Emulating the Heart of Jesus Rodrigo Santoro Steps into Christ’s Sandals in Ben-Hur
Biblical stories used to be tentpole movies for major studios, with Paramount’s The Ten Commandments and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Ben-Hur ranking amongst the top and both starring Academy Award-winning actor Charlton Heston. In 1959, the epic historical drama Ben-Hur won an unprecedented 11 Oscars (the total has since been tied by Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.) It was based on the best-selling novel of the 19th century Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ, written in 1880 by Union Civil War General Lew Wallace. It had the largest budget and the largest sets built of any film produced at the time.
The sword-and-sandal film showcased a nine-minute chariot race that has become one of cinema’s most famous sequences. Nearly 60 years later the same studio that brought the classic teamed with Paramount to tackle the timeless themes and bring a “re-imagining” of the beloved story, hoping once again to connect with audiences by bringing the story of faith to the silver screen. They are also working with husband and wife producing team Mark Burnett and Roma Downey who, in addition to their mainstream reality shows Survivor and Shark Tank, also produced The Bible miniseries on The History Channel and did the feature film Son of God.
Like the original movie, the filming of Ben Hur took place in Italy, specifically Rome and Matera, as well as at Cinecitta Studios. In this interpretation, Boardwalk Empire’s Jack Huston stars as Judah Ben-Hur, a prince in Jerusalem falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother played by Toby Kebbell, an officer in the Roman army. Stripped of his title, separated from his family, and forced into slavery, Judah perseveres and returns to his homeland to seek revenge, but ultimately finds redemption after a series of encounters with Jesus Christ, played by Rodrigo Santoro.
Santoro, a Brazilian-born actor best known for a variety of roles ranging from Xerxes in 300 to Paulo in Lost, Karl in Love Actually, to the animated Tulio in the Rio franchise says portraying Jesus was a “gigantic challenge and responsibility,” and that “it wasn’t a job, it was a personal journey.” Taking time out of his vacation in Thailand to talk to Risen, Santoro candidly shared more about the expanded role Jesus will have in this film, how he managed expectations and preconceived thoughts from his grandmother, and describes a symbolic blessing he received from Pope Francis at the Vatican that will forever hold a special place in his heart.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: The film will use the same source material as the original 1959 Ben-Hur. In what ways will this Ben-Hur be a new interpretation of the novel?
Rodrigo Santoro: As soon as I came on board with this project, I questioned myself, “Why are we doing a remake of the movie? It was so successful, critically acclaimed and a beautiful film.” It’s almost like you shouldn’t touch something like that. Then I had a meeting with Timur [Bekmambetov], our director, and it was incredibly inspiring talking to him, his take was precise and fresh. He told me, “You shouldn’t consider this a remake. That is not the way I look at it. It’s another reading of the novel.” This movie has a whole different approach including the character I play [Jesus]. One of our first conversations was about how we were going to portray him. If you go back to the  movie everyone is aware of, that director chose not to show the face of Jesus Christ. You see his back, you see his presence, but you don’t see him. So one of the first questions I had for the director was, “How do you feel Jesus should be portrayed in this film?” Timur had a very specific and clear vision. To summarize it, the idea was to humanize Jesus as much as possible. The reason for that, in his understanding, and I agreed with him, was that Jesus should be accessible to people – his teachings, his word. And when I say accessible, I mean how do we make him blend with people?
What we know from the scriptures and history, [is that] he came as a man, he was incarnated in a body, and he was a carpenter. Of course he was a special human being. So how do we make him this man among other men? The beautiful thing is that this story is very different than others we have seen. I did a lot of research and watched a lot of films of Jesus’ story and all the portrayals are usually very much about Jesus’ journey. In Ben-Hur what really interested me, and what I think is fresh, is that we see Jesus through the eyes of our lead character Judah Ben-Hur. It’s almost like applying Jesus’ teachings to life and actions. They question and talk about things. It’s like you are watching Jesus’ teachings as a human being rather than just watching Jesus’ life and his teachings. It’s less of a sermon and more of a symbol. It’s inspiring to work like that.
RM: Unlike in the original film, Christ will have a prominent role in this version. What was it like portraying Jesus when so many people have a personal and intimate relationship with Him?
