Brazilian superstar Rodrigo Santoro (“300,” “300: Rise of an Empire”) plays Jesus Christ, who crosses paths with the film’s mortal hero, Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) in Paramount Pictures’ epic action adventure “Ben-Hur,” based on Lew Wallace’s timeless novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted”), the film is the epic story of Judah Ben-Hur, a prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), an officer in the Roman army. Stripped of his title and 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 finds redemption.
“As soon as I met Rodrigo, it was clear he was the right actor,” recalls Bekmambetov. “He has a God-given talent – Rodrigo can play this spiritual figure while still coming across as the boy next door.”
“Rodrigo was a perfect choice to play Jesus,” comments producer Roma Downey. “He’s got strength, kindness and depth.”
Playing the role of Jesus was a serious undertaking for Santoro. “Billions of people all over the world have a very personal and intimate relationship with this man, with his image, with what he represents,” comments Santoro. “It’s a tremendous responsibility, but it’s also a unique opportunity to have a chance to explore and to have a deeper understanding of what he went through and try to practice his teachings.”
“I think the first thing that I had to do was attempt to erase any preconceived ideas I had about him,” says Santoro. “Things that I’ve heard, things that even my grandma told me when I was growing up. I went to a neutral place and started from there.”
Santoro undertook a physical and mental regime to prepare for the role. He spent a lot of time practicing yoga, meditation, and adopted a strict, cleansing diet.
“I tried to connect to what I truly felt about this man because I had to play Jesus,” Santoro continues. “How do I understand, as deeply as possible, this person and everything he represents? I wanted to create a portrait of the man behind the myth. I wanted to make him relatable without sacrificing any of his teachings, his aura, his spirituality and everything that was so unique about him. It was the most challenging thing I have ever done.”
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the film’s emotional finale, proved a harrowing experience for the cast and crew. The day was bitterly cold. The crosses were set on the edge of a deep ravine, totally exposed to the elements. Snow had fallen the day before.
“I had a problem just going there to film that scene,” recalls Bekmambetov. “It was terrifying to see Rodrigo on that cross.”
“When I was up there on that cross it was so cold it was almost unbearable,” recalls Santoro. “I was on the top of a cliff looking over all those people. When they took me down from the cross, my body was involuntarily shaking. I couldn’t stop. It was probably the most emotionally charged experience I’ve ever had.”
“The only word I can use to describe the feeling of being in the crucifixion scene is surreal,” explains co-star Nazanin Boniadi. “You get a slight sense of what it must have been like at that time to see this beloved man unjustly and brutally killed.”
“Rodrigo’s hands were strapped to the cross, and his body was vibrating with the cold,” says Downey with a shudder. “His courage, the level of commitment to playing this role was mesmerizing. The take was 20 minutes long and everyone watching was held in complete silence.”
Opening across the Philippines on August 17, “Ben-Hur” is distributed by United International Pictures through Columbia Pictures.