Important facts I learned during the interviews with Ben-Hur cast members and producers

downloadBen-Hur is the epic story of Judah Ben-Hur, a prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother Messala, an officer in the Roman army.  Stripped of his title, separated from his family and the woman he loves, Judah is forced into slavery. After years at sea, Judah returns to his homeland to seek revenge, but finds redemption. Based on Lew Wallace’s timeless novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

Last weekend, I had the pleasure to sit down for roundtables interviews with Ben-Hur’s cast members – Jack Huston, Toby Kebbel, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Morgan Freeman and Pilou Asbæk -, producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett to talk about the re-imagination of Ben-Hur. Below you will find some important facts about this production that I got from the interviews:

Why a remake? No second thoughts?

Roma Downey & Mark Burnett

Roma Downey & Mark Burnett

Roma Downey said, “I think initially we had a little bit of a freak out. Perhaps the only thing that might have been more frightening would be to undertake a remake of Gone with the Wind, but it all begins with the script. Gary Barber from MGM who had invited us to join the producing team said, ‘go home, read the script and make a decision once you have.’ We read the script written by John Ridley. The story was extraordinary, a real page-turner, character driven, and incredibly emotional. Then we asked our kids, and we said we’re thinking about remaking Ben-Hur and their response was Ben-who? I think that was sort of validating and we realize that there was a whole generation that actually doesn’t know, that hasn’t seen the ’59 version of this film and won’t. It’s too long and a different editing style and much has changed in the world since that film was made and much has changed in cinema since the time that film was made.”

“Right now, here we are, it’s 55 years since the last version of the movie,” Mark Burnett said. “It’s an action movie, it’s entertaining, it could be a fan boy movie, it’s like all the things in a summer blockbuster. But very few of those kinds of movies have reconciliation and forgiveness by the protagonist and antagonist at the end of the movie. There’s something really important about that.”

Jack Huston is the perfect Judah Ben-Hur

Roma said, “He’s incredible. He is the perfect Judah and those are big “sandals” to fill. To bring somebody in to fill Charlton Heston’s sandals and this is a star-making role for him. He brings a dignity to the princely Judah, he brings a passion to the angry Judah, he brings sensitivity to the broken Judah, and he brings a heroic resolve to the Judah who closes the movie and rides off into the sunset. He’s a really multi-faceted actor.”

And Mark added, “He knows how to do less when needed. The mark of great actors just knows when to do a little less and to let it play around him. Jack just has that sensibility.”

Jack Huston

Jack Huston

On succeeding actor Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur

Jack Huston said, “It was a real honor. I think everything starts with the script and I’m a big lover of the ’59 version. I adore that film and Charlton Heston’s performance, I think, is incredible. I read the script and I felt instantly that this wasn’t a remake. This was very much its own being, it was very much its own story. The character was so different that I felt there was a real reason to be making this film today, especially for a modern audience. Keith Clarke and John Ridley wrote this beautiful script that, as an actor, you’re looking for great characters and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better character than Judah. It’s really one of those characters that says ‘oh, I can go on a journey here. I can start one place and end up somewhere completely different.’ I knew it was going to be, physically and emotionally, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I loved that. I come from a family of risk takers sort of mad things. That was, to me, one of those beautiful calculated risks. I said this is something that I have to do. This is one of those characters I’ve been waiting to play.”

Ilderim role has been expanded

Morgan Freeman said, “You could say that, but I won’t say that. I don’t think so. This version, for one thing, I think all three movie versions were actually adapted from the book. So the first adaptation then, another adaptation in ’59, so now here’s another adaptation. With each adaptation, the question is: What part of or how much of the book do you want to tell? What are you looking for? What’s the most exciting thing? The chariot race, of course. That’s Ben-Hur. When you think Ben-Hur you think of a chariot race. But Timur didn’t want that to be the actual story. This is a story that is really steeped much deeper in human existence than just that. That’s why I think we’re talking so much about tolerance, redemption, and forgiveness. That’s what actually resonates in this adaptation. Films, there’s a lot more to it. You say my character had a lot more to do than Hugh Griffith’s character… Yeah, I practically own the movie. I narrated it.”

Morgan Freeman

Morgan Freeman

Hesitation to join the project because with a lot of unknown actors

Morgan said, “No, I think that’s meaningless. A long time ago, I came to the conclusion on my own that stars don’t make movies. Movies make stars. I knew who Jack Huston was. I didn’t know Toby, but they were hired by the same person who hired me. I trust his judgment because he called me. So I have no questions about who I’m working with when I’m on set. The question would only come up if an actor shows up and he doesn’t know what he’s doing. By that I mean, ‘what are my lines?’ That’s a dangerous sign.”