RS: I asked myself many times, “How do you prepare for this experience?” Honestly, I have to say, it wasn’t a part, it wasn’t a job, it was a personal journey. That is the very reason I decided to do this movie. It was very personal. My question to myself was, “What can I add? What is the reason for me to do this?” The answer was, “It will be a personal journey.” I am not going to be able to explain it to you, I took it as a spiritual journey, but of course I knew as an actor, and a professional, I had a mission to accomplish, which was to portray this character, in this movie, in specific situations. As an artist you try to step into another person’s heart. That’s what we try to do when we are portraying different characters. So you try to understand as much as you can about the character and do your research and then you have to approach it and try to find the humanity of that part, otherwise the audience will not connect.
The only way for people watching to connect is if they see humanity. So in this case, because like you said, it is a character known all over the world and billions of people have very particular and intimate relationships with this figure, there is so much expectation. And because it is so personal, every person will have their own expectation. The first thing I had to do was to forget about all of that. Otherwise I would be frozen. I would not be able to fulfill those expectations, it’s not possible, and that’s not the goal here. The goal is to try to portray, in a very human way, and try to be the most faithful to my heart. There was no other way. I realized as much as I research, as much as I read, as much as I try to comprehend rationally everything, at the end of the day, there is only one way to do this; with my full heart, my open heart. There was no other way. Otherwise it would be a very mechanical, and maybe stereotypical, portrayal. It was a gigantic challenge and responsibility.
I realized as much as I research, as much as I read, as much as I try to comprehend rationally everything, at the end of the day, there is only one way to do this; with my full heart, my open heart.
RM: Talking about expectations, what preconceived ideas did you have about Jesus coming into the film?
RS: I grew up in Brazil, my grandmother is Italian and she is very Catholic. If you think about a Christian-Catholic from the south of Italy, that is my grandmother. I grew up with her – my grandmother from my father’s side, who is Italian as well, they were immigrants to Brazil. I grew up with her telling me stories about Jesus. Because of all the beautiful stories I grew up hearing, I had images in my head. I had my personal relationship with Jesus and what I thought. All that I grew up with, I had to forget in order to approach this character. Otherwise I would be playing the stories I heard from my grandmother. At the end of the day we are shooting a film, and there is a function for the character, but it is impossible to classify. Any other character I would be able to talk about in a more rational way, but this one I cannot.
RM: Last spring when you were filming in Italy, you visited the Vatican and Pope Francis extended a blessing to you. Tell us about that experience and how you felt?
RS: It’s so hard to answer and describe because it was such a unique and sublime experience. It was very unexpected. Here’s how it happened. It was the day before my last day on the film. We were in Rome, I was shooting at the Cinecitta Studios and I had one scene left. I had one day off and our producer, Roma Downey, a lovely producer and great support throughout the whole process, came to me and Naz [Nazanin Boniadi], who plays Esther in the film, and said, “I am going tomorrow to see Pope Francis speak at the Vatican if you guys want to join me.” One of our first questions was, “Wow! Are we going to see him? Can we meet him?” And she said, “There is not any guarantee. I cannot promise you anything because it doesn’t work like that.” I’m not sure the schedule but I know it [he speaks] happens often. We said, “Of course. That sounds beautiful. Let’s do it.”
So we went and the square was completely packed with people from all over the world. It was me, and Nazanin, and Roma, I don’t remember, there was like six or seven of us. Making a long story short, at the end of the speech, the Pope goes around randomly greeting here and there, talking to a child, taking a picture amongst this mass of people. I’m talking about the square in front of the Vatican. There are a ton of people and security and we are watching this whole thing happen. There is a lady next to me that from the beginning of the day was very nervous and agitated. I couldn’t understand very well what she was saying, but she was agitated and felt like she had to meet the Pope.
Anyway, at this moment when the ceremony ended and Pope Francis went around, there were a lot of people gathered where we were and there was an iron fence to protect [him]and the lady starts getting very angry and agitated. I gave my place to her because I was a little more in the front, and I think she caught his attention. It was the end already, the Pope had talked to everyone and was walking back towards the exit and we were kind of standing in that area, and he came to talk to her. I was next to her, a little behind. As soon as he talked to her I was next and I didn’t know exactly what to do. I congratulated him in Spanish, because I know he is from Argentina, and I said something I don’t remember but congratulating him, and then he blessed me.
