It’s an interesting choice for a remake and I recently spoke to actor Jack Huston about his starring role in the new Ben-Hur…
Matt: The 1959 Ben-Hur was an epic in all sense of the word – in terms of its length, and box-office, and Oscars haul. We’ve even coined the phrase “bigger than Ben Hur”. A lot of people might be sceptical of a remake. What was your first reaction when you heard about another film being made of Lew Wallace's novel?
Jack: I’m a big lover of the 1959 version and I loved what Charlton Heston did with it but it was a very different time of making movies. Performances were very theatrical and operatic back then. I terms of this film, we were very conscious that we wanted this to be a very humanised story that people can relate to. It’s set 2000 years ago but we quickly realised it’s a current story in the sense that we still have wars that are driven by religion and politics. While the 1959 film was very much about revenge, this more about hope, forgiveness, redemption, kindness and love.
Matt: An interesting theme for me was the way in which the spectacle of competitive sport is a powerful tool for getting people to put aside differences and come together. Morgan Freeman’s character talks about the way you can dent a society’s pride by beating them in the sporting arena. Is that something you found interesting in the script?
Jack: It’s very interesting. There’s a scene late in the film after the race and looks around and starts to worry if he’s done the wrong thing. Judah is seeking revenge and when he gets it, he realises that he’s never felt lower. There’s a moment where my character drops a rock and symbolises the release of the anger and hated that’s built up inside of him. When you look at politics today, it’s how the world is controlled – by instilling a sense of fear in everybody.
Matt: Given Charlton Heston’s Oscar-winning performance is so iconic, how did you go about reinvigorating the character for this new version? I’m guess there’s a lot of pressure from particularly the older generation that will be comparing you to Heston?
Jack: They might but it’s funny because when I read the script, I realised this wasn’t a remake of the 1959 version. It’s a completely reimagined story of Lew Wallace’s novel that was written 130 years ago. It’s been adapted quite a few times for the stage, cinema and television. The reason is because it’s a great story. Film is an interpretive art form.
When I read the script, I saw my Judah Ben-Hur as very different to what Charlton Heston did and it was a big reason why I wanted to do the role. Heston was very much a “man’s man” but my character is more of a “lost child” who has a deep love for his brother and struggling to find his own way. He’s at a crossroads and is struggling to make a decision. By staying neutral, he’s not committing to anything and it’s through the betrayal that he goes on this journey or redemption.
Matt: You get the chance here to work alongside the great Morgan Freeman who must have cinema’s most iconic voices. What was it like? You’ve been in the business a little while now but is there a lot you can learn from someone with his vast experience?
Jack: Every day I learned from him. He’s a humble man with an amazing presence. He’s funny as hell though. He instantly puts you at ease and he’s wonderful to work with.
Matt: It’s becoming harder and harder to differentiate these days between what’s real and what’s visual effects. Can you tell me how Timur Bek-mam-be-tov was able bring those to life? Are you actually riding a chariot?
Jack: Every time you see us on a horse with the chariots, that’s actually us doing it. We trained tirelessly for months. We didn’t use any CGI except for when we had an accident such as a horse being injured. When you see me standing on a chariot and smashing into things, all of that was real.
Matt: All actors love to do their own stunts but do you actually fear for your life when you’re dong that stuff? It looks so intense on screen.
Jack: This is about as dangerous as it gets. Everyone was very open about that. For modern audiences to experience this and believe in the story, we knew we had to be on those chariots. Timur put GoPro cameras all over the place and we shot 6 weeks on the first unit and 5 weeks on the second unit just for the chariot race sequence.
Matt: Are there actually scenes shot on a GoPro camera that ended up in the finished product?
Jack: Absolutely. We wanted the audience to feel like they were on those chariots. It’s utterly immersive.
Matt: Was the chariot ring a giant set?
Jack: They actually built the circus to scale. There were times when we had 32 horses going around that arena at one time.
Matt: I’m guessing you’re a fit guy anyway but was there a lot of additional preparation required to get into shape for this character?
Jack: I actually had to lose 30 pounds before shooting because Judah spends 5 years working in the galley of a slave ship and if you wouldn’t exactly be ripping with muscle. I was incredibly strong because I was in the gym but I had a very specific diet to keep my weight down. It was tough trying to do.
Matt: When you have a film that’s set 2,000 years ago, there’s really nothing to refer back to in terms of the way people spoke back then. How do you therefore settle on an accent, a way of speaking for your character?
Jack: The movie has a very diverse cast which I think Timur was smart about. He wanted it to be a multicultural film. We spoke in a way that would make the film accessible to audiences. Times change but human interaction doesn’t. We love, we hate, we fear.
Matt: Hollywood feels like it’s becoming more and more risk averse with its reliance on comic book movies and animated sequels. What’s the hook with this remake? What type of audience are you trying to attract and what are you hoping they’ll take away from it?
Jack: I think we might be getting a bit of superhero fatigue. People might want to call this a remake but it’s not in any way. This is a completely reimagined version of a beautiful story. It’s the reason we make cinema. You have to experience this on the big screen and as a movie lover, I feel honoured because this is part of the reason I got into movies and now I’m a part of them.
Matt: I’ll finish up by asking what you’re working on at the moment. What are we going to see you in next?
Jack: I’ve got a movie called The Yellow Birds, Their Finest and Above Suspicion all coming out soon. I’m just trying to keep it all going by playing some fun, diverse roles.