Big Sandals to Fill: Casting <em>Ben-Hur</em>

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BEN-HUR
From Paramount Pictures and MGM
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

"Casting Ben-Hur was as epic an undertaking as making the movie," says producer Sean Daniel. "We searched all over the world. The casting of the roles of Judah Ben-Hur and Messala were especially tricky, because the movie only works if those two characters have chemistry. They start out as brothers who become bitter rivals and rip each other's lives apart. When we saw Jack and Toby work together we knew we had something special."

"Finding the right actor to play Judah Ben-Hur was a process," recalls Bekmambetov. "We needed someone smart who could create a character combining aristocratic irony and ability to truly care for other people. Jack proved to us that he is capable of doing that."

Huston recalls first meeting with Bekmambetov. "Timur asked me to give him my thoughts on the character of Judah Ben-Hur. I started talking, and he was fervently writing notes. He saw it as a conversation, and wanted to bring as much authenticity to it as he could. Working with Timur has been exciting, because it's a collaboration."

"Originally Jack came to try out for a part of Messala (brilliantly played by Toby Kebbell). But after I talked to him it became clear to me that I'd just found Prince Judah Ben-Hur!" exclaims Bekmambetov. "It felt like he was born in that era. Ironic, well built, experienced horseman."

Jack Huston gives the most extraordinary portrayal of a man on a journey," comments Executive Producer Roma Downey. "Through the course of the film, we see him change physically and emotionally. Physically, we see him go from this handsome charming, debonair prince, to a man broken and brought to his knees. Through the years he spends on the galley ship, we see his body tighten and his heart harden. He knows that the only thing that will allow him to survive is to harness his lust for revenge."

"We absolutely loved Jack as Ben-Hur because he was just so brilliant in his reading and understanding of what the character is about," says Daniel. "On top of that, Jack's a Huston, one of the royal families of film. We shot the film at Cinecittà Studios in Rome, where John Huston directed "The Bible" in 1966, so it was exciting to have his grandson in our film all these years later."

Toby Kebbell was cast in the pivotal role of Messala, Ben-Hur's adopted brother and best friend who sets him on his path for vengeance.

"Toby brought a lot to the role of Messala," Producer Duncan Henderson explains. "The character was very interesting to begin with, but Toby was able to instill the character with his own innate sense of humor that he brings to set every day. Messala is a very dark character, but Toby's portrayal gives him a certain lightness that just adds to his complexity.

"Toby sizzles on screen," comments Downey. "Physically, he just brings it. He's good looking. He's grounded. He's strong, and he inherently has such intelligence and depth. We believe that he loves Judah, and the thing that drives him through the second half of the movie is that love and disappointment."

"When I met with Timur," Kebbell recalls, "I realized this wasn't just about a chariot race. This is a story about brothers, about family, how badly we sometimes treat the ones we love, and how often we need forgiveness. Everything we're exploring is drawn from the original book."

Kebbell continues, "The roles of Ben-Hur and Messala are symbiotic. It was a fun challenge for us to play with the fraternal bond between these rivals. There's love and there's hate there, but give too much either way and you'll lose the unique conflict that drives the film."

Morgan Freeman plays Sheik Ilderim, a greatly expanded role from previous adaptations of Ben-Hur. After Ben-Hur escapes a deadly slave galley, Ilderim serves as his mentor and benefactor, eventually teaching him to race chariots.

"We needed an actor of Morgan Freeman's caliber to show the honor and dignity of the character of Ilderim, and make him integral to the story," comments Ridley. "For me, as a person of color, it was extremely important to give this character a voice and make him more faithful to the era and true to life." Adds Daniel: "Working with Morgan Freeman has been one of my dreams. Morgan brought deep commitment to his portrayal of Ilderim. It was important to all of us and it is the first time in any creation of the movies (and stage plays) of Ben-Hur that a man of color has been rightfully depicted as the character really is."

"Morgan Freeman and I worked together on Wanted, and I couldn't wait to collaborate with him again," explains Bekmambetov. "Ilderim in his interpretation is cynical, emotional, smart and tricky all at the same time. He doesn't show all his cards at once, but you get the sense that bringing these characters from point A to point B was always part of his plan."