A Special Q&A with the Cast and Producers of ‘Ben-Hur’
On Saturday, August 13, 2016, I attended a special interview session with the cast and two of the producers of the 2016 reimagining of Ben-Hur. Despite popular belief, the 2016 version of Ben-Hur is not a remake of the beloved 1959 film but rather based on the novel of the same name. I got to speak with Morgan Freeman (Ilderim), Jack Huston (Judah Ben-Hur), Nazanin Boniadi (Esther), Toby Kebbell (Messala), Pilou Asbæk (Pontius Pilate), Mark Burnett (Producer) and Roma Downey (Producer) and ask them all sorts of questions about their roles in the film and what inspired them to take on the project.
Check out my Q&A below and if you are interested, you can read my review for the film right here.
Ben-Hur opens on Friday, August 19, 2016 and is a dual release by Paramount and MGM Pictures.
SM: You’ve played so many iconic characters, what inspired you to play this one?
MF: Do you want the truth or do you want me to make something up?
SM: The truth!
MF: Money. I work for dough.
SM: Thank you, I appreciate that.
MF: On the real side, there is something besides that. Here I have a director who I’ve worked with before and whom I enjoyed working with. I have a story that is pretty much ageless and I have a character who figures rather prominently in the story. I have an opportunity to go and spend some time in one of my favorite cities. Where’s the no in that?
SM: In terms of working with Timur Bekmambetov again, is there something in particular that you really love about his style or the way he approaches actors?
MF: Well, yeah.
SM: Well, the reason why I ask is a lot of actors talk about directors kind of pushing them – you know, the director pushes the actor to get more out of them, so I was just wondering if that happened with you?
MF: Oh, nobody pushing me. I hate being pushed by anybody. I don’t want to be pushed. The reason I like Clint Eastwood so much is that you know, he directs the movie. He expects you to know what the hell you’re doing. So I like directors who expect me to know what I’m doing, and if there is something that can tweak the scene a little bit, well, sure, let’s talk about that, and yeah, let’s do it. But I hate directors that push.
SM: Thank you. Since so many actors that you worked with on this film are not as experienced as you are in the movie industry, what was it like specifically working with Jack so closely?
MF: How experienced or non-experienced, how many movies or not, how long an actor has been doing whatever it is, has absolutely nothing to do with your interaction. If they’re really not quite as talented as they need to be, I don’t think they would be there in the first place, so working with other actors is just working with other actors, and you go around the world interacting with people, they’re saying, well, you know, you don’t know nearly as much as I do about this business. That isn’t going to do you any good.
SM: Were you familiar with this story before going into it? Because it seems like the common theme with most of the cast was that they weren’t familiar with the novel and then, of course, the movie with Charlton Heston.
JH: Oh, you know, I was really familiar with it. That was the thing. That was the difference. I watched that movie many times growing up. I’m actually old friends with the Hestons, the family. Like Fraser Heston, his own son, is coming to the premiere on Tuesday. That’s one of my guests. Like I’m saying, it was very much a film that I loved and respected in Charlton Heston’s performance. And I think that was probably the loveliest part about getting this script is realizing that while paying homage to the wonderful novel that was written, it was a completely reimagined story, it was a new way of telling this, and it was maybe a more relatable story for a modern day audience. It’s not three hours, 45 minutes long. It’s two hours long, which is a little more digestible I’d say for a modern audience, whereas in ’59 things were quite theatrical, operatic the way people acted. This is a much more relatable story actually for the characters. And funnily enough, this is also a – if it was written 130 years ago about a time 2,000 years ago, and yet I find that all of the themes, everything that’s going on, is incredibly relevant to the world we live in today, that it doesn’t seem like – it’s in a sense it’s a modern tale. It’s the same stuff we’re all going through right now. It’s horrific. Well, there are still political wars, there are still religious wars. People are filled with such fear and anger and hatred. And I said it was amazing because I read this and unlike the ’59 version, which is much more of a revenge story, this was a story about forgiveness and redemption, hope and love, which is very important when you’re relating it to today’s world, to show people that there’s another way. And I’m not a religious person in any way, I’m a spiritual person. I sort of believe in the goodness of humans and humanity, you know. And just those simple acts of kindness, how far they can take you and what you can do and how hard it is to let go and forgive, but once you do, what it does to you. And I was very taken with that as a story and as a character and being able to sort of like that and actually sort of even put us through it. It was very important to me.
SM: In terms of like going off that a little bit more, since you were so familiar with the material, did you kind of coach any of your costars a little bit, how they should play their characters?
