Ben-Hur is available on Digital Download now and Blu-ray and DVD 16th January.
Interview by Laurent Bouzereau
Talk about the Family unit.
When you first meet the Ben Hur Family, it is under grave circumstances. Judah comes in and is quite injured. Um, and I think you immediately get a sense of who’s the Boss which is Naomi. Uh, you know there is no man of the family since our Father is no longer with us. And so, she is the Mom, she is the Dad, she is, you know, the – the Care Giver and um, I’m his little Sister, and I look up to him a lot. And um, it’s an interesting Family Dynamic at that time because typically, I would be married off by the time I was 18 to the highest bidder.
Judah would be married and we would flee the Nest. Naomi would take care of the Palace but obviously in the case of Ben Hur things happen a little differently.
And the thing is also the Mother is very young. In the original Film, the Mother was older. There’s a sense that she was having these Children when she was very young.
That’s, you know, at that time, you would die by Age 45 so you had to have your kids early in order to be a Mom at all I think, which is great for Ayelet because we get to have her.
Exactly, and it sounds like she’s almost like a Child herself to some degree.
Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. I think that was the case for so many people on… You were asked to grow up and now too but especially then, you are asked to grow up so quickly, uh, and so – and so young. These women were having Families, Children at a time when I would be going to College, you know, and deciding a Major. So um, she’s a bit of a Child herself. Uh, I think Naomi is a quite strong Character. Uh, Survival Instinct kicks in for her I think, when her Husband dies and she just kind of OK, I have to figure this out.
She does a pretty good job until the shit hits the fan but..it’s a tough job.
How does Masala fit into the Family profile.
What I love about Masala is that he figures in differently for every person within the family. So for Judah, it’s his best friend and his Brother. For Tirzah, it's the love of her life. And for Naomi, it's a son in a way but also a commodity and something that she has to deal with logistically because he's not Jewish. He's not a Hur and he's living here and so she takes responsibility for him but she feels that she can only do it to a certain extent. So I love that each of us have a very, very different view and at the end of the day, what really matters is what Messala feels about us.
And how does he feel about you?
I like to think that he thinks I'm Super Hot and he likes me a lot. I think he loves me and I think that there's a very sweet love between the two of them because he is a type of older Brother figure, uh, and she trusts him and I think he's been there for her and taken care of her, and probably was into her, when other people didn't.
And of course, there's a separation that happens. First an emotional one and then a physical one. Tell us about the emotional thing that happens.
Well emotionally for him, he feels that he's been turned away from the family by Naomi. I think I see it for the first time when Judah comes in and is injured but I think Messala's been feeling that for the majority of his life that he isn't really a part of this family and he won't ever truly be accepted by her, especially as a Suitor for me. He makes the decision to leave and makes something of his own life that has nothing to do with us. I think with the hopes that he would come back as a fully formed man and might be more acceptable to Naomi as a Suitor, and for other reasons, he makes the final sever without saying Goodbye to Tirzah or Naomi and just kind of leaves and we don't seem him for a very long time.
And of course, there's a Political Climate for what's happening for the Country at the time. What can you tell us about what's happening at that time?
Oh gosh, so much. It's interesting because it's kind of the calm, the eerie calm before the Storm. This isn't the Jewish War yet, the Great, you know, the Jewish Roman War yet. It's just kind of starting to trickle in. So there's still, Romans are still trying to be respectful towards the wealthier Jewish Families while maintaining their control and power and slowly but surely take over more and more. It's a very interesting time in Jewish History and these people are desperately trying to hold onto their Religion and the things that mean the most to them, while also not being arrested and hung on a cross and so, [SOUNDS LIKE: Ben Hurgy] takes place at a very interesting time.
And you start to see when the Parade comes in, I think that's such a powerful scene because it really is the beginning of the end for these people, or at least the life that they've always known. And Tirzah's a really good example of that because she's kind of the Teenager going through that. And so she becomes a Zealot and fights with her people, and one man's terror is another man's freedom fighter. To me, she's a freedom fighter because she's just standing up for herself and these people that have very aggressively come into their world. So the Political aspect to me is very fascinating.
Set the scene of the Zealot trying to kill Pontius Pilate as he is marching into town.
