Ben Hur is a movie that most people will remember as a star turning moment for actor Charlton Heston. The classic 1959 film directed by William Wyler, had the largest budget ($15.175 million) as well as the largest sets built of any film produced at the time. It was the fastest-grossing as well as the highest-grossing film of 1959, in the process becoming the second-highest-grossing film in history at the time after Gone with the Wind. It won a record 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Wyler), Best Actor in a Leading Role (Heston), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Griffith), and Best Cinematography.   

Fast forward almost 60 years, to the re-telling of Ben Hur starring Jack Huston.  The movie centers around a nobleman, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), who is falsely accused of treason by his childhood friend and adoptive brother Messala (Toby Kebbell). He survives years of slavery under the Romans and attempts to get revenge by challenging Messala to a grand chariot race while being forever changed after a series of encounters with Jesus. The movie also stars Morgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro and Nazanin Boniadi.

Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman in, Ben Hur

Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman in, Ben Hur

Casting someone who can fill the sandals of Charlton Heston is also a tall order, but that’s where Jack Huston comes in. The British actor, best known to North American audiences as disfigured assassin Richard Harrow in Boardwalk Empire, is 33, and an Englishman usually described as ‘Hollywood Royalty’ for being one of those Hustons. Legendary filmmaker John Huston was his grandfather and Oscar-winning actress Anjelica Huston is his aunt. 

The original Ben Hur was a story about revenge. Both Huston and producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett insist that this updated film is a movie about forgiveness and re-finding love. According to Burnett (also the Executive producer of several reality shows, including Survivor) the film mirrors real life more than ever.  “Even though it was written 130 years ago, based 2,000 years ago, this story is really relevant,"Burnett said during our recent interview in Los Angeles.  "We’re still going through political and religious wars. And everyone turns on each other, and there’s so much hatred and anger.”

Toby Kebbell in Ben Hur

Toby Kebbell in Ben Hur

Actor Toby Kebbell who plays Massala was also honoured to be a part of this updated version. Not only did he train hard to ride horses and film the epic chariot race scene but he was excited about getting the chance to work with Jack Huston. The two became close on set, but when he had to turn on his friend, Kebbell found it incredibly difficult.  "We stopped spending time together in that 10- day run up to the scene where I have to betray hi," Kebbell told me during our interview in Los Angeles. " What was interesting about that was  I really started to miss him.  I wanted to go to dinner with him and hang out, but we couldn't because we were so intent on creating that distance from one another. It was amazing how it played into the scene once we began to shoot."  

As for shooting the epic chariot race scene, the actors insist that everything was done for real. They trained for months and it took over a month to shoot it in a Colosseum that was replicated in Rome for the film.  Huston says that being a part of that scene was some really special and he and Kebbell were insisted on doing as much as they could for real.  

The only parts that you see that are CGI, Huston says, “Were when a horse was hurting itself or when someone was dying. Otherwise, we pushed the boundaries.” He continued to describe what he and Kebbell went through to shoot the scene. “That’s me being dragged around down there, that’s me and Toby doing everything. It’s tough and it’s exhilarating, but you realise just how dangerous it is when there are 32 horses going around at full gallop, which is 40 miles an hour. Don't even get me started on those chariots! They weighed a ton!  You have to worry about what you’re doing and what is going on around you too. It's beyond dangerous and anything can happen!  In the end I it felt so rewarding because we just got through it." 

For my interviews with Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanim Boniadi and producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett - please click the link below.