JH: No, because that was the thing. It was like it’s one’s own interpretation. That was the best thing. I mean, we were all going from the script that we had, that Keith Clarke and John Ridley wrote, and I mean, talking about Judah, you know, in the ’59 version, let alone the ’25 version, you know, Charlton Heston was a man’s man, you know what I mean? He was like strong, solid, he was [INDISCERNIBLE] there’s a rivalry between the two of them. When you find this Judah, my Judah, I took him as, you know, this lost prince who lives in this bubble and doesn’t want to react to all of the atrocities around him because he’s trying to keep the peace, but he’s not understanding, but by not doing anything, you’re perpetuating this violence and this anger and this hatred, and actually it takes one person sometimes to stand up and say something and do something. And it only happens through his betrayal of his brother. And also what we had on this one, which we though was really interesting, was Timur wanted this relationship between these two brothers, this love and this friendship that you see and you witness in the beginning, and I auditioned initially for the Messala role. I went up for Messala and talked very passionately about Messala and Timur, then when I did finally get cast as Judah, he said, I loved that because, you know, you as Judah have to love Messala. And by you, like, developing Messala in your head initially and wanting to go up for that role was great because I saw that you really cared about him as your brother, and it gave you this wonderful insight into the other character. And if you find that as the foundation, that’s going to carry you to the end. So even through that whole bit of revenge and hate, for you to actually let go and forgive at the end, it has to still come from that base foundation of love, and that was from the character. So it was a really amazing sort of journey that we went on. And you know, Timur’s one of the most collaborative directors, you know, and you hear the horror stories, all these studio movies. We had a studio who supported everything, who came and let us like really create, and when people think about big movies, they think of it very much as like a bit of – not a democracy in any way, like go and do what you’re doing ‘cause there’s a lot of money riding on this. This didn’t feel like a 80, 90 million dollar movie. This felt like a beautiful character piece that by the way has this incredible size scale epic action base of core, but it was very organic, it was a beautiful experience. There was no wrong idea, everyone could talk, everyone could speak up say, I’m feeling this, or what about this, let’s play with this. We improvised, we did certain scenes like that. When does that happen on a big movie, you know what I mean? Everything was welcomed.
Toby Kebbell and Pilou Asbaek
SM: How long were you in Rome shooting?
TK: Seven months. Yeah.
SM: Not a bad holiday, huh?
TK: Pretty nice job isn’t it?
PA: Oh man, that was not a holiday for you guys. It was a holiday for Pontius Pilot, but for those guys, it was not a holiday.
TK: Like we’d go for dinner with Pilou and it was like, “What did you do today?” He’s like…
TB: I was here.
PA: Yeah. [LAUGHS] Playing Candy Crush.
TK: So we had a good time.
PA: Yeah, it was fun.
TK: We had a good time.
PA: It was fun.
TK: Hard work.
SM: Did you reference a lot of the original, like how much of the original film did you analyze and try to mimic for this movie? Or was that not a thing at all when making this film?
TK: Well that was always beautiful for me. I was told this original film, like I called my mom and said, “I got Ben Hur.” She’s like, “Oh, the original’s incredible.” Until I found that the original was a bestselling book, and then the other original was that long-running play, and then a silent movie, and then a TV series, and then Heston’s original movie. I didn’t. They did incredibly well, they wouldn’t have won Oscars otherwise. I should’ve been smarter and realized they won 11 Oscars [LAUGHS] before signing up for the film, but, my memory of that stupidly now when I think about it. I’ve re-watched it on Easter with my mom being told how handsome Charlton Heston was. I was like, “That guy? Come on. Are you kidding me?” “Oh he’s so handsome Toby, look, he’s a wonderful actor.” And you’re like, “Pff, come on.” So yeah, stupid of me, but fair. Fair point. I didn’t reference it, no, otherwise I’d be nominated for an Oscar.
Mark Burnett and Roma Downey
SM: In reference to the slave boat scene, is there any reason why Judah lived vs anyone else?
MB: I think just of the convenience of storytelling, you know, to make it just focus in on that one character. I mean, you’re talking about verses in the book that the commander of the ship, and that was considered originally, but it became too long and it took us on a different story. [Okay.] Because you’re familiar with the story in the book where actually the commander of the ship survived, because Judah saved him, and then they go back to Rome and the Judah allegedly becomes a powerful person in Rome because he saved the commander’s ship. I mean, a lot of things happened. But we need to get this under two hours, we needed to make this focused, and I think some good choices were made by Ridley and Timur, you know.
SM: The other movie was three and half hours. They go to Rome in that film.
RD: That’s right. Yeah, that’s right. And I don’t know that a modern day audience would have the patience for a three and a half hour movie with a 20-minute intermission. And so we have a different expectation now for our film-going experiences, it’s a different world that we live in, and cinema is different, and I think in terms of editing style, we expect a much quicker film, acting style we expect a much more naturalistic style of acting, and obviously with technological advancement we can create so much through special effects and as the naval battle shows and as the crowd recreation and the ratios, because I’m sure you’ve heard from our actors that their training was intense for the chariot racing and that they actually were hurtling down that track on those chariots, 8 horsemen, and 32 horses. It was a terrifying few months for all of us while we wanted to make sure everybody was safe and that no horses would be injured in the making of the movie, and thank God that was the case.
SM: I really liked your character, Esther. I feel like your character was a very big inspiration for Jesus. And I was wondering how did you go about this role and also how long did it take to work with Jack in order to nail that on-screen chemistry? It felt natural, it was really great.
NB: Thank you, I appreciate that. We were there three weeks before we started shooting to meet each other and well we had a chemistry read so I met him in November and then January we went over to Rome and we had three weeks in Rome. We were supposed to do rehearsals with Timur and talk about scenes and run through scenes and get to know one another. So that’s how long we took, but honestly I think it was right off the bat we had or we seemed to have a good rapport. What I love about Esther is, you’re right; I think especially in films like this, women are usually portrayed as demure and docile and voiceless, and I love that they, you know, in this script, there was such a presence. She has such a presence, and such a voice and such conviction, and she really does pull Judah through to – to Jesus. And I think that emotional arc of going from a woman who is questioning life and not certain and subservient to someone who stands up for herself, but does it with a lot of grace. She can confront the Masala character for example in that scene, someone who’s stripped her of the love of her life for five, six years and killed her father, essentially torn her family apart and yet she goes to him and confronts him with forgiveness and asks him not to race Judah and I think in that moment I realized just the challenge of playing a woman of such strength and I aspire to be like her every day. I think she’s gonna always be inspirational to me and I hope she has that effect on audiences.