By Simon Bell/FAMOUS
Tell us a bit more about your character.
Here’s the thing. When I walked into the meeting with Timur [Bekmambetov] I thought, “I don’t want to go and do a film where everyone won Oscars last time. I don’t want to go and do a film that was already made, and they’ve made it again, and they’re all happy with it.” Timur convinced me.
Was it the toughest scene for you, the most challenging scene, the chariot race?
The chariots? The chariot scene was three months of work. I got a thing called ‘trigger finger’. To cure it they put a needle of cortisone through your tendon … my finger was closed from holding the reins. You’re pulling four horses. That’s your strength divided by four, and I’m not that strong …
Were you afraid?
I was terrified, and it was a long journey. It was a month before I could pull four horses, because they’re very clever horses, and so you have to really figure out who needs to go where. I had wonderful horses. These were real thoroughbreds from England that I had, and my stunt double had Hungarian thoroughbreds, so they were really phenomenal animals on set … You’re being sprayed with sawdust and sand, and spit, and so the crew are like, “We can’t see your face.” It’s 38 miles an hour. There’s nothing I can do about it.
We had to do a couple takes where we went much less quickly, stood up and shouted at each other, and did the lines, so massively long process, but when you get to go, when you really get to let them out, it’s the most exhilarating thing …
What’s better for you? Is it the message or the metaphor?
There’s a bunch going on. For me personally and honestly, it’s forgiveness. The story I was there to tell was the brother of the man who takes a journey to lead him to forgiveness, and I have to do the same thing in a mirrored manner.
This is retelling, and in the book there’s all of that upbringing. There’s that entire journey of life, and so it was important to do that and have an actual shared journey so that there could be forgiveness, because it was weird without it. That’s what the story’s about for me. I know it’s about Jesus converting a man from Judaism to Christianity.
What kind of relationship did you have with the original movie?
The Heston one?
I watched it afterwards. I remember watching it with my mother when I was younger … I felt that if I’d watched it before I’m either going to steal something, and people are going to be, “He stole that. There, he stole that!” or I’m going to be irritated and arrogant, and I’m going to go, “Oh, I’m going to make this better. I’m going to …” I thought it was just better to read the script I was given and do the role I had.
Do you think it’s possible to do it better? Because that’s a major classic.
I don’t know if you can. That’s a movie where they had 300 sets … We built the amphitheatre in Cinecittà …
The reason I did this [was] because the visual effects [were] kept to a minimum … They had done it to make the thing large in scale. We shot in Matera. Every time people are seeing it they’re like, “So that’s a set.” I’m like, “Yeah, it’s a set.” That place is where they shot The Passion of the Christ. It’s an old medieval town, Matera.
The big set was in Cinecittà, you said?
The chariot race was [in] Cinecittà, so when you go there … you’re, “How are we going to do this thing?” … Then you start to realise that [the original] film, the reason it won 15 Oscars is because it was something enormous.
Were there a lot of conversations about that movie while you were working?
It came up a great deal, and it’s a perpetual conversation that will keep going on. I think what is fantastic is that [the Heston] film is owned by someone else, so they’re not doing a remake. They read the book. They went through it. They scanned it. They said, “How can we retell this story?” In retelling that story we are telling something different.
We’re telling a different version of what the book was, and as we all know when we read a book we’re like, “This bit, and this bit. They should have had that bit. That was important.” … No, that film stands alone, and it always will. I don’t think there’s a competition for that.
Our story actually does have a bunch of great actors. You’ve got Morgan Freeman, he’s incredible to be around. He’s a very, very bright man, and he’s incredible at his craft. There’s a lot of great acting going into it. There’s a lot of hard work.
Is there something that jumped out in the script we haven’t seen before on our screens?
I honestly felt what was nice is that conversation [on] forgiveness and how valid and important that is, and belief [about] someone being bad, whether it’s a bad decision or whether they’re actually, to their core, evil. The good versus evil conversation …
How long is the chariot scene?
… You’ve got Pilate … You’ve got what happens in the audiences with the Zealots. You’ve got Morgan’s character and his conversation with Jack’s character throughout, so … They’re trying to show every part of it.
First of all, we have some battle sequences. We did all the battle sequences. Messala has more of a real brotherhood with Judah’s character, so there’s a real problem for them to solve. It felt like that’s what we were focusing on rather than the chariot race, although the chariot race took three months [to film].
Films aimed at Christian audiences are very big now.
Yeah, I think people claim The Passion of the Christ did so well because of the Christian audience.
I watched that film … I just thought it was phenomenal. It was an incredible film. Yeah, if people want to go and see it for the Christian message there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a personal belief. I can’t make you feel anything!