Jack Huston (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) is Hollywood royalty. His great-grandfather was the legendary actor Walter Huston, while his grandfather was John Huston, director of classic films like The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen. His aunt is Anjelica Huston, while his uncle is Danny Huston. All of which goes to say that it’s somehow appropriate that he take on a role, Judah Ben-Hur, made famous by another member of Hollywood’s old guard, Charlton Heston and brought to the screen again in a new version by director Timur Bekmanbetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter).
Remaking Ben-Hur – which has been filmed five times, but most famously in 1959 with Heston in the title role – is a risky proposition to begin with, but Huston certainly gives his all in the movie, which finds him going through physical as well as emotional transformations as the character goes from favored son of a wealthy Jewish family in ancient Israel to galley slave to vengeful chariot driver. We sat down with the actor to talk about following in Heston’s footsteps, driving that chariot and filming in the same studio where his grandfather shot The Bible decades ago.
I read that you went in to audition for Messala (the Roman soldier who starts out as a “brother” to Judah and ends up his enemy, played by Toby Kebbell). Can you talk about that?
Jack Huston: It’s really interesting, ‘cause this is Timur’s brilliance. Initially I came in because I was very taken with the role of Messala and I spoke about it and he was jotting all these notes down, stuff like that. Then I came to audition for it a few times. Then he called and said, “Listen, I think you are Judah.” And I was like, “Okay, well, that would be incredible.” And the reason he liked me for Judah was, he said, “I loved your passion for Messala” – because this movie is based on the love of two brothers, and it starts that way, you actually see that they loved each other, it was a brotherly love. And the way I spoke about Messala was never from a place of anger, it was from a place of love. And he (Timur) said, “Judah had to love Messala. If you have that from the beginning, that understanding of your brother, that will carry you through to the end of the movie.”
So it was kind of a very smart technique, what he did, ‘cause my character, initially I was thinking about him. So it takes me, it carries you all the way through.
And then does it sink it a few minutes later, “Oh crap, I’m playing this iconic role that Charlton Heston once played?”
(Laughs) Yeah, you know what, I was so taken with this script because I love the ’59 version, the Charlton Heston version, so much and what Charlton Heston did with it. I’m actually rather close with the family, so I know Fraser (Heston’s son) and Marilyn (Heston’s daughter-in-law) and Jack, the grandson – they’re actually going to come to the premiere – but it’s funny, Charlton was such a man’s man in his movie and it was a revenge story. When I read this script, this re-imagining of the great story that Lew Wallace wrote over 130 years ago, what I realized was that it was very much a different way of telling this. Judah in my version is very lost; he’s almost like a lost boy in the beginning, and it’s his journey into manhood and finally that wonderful ending of forgiveness and redemption, which I think is a beautiful message to be out there, especially in today’s world.
There is some family history connected to this film because it was shot at Cinecitta Studios in Italy, where your grandfather shot The Bible. So what was it like being there, any sense of that history and was anyone still there who maybe remembered your grandfather working there?
Yeah, absolutely, there were some people who worked on The Bible with my grandfather actually on our movie. I mean, it’s amazing, you can’t walk about Cinecitta without feeling the history on every turn. All the stages…not much has changed there either. You do feel like you’re walking where all these titans have walked before. And there was a very lovely sense – a sort of magical sense around there that you’re sort of being watched by some of the greats in a weird way, that they’re sort of taking care of you, and that sort of is a rather special feeling. I felt really honored to be there and it was sort of, like you said, with my granddad being there it meant a lot.
Let’s talk about the chariot race. You’ve got some experience with horses, but…
Yeah, I’ve got some experience with horses, but nothing prepares you for riding a chariot though, because it’s very – having four horses at the end of your reins is power like I’ve never felt before, and also you realize just how small you are when you’ve got that and you’re tearing around that track. ‘Cause we wanted to do everything, so we did everything for real. We really – every time you see our faces with those horses, that’s us up there, me and Toby, and we trained tirelessly for it. It was a lot of training. But then you get on them and you go around that track with sometimes 32 horses at a time, at full gallop, 40 miles an hour, sand, crap kicking up in your face, you can barely see and you’re weaving in and out, you’re drifting around corners…it’s one of the most scary yet exhilarating, brilliant, sort of meditative things you’ll ever do and it was months of it, so it was pretty intense.
Ben-Hur opens in U.S. theaters August 19, 2016.