Toby Kebbell is one of the busiest actors around, although in recent times you may not have recognized him onscreen. His high-profile roles include Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and, earlier this summer, the Orc leader Durotan in Warcraft – two parts in which Kebbell did some incredible performance capture work that rivaled that of the mo-cap king, Andy Serkis (rumor has it that he’s done some mo-cap work as Kong in next year’s Kong: Skull Island, in which he also has a human role).
But Kebbell appears without any visual trickery in Ben-Hur as Messala, the adopted brother of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) who becomes a rising star in the Roman army and ultimately accuses Judah of treason, sending him into years of exile as a galley slave until Judah comes back seeking revenge. Their volatile relationship is the core of the story, and even though Kebbell was not covered in a mo-cap suit for this one, he and Huston still had to hone their action chops for the story’s famous chariot race scene.
We sat down a few days ago with Kebbell about working without mo-cap, remaking a movie that won 11 Oscars back in 1959 and more.
I think this is the first time we’ve seen you onscreen without things glued to your face or inside a mo-cap image…
Toby Kebbell: I’m sorry about that.
Was that refreshing to you after several mo-cap roles?
I wish I didn’t like mo-cap, but I love mo-cap. I think it’s brilliant. And to get to play those characters too, you know, it’s the ultimate costume. I think it’s perfect. But yes, I was very happy to be acting and learning to do physical things like pulling four horses and so on and so forth, which was a massive part of this whole film and also nicely took away my nervousness about whether we were going to achieve in the acting stakes something that had already won 11 Oscars. But more that we were in a place where we had the technology to make the chariot race exciting.
What fascinated you about the character of Messala?
What fascinated me was the opportunity when I spoke to Timur (Bekmambetov, director) to not make him just a bad guy. To not just tell the story of a villain, but to actually have someone who makes a terrible mistake ‘cause he’s not looking at anything from anything other than his point of view. So that to me is much more interesting. Mistakes are the things that really lead us down that path. It’s how often we do these terrible things that make us a good or bad person. But I don’t believe there are truly bad people. I think there are bad actions and bad behaviors, and they in turn make a person terrible.
You mentioned learning to pull four horses, so let’s talk about that chariot race and the experience of shooting that.
Yeah. I just want to clarify that in England, to “pull” is to, like, get on the good side of a girl. So if you pulled a girl…. (laughs) I didn’t pull four horses in that sense. Although maybe I did – I got a lot of hoofprints…
Whatever happens in England, stays in England.
I learned to pull those horses, it took a month of training at the beginning. I had to learn to pull one horse, be pulled by one horse. That’s really to get your calls and your emergency exit routines going, ‘cause we did have a pedal brake – something they didn’t have – and it was disc brakes, the disc brakes lock, and sand and sawdust makes you bounce. And when you bounce, then you have a pole in front of your chariot, if it sticks in the ground, you tend to fall forward at quite a rapid pace – unless it breaks for some miraculous reason and then it punches through your chariot and breaks your sternum.
It’s great, it’s great, all the emergency stuff was good. And then, you know, the thoughts that we, me and Jack, were coming up with, like, “Surely we just drop off the back,” but of course that leaves a chariot and four horses running around like headless chickens. So you had to find a certain level of “Okay, this is dangerous, but this is exciting that we’re getting to do it at this level.” Usually we’d be on a green screen and we’d be faking half of it, or we’d be pulled around by motorbikes, whatever it was. So it was an experience that we had to embrace and it was a beautiful experience.
Jack has some experience with horses.
He does, yeah. In fact, when you watch him, he’s got a very equestrian style. He’s sort of got this very elegant movement. It’s like, “They didn’t ride like that back then, bro, you’ve got to knock that off. You can’t ride like you’ve had money, you’ve got to ride like a wild man!” So we came up with our own styles.
What do you go back to work on when we leave here?
When we leave here? I now will move onto a new film, Category Five.
Ben-Hur opens in U.S. theaters August 19, 2016.