That's kind of the close, I would say the Climax of the story because this is why everything goes wrong. There's a Zealot that we momentarily forget is in the house and he aims at Pontius Pilate and we get blamed for it. And Messala accuses of this crime, mostly because he doesn't have another choice. And also, we've put him in that position. I think what's interesting about this situation is that both sides are very justified. We are justified in being devastated that he wouldn't stand up for us, and he is absolutely justified in punishing us for his people and the life that he's made for himself depends on it.
And so the whole family kind of gets separated. Naomi and I end up in a Leper Colony, basically sentenced to Death. And Judah also basically sentenced to Death but ends up in Slavery. So this one action of one boy which really obviously symbolizes so much more, destroys this Family unit.
Talk about him seeing you 5 years later and you are saved because of a miracle.
Yeah, it's incredible. I think we're saved in two ways. I think Judah comes back. It's a very terrifying moment for all Parties involved because we think he's dead. Naomi doesn't even remember him because she's really far gone. He think we've been dead and now he finds that we're ill and near death and we're saved by a miracle physically but I think emotionally we were both saved by the idea that there's hope, that my Brother, her son is still out there, that he was still looking for us and that someone still loves us and wants to save us so I think that's emotionally what brings us out of that hole literally and otherwise.
And then obviously the miracle which we don't really ever understand or address, is what physically starts to heal our wounds.
This is a metaphor for the whole story because the story is about emotional scars and the ability to forgive and go forward. The Death of Jesus brings this on.
Yeah, it's the, I think Ben Hur is a true epic because it really is like the root of all of the biggest emotions. It's Shakespeare. It's all about the betrayal, it's the forgiveness, it's the Brotherhood, that kind of stuff, not that it's necessarily missing from Cinema now but it hasn't been done like this in awhile and it is so epic in its idea because how do you forgive the person you love betraying you and leaving you to die and all of that stuff which is so dramatic. But I think Ben Hur does a very good job of bringing it down to a relatable level.
And yeah, what's interesting about the Jesus miracle of it all is that most of the Characters don't even realize that's happening. It's kind of an audience treat that they see, they can connect the dots. But it's almost out of our grasp of understanding and suddenly, we're able to walk again. Our wounds are a little bit better. We're capable of remembering things and Judah has a beautiful forgiveness with his Brother and Messala reciprocates and it's all very human and only if you're really looking for it, I think you see the mystique in it all.
How did you get the part?
I auditioned like everyone else. I got lucky. I really liked Timor and I felt in my audition that we understood each other very well and so I was excited that he asked me to do it.
What kind of Director is he?
He's very kind and patient which I wasn't necessarily not expecting but my experience with his films are so visual and he's such a genius in the way that things look and feel and futuristic style and all those things and so I wasn't expecting him to be so grounded in these Characters and care so much about the minute details of their lives which I think is what makes it a great Movie as opposed to a good Movie and he's very sweet and a listener, a very good listener. I've really enjoyed my time with him. He's lovely.
Had you seen the original version?
I did not see the Black and White but I did see the Charlton Heston Ben Hur.
Did you see it before getting the part?
I saw it when I was younger but didn't remember much of it to be honest and then I re-watched it after I found out that I had gotten the part to get a Refresher Course before reading the Novel.
What was your reaction to the movie today?
I think the Chariot Race still holds up pretty well. It's a pretty incredible work of Film. That really blew my mind but at that point, I had known I was going to be playing this girl and so what stood out to me more than anything was the lack of Female Characters in it. And when they did show up on screen, how insignificant they seemed. I didn't even remember what Esther looked like by the end of the film and to me, when you read Ben Hur, Esther is the heart of it in a way. She's the one that pulls Judah out and saves him in a way before anyone else does. So that's what stood out to me and what made me so excited about John Ridley's script and this version was that these women matter and they have a great effect on the men around them.
What was your reaction to the book?
It's really long. It's a great book. I was obviously reading it not for enjoyment necessarily, more just as a preparation and what else can I learn about Tirzah and this family before anything happens because I think that that was so important to me at least, that when you come into this house, it doesn't feel like a Movie Set, it feels like a normal family unit under the circumstances. And so I was really reading it for how did they speak to each other? What were his descriptions of her, kind of more background on that, which is where I really saw the strength of Naomi and the respect that she demanded.
