By Simon Bell/FAMOUS
Tell us about stepping into this character (Jesus); how did you approach it? What did you try to stay away from?
Well, obviously this is a character that has been played by many actors, [and] that has been done so many times – that was the first question I had for the director: “What’s your vision? How do you think we can we can do this?” He said he wanted a very human approach, the most human possible. We want to see him among people; it would be more through his example. Because, actually Jesus, if you pay attention to [the] Scriptures and even films, all the references, instead of really talking about being compassionate, he showed it, how to do it. It was more like, “Let’s make him palpable, let’s make him accessible, not somebody that is up there and just teaching.” Which I thought was a very interesting way to approach this character.
Of course, it’s a huge challenge and risk, but equally a huge privileged opportunity just to put myself into that space for a couple of months. Preparation is reading things and watching things, but mostly driving myself into a very centred, loving place … His teachings were very simple and clear, and I [tried] to practise it. I [tried] to go to that place.
I took it as a personal journey; I didn’t rationalise, psychologise too much. I didn’t look at this [as] a character, a job. To me, it was a personal experience. Just the little tiny glimpse that I had of the understanding [of] this love, of this heart, already changed completely my values and even my heart. It was rewritten; it was like a whole different story, just because I allowed myself to be in that space. Not saying that I got even close to what it was. We don’t know, right? We hear, we read.
Would you say he is the most interesting character in history?
I’m not sure if ‘interesting’ is the correct word; he is definitely the most known. If you think about it, there [are] billions of people all over the world that have a personal relationship with Jesus, or with the image of Jesus. They have an idea, an expectation, so it’s definitely a very present and powerful image in the collective unconscious all over the world. That is very powerful. It’s a big risk just because of that. No matter which actor will play him, and I’ve watched everything that I could, there’s always going to be somebody who said, “I expect it to be different.” Maybe that’s why … in the previous Ben-Hur, they don’t show him. It’s a conscious choice.
You talk about playing a religious figure. These days, religion is much politicised and there’s a lot of special interest groups that can make a lot of noise. Any concerns or fears about that?
No, no. No, because, first of all, it’s always what we do and it’s always a representation of something, it’s an interpretation of something. As artists, what we’re trying to do here is to tell a story, to talk about human beings, to talk about the phenomenon of life. Nobody here is trying … it is really not about religion. It’s about Christ and his teachings. Especially in Ben-Hur … It’s based on Lew Wallace’s novel … Even though it’s called A Tale of the Christ, it’s not the classic story of Christ that we follow. You see his teachings through people’s lives and relationships. Through Masala and Ben-Hur. So it’s much more human in that way than the religion. That’s not where we try to go.
What kind of relationship do you have with the original movie?
I had watched it a long time ago. I didn’t remember [it] so I had to go back [to it] because I was very young when I saw it. I think it’s a beautiful film. This is nothing to do with that. It has the same story, but it’s another movie based on the novel. It’s not a remake; I mean, who would go there and make a remake? Why? A movie that won, I don’t know, ten, 11 Oscars, and it was so well done … This is a version of the novel and it’s very different. Especially because Timur’s approach, it’s much more realistic. It’s completely different. Even Jesus, now you actually see him, you didn’t see [him] in the other one. The beauty of this one, it’s the relationship, again, which brings … a human level between Ben-Hur and Jesus. It put them like two men. It’s very interesting. That’s what I really liked about trying to contribute in this project.
Do you think this movie changed you?
Just to have a little understanding of that love. Just trying to go in that direction and practising that every day. Just trying to approach that in a very deep way, in a real way, and not fool myself. We fool ourselves 24 hours a day, ego and mind. Trying to step away from that and being completely in the moment, present and interacting with people. It was a huge change. It changed my own heart. It changed my perception of things. It changed [my] values. It changed my sensibilities. It just changed, because now I, not that I saw the light, but I saw something within me. I experienced something that made me feel – I can’t explain. The peace and the satisfaction is just a good place, no worries. You put your focus on different stuff. You’re not worried about that stuff. All of a sudden you’re looking at people and animals. It’s just calm and you’re just in a different place. It’s hard to talk because it sounds mystic. It’s not, it’s very palpable. It’s physical.