In a film career spanning four decades, Morgan Freeman has largely shied away from remakes.
But with the 2010s ushering in a new era of Hollywood revisiting some of the biggest and best blockbusters from yesteryear, it was inevitable that that the 79-year-old would appear in one, though few would have predicted it to be 2016’s Ben-Hur.
An updated version of the Charlton Heston classic, it tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother, an officer in the Roman army (Toby Kebell), who returns to his homeland after years at sea to seek revenge, but finds redemption.
Cast in the role of Ilderim, who rescues Ben-Hur from certain death before training him up as a chariot racer, Freeman’s first swords-and-sandals outing made quite the impression.
Here he speaks to loaded about his most action-packed movie since Prince of Thieves.
loaded: Right. So, talk about the relationship between Judah (Huston) and Messala (Kebbell) and how you helped Judah exact his revenge on Messala.
Freeman: It’s all around the racing. Of course, when Judah finds his parents, their condition — his relatives, their condition, and senses him and it’s Messala who’s pretty much done it, so he’s in real serious kill mode. I explain to him that I’ve been there and I know you can’t kill ‘em all so, but there is another way to do it.
Win this chariot race. Beat them at their own games, and it’s a matter of pride. You just take Rome’s entire pride away from ‘em. And I’ve been doing that for a while, so you’ll find that it pretty much works. And so that’s pretty much what happens.
loaded: So, what was your first reaction when you heard Ben-Hur was gonna be reimagined?
Freeman: Well, Timur called me and said, I’m gonna do it and I want you in it. So, yeah, I don’t get wildly excited about work anymore. I just, you know, it’s a soft glow that appears. So, I have this soft glow around the idea of Ilderim in Ben-Hur under the direction of Timur.
This is our second time working together. And we might as well. So.
loaded: What do you like about him as a director, because he’s very different, isn’t he?
Freeman: Yes, he is very different. it’s his attitude. It’s him, the person himself. He’s a very nice man. He’s kind and he’s thoughtful. And he had definite ideas about what he wants. And those ideas shift as he goes. So, you have to be willing to shift with him. Just I am.
loaded: Great. Were you a fan of the original with William Wyler Ben-Hur and Charlton Heston? Was that one of your classic movies for you?
Freeman: Yeah, I think so. It was a very exciting movie. Stephen Boyd played Messala. It was some serious animosity going on there, and I don’t remember parts of the chariot race. I can’t remember, ’cause it was 1959. Where was I? Los Angeles, 22 years old. Yeah, I vaguely remember it. Mostly the chariot race.
loaded: Yeah. That would be definitely something a 22-year-old would be into for sure. What do you think this film’s gonna bring to the young people as an inspiration?
Freeman: Who knows? There is a lot of conflict, moral conflict, in this film, I think, which you just never know what people are going to take from a story.
By and large, if you’ve got a good story, then they just take away the fact that they saw a good story well-made. Whether there is something else in it for them, you don’t know until they tell you.
loaded: Yeah. What are the moral aspects of this movie do you think?
Freeman: Revenge. Power grabbing. Messala is very proud of himself and his standing with the Roman legions and he tends to forget the people who loved him and cared for him growing up. What do you call that?
loaded: Yeah, so you’re betraying them really.
Freeman: Yeah, betrayal that’s the word you needed to tell me about. Why didn’t you tell me that word? Betrayal, yeah. Yeah, there were all these types of conflict. War. Messala is — not Messala, but Judah is enslaved by the Romans. This is just a vengeful thing to do, because ordinarily they’d just cut his head off and be done with it.
But that also saves the story for us, doesn’t it, that they enslaved him rather than killed him? Kill him, no story.
loaded: So, how does Judah find redemption then, because he’s very bitter? He’s angry, but at the end of the story, thanks to his meeting with Christ, he does let the anger go.
Freeman: : Well, they have two or three run-ins with the carpenter. And when he is finally crucified, I think he’s there. And according to legend, those who were there were somehow touched by the event. So, Judah falls into that grouping. Also, the kindness shown to him by Ilderim all works into his shedding anger and murderous intent.
loaded: Let’s talk about Jack as an actor. He’s young, very passionate about his work. What do you think of him as an actor?
Freeman: I think he’s got a long way to go. By that I mean I think he’s got a good road ahead of him. He’s very smart, dedicated, and good. I remember him, really remember him well when he was doing Boardwalk Empire. So, I think he’s gonna do great things. I like him a lot.
loaded: Yeah. He’s a very nice person as well. And how about Toby? They’re very different, aren’t they?
Freeman: Well, all of us are, aren’t we? Yeah, but complete opposites. Yeah but fun. They’re just — that’s all we care about, give me contact. And they do it very well. So, it’s easy to work.
loaded: Thank you, Morgan.
Ben-Hur is out on Digital Download now and Blu-ray and DVD 16th January.