Jack Huston says his ‘Ben-Hur’ is quite different from ’59 movie

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Morgan Freeman and Jack Huston in a scene from the new “Ben-Hur” film, opening Friday. | Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

LOS ANGELES — The 1959 “Ben-Hur” movie, starring Charlton Heston and directed by William Wyler, won 11 Academy Awards, including best picture. Even given that pedigree, Jack Huston wasn’t the least bit intimidated about tackling the title role in a new “Ben-Hur.”

“As an actor, you look for really great characters, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than Judah [Ben-Hur]. I really knew the 1959 film version very well. I loved it, and I loved Charlton Heston’s performance in it. Then I read the script, and realized it was a completely re-imagined version of the original, beautiful book written by Lew Wallace.

“But I really felt that this interpretation of Judah hasn’t been done. So I was delighted I got to play this heroic, flawed, betrayed and often very sad character. It was a total emotional roller-coaster which I got to play as an actor. Judah goes on such a journey. Where he begins and where he ends in this movie are two very different places — and that’s the kind of experience you want when you go to the movies.

While many of the more grueling and dangerous scenes in the film included stunt doubles, clearly Huston and his co-stars had to face a lot of physical challenges in “Ben-Hur.”

Focusing particularly on the slave ship rowing scenes and the climactic final chariot race, Huston admitted, “It was tough. We trained tirelessly. For the chariot race alone, we trained for months before we actually were shooting it — and then we spent close to three months with both the first and second [production] units filming the chariot race.”

For therowingsequences, the actor lost approximately 30 pounds because he believed he needed to closely mirror what real Roman galley slaves would look like.

“I was under the impression that you wouldn’t be a bulky guy with rippling muscles if you had been in the galley of slave ship for the past five years! I think you’d pretty much be just muscle and bone. So I was both physically and mentally trying to put myself in that place.

“That approach really took me on quite an interesting ride, both mentally and emotionally, because you learn so much about yourself in those situations. It made me truly think what it would take to survive that kind of grueling, horrible life — even though I knew this was just a movie. We did everything we possibly could to re-create that slave ship experience — up to actually killing ourselves, thank God!”

•Morgan Freeman’s decision to co-star in “Ben-Hur” hinged on a phone call from directorTimor Bekmambetov.

“Because it was Timor calling me, and because we had such a nice time in the Czech Republic doing ‘Wanted,’ that was a good opening. Then he said, ‘We’re going to shoot it in Rome,’ so I’m thinking, ‘The first perk is it’s Timor directing. The second perk is they’re going to shoot in Rome — one of my favorite cities on the planet.’ And the third perk it’s going to be ‘Ben-Hur’ — one of the great classic stories of all time.

“My only question was, ‘Who is Ilderim?’ So when he explained who Ilderim was [the chariot racing trainer who becomes Ben-Hur’s mentor], I thought, ‘That’s four perks on this film. I’m in!’ ”

After he got to the set, Freeman got another nice surprise. In the movie, he wears a wig that features long dreadlocks. The actor loved the fact “that wig was designed by the same guy who designed the wigs in ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ ” for which the Oscar winner received his first nomination for best lead actor in 1990. “Talk about a small world!”

While wearing along dreadlocks wig in a very hot climate clearly wasn’t very comfortable, Freeman said he didn’t mind, “because part of the joy of acting is to assume a different persona. Makeup helps in so many ways and costumes also do a large part of that. But that’s also true when you put on a wig.”

Since the role of Christ features heavily in the story of “Ben-Hur,” and because Freeman has both played God and done a TV series on the world’s religions, it seemed fair to ask if he’s religious in his personal life.

“No, I’m not religious, but I do consider myself spiritual. I believe many people are spiritual and that comes from both their interaction with other people in their lives, and by interacting with nature itself, which is such a spiritual experience. But as for being religious — no, I’m not.”

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