Because when I read the script for the first time, I thought SOFIA and me would just say Screw you Mom, I'm doing what I want and I'm marrying this man and I'm going to leave this house. And it was only in doing my research of this time period, and reading the original Ben Hur Novel, I realized that that was not an option. She would have never thought to do that, no one would have. So it was very informative for me. I don't think it's necessarily my cup of tea for Beach reading but it was definitely helpful.
What is your reaction to the Production value side of this film?
I'm still shocked by it to be honest. I've never done anything of this scale before, not even close. So I am easily overwhelmed especially when you go and you see the Circus and this. I mean, it's beautiful and the detail is incredible, how much they cared that it was an accurate depiction of the time period is really impressive to me. It looks beautiful but that wasn't all they were concerned which I really appreciate and I think Viewers will as well.
In terms of the look of your Character, you obviously go through a transformation. Tell us about the Make up and how disturbing it may have been to play such a scary Character.
I think it's funny because Jack felt similarly. That was the scene that stuck with him the most when he had seen the Original as a Child and he was very concerned with it being just as affecting. And I think we did it. I think our Makeup Team is incredible. And I think what makes it so creepy and stay with you the way they did this Makeup on Ayelet and I is that it's very realistic. So it's not some grotesque over the top of Leprosy or your idea of Leprosy. It's specific and subtle at times and true to what it would have looked like so that to me, is what makes it so scary.
You know, no eyebrows, like the little things like that because your facial hair is the first thing to go and it was a very difficult thing to play because that kind of disease is like Science Fiction, it's so unimaginable. And the Makeup really helped me understand what it might have felt like and the effect that you have on other people is almost just as traumatizing as how you feel inside because you are the lowest form of a Human Being at that time if you have Leprosy, you are treated like the dirt beneath a person's shoe and so when you look in the mirror and you see why they might jump, it's very helpful.
I wonder what documents they may have used. Are there still people who get Leprosy?
Yes, it's to a different degree of course. And I think it's a different, I don't want to say strain of it but the disease has changed a bit. At that time, it was a lot of lesions on the skin. They look pus filled almost and it's like the deterioration of everything physical so your bones start to weaken, your mind starts to weaken. You start to lose your hair and what's crazy is at that time, they were so terrified of contracting this disease that someone, even with severe Acne or Psoriasis would be considered possible Leper so it was a very scary time.
It's like in the Woody Allen Film when Owen keeps going back into time and then he says that I realize that they didn't have Dental Care and they didn't have Novocain. I would never go-- You're like Ben Hur Wow, I would love to wear that house and live in this house and then you realize how screwed they were, Healthcarewise and then you're like I'm OK in 2015 cause it's bad, it gets real bad.
I'm wondering did you get to go Matera?
Yes, we were there for almost 2 months.
Talk about filming there. It's spectacular.
Oh, it's so beautiful. I've never seen anything like it. Really, the magic kind of rubs off on you. The Caves and the people are so kind and I got to go to a Church that was built in the 1500s and a man named Chestere owns the land in his Family. And to explore something that's that old in kind of unchartered territory was really special and it helps into getting into this film because you're kind of brought down to a very simplistic level and reminded of how little they had around them. And Matera was really something that I'll never forget. It was really beautiful. I don't think I'll ever film in a place like that again.
And then Rome.
Yeah, the History here is insane. I can't believe just how much it feels like all of it's Ben Hur which has taken over so much space, it's incredible. I'm Italian but I've never been to Italy until now so it's a little bit of a home coming for me and I feel a great connection to it and feel very lucky to be here and especially doing this so Rome has been wonderful.
They shot the Original Ben Hur here.
Yeah I know, it's insane. We have a lot of good Ju Ju at Chinichi. You get some good vibes when you come in here.
Tell us about your Co-Stars, what you felt they brought to Terzah.
They're all really, really special. Jack is such a wonderful Leader of this Team and I can't imagine anyone else playing this role. It's a very difficult Character to play. And it always amazes how easy he makes it look. And he's so great with us, with all these other Actors, and with his crew and I'm so impressed by him as an Actor and as a person. I don't look up to him as a Brother, which helps for the Movie and he's been so sweet to me and kind of taken me under his wing and I can't say enough about him. I think he's pretty spectacular and I really can't wait to see the final product.
