'Ben-Hur:' Fun Behind The Scenes Moments with the Cast

 Ben-Hur movie 2016

The classic tale of BEN-HUR is reimagined by director Timur Bekmambetov with stars Jack Huston, Morgan Freeman, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro and Nazanin Boniadi (“Homeland”).

The actors give us insight and fun tidbits into the production which shot in Rome for seven months.

First up, Morgan Freeman wears dreadlocks for his role as Ilderim, the organizer of the chariot races for Ancient Rome. While the wig may look hot, heavy and uncomfortable, the actor revealed it was not bothersome at all which he credits to an old friend.   

“It was very comfortable.  It was the same guy who did my wig for DRIVING MISS DAISY.  He’s one of those Italians whose family has been doing this for generations so they’re very good at it.”  

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Morgan’s BEN-HUR costars also included those of the four-legged kind specifically horses. Freeman reveals the horses were well-behaved and followed direction. It was another animal that had a diva moment on set when it came to shooting a caravan scene.  

“The only thing I remember not cooperating were the camels. It’s going to be this mile long train of horses, and donkeys and goats, and camels and people and stuff and they were trying to load up the camels. And the camel was like, ‘bullsh**.’  ‘You’re not putting that crap on me today. I’ll bite you.’ It was hilarious.”  

Speaking of four-legged costars, Jack Huston, who portrays the iconic role of Judah Ben-Hur and Toby Kebbell (“Messala”) got to know the horses very well for their scenes in the chariots.   Actual chariots were built, according to Huston, with four horses pulling the ancient wagon.

Toby Kebbell (WARCRAFT, PLANET OF THE APES) says they practiced with the horses for one month, and started out with one and slowly built up to four.

“By the time you’re at four, it’s so terrifying you get weird. It’s like driving. It was like the first time I learned to drive. It became like that. You forget you’re driving. It’s very bizarre.”

At full gallop, says Huston, they were flying around corners at 40 miles per hour.  

“When you go around a corner, you don’t turn a corner - you drift. So you’re just kicking up crap everywhere. It’s like drifting in a car.”

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Huston reveals Russian director Timur Bekmambetov studied Nascar and Formula One racing to incorporate the movement of cars and angles to chariot races.

During the chariot race scene, 32 horses were present in the arena with the actors controlling their own chariots and horses. At one point, Huston used all his strength, pushing his feet against the chariot as his body went fully horizontal to pull the reigns back and stop his horses. The actors knew their lives were at risk if something went wrong.

“It was choreographed so brilliantly because you’re not for a second aware of how dangerous this thing is. It’s as dangerous thing you’ll ever do. Not only do you have to worry what you’re doing but you have to worry about what the other 28 horses and chariots are doing around you.”

Kebbell also realized the potential for accidents. The “margin of error was minute. It was a very small margin.”

Actor Pilou Asbaek who plays Pontius Pilate chimes in saying he was merely a spectator  and he was frightened for the actors.  

“I saw it. That was fast. As a spectator, I was like ‘Dude, seriously if something goes wrong, you’re …’  It looked fu***** amazing.”

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The horse apparently had no fear and enjoyed their time on set. According to Huston, the horses were feeling the spirit of competition, and raced each other on set. No animals were harmed, Huston assures.

Morgan Freeman also confirms the four-legged actors were not hurt. He tells us not even a cockroach can be killed thanks to the tight restrictions set by the American Human society which monitors use of animals for movies and television. He learned that when making David Fincher’s SE7EN with Brad Pitt for a scene that involved cockroaches. Not one could be stepped on so they used a prop.

Another memorable moment for Huston was the scene in which his body is dragged behind the chariot. No stuntman was used for that sequence, he proclaims.  

“That’s me being dragged, man. I got stuff in my mouth and face. Go to YouTube and watch the behind the scenes. You’ll see me."

Huston had only his leather pants protecting him from the ground, and a wire harness to keep him from falling. At one point, he started to have fun and pretended he was water skiing, and performing tricks and spinning on his back. Sounds like a good old time.

Aside from playtime, he took the job seriously. Huston admits it was much more than an acting job.

“You have to realize that you have to act but pay attention to your surroundings of the dangers. Forget about daily things and problems. You are so focused on what you’re doing you don’t think about anything but the race and the chariot. It became like a meditation. It was beautiful.”

As for the actor who plays Jesus Christ, Rodrigo Santoro also experienced a beautiful moment for different reasons during the crucifixion scene. Santoro explains it was freezing cold that day. His brain and body were freezing, and he couldn’t concentrate while shivering. However, the weather helped him realize his emotional state.

“You want it to come from the heart, from the most deep loving place in that moment so how do you act as that? How do you go there? Somehow that weather and the fact that I couldn’t feel my body. It was the only time in my life I was able to be connected to my heart. All the voices went away.”

Regardless, Santoro asked for one take, and the director obliged with a 20-minute shot.  

He didn’t take the job of portraying Jesus Christ lightly. The Brazilian actor learned carpentry from an Italian carpenter and built a table in a scene in which we first meet the son of God. Santoro says he didn’t want to pretend to be a carpenter like Jesus, but wanted to physically encompass all his traits. Personally carpentry has become part of his life.

“It is a hobby for me now. Not that I’m practicing every day, but I do have my tools and I like to carve.”

Nazanin Boniadi, Judah Ben-Hur’s wife in the movie, also had an epiphany while making this movie and went through some deep “soul searching.” As Esther, a kind, gentle woman who forgives other’s wrongdoings as a follower of Jesus Christ, Boniadi felt inspired to be more like her character.   

“I want to be like Esther. We wanted to hold on to those characters.”

After the production, she and Rodrigo Santoro felt a void.

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What else did we learn from the actors? Apparently many scenes were cut, according to Kebbell.

Besides the horse play, Toby Kebbell also had to take up sword fighting for battle scenes between the Romans and zealots. Shot at the end of production, Kebbell and fellow actor Asbaek filmed elaborate sequences that ended up on the cutting room floor. What took days to shoot ended up as a montage.

“There were huge battle scenes. We share a few. It was night shoots & rain. It was a great sum of work that ends up… War is now this. It’s a montage. Did we not shoot me running up that mountain slaying people.”

While Kebbell was off shooting his deleted battle scenes, Huston lost 30 pounds to play Judah 5 years after being condemned as a slave to a battleship. He reveals he felt the strongest ever since he worked out twice a day, but the tough part was losing the weight in Italy, the land of pizza and pasta.  

As a long-time fan of the original, Huston isn’t worried about comparisons to Charlton Heston’s 1959 BEN-HUR.

“I have a deep love but that’s what is so great about this that was when I read the script, I said, ‘In no way does this feel like it’s stepping on the toes or as people say, sandals now.  It felt like it’s own entity and modern."

It also helps that he has the family’s blessing as a long-time friend of the Hestons. Huston invited Charlton Heston’s son Frazier as his guest for the Los Angeles premiere. Now that’s a stamp of approval.

BEN-HUR is in movie theaters August 19.

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