“I have always wanted to play Jesus. I have actually been invited to do it before, but I don’t think I ever considered it seriously until now. Maybe it’s because I was scared…”
The Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, the new Jesus in the movie “Ben-Hur” took his role to such a high level that even received personal blessings from Pope Francis for it. In the interview below, he speaks about his whole experience with this challenging character.
How did you see this challenge?
As an amazing experience. I love preparing, researching, exploring and examining a role. In this case it was such an endless and deep process that was scary and exciting at the same time.
What research did you do?
I went everywhere and in every direction I could. First, I approached it from a very rational perspective, which didn’t help me much, because all the books and films I saw were not taking me in the right direction and really in the end just worked as an inspiration.
What helped you the most?
I think it was my own process in deciding to take it as a personal journey and approach the role from my heart, convinced that there was no other way to play Jesus. It was more about doing it than finding the way to do it.
How did you achieve that?
By being able to give myself up to the experience. We don’t know how Jesus talked, walked or looked like; so more than focusing on that aspect, I had to approach the character in a very humble way, with my heart open. What really helped me was to start practicing yoga and meditation on a daily basis. I followed a routine that put me in a much more interesting place in which I was diving into the role from the inside.
What appeals to you about preparing a role?
I think it is where I have fun and learn things about life. During the research I allow myself to make mistakes and be less prejudiced and judgmental about things and people. It opens and changes my way of looking at everything, because it is such a rich process.
In “Ben-Hur”, how would you describe Jesus’ relationship with the rest of the characters of the story, starting with Judah?
I think Jesus has a special relationship with everyone in this story. In the case of Judah they have several exchanges that start when he needs help and Jesus is there for him by giving example. The actions are more important than the words. At least that is how I tried to play it…
What do you believe an actor like Jack Huston brought to that role?
First of all, his charisma. Judah is a fascinating character because he goes through such an intense journey – starting in one place and ending somewhere very different – that changes him both internally and externally. I believe Jack navigated all of that extremely well.
Esther also has an interesting relationship with Jesus, right?
Yes, because when they both meet Jesus, I believe she is the first person that recognizes him. While Judah is in a different space, Esther is ahead of him. He will still have to go through his personal journey to become a different and better person, but Esther starts watching things and learning about Jesus earlier.
Women have a more relevant role in this new Ben Hur.
Yes, they are stronger. Esther, for instance, is feminine, but at the same time someone who is very real and has strong beliefs. She is faithful without being preachy, and in the end just a very genuine human being.
Iranian native Nazanin Boniadi was the actress chosen to embody that role. What can you say about her?
Like Esther she is also that combination of strong, feminine, sweet and real. We genuinely got along very well, and it was great to see her chemistry with Jack, as they were the actors I had the most scenes with.
How was it to act opposite the Apostles?
That moment in Gethsemane – which is when Jesus is having doubts and they arrest him – was special because it was my last day on set. I had met the Pope the day before! So it was pretty intense, as there was a lot going on inside me. It was a night shoot that started off quite emotional for me and I did my best to keep it together. Playing this part was just a very strong experience for me altogether.
How was it to meet the Pope?
First of all, I have to say that it wasn’t planned; it just happened! That made it all even more special. Nazanin and I went to St. Peter’s square to hear him speak when we were shooting the movie in Rome. The place was packed, but when the Pope finished, he walked around to talk to some people here and there. There was a woman next to me who caught his attention, so he came to talk to her – which is when he saw me standing right next to her with the beard and the hair. That’s when I told him in Spanish – knowing that he was from Argentina – that I was playing Jesus.
Being half Italian, it must have been special for you to shoot the movie in Italy.
Yes, it definitely felt like home to me. My father is an Italian who moved to Brazil as an immigrant, so Italy is very close to my heart. I still have family there, which I visited during the shoot. I did a big road trip after I finished, and went back to Matera, that magical city carved in stone where I shot most of my scenes, as I had fallen in love with that place. During that trip is when I ate all the pasta I wanted, because I couldn’t do it before.
How was the experience of shooting the Crucifixion in Matera?
It was the most extreme experience I have ever had as an actor in a movie, because it was physically, emotionally and psychologically very draining. And it was so cold! Luckily, Timur managed to shoot it all in one take.
What is Timur Bekmambetov like as a director?
He is very calm and easy to work with. Timur talks to you quietly and with a lot of respect, and he is very precise and knows exactly what he wants. He is very detailed but at the same time he is open to your input and even to improvisation.
How did you feel once the film was completed and you saw yourself on the screen as Jesus?
I am still processing it. All I can say is that I have never felt this way before.