Jack Huston on Playing Ben-Hur: ‘It Became Something Very Personal to Me’

The star of the new Ben-Hur on getting the role made iconic by Charlton Heston nearly 60 years ago.

It takes a lot of cojones to follow in the footsteps of the late Charlton Heston, especially when you are taking one of the man’s signature roles. That part, as now played by Jack Huston, is Ben-Hur‘s Judah Ben-Hur, favored son of a Jewish family in ancient Jerusalem who is wronged by his adopted brother, the Roman soldier Messala (Toby Kebbell). Condemned to five years as a slave aboard a Roman warship, Judah comes back and eventually confronts Messala in a to-the-death chariot race – all while crossing paths with a kindly, mysterious stranger named Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) who teaches him a little something about forgiveness.

The 1959 version starring Heston is one of the great screen epics, which director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) was certainly bold to take on today. And Huston was brave enough to step into the title role, giving a different and more vulnerable take on the classic character. But Huston – great-grandson of actor Walter Huston, grandson of legendary director John Huston, nephew of actors Anjelica and Danny – has a deep reverence, as you might expect, for old Hollywood and for the Ben-Hur story, as he told us when we spoke recently in Los Angeles.

Den of Geek: Were you nervous at all about taking on such an iconic type of role?

Jack Huston: With any sort of character, I sort of hold the same thing, which is you want to do the best possible job. But this one was funny because I knew the previous version rather well, and I don’t think I would have even dared touch it if I felt it was a remake. Then I read the script and I realized in no way did this feel like a remake of the ’59 version. It felt very much like its own thing. And I felt like the character itself sort of spoke to me in such a way. As an actor you are always looking for those great parts. I think Judah Ben-Hur is one of the great parts. I think very quickly the fear sort of washed away and I was left with this burning sensation that I needed to go and make this as soon as possible because I wanted to delve into this character. It became something very, very personal and beautiful to me. And I felt very honored that the studio and Timur felt the same way.

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As a side note, since the family’s names are both sort of well-known, did you ever get to meet Charlton Heston?

I never got to meet Charlton. But I know Fraser Heston, his son. He’s coming with me to the premiere on Tuesday. And I know Jack, his grandson, and his wife Marilyn. One of my great old friends, one of my Uncle Danny’s old friends, Alex Butler, and Fraser worked on the 50th anniversary (Blu-ray) edition of Ben-Hur. They put together this beautiful package and did this incredible artwork for it. When I got the role that very kindly turned up on my doorstep, just saying congrats and good luck.

That’s very nice.

It was a really lovely thing. I feel like I had to approach this from a place of love. I loved that movie and it was very important to me growing up. I remember how I used to say, “Oh, boy. This is why we make movies, exactly this.” The art of it. If there’s a reason to tell it, then tell it. And, by God, do the best that you can. And I felt very strongly about this film because I realized the relevance of this story and how it’s more relevant today than ever before.

What’s interesting is that a lot of people don’t realize that it’s actually based on a novel that’s 130 years old. Did you go even further back and look at the old silent versions or look at the book or anything like that?

I looked through everything. I read Lew Wallace’s novel. I was struck that this was, like you said, written over 130 years ago or something like that. And it’s set 2,000 years ago and yet the subject matter has never felt more relevant. We’re still doing everything that these guys — the same mistakes are being made. Religious wars, political wars, how we treat each other. This is a common thread and a common theme. And today, I’d say unlike the ’59 version, which was very much a revenge story, this new one, which I love, had a very strong message of hope and forgiveness and redemption. That was all based on this beautiful relationship that became the foundation of the whole story, which was this love between two brothers.

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We really developed that. We really sort of worked on that and wanted that to sort of come across, because for this movie to come full circle, you need to experience the love between these two brothers and how close they were– best friends — and what it was like. It was an amazing sort of experience because I just realized how relatable all of this was today. 2,000 years ago, 20 years ago, 200 years ago, humans don’t change, really. We still love. We still hate. We still find fear and anger and animosity, all of it. These are all things that just are human nature. So it was trying to make that very relatable. It was trying to modernize our take on this and trying to make the characters very much present.

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Do you know people, like friends or acquaintances of your own age, people in their late 20’s, early 30’s, who are not familiar with the story or even not familiar with the 1959 film?