Being reunited with Timur Bekmambetov after working together on Wanted

Morgan said, “When you work with a director and you both pulled it off, so to speak. What I mean by that is you’re never at each other’s throats or at the point where you’re like, ‘you got this, I’m out of here.’ We got along quite well in Wanted. Now years later you get a phone call from that same director [who] says ‘I want you in this picture I’m going to do.’ Number one, you feel like, ‘okay I didn’t alienate this director. At all. As a matter of fact, he’s coming back.’ It’s a feel good thing, mostly. It’s a good role in a huge film at a good location. Boy, there were a lot of yesses there.”

On playing the iconic role of Jesus Christ

Rodrigo Santoro stated, “Being human there’s all kinds of fears. The weight, the responsibility, the challenge, I thought about that and it


Rodrigo Santoro

was all up here. The very first day when I got the offer to play the part, I tried to make sense of it and try to reason things. Later on in the day, I kind of started to feel something very strong, like ‘you know what? I would love to go through this experience.’ It’s such a unique opportunity and in the right time of my life as an actor and as a man. It was probably the easiest yes ever.”

On the physical demands of playing Jesus Christ

Rodrigo said, “A lot of internal bruises, not external. It was a lot of work and preparation. Just the training for me was [going] on a diet because I thought it was appropriate for this part. We’re talking about Jesus Christ, so we all have an idea or expectation of how he should be at that time. The crucifixion scene was incredibly hard because it was very cold. So I remember about my body because I was completely frozen; it was unbearable. We were all there ready to do it. It was a sunny beautiful day, but it snowed the night before. So it was real, it was very painful. It just made the moment even deeper because we did film it. We went for it, and no body doubles. We did one long take. I asked to do it like that so I would go through the lines and everything else and that’s what’s in the film.”



Nazanin Boniadi & Rodrigo Santoro

On playing a strong female character

Nazanin Boniadi said, “I appreciated it because I feel like often times a woman is secondary or tertiary to the male protagonists. In this case, it’s the Judah and the Jesus characters that carry the story forward, and there’s also the rivalry with Messala and Judah. Esther’s story arc is that she’s highly inspired by the Jesus character that she finds courage and strength through that and pulls Judah through in his journey. She then essentially becomes really vital to the story, and in a way that she wasn’t in the ’59 version. So I appreciate in the script that the female protagonist is so pivotal.”

On Tobey’s training regimen for the combat

Tobey Kebbell said, “I had an incredible stunt double for my fighting, I had an incredible double for my horse riding. Thankfully, once we trained to that level we could do the chariot racing. So I really trained with Andre, my stunt double, for all my conditioning for my sword fights, and the battles that went on for days. Andre was the guy who took me through that regimen of being flexible enough. It’s really a stamina drive, our job. That’s what it ends up being, you can be buff and cool, but it’s stamina. It’s a 14-hour day. It’s a night shoot into a day shoot into a flipping back-and-forth.”


Paul Asbæk & Tobey Kebbell

On playing the disliked role of Pontius Pilate

Paul Asbæk said, “Yeah. I don’t get it. He’s very loved in Europe. When we were shooting the chariot race, there were around 25 Italian journalists and I came in and they were like, ‘who is this idiot?’ Then they said, ‘this is Pontius Pilatus.’ All [the journalists] were like ‘Ohh! Oh My God!’ They love him because, according to the New Testament, he tried to save Jesus.”

On Ben-Hur’s Message

Jack said, “There’s this wonderful message of being able to let go, move on, take a step forward, forgive and be merciful. I don’t like to watch stodgy, sodden, sandal movies; I feel like a modern audience has to be able to relate. Judah Ben-Hur is going through a crisis in his life. He doesn’t believe in God, per se. He questions his faith, he questions his life. There’s something very relatable to it.

Morgan said, “I never have these hopes. I just couldn’t care less what you take away from it as long as you take something away other than the money that you brought with you. You know what I mean? Just don’t go out and ask for your money back because that means that we really, really, really screwed up. I always look at stories as like anything else. You can’t do a painting, any kind of painting, and then tell the audience what to come away with. 14 people were looking at the same painting and 12 of them will tell you something different. We’re all going to see something different. Something that our own personal life feeds into that story that gives them a return.”

Roma said, “I think as filmmakers we have the potential to reach so many people with film, TV, and media. It’s just a great way to communicate something to the whole world. Right now the world is hurting and there is such confusion. Our hope would be that while you leave the theater full of popcorn and full of the excitement that this movie has satiated, that there’s a deeper meaning will resonate and that people will engage in places of healing and help promote healing.”

Mark added, “who knows what’s going to come up in your life in the next year, five years. Something’s going to happen and you’ll suggest to someone: ‘Maybe the best way is just to figure out and reconcile and forgive them because we do know it’s the right way.’ Maybe the movie has that effect. It’ll be nice when we have a fun, action, blockbuster movie, which is there to entertain and actually happens to have some other value proposition below it. Which is all we can really hope for.”

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