Rodrigo Santoro and Nazanin Boniadi talk the trials and fears of taking on ‘Ben-Hur’

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In the ’59 version of Ben-Hur, the Jesus Christ and Esther characters were not a huge part of the film. Jesus Christ was a faceless character in the Heston film, and Esther really doesn’t have an impactful role. However, that’s about to change when the remake of Ben-Hur is released this Friday. Actors Nazanin Boniadi (Showtime’s “Homeland”) and Rodrigo Santoro (Focus) are set to expand on the roles of Esther and Jesus Christ, respectively.

We got to sit down with Nazanin Boniadi and Rodrigo Santoro and asked the two actors a few burning questions such as…

When asked about the physical demands of their roles, Rodrigo Santoro said:
“A lot of internal bruises, not external. It was a lot of work and preparation. Just the training for me was [going] on a diet because I thought it was appropriate for this part. We’re talking about Jesus Christ, so we all have an idea or expectation of how he should be at that time. The crucifixion scene was incredibly hard because it was very cold. So I remember about my body because I was completely frozen; it was unbearable. We were all there ready to do it. It was a sunny beautiful day, but it snowed the night before. So it was real, it was very painful. It just made the moment even deeper because we did film it. We went for it, and no body doubles. We did one long take. I asked to do it like that so I would go through the lines and everything else and that’s what’s in the film.”

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When asked what their reaction was when they were first approached to do Ben-Hur, Nazanin Boniadi said:
“It’s overwhelming and daunting to think that you are stepping into huge sandals. I think at the end of the day, you have to get that out of your mind and just think of the task at hand which is telling a story that is more relevant today than it’s ever been. We haven’t learned our lessons that we need to get from this film which is unconditional love and forgiveness. Until we can learn those lessons, this story continues to be relevant. In that sense, I think we need this story and a retelling of it now. It’s not in my eyes a remake because it’s different in so many ways than the ’59 version. That’s how I prepared myself. Stop thinking of it as the Charlton Heston movie, but think of it as this beautiful story based on a novel written in 1880 with themes that are so universal, so relevant and timely and timeless that it needs to be told.”

When asked if there any fears taking on the iconic role of Jesus Christ, Santoro said:
“Being human there’s all kinds of fears. The weight, the responsibility, the challenge, I thought about that and it was all up here. The very first day when I got the offer to play the part, I tried to make sense [of it] and try to reason things. Later on in the day, I kind of started to feel something very strong, like ‘you know what? I would love to go through this experience.’ It’s such a unique opportunity and in the right time of my life as an actor and as a man. It was probably the easiest yes ever.”

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As for how long he was on that cross, Santoro said:
“The take lasted 20 minutes, it was a long take because one take that I asked for. I was [on location for] an hour straight, but then I had 6 ½ hours in the make-up chair before that. So I arrived at 1:30 in the morning in the make-up room. I spent the night getting makeup on my body, and then we drove up to this mountain. They opened the door, it was windy, it was freezing, but there’s a crucifixion that needed to be done. From that point on, I kind of remember flashes of it because I was truly cold. I was trying to be brave, and doing this for [Jesus Christ]. That helped me get through it because it was unbearable. I think my brain was frozen. It was such a great feeling. It truly allowed me to speak from the heart… In a way, it helped. Weirdly enough that cold, freezing weather really helped.”

When asked if there was any weight in playing a strong female character in the film, Boniadi said:
“I appreciated it because I feel like often times a woman is secondary or tertiary to the male protagonists. In this case, it’s the Judah and the Jesus characters that carry the story forward, and there’s also the rivalry with Messala and Judah. Esther’s story arc is that she’s highly inspired by the Jesus character that she finds courage and strength through that and pulls Judah through in his journey. She then essentially becomes really vital to the story, and in a way that she wasn’t in the ’59 version. So I appreciate in the script that the female protagonist is so pivotal.”

Check back this week as we’ll have more interviews with the cast of Ben-Hur.

BEN-HUR is the epic story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), an officer in the Roman army. Stripped of his title, separated from his family and the woman he loves (Nazanin Boniadi), Judah is forced into slavery. After years at sea, Judah returns to his homeland to seek revenge, but an encounter with Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) leads him to the Crucifixion, where he discovers forgiveness and finds redemption.

Ben-Hur races into theaters on August 19th.

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