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

Freeman says he enjoyed his experience making Ben-Hur. "I noticed that the director and producers laugh a lot. When there is a lot of laughing that means they are happy with what they are getting."

Esther, Judah's childhood friend and eventual wife, is played by Nazanin Boniadi ("Homeland", "How I Met Your Mother"). "I was drawn to Esther because of her complexity. As a Jew, she wants to resist the Roman occupation and advocate for the disenfranchised, but supporting the rebels could put the House of Hur and her own family in jeopardy," says Boniadi. "Later on, when she's lost her home, family and the man she loves, she becomes one of the first followers of Jesus, the carpenter prophet who teaches her that freedom can be achieved through forgiveness and compassion."

Ayelet Zurer (Man of Steel, Angels & Demons) plays Naomi Ben-Hur, Judah's mother and the proud matriarch of the House of Hur. Zurer explains, "Naomi resents the Roman occupation, but doesn't want to risk her family status by openly opposing them. She has a kind and generous heart, and adopts Messala as a child, which is a decision she may come to regret."

Sofia Black-D'Elia (Project Almanac, "Gossip Girl") plays Tirzah, Judah's strong willed younger sister, who falls in love with Messala. Black-D'Elia says, "Tirzah's journey is familiar. At the start of the film, she's sheltered and naïve. Then, in an instant, it's all taken away and she's forced to see reality. Ultimately, she must forgive the man who ruined her life; the man she loves."

"We wanted our female characters to be as complex, strong and influential in this story as the men," Sean Daniel states. "These characters have all existed in previous versions of the story, but weren't given the depth or development these actresses were able to bring to their roles."

Rodrigo Santoro (The 33, 300) was selected to play Jesus Christ, who crosses paths with Ben-Hur at several points in the story.

"As soon as I met Rodrigo, it was clear he was the right actor," recalls Bekmambetov. "He has a God-given talent - Rodrigo can play this spiritual figure while still coming across as the boy next door."

"Rodrigo was a perfect choice to play Jesus," comments Downey. "He's got strength, kindness, and depth."

Henderson agrees. "Rodrigo just has an inner peace and strength. He's inspirational in the role because of the calm, regal presence he brings."

Playing the role of Jesus was a serious undertaking for Santoro. "Billions of people all over the world have a very personal and intimate relationship with this man, with his image, with what he represents," comments Santoro. "It's a tremendous responsibility, but it's also a unique opportunity to have a chance to explore and to have a deeper understanding of what he went through and try to practice his teachings."

"I think the first thing that I had to do was attempt to erase any preconceived ideas I had about him," says Santoro. "Things that I've heard, things that even my grandma told me when I was growing up. I went to a neutral place and started from there."

Santoro undertook a physical and mental regime to prepare for the role. He spent a lot of time practicing yoga, meditation, and adopted a strict, cleansing diet.

"I tried to connect to what I truly felt about this man because I had to play Jesus," Santoro continues. "How do I understand, as deeply as possible, this person and everything he represents? I wanted to create a portrait of the man behind the myth. I wanted to make him relatable without sacrificing any of his teachings, his aura, his spirituality and everything that was so unique about him. It was the most challenging thing I have ever done."

7/25/2016 4:00:00 AM