“I thought the same thing that everyone thinks when they hear that you’re remaking Ben-Hur,” Jack Huston laughs. “I gaped a little and was like, ‘Really?’ But I read the script and I was so happy and surprised with the reimagining of the story. It felt closer to Lew Wallace’s original novel [Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ] than the film. It’s such a beautiful story, and it can be told and told again for different audiences. Whenever someone gets up in arms and says, ‘Why would you remake something like Ben-Hur?’, you realise that this is actually the fifth time that it’s been reimagined. There’s always room for a modern audience.”
Most famously adapted for the big screen in 1959 by William Wyler with Charlton Heston in the title role, Ben-Hur now gets another go-round courtesy of director, Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Day Watch, Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), who keeps his story in the past, but juices it up with the kind of modern tech that his cinematic forebears could only have dreamed about. And that, according to Jack Huston, is what makes the 2016 take on Ben-Hur work. “We have a lot more at our fingertips, technology-wise,” says Jack Huston. “We have the ability to make this movie and retell it for a new audience…a younger audience, possibly. It’s still fun for people who’ve seen the original though. I grew up watching the Wyler version every year, and I would be the first person to say, ‘Oh, don’t do that!’ if I felt in any way that it wasn’t going to hold up. Luckily, I’ve been so happy and so surprised. I feel like we’ve really created something incredibly special.”
For those not familiar with the famous tale, Ben-Hur is the epic story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), an officer in the Roman army. Stripped of his title, separated from his family and the woman he loves (Nazanin Boniadi), Judah is forced into slavery. After years at sea, Judah returns to his homeland to seek revenge, but finds redemption. And just like in the 1959 film, the centrepiece of the film is a brutal chariot race, which this time was achieved with both practical and CGI effects.
The grandson of legendary American director, John Huston, 34-year-old Huston – an actor on the rise who was born and raised in England – was once floated to topline the on-again-off-again remake of The Crow, and has also starred to great acclaim in TV’s Boardwalk Empire and the true life drama, Kill Your Darlings. Ben-Hur, however, is undoubtedly his most high profile effort yet, and the actor had to make sure that he was in tip-top shape. “There was a lot of training,” Huston says. “It was a lot of chariot training, as you can imagine. That was the big one. I grew up on horses, so I was very comfortable on horses. I thought, ‘Well, it’s not going to be easy, but at least I’ve got a knowledge of horses.’ And then you get behind one of those things and you realise that you know nothing! It’s tough, and that’s putting it lightly. On the first day, you think that you’re going to die. They’ve built the arena, and they’ve built the stadium…it was incredible. The horses are equally as excited to get out as you are, so it takes every bit of your strength to stop them once they get going. By the end of it, we did three months of filming just on the chariot race stuff. They probably have hundreds of hours of chariot race footage. It’s an amazing job to whittle that down to twelve odd minutes.”
While the 2016 and 1959 films have the chariot race in common, this new take (like Lew Wallace’s source novel) is more religious in its themes and subject matter. “I’m rather like Judah,” Huston responds when asked if he’s religious himself. “I’m a bit of a sceptic. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have some kind of faith. I believe in something bigger. That’s what I was interested about in something like this. While we were making the movie, we were asking ourselves really interesting questions. Anything that brings up questions, and debates, is interesting. In life, you want to be able to leave a film or finish reading a book, and have there be room for debate. There isn’t just one point of view. That’s the great thing about who we are. We’re conscious and we can ask questions and we shouldn’t just be told something and that’s what we should believe. It’s always open to interpretation in every single sense. In terms of something like this, I found the humanity of the story to be the most beautiful part.”
Did he grow up going to Sunday school? “No, I didn’t,” Huston smiles. “I did actually, I’m lying. I went to a boarding school from a very young age, so we’d go to church three times a week. When I say church, it wasn’t like church. We had Father Eddie. He was great. He was probably the nicest of all teachers. You’d go to chapel; that’s what you’d say. In the morning, you’d sing a song and then the headmaster would address everyone and talk about stuff, but it was very much for all religions. It wasn’t like just for Christians or Catholics or anything like that It was purely for everybody. Everyone sang the song.”
And after enduring a long and protracted shoot in Italy – where he had to maintain a lithe and muscular figure – Jack Huston surprisingly didn’t find himself making the most of the country. “The day that I finished, you would have thought that I’d want pasta and pizza and all the good things that Italy brings, but there was actually this little place that did cheeseburgers and hotdogs and French fries. I went and ordered the entire menu! I was just like, ‘You know what, I’m just going to go really American on it!’ That was a good day.”
Ben-Hur is released in cinemas on August 25. To read our interview with Ben-Hur co-star, Toby Kebbell, click here.