For the first time in nearly 55 years, one of the greatest stories ever told will be retold on the big screen starting Aug. 19, as Paramount and MGM’s “Ben-Hur” — a remake of the 1959 Academy Award-winning classic with Charlton Heston — will introduce a whole new generation to the epic tale of fictional nobleman-turned-slave Judah Ben-Hur and his life-changing interaction with Jesus Christ.
And one of the key people behind making this introduction a reality is actress/producer Roma Downey, who knows perhaps as well as anyone the power of introducing people to the right message at the right time.
After falling in love with the craft of acting while performing in a high school production of William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” as a teenager, Downey’s passion for inspiring audiences through great stories led her to Broadway — and later to Hollywood, where her fruitful career apexed with her starring role on the CBS TV hit “Touched By An Angel.” Fans of the show (which ran for nine seasons, from 1994 to 2003) will recall how Downey’s Monica, an angel who would go “undercover” as a human being in each episode, would reveal her true identity to people and share a message of God’s love at the exact moment the person needed to hear it.
According to Downey, Monica’s penchant for instilling hope in others extended far beyond the fictional world of the show by reaching viewers at home.
“A woman came up to me once, and she had fresh scars on her wrist; she had very clearly tried to take her own life recently,” recalls Downey of a particularly memorable interaction with a fan. “She was feeling very alone and angry with God. She slid down the wall of her bathroom, ready to die, and she had left the television on in her bedroom. And she called out in her anger, ‘Even now, I’m all alone!’
“And in that exact moment, during a revelation scene (i.e., when Monica would show her true identity to the person she was tasked with guiding in that episode), she heard the reply, ‘You are not alone. You have never been alone. Don’t you know that God loves you?’ She grabbed a towel and called an ambulance,” Downey told Angelus News.
“That’s an extreme example, of course, but there were so many other people who just needed to be reminded that they were special and loved. They were touched and healed by seeing an episode of the show and hearing a message at the exact time they needed to hear it. It was such a privilege to be able to deliver a message of God’s love to millions of people every week.”
Her desire to continue delivering that message ultimately led Downey to launch the Lightworkers Media production company along with her husband, Mark Burnett (executive producer of “Survivor” and “The Voice”). “When the show ended, I missed being a part of something that was bigger than all of us,” she explains. “There’s a hunger for stories of inspiration; an underserved audience that wants to see that kind of programming. The whisper came into my heart to start Lightworkers. The name stems from our motto that ‘it’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.’”
Since its inception in 2009, Lightworkers has been responsible for major television projects such as the Emmy-nominated “The Bible” on The History Channel, “A.D.: The Bible Continues” on NBC, and feature films such as “Son of God,” “Little Boy,” and now this summer’s remake of “Ben-Hur.” With every remake of a Hollywood classic comes the inevitable naysayers clamoring “Why?” But Downey is convinced that right now is the perfect time for it.
“My husband and I were approached by Gary Barber from MGM about joining the project, and when we went home, so excited to be a part of ‘Ben-Hur,’ our kids responded ‘Ben who?’” recalls Downey. “There’s a whole new generation ready to be introduced to this story, and it’s one of the greatest stories ever told. It’s a big action-adventure movie, but holds deep in its heart a deeper message about faith, hope, forgiveness and reconciliation. If there was ever a time in our country and in our world when those things were relevant, surely the time is now.”
The story revolves around Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy nobleman in Jerusalem in 26 A.D. who is wrongly accused of a crime and, after years of being forced into slavery, seeks revenge by way of an epic chariot race. While the task of doing justice to the grand 1959 original was a daunting one, Downey couldn’t be happier with the results.
“It takes a village to put a movie of this scale on the screen, and we really had the best of the best people in our village,” beams Downey of the production team, which included Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) and Oscar-winning special effects supervisor John Riddell (“The Lord of the Rings”). “The studio gathered an amazing team to produce this movie, an incredible group of people.”
Though the new rendition of “Ben-Hur” has been billed as a “re-imagining of the novel” as opposed to a remake of the 1959 film, shades of the past were very present in the production process. A majority of the filming took place at the famed Cinecitta studios in Rome, the very same studio where the 1959 original was filmed. And in a further twist of coincidence, the crew attached to the remake featured a wig maker and horse trainer whose fathers worked on the original in the same capacities.
British actor Jack Huston, who portrays the titular role this time around, has no relation to the great Charlton Heston, but Downey firmly believes that Huston’s turn would make Heston proud, and will make Huston a star.
“Jack Huston isn’t a household name yet, but after ‘Ben-Hur’ he will be,” asserts Downey. “He’s sensational in this part. Same goes for Toby [Kebbell, who plays Ben-Hur’s childhood friend and adoptive brother who betrays him].” The cast is further elevated by Morgan Freeman, who is a household name, and whose voice — one of the most recognizable in Hollywood history — is the first and last voice audiences seeing the film will hear.
“He was amazing in the film, as he always is,” states Downey of the veteran Freeman, who portrays the wealthy Nubian sheik that trains Ben-Hur to become a charioteer. “He brought such dignity and charisma to the role.”
While the film takes full advantage of CGI and special effects available today, the highly-anticipated chariot sequences — which took 12 weeks to shoot — are as authentic as can be. Both Huston and Kebbell had to learn how to ride the chariot for their roles, and much of the footage audiences will see during the races will actually feature the actors in the chariots. The authenticity, according to Downey, results in an unforgettable sequence.
“You’ll inhale when it begins and won’t exhale until it ends,” predicts Downey of the chariot sequence. “It’s just 12 minutes of pure adrenaline.”
Downey is aware that moviegoers will come for action scenes such as the chariot races, but she hopes they’ll leave having absorbed the film’s beautiful message of letting go of hate and forgiving others.
“Because it’s set within the context of this great adventure and heightened drama, you don’t see that moment [of Ben-Hur forgiving his adoptive brother] coming. And for this new generation, it holds that message without being preachy. You’re not being hit over the head; it’s just great storytelling,” she says.
“Our hope is that people come in to be entertained by an epic movie experience,” she continues, “but that they will go away feeling that, in the same way Ben Hur’s heart is opened to the love of God, there might be people watching who are holding onto anger or disappointment and maybe, just maybe, they’ll see this film and want to lay down the stone they’ve been carrying.”