Every now and then (OK, quite frequently) Hollywood runs out of new ideas and turns to the past, taking a classic and well-loved film and slating it for a reboot or remake. No, we’re not talking about Ghostbusters this time, but instead about Timur Bekmambetov’s upcoming adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ”, which was most famously turned into the epic historical drama film Ben-Hur by director William Wyler in 1959, with Charlton Heston playing the title role.
The casting process for Ben-Hur has seen many different names come and go in reports of who would be playing the main roles, including Tom Hiddleston, Pedro Pascal and Gal Gadot. None of those actors actually made it into the final cast, and Ben-Hur‘s leads are instead made up largely of newcomers or lesser-known actors (Morgan Freeman being the notable exception).
MGM and Paramount Pictures today announced that principal photography has begun on Ben-Hur and that, like the original movie, filming will take place in Italy: specifically in Rome and Matera. MGM has also revealed the finalized list of cast members, and some of the roles have changed since we last reported on them. Here’s a handy list of who’s playing who.
- Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire) – Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman who is sentenced to a life of slavery.
- Toby Kebbell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) – Messala, Ben-Hur’s childhood friend and the film’s antagonist.
- Morgan Freeman (The Dark Knight) – Ilderim, a sheik who asks Ben-Hur to drive his chariot in a race against Messala.
- Nazanin Boniadi (Homeland) – Esther, a slave who is in love with Ben-Hur.
- Rodrigo Santoro (300: Rise of an Empire) – Jesus Christ, pretty self-explanatory.
- Sofia Black D’Elia (Project Almanac) – Tirzah, Ben-Hur’s sister.
- Ayelet Zurer (Man of Steel) – Naomi, Ben-Hur’s mother.
- Moises Arias (Ender’s Game) – Gestas, a “teenage Jewish zealot” and possibly one of the thieves who is crucified with Jesus.
- Pilou Asbæk (Lucy) – Pontius Pilate, the Judean governor who oversees the chariot race.
The press release promises that Bekmambetov’s version of Ben-Hur “returns to the heart of Lew Wallace’s epic novel,” emphasizing that it will be a new adaptation rather than a remake. Obviously Bekmambetov, whose previous films include Wanted and Night Watch, has some big shoes to fill, but it’s been over half a century since Wyler’s Ben-Hur was released and it will be interesting to see a new take on the story.
Looking at the final cast, it’s clear that Bekmambetov has assembled a diverse group of actors to play the key roles: Huston and Kebbell are English, Freeman and Black-D’Elia are American, Boniadi is Iranian-British, Santoro is Brazilian, Zurer is Israeli, Arias is of Colombian descent and Asbæk is Danish.
Casting for the time period that Ben-Hur is set in is tricky, since no one knows for sure what the population of Jerusalem looked like 2000 years ago. But considering the heat that Ridley Scott took for his “whitewashing” of Ancient Egypt in Exodus: Gods and Kings, Bekmambetov’s decision to cast actors from a variety of different backgrounds was a smart compromise.
Ben-Hur will arrive in theaters on February 26th, 2016.