And Toby is such a Power House and I think brings a great sensitivity and vulnerability to Messala which is necessary because he's naturally a very strong Character and I think that him bringing all of those different layers and complexities is what's going to make him so relatable so that when he kicks his family out, you kind of agree and you kind of understand and feel for him. And I've loved so much working with Ayelet, who plays my Mom. She's a riot and a tough, strong Israeli woman, and is just so ferocious when she comes here ready to work and has taught me a lot, and taken me under her wing as well, and just been very patient with me.
It's interesting to be the youngest in this group, especially when you haven't done big Movies like this because a part of you is nervous and it's really up to the people around you to make that easier and the transition easier and they've all done that for me so I'm very grateful.
Who plays Esther?
Nazanine is technically a Slave of ours. I think we've always treated her like Family. She's a bit of a Sister to me, a daughter to Naomi and a love interest to Judah. And so she is the one that kind of keeps him tethered to the ground or tries to at least because he kind of does whatever he wants at the end of the day. But Esther is a very spiritual person. She's very strong. Life kind of beats her down repeatedly and somehow she gets back up every time and Nazanine plays her beautifully.
And I can't wait to see cause I never really, that story line is something that I never get to see. I'm never on set when they shoot Judah Esther's stuff which is some of my personal favourites in the book and the script so I'm excited to see it.
Talk about Morgan Freeman.
Man he's pretty cool. He's really nice. He's just so powerful. I haven't had many scenes with him but when I am on set and he was there, he's just been this strong, calm patient presence and if he says something, you listen. As an Actor, if he's talking to you and seeing you, you just go OK because he's so powerful and it's so cool that he is in this Movie and that Character is so vital to the story and it was not in the Charlton Heston Film and so I'm very, very excited that it's Morgan Freeman and he is kind of this Powerhouse that takes control of the whole second half of the film.
He's different than Charlton Heston.
Yeah, he's a little different and a little comical I would say. It's almost like a Caricature of a Human Being. And this is a man that pulls Judah out of his Death basically and saves him, and gives him another chance, and says prove yourself, and makes him strong again, even stronger than when you first meet him. And so who better to do that than Morgan Freeman?
There are so many iconic scenes in the Movie including the Chariot Race. What can you tell us about how different it will be compared to the Film with Charlton Heston?
Well as a fan, I'm definitely following it. I had the pleasure of riding the horses for a couple of weeks, just rehearsing with them and stuff and being over there and seeing the size of that stable and everything. It's just so beautiful and they're doing such an incredible job. And the Chariots themselves are unbelievable. The Art that went into them blows my mind. I can't say too much about how it's different because that's totally the Judah Messala Show and I think they're better people to ask. I almost have tried to keep my distance a little bit because I really want to see it for the first time on a big screen.
How important is the sub-story of Jesus?
I think it's very important as far as Jesus the Man is concerned because he's kind of the anti-thesis to Judah in the beginning, like he's much more patient, much more understanding, much more accepting of this-- You know what I was saying before, this chaos that's been thrown upon Jerusalem. He is the opposite of Judah in that sense and so I think he's very important to show the road not taken and how some did survive under Roman rule.
I think religiously, it's more Spiritual than Biblical. I think he represents a kind of Faith, a kind of Hope. Like I said Patience. I don't know that it's necessarily like Biblical Jesus. I read Zealot, the Novel by Risa Aslom which is really helpful because I think that that to me in the story, that is more of the Jesus that we see is just the kind of man Rodrigo plays so beautifully. So he's not an idea and he's a person that really helps Judah and see the better sides of himself.
Reading the script, it felt like a brand new story I could relate to in our time. Did you think that this is a timeless story that is being reinvented for a new Generation?
Absolutely I think there are so many aspects of this film that are very relatable now and are important now. The Female Characters in this have no choices really. You get married based on how much money you're worth. You live in a house that's decided by a man. You don't work. You can't read. You can't go into the Holiest part of the Temple if you're a woman at that time. And showing that life now I think is so important, A, to see how far we've come and B, how far we need to go. So I think it is a timeless story in this sense. Those things never change. They get better but it's still things that we can improve upon.
Also, Oppression is obviously a very hot topic right now and I think what Judea kind of went through at that time is similar to what other Cultures are going through. I always say that yes, the Costumes are different and our hair looks different but Human Beings don't change and so, the Brotherhood in this story, the Love stories, the Spirituality, all of that, that never changes, no matter how much time has passed. So I think Timor is the perfect person to kind of bring that older story into today.