It probably lasted like fourteen seconds, but it felt like an eternity. It was the longest fourteen seconds in my life [laughter]. It definitely has a very symbolic value for me because it happened while I was doing this character. I truly feel blessed. Literally. It was one of those things that I can’t believe just happened. It’s not because it was the Pope and I feel special because he talked to me – not at all – I see it as a symbolic thing that happened in that moment because since day one I approached this with a very open heart hoping to have a meaningful experience. I thought if I am going to try to have a tiny micro-understanding of Jesus’ heart that is going to be huge for me. So to put myself in that place for a couple of months, to prepare for that – of course I will not get even close to anything Jesus experienced – but to just point in that direction and to try to understand his heart, his teaching and his words – I had to practice that as much as I could.
We as humans cheat ourselves all the time. We smile at a person, but is that smile genuine? Is it really coming from the bottom of your heart, or are you doing that because you want to look and be perceived as a nice person? Those questions were very deep and I visited very deep places in myself. I cannot lie to myself, I told myself I have to at least exercise it and let it be born genuinely from within. I’m not saying I have to become Jesus – I will never become Him – but I just need to understand and to put myself into that place within myself, with my own limitations and boundaries. I have to feel that and make a version of that to myself so at least when I am expressing that feeling or saying those words, it is real for me. The bottom line was to connect truly and deeply with my own heart. My pure heart, the unconditional love.
RM: You’ve portrayed so many rich characters, is there a type of character you enjoy playing more? How do you pick the scripts?
RS: There is really not a formula for that. I almost believe that we choose the characters, but they choose us too. It’s a relationship that happens between you and the characters and story you are reading. Something happens. I think it is like when you become friends with somebody, and you cannot explain it. Let’s say you make friends with somebody and you try to understand, why am I friends with Paul? Because Paul is fun. Because I like him. There is something that happens between you and Paul and you become friends and it’s not so rationally explainable. Sometimes it’s what they call chemistry.
There is something there that you just can’t explain. I feel that with characters and stories. So my approach, whether I am doing Shakespeare or a popcorn blockbuster film, from the moment I chose to do it, there was a reason. It’s really about the relationship. Sometimes it sparks fire inside yourself, sometimes it makes you scared and that can be very interesting. Bob Marley said, “My fear is my only courage.” There is a lot to be said about fear. Of course you have to understand it and know how to translate it, but fear is not essentially a bad thing. It’s really case by case, but generally I can say I have an appetite for non-average Joes. I am interested in characters whose realities and nature are far away from mine. It’s just the way I learn.
This job I do for a very simple reason. First, because I truly love it, and because I learn so much about life. It is much more than my profession, it makes me evolve and mature, and I think become a better person. I become more open and I start to judge less and less. It’s less judgment and more understanding. You are who you are because of your journey and everything you have gone through in your life. Even the smallest things probably influence you more than you think. The mystery of life. The difference between mind and heart; the mind is a machine that knows everything and can tell you, “Yea let’s do that.” Or “I don’t like that because my experience tells me that is not going to work.” Your heart has a wisdom, and that is a whole different conversation, when you talk about God and you say, “Listen to your heart,” or “Believe your heart.” That is a wisdom much beyond anything your mind can grasp. That is what I believe, I believe in heart.
whether I am doing Shakespeare or a popcorn blockbuster film, from the moment I chose to do it, there was a reason. It’s really about the relationship.
RM: Do you still live in Brazil? With the Olympics coming to Rio in August, will you be in town?
RS: Yes. I spend half and half divided between Rio de Janiero and Los Angeles. Right now I am working on a series for HBO named Westworld which is a longer commitment, so it is dividing me. It is very important to me to spend time in Brazil. For the past 12 years I have been traveling back and forth. I cannot move. It is part of myself. My family is back there. It’s my roots and very important to me. I just learned we are going to be promoting Ben-Hur exactly during the Olympics! I think I will be able to come back for the end of the Olympics. This has been a very special project for me since the beginning, and I feel different about this and really hope people enjoy it.