by Simon Bell/FAMOUS
So, tell us a little bit about your character and working with Timur on this movie.
OK. Esther is a slave in a house of Hur, and her father was a slave before her in that same household, but it’s a family environment so they don’t treat them as second-class citizens. They are very much part of the family.
Of course, Esther and Judah fall in love. Judah gets taken away and sent to the galleys, because he was accused of trying to kill Pilate. So she witnesses the death of her father and the love of her life being torn away from her. She loses everything, basically. Then she becomes a follower of Jesus, and then when Judah comes back from the galleys, he finds her again, and they reunite. She has strong morals, and outside of the Jesus character, she is the moral compass of the film.
She is very vocal in standing for what she believes, and voicing to Judah and Messala that this race is not OK.
How familiar were you with the film from the late 50s?
I watched the 1959 version when I was a child, probably ten or 11 years old, and then again about a year ago … I’ve seen it twice.
Do you have different memories of it from when you were little?
Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting watching it as an actor, because I wasn’t an actor the first time I watched it. The thing that’s glaringly obvious is that acting styles have changed, and film-making styles have changed.
I think it’s very timely and necessary that there is a retelling, or a re-envisioning of this story, because it’s a story [that] is important to tell. This is … closer, has more of a loyalty to the book, I think, than the 1959 version.
Do you think this version says something that the 1959 version didn’t, and should have?
I think my character – I can only speak on my character … I think that she’s stronger and more vocal. She has more of a presence, and I think women are going to like seeing that because she’s more relatable. I think we’re used to seeing women in that era more demure and subservient. Even though she’s a slave, she has a voice; she knows how to use her voice. She’s not afraid of confronting Messala and Judah, and speaking her mind. Again, she does it with grace. She does it without judgement. She does it with compassion.
I think that’s true strength, when you can speak your mind and speak truth. There’s no need to raise your voice. This is how it is.
What is Ben-Hur about for you?
Clearly redemption and forgiveness. For me, love conquering hate is the main theme, and is something that everybody in the world can relate to. No matter what race, or nationality, or religion, or creed, or anything. At our core, we are able to overcome hate with love. It’s just a matter of choice. I think that’s why this film is so important. It inspires change, it inspires hope.
I love being entertained. It’s highly entertaining, but it also has a message. For me as an actor, because I’m an activist, I enjoy being part of a project that is the best marriage of acting and activism, where you can make a film and a project that resonates with audiences, and inspires hope and change.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
That people were less selfish.
Selfish could condemn us all…
I’ll clarify. We’re driven to be right, and make other people wrong. I think if each one of us, instead of trying so hard to say we are right and they are wrong … say, “How can they be right? How is it possible that I am wrong?” I’m not saying that I am wrong. I’m saying how can it be possible that they’re right, and I’m wrong? If people looked at it from both sides, it’s just finding common ground. I think war is built on that concept of “we are right, they are wrong”.
[In] this film, at the end of the day, that’s why Judah and Messala come together. They both realise, we’re both right, and we are both wrong. I just watched the film and I cried in that moment, because I wish the world was like that.
The world today, religion, is so politicised. When you read the script and considered the movie, did you think “something in here is going to upset somebody, somewhere”?
There’s a phenomenal line in the film where the chariot race happens, and there’s a lust for blood from everybody. The Zealots, the Romans, everybody is there, just bloodthirsty because that’s what oppression does. You oppress one people; they then want blood from the other people. It’s a never-ending circle, right? Then Pilate says, I forget what character says to Pilate, “Well, I guess you lost” – I think it was Morgan Freeman’s character, Ilderim. He [says], “Lost? Look at them” – they’re all cheering because there’s death and there’s carnage. He says, “Lost? Look at them. They’re all Romans now.” I think that’s my point. That resonated with me so much, because you’re essentially saying, when you cause bloodshed, they now want bloodshed, and there’s going to be more bloodshed. He had his victory; Pilate had his victory because there was bloodshed. … The Zealots, and the Romans, and everybody now is celebrating the bloodshed. Is there a winner in that situation? No, and yet everybody is celebrating. What are they celebrating? There was a political message in the film, in a sense that unless we have unity, we have nothing. How could that offend anybody? That’s what I took away from it. I don’t think there’s any group who can walk away from this film and say, “I’m highly offended”, because they’re asking us to choose love over hate.