratefully accepted because it was about me.

It wasn’t about where I’d come from or who I was with. I had fun making that little film, and when he came to me on the set with a book by Richard Condon called “Prizzi’s Honor” and said, “Would you like to read this?” I said “Sure,” and read this wonderful, funny book. Said to him the next day, “I loved the book, it’s wonderful, I read it overnight.” He said, “What do you think about the part of Maerose Prizzi?”

I went, “Oh, that’s great, I’d love to do that, John. Do you think you’re going to make it as a movie?” He went, “Yeah. I want your father to direct, and Jack Nicholson,” who happened to be my boyfriend at the time, “To star.”

I went, “Oh. Oh, why?” (Laughter) But at that point I’d realized that if your bread is buttered, why not take advantage of it? So I think for the most part my difficulties were obstacles that I’d put in front of myself.

Yes, they were obstacles for me, but it was because I wanted to earn things myself. I didn’t want handouts, I didn’t want things to come so easily to me, and that – if I’ve had a struggle, that was really the nucleus of my struggle, I think.

Tavis: That sounds like a great segue for a line I wanted to get to that jumped out at me on page 175 of your book “A Story Lately Told,” and the line here is “I was no exception to this fortunate rule, but in retrospect, I remember wishing I had something to fight for.”

“I remember wishing that I had something to fight for.” Tell me more about that line and how you’ve navigated this journey of finding something to fight for.

Huston: Well the idea of being given things that you don’t necessarily deserve was always a difficult one for me to negotiate, and so I really always felt that I had to prove myself.

Being the daughter of a famous man I guess is more easy than being the daughter of a famous woman, but at the same time there was a sense of really, with me, of wanting to earn my own way.

Of wanting to pay my own way. I never asked my parents for money. I preferred to steal from my parents than ask them for money. (Laughter) I don’t know, what can I tell you? I’m an odd creature.

Tavis: I take that. (Laughter)

Huston: It definitely, when I was growing up, there was this sense of Dad’s being the provider, being the one, the source from which all sort of things positive or negative came.

I wanted very much to be my own person. I was stubborn and obstinate, and I had to acquiesce, but I wanted it my way. I still do.

Tavis: Nothing wrong with that. When you are the child of that kind of privilege and you have, as a result, that kind of access, there are always the hangers-on. I want to go back to the story you told a moment ago about Mr. Foreman, who reached out to you and gave you an opportunity, because as you put it, he was a supporter of yours. You don’t know why, but he was a supporter of yours.

The flip side of people supporting you for no reason is that there are people who are hanging on, trying to get access for no reason or for apparent reasons. How did you decipher the two?

How did you know the distinction, the difference between people who were genuinely interested in you because of who you were, your gifts, your talent, your skills, and those who were trying to use you for access, or whatever they were using you for?

Huston: I have a really bad awareness -

Tavis: Yeah, and you do.

Huston: – of that latter possibility. I have to say I don’t really have an awareness of people crawling on my back to get anywhere. I’m always grateful for any help I can get.

I think – and that’s any help that I can get that may be people outside my family. I was always reticent about taking offerings from my father, and I think it was maybe because I felt the caveat was that I had to give something back, and I didn’t like that position.

But I’ve never felt incumbent on anyone to kind of keep them lifted or to support them, necessarily. I do that by wish or by option.

Tavis: Why choose – I can make the argument pretty easily for why you would go in the direction that your grandfather and father were already rooted and steeped in, but why go that direction?

Why not take a different route, because you are invariably inviting not only comparison, but the critique that Anjelica got this because her daddy was – so why not do something different? Why be an actress?

Huston: I don’t know. From the age of five, six years old, that’s what I wanted to do. The women who surrounded my father, the women that I thought were beautiful and that I respected were actresses.

I wanted to be Katy Hepburn in “African Queen,” I wanted to be Mary Astor in “Maltese Falcon.” Those were the women. When I met Ava Gardner, I thought undoubtedly this is who I wanted to be.

Tavis: Yeah.

Huston: They were beautiful, they were glamorous, they were sort of shining entities, and they got a lot of attention.

Tavis: How did you process as a kid being exposed to, performing, in fact, in front of these persons that we now know as icons in the theater and in film?

Huston: Initially, I had a very bad experience about the age of six in front of Peter O’Toole when he caught my eye, but for the most part these were dreams, these were childhood dreams.

Then all of a sudden, with “Walk with Love and Death” it all became a reality, and the reality was a lot more difficult than the dream. I think all little girls dream of a certain kind of level of glamour and Barbies and fairy dresses, so it was for me just an illusion up until the point where it became a reality.

Tavis: Maybe I missed this in my read of the book – are there regrets, any regrets that you had about your relationship with your father?

