By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Jack Huston knew he was strapping on some pretty big sandals when he was offered the title role in the remake of “Ben-Hur.” After all, Charlton Heston, who played the Jewish freedom-fighter-turned-chariot-racer Judah Ben-Hur in the 1959 William Wyler-directed epic won an Academy Award for his performance. (That now-classic feature film, in which the title character has an inspiring and life-changing chance encounter with Jesus, collected 11 Oscars, including Best Picture.)
Huston, 33, best known for his depiction of a badly wounded World War I veteran turned gangster in “Boardwalk Empire” and is part of an acting dynasty that dates back to his great-grandfather Walter Huston, said he allowed the script by Keith Clarke and John Ridley to be his guide.
“I said in no way does this feel like it’s stepping on anyone’s sandals,” the British actor says in an interview. “I felt it was very much its own entity.”
The screenplay is adapted from Lew Wallace’s timeless novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” which inspired not only the 1959 film but also the 1925 silent classic. Executive produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who have carved out a lucrative niche in Hollywood making faith-based films and TV productions, “Ben-Hur” includes much more of Jesus Christ (played by “300’s” Rodrigo Santoro) in this incarnation.
Huston plays a Jewish prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), an officer in the Roman army. Stripped of his title and separated from his family, Judah Ben-Hur is forced into slavery. After years at sea, he returns home to seek revenge, but instead finds redemption. Under the tutelage of Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), he becomes a chariot driver, who can win his family’s freedom in a do-or-die race that includes Messala. Ben-Hur crosses paths with the Messiah once when he is injured and again on Christ’s path to his crucifixion. In just those fleeting moments, he learns about forgiveness and faith.
Huston spent months preparing for the role, which required him not only to learn to steer a four-horse chariot going 40mph around a track, but also a tricky underwater stunt in which he has to escape his shackles.
Timur Bekmambetov, who helmed the 2008 Angelina Jolie action thriller “Wanted” and the 2004 horror fantasy “Night Watch,” directs the action-packed epic.
Having just wrapped production on his next film, the crime thriller “Above Suspicion,” in which he plays an unscrupulous FBI agent, the genial Huston is settling into promoting the biblical epic, which targets not only faith-based audiences but action aficionados as well.
Q: Was this a surprise when you got the call to do “Ben-Hur?” Was it something you had gone for or did they come to you?
Huston: I initially went after the role of Messala, which was interesting because I went and sat down with Timur and in my rather impassioned way spoke about Messala. Timur being Timur just sat and wrote everything down. Then later he said to me, when I’d gone out for a few auditions, “I think you might be right for Judah. I think you’re our Judah.” Then I went and tested and I somehow got the role. He said later to me, “The reason I felt that about you as Judah is not only did you feel like Judah to me but it was the way you spoke about Messala. You spoke about Messala with such love that he was never the bad guy to you.” He said, “For you two to have that relationship, it had to stem from real love between two brothers, and that’s how Judah felt about Messala.”
Inadvertently, it was a beautiful way into the character, because the people who love you the most sometimes are the ones who hurt you the most. For this movie to work, that had to stay true, right to the very end. For the redemptive moment, for that last bit of forgiveness, you need to feel these brothers’ love. I was like, “Hah, Timur, you’re a smart dude. You got this. I feel good.”
Q: Messala was really the villain in the 1959 film. This one is more complicated and a family story, isn’t it?
Huston: Absolutely. That’s very important. That’s the thing. As Timur says, it’s very true. They find it hard to see things from the other person’s side. That’s actually true about life. It’s normally what arguments are about. Luckily, Toby (Kebbell) and I just got on so well from the moment we met. We were training insane amounts of training for the chariot stuff. I mean it was crazy.
Q: How long did you train?
Huston: We trained solidly for six weeks and then while we were filming, any chance we had we’d go and get on those chariots and do it. And then we filmed for three months, basically, which was six weeks of first unit and basically six weeks of second unit, so that was just the chariot race.
It’s great because you have someone who’s your brother in arms. On your own, you would do it, but it’s great to have a person to do that stuff with, because you push each other and you do it together. It’s a real camaraderie that comes together and we had that. We just got on really well, personally, and we felt very similar that this was a very relatable version, re-imagined. We wanted this for a modern audience.
Q: Had you watched the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston?
Huston: I love the ’59 version. I grew up watching it. I know the Hestons. Fraser Heston (Charlton Heston’s son) is my guest to the premiere. I’ve known the family for a long time. I’ve also known Jack, his grandson, for years. It’s amazing because Fraser (Heston) and Alex (Burton), another friend of mine, actually put together the 50th anniversary edition of “Ben-Hur,” the ’59 version.
When I got the part, it got sent over to my house, and it’s the most beautiful thing. I have a deep love for it. That was probably what was so great about this. It was a story that I felt very relevant, very modern in its own way. As an actor you’re looking for great characters. This is one of the great characters, Judah Ben-Hur, the way it was written. And then how we started to develop it, Timur and me, we wanted it to be a real journey.
