This is a role that Hugh Griffith won an Oscar for in the 1959 version of “Ben-Hur.” His performance was very comic. And he was Welsh. So was part of the attraction playing an African character and as an African-American, you’re better suited to play the role?
Absolutely! I didn’t know it was an African character (in the book). I never read the book. In the book, they wanted to call him Arab. One of the things I asked Timur for was one of the lines, “I am not Arab!”
What do you think of the bloody revenge themes in the movie?
It’s part of the full tapestry of the film. Over here you have people that are looking for revenge and over here is a man looking for salvation. We’re looking for a world where we feel safe, all of us.
Do you see this as a religious film? In the 1959 version we never see Jesus, but in this he is a central character.
Yeah, but that is the story of Judah Ben-Hur. When I spoke with Timur on the phone about it, he was telling me he wanted it to have more depth and have more of a spiritual quality to it. He wanted it to be more humanized. I said: “Fine, Timur. That’s good.”
Did you come up with a back story for your character?
You have that speech about your character and your child…
And that’s why you don’t have to come up with a back story because it’s all in that speech. There are roles, and I’ve taken them, where you have to sit down and figure out who you are on your own. You have to figure out your past life. Why do I make this decision at this time? You ask the writer and he’ll give you a very clear answer but it may not satisfy your need for sense memory.