Huston: I think ultimately, if there were regrets, we worked those out. My father wasn’t an easy man. He was a complicated man, and yes, I guess if I’d known how to negotiate a little bit more with him, or if I’d been less stubborn or less sure that my way was the best way, and if I’d maybe been more obedient, it might have not been such a struggle.

Tavis: I take it, though, that obedience is not your way.

Huston: (Laughter) I’m afraid not. It’s just never been something that came naturally to me.

Tavis: Are you like that – are you like that in all relationships, or just with your father?

Huston: I don’t understand why obedience is required. (Laughter) I really don’t, and particularly between men and women. I don’t think it’s really appropriate in the 21st century. I’ve always felt that I should have a voice, the same as any guy. So, no. (Laughter)

Tavis: Beyond not wanting to be obedient, and I take your point, in relationships with men, I take that. When you look back on this 20-something and younger Anjelica Huston, where your womanhood is concerned, the way you view the world as a woman, what do you see in this young Anjelica that you like, and that you – I don’t want to say “loathe,” but don’t like.

Huston: Not like so much?

Tavis: Yeah, not like so much, yeah.

Huston: What I like was the fact that she wanted to do it on her own. That she felt things deeply, that she had ambition, that she knew she had it. That somewhere, she was a dreamer, and that she could imagine that she would be good at what she would do.

The things I don’t like so much – mm, her insecurity, her longing for affection and for love. Her loneliness, her sense of knowing better than anyone else.

Tavis: Of course without all that, we wouldn’t have this Anjelica Huston.

Huston: Whoever she is. (Laughter)

Tavis: Have you not figured that out yet?

Huston: No, I’m always in process. (Laughter)

Tavis: I think we all are, though.

Huston: Yeah, I hope so.

Tavis: We’re all cracked vessels, and we’re always in process, I think, every one of us. I could have started our conversation with this, but as we get to the end – I could do this for hours, I wish I had more time.

As we get to the end, though, it occurs to me to ask why even write this. Was this your idea? Somebody push you into this? I shouldn’t say – you don’t – let me rephrase that. Anjelica Huston doesn’t get told what to do. She’s not obedient to anybody. (Laughter) So nobody pushed you into this.

Huston: She’ll accept suggestions, though.

Tavis: Yeah, okay, suggestions. Who suggested this idea, then?

Huston: Well, a couple of very good friends, one of whom was Graydon Carter.

Tavis: “Vanity Fair.”

Huston: “Vanity Fair.” But to begin with, here I am, I’ve been in my business for 40, 45 years, and there’s a lot people don’t know about me, like the whole period before I came to Los Angeles, before I met Jack Nicholson, before I became an Academy Award winner and had a life as an actress.

These are kind of the early underpinnings of my life that many people don’t know about, and I think probably some people can identify with. Also, I like to write, I really like it, and I was doing this show called “Smash” and I was working really hard, like four days out of the week, and the rest of the time I was a little bit at loose ends. That was when I started to write the book.

Tavis: We will see you, I know, I pray – matter of fact, I’m going to get you on camera committing to this right now. We will see you when the second part of this comes out, yes?

Huston: Yes.

Tavis: Okay. You got that on tape? All right.

Huston: Thank you.

Tavis: She’s coming back. (Laughter) For the second half, because this stops when you’re 20, basically.

Huston: That’s right.

Tavis: My exit question, I guess, is whether or not, since you like to write, whether the exercise, the experience, the therapy, for lack of a better word, of doing this has made you more anxious or less anxious to tell the rest of the story.

Huston: Well actually, as it turns out, I sort of wrote 900 pages just to begin with, so a lot of the second book is there, and I’m working on it with my editor right now.

I think it’s given me energy and courage, and particularly the reaction to this book. Initially, all those questions came up, like am I ready to tell these stories, and am I ready to expose myself and so forth. But if not now, when?

I think just the pure enjoyment of being able to sit alone and look back over my life and come up with this thing has given me ambition to do another one, ambition, and also in a way to come to terms with my own story.

Tavis: Yeah. So I don’t know what 2014 holds for this show, but I have one booking under my belt already. Anjelica Huston will return (laughter) when the second piece of this comes out.

The one that’s out now that everybody is talking about is called “A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York.” Anjelica Huston, I am honored to have had you on this program. Thank you for the book, and thank you for the opportunity to talk to you.

Huston: Thank you so much, Tavis.

Tavis: I appreciate it.

Huston: It’s an honor for me too.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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  • Chana

    I think your show is terrific. I like your style and your questions. You are real and that means a lot to me. I think most interviewers are not very interesting…….you make it interesting and allow your guests to take time to answer without interrupting. Thank you.

Last modified: December 20, 2013 at 4:26 pm