Charlton was a man’s man. The rivalry (between the brothers) was there when you first see it. My character is like a lost boy. He’s the prince living in his bubble, who’s forced into this life (of slavery and chariot racing) by a betrayal. He’s not capable in the beginning. He’s a lover, not a fighter.
Q: How was it shooting in the cramped bowels of the slave ship?
Huston: It was rough. It’s a great transition as well though, isn’t it? What I was very aware of was five years later. (The slaves) had a life expectancy between three and six months. To last five years would have been a miracle. He’s driven by hate and a desire for revenge.
Q: You were so gaunt in that scene on the slave ship. Did you film your scenes in order so you could lose the weight?
Huston: I lost 30 pounds. I went down to 156 pounds for that part and I’m 185 on a good day. But even at my lowest weight, I’d never been stronger. I was in the gym twice a day sometimes, and they were long days. They were very conscious of what it does to your body, so we managed to put the slave ship at the very end. Also, that was a ridiculous amount of time down in the ship where the men were stacked like sardines in the heat. It was unbelievable.
Q: You seemed genuinely miserable on the ship.
Huston: In the (Lew Wallace) book, it’s all written from Judah’s point of view, because he doesn’t know what’s going on outside. It’s all about what he’s hearing and seeing. What we said is, we don’t want to know anything that’s going on outside of where he is, because that’s the horror aspect of those wars. When you went into battle, you didn’t know what was happening. You just were rowing. That was your single job and this battle was ensuing all around you. I was like, “Wow, that’s horror.”
Q: Can you talk about riding in the chariot? What was it actually like to get into this little cart with those horses?
Huston: The horses are going 40 miles an hour at full gallop. When you go around a corner, you don’t turn the corner. You drift around the corner. You’re just kicking up dust everywhere and drifting. It’s like drifting in a car.
Q: Like “The Fast and the Furious?”
Huston: That’s what we compared it to. Timur, being the brilliant man he is, went and watched everything NASCAR and Formula 1 race footage. He looked at angles, how cars move, because he wanted to shoot it so we as a modern audience relate to it. Chariot races were the Formula One/NASCAR of their day, and it was bloodsport. Basically you would race maybe one or two or three races and then that would be it. You’d be crippled, maimed or dead. If you made it, just alive, not even passing the finish line, if you were the last chariot standing, you won the race. It was an amazing way of looking at it.
Q: What do you recall most about the chariot race scene?
Huston: When you come out the gates and there’s 32 horses going around that arena and it’s choreographed so brilliantly, because you’re not for a second not aware how dangerous this is. It’s as dangerous a thing as you’ll ever do, because not only do you have to worry about what you’re doing, you have to worry about what the other 28 horses and chariots are doing around you. If you come out of one of those things wrong, you’ll get whacked by every other team. The first time you realize that you have to act is one of the big ones, because you’re like, “Oh my God, this is mad.” Then there’s this amazing moment where you realize what you’re doing and this is it. Everything in your mind, all of those voices that are telling you this, that or another, all the things of the day completely disappear and you are so focused on what you’re doing that you don’t think about anything but the race and the chariot. It became a meditation and it was beautiful. I had some of the most unbelievable weeks and months.
Q: It seemed grueling for the horses.
Huston: No horses were hurt. The horses love it. When I say love it, the horses have the best time. The horses race each other. At one point I had to put my feet and go completely horizontal with my feet on the front of the cart, just for them to feel me, so I was telling them to stop. That’s the kind of power they had. They’re beautiful. We had Friesians and Lippizans. Amazing horses.
Q: When you were on the chariot, was there a safe word if you got into trouble?
Huston: Luckily there are cameras on you everywhere, so there wouldn’t need to be a safe word. I think as soon as you’re like, “Help me,” they stop rolling. (He laughs.)
Q: Was that you or a stuntman being dragged on the ground?
Huston: That’s me being dragged, man!
Q: How did that work?
Huston: You literally just hold on. Go on YouTube. . Look at the behind the scenes footage. You’ll actually see me on it. They were just like, “Hold on.” Funny enough it’s sand (on the track). You imagine it to be a lot worse. You do get a lot of stuff in your mouth and face. That’s me being dragged around.
Q: Did you have a mask or anything protective gear?
Huston: No, I had on leather pants. You know how I described it? It’s a bit like waterskiing. You skim over it. The only thing you have to worry about is just keeping the top part of your body off the sand.
Q: It was really safe, then?
Huston: Yeah, it’s really safe. The funny thing is once you get into it, like waterskiing, you start realizing you can do tricks and start moving around, so it’s going along and I’m spinning. “Oh, look, I can do this. I can spin on my back.” It’s kind of amazing and cool.