Oh, a lot. It’s funny. I’m sort of a cinephile. I watch everything and have been ever since I was a kid, so I grew up watching these movies. But I think when they did, actually, the research, they found out over 80% of people haven’t actually seen the ’59 version. So what we’re doing, we’re sort, in a way, bringing this story to a modern audience. That might get people going and rediscovering the ’59 version and the ’25 version. This is a whole new world. And again, I think there’s something cool about the fact that 130 years later, we’re still finding ways to reimagine this amazing story. And I don’t think we’ll be the last. I feel like there’s going to be probably multiple Ben-Hurs in the future, so good for that.

There’s a perception, especially nowadays, that this is part of what has been a recent wave of faith-based films. It certainly has that aspect to it. But I think the Ben-Hur story, to me anyway, because I watched the original as a kid, too, it doesn’t strike me as something that’s overtly religious, but it’s there for you if you certainly want it.

Yeah, absolutely. And, by the way, I’m not a religious person, per se. I’m not in any way religiously inclined. I believe in a spiritual, sort of greater love. Funnily enough, when I read this, I didn’t feel it was a religious or faith-based movie. The thing which I found, which was my way into Judah, was that to him, Jesus wasn’t “Jesus Christ.” As far as Judah is concerned, Jesus is just another bloke, basically; a bloke who shows him some kindness when he needs it most. I thought, that’s not a religious thing. That’s just humanity. That’s just a good message there. Those moments in life when someone shows you kindness when you need it most, it might not mean anything to them, but, boy, does it mean the world to you. And you live with that and it travels with you for the rest of your life and you hold it very dear.

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The faith element for me in this is what you just said. I think you can take from it what you want. But I feel like the message itself isn’t religiously discriminate, maybe is the way to say it. It doesn’t feel like you have to be a Christian, or a Catholic, or Islamic, or Jewish to understand that there is something to humanity and kindness and forgiveness and actually moving on from the past and actually trying to…you know, love triumphing over hate.

If everybody knows one thing about Ben-Hur, they know the chariot scene. How did you prepare for that? How much of that is you and Toby and real horses?

Everything. Every time you see us with the horses that’s us. There was no CGI used unless it was actually hurting a horse or something we couldn’t do. We trained tirelessly for that. I can’t even tell you how much training we did for that stuff. And we did that on purpose because, like you said, I think when you say Ben-Hur, I think the first thing you think of is chariots. Even people who haven’t actually seen the ’59 version still know, “Oh, that’s that movie with chariots.”

So we sort of knew we were up against that. So all we wanted to do was make it as real as possible, which meant doing everything so we could completely immerse the audience inside those chariots and feel everything that we felt. So we were very aware that that was going to have to be us up there and us on those chariots with those horses. It’s unbelievably dangerous. It’s spooky as hell, but then very quickly you fall in love with it. It becomes a sort of transcendent experience on those chariots, that you forget about everything else that’s going on outside of the moment. Your brain isn’t asking a million questions or questioning what you did in the last scene or whatever. You are literally just focusing on the race. It becomes like a meditation. It was sort of amazing.

Parts of the film were shot in Italy at the legendary Cinecitta studio. There’s a little family history there for you.

Yeah. My grandfather made The Bible there. I think it was in ’65 or ’66. The great thing about Cinecitta is the history. You just feel it everywhere. It sort of seeps into your pores as soon as you set foot onto the soundstage or walk the streets. It’s like everywhere. You feel all these titans of the industry had all walked there before you. And I felt very honored I was there. And my grandad had been there. It just felt very much like the sort of risk my grandad would take, being the maverick he was.

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Do you have a favorite of your grandfather’s films?

I have sentimentally a favorite one and one that’s just sort of one of the great ones. I’d say Treasure of the Sierra Madre is probably the sentimental one. I got to meet my great grandfather as well as my grandfather through that movie when I was young.

When you finish the press tour for this, what do you go back to work on?

I just finished a movie called Above Suspicion, which is a true story about this FBI agent, Mark Putnam, who ends up murdering his informant in a small town in Kentucky and actually got tried and went to jail. It’s sort of an incredible story and Emilia Clarke plays the informant. It’s a fun one.

Ben-Hur is out in theaters today (August 19).