He acts, he directs, and thanks to his new film Pressure, he's a qualified North Sea diver: Danny Huston wears his legendary Hollywood name lightly

“We had to go through a physical test of lung function and blood pressure,” says Danny Huston of his tense new film, Pressure, which sees him play a deep-sea diver stranded in a diving bell. “So I now have a licence to work in the North Sea, if I ever need it. If my next three films go wrong, I may have to consider it!”

Huston can laugh at the prospect, because not only is he one of Hollywood’s best character actors, but he’s just weeks from completing the edit of his first directorial effort in 20 years, The Last Photograph. It’s a return to his roots for someone whose acting career came about almost by accident, and who always yearned to take his place on the other side of the camera.

“I was in a frustrated state in Los Angeles,” sighs Huston, “and years were going by, literally, while I tried to get films made. So friends and fellow directors, out of the kindness of their hearts, gave me small parts. The parts got bigger and before I knew it I was an actor.”

Huston rapidly climbed from unnamed roles – his first adult credit was playing “Barman #2” in Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas – to a leading man debut. That was in his friend Bernard Rose’s loose Tolstoy adaptation, Ivansxtc. The well-received indie garnered Huston more attention and led to bigger projects: a supporting turn in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, a political fixer in John Sayles’ Silver City and Nicole Kidman’s fiancé in Jonathan Glazer's Birth.

Huston’s greatest quality is that you can’t quite pin him down. Those sharp, arched eyebrows and widow’s peak give him a devilish air that has led to a succession of bad guy roles in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Proposition, and the TV series American Horror Story. But there’s a heaviness under the eyes and around the jowls that fits him for underdogs and everymen. And finally there’s that voice, a rich rasp that can communicate authority, bonhomie or desperation.

It's desperation that’s most in evidence in Pressure, which casts him as a bereaved oil worker who, along with three colleagues, is trapped in a pressurised diving pod deep beneath the water's surface. Huston’s Engel is another enigmatic character: you’re never sure if he’ll emerge as the hero or the villain.

The shoot was a difficult one. “Let me put it this way: everything that I loved about this script I hated about making it," he says. "I love diving and swimming, but it has had a slight effect on me, I must say. It’s not like scuba diving where a slight inhale and you get a nice punch of fresh air into the lungs. It’s much more strenuous, you have to pull harder. You’re speaking to people and you can barely hear them, so you feel very detached. It got very claustrophobic and it got hot. You get a little bent out of shape. But not the bends, at least!”

Huston never took acting lessons, but as one of the children of the legendary director John Huston (his half-sister is Anjelica Huston), he had an instinctive grasp of film acting. “I grew up on my father’s film sets," he says, "so I love to observe people and see how they work.”

Danny Huston with his half-sister Anjelica Credit: Dale Wilcox/BEI/Rex Features

He supplements that with huge amounts of research and a degree of Method-like immersion. To play a vampire who takes over an Arctic town in deepest winter in 30 Days Of Night, he covered his walls with dark scribbles on vampire lore.

“They put me in one of those corporate apartments,” he remembers. “I was literally living the life of a vampire. We were shooting such long nights that I couldn’t be bothered to shower – and even if I did there’d still be blood somewhere. My towels and my sheets had these bloodstains all over them. I had a cleaner once or twice a week, and a month or two into filming this guy said, ‘Oh, I get it! You’re making a horror movie!’. I looked at him, straight as I could, and I went, ‘No, I’m not.’ And he screamed and ran down the hallway.”

Perhaps because of his healthy lack of seriousness, acting has never lost its appeal to Huston. But soon he will return to his first love, having originally studied directing at the London Film School. His family connections gave his career an initial boost, but his first directorial credit was an unlikely one: a "making of" documentary on Santa Claus: The Movie.

“I was there with Dudley Moore and all those people for the entire shoot, and it was a long one! I had a 16mm camera – which by the way we used for our flashbacks on The Last Photograph, just to give it that old-fashioned look – and we had a crew on the set. It was great to go to Pinewood every day; I had a little editing room there. It was a big deal.”

Danny Huston in 30 Days of Night Credit: Columbia Pictures

From such unlikely beginnings, his directorial career at first progressed steadily. But after the disappointing performance of The Maddening, an erotic thriller shot in 1994 but not released until 1996, Huston struggled to get a film into production.

Until now, that is: The Last Photograph is the story of a man who loses his son in the Lockerbie disaster, and who is struck by grief again when thieves steal the last photograph taken with his son. (Huston himself has a daughter, Stella, by his second wife, the late Katie Jane Evans.)

“It’s a love story primarily, with tragic consequences. I loved directing again. But the bizarre part was directing myself, and doing a scene that was mildly dramatic and then having to say 'cut'. My assistant director would say 'action', if it required it, but it was the 'cut' part that I found very strange, almost a little schizophrenic. I would have to turn away from the camera before I could say it.”

For the immediate future, Huston hopes to continue with both acting and directing. “With acting, I love that it doesn’t take years to develop something, and I love observing people I respect," he says. "Now I’m hopefully starting to apply some of the things I’ve learned. But really, I just feel like I’m a storyteller. Whatever it takes to tell a good story, I want to be part of something that interests me.”

Pressure is in Empire cinemas from August 21, available to download from August 24 and on DVD from August 31