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Jack Huston on learning to drive a chariot for 'Ben-Hur'

The actor talks about the pain of horse-riding and his diet of bland food.

It’s no small feat to step into shoes already worn by Charlton Heston. Luckily for Jack Huston, he had a couple aces up his sleeve. For one thing, the English actor, 33, is Hollywood royalty: His aunt is Anjelica Huston, his uncle is Danny Huston, his grandfather is John Huston and his great-grandfather is Walter Huston. Even better, he’s known Fraser Heston, Charlton’s son, since he was a kid. Before taking the lead in the new remake of “Ben-Hur,” he asked Fraser for his blessing, and got it. And so here Huston is as 2016’s own Judah Ben-Hur, the Jewish nobleman who seeks revenge on the friend (played by Toby Kebbell) who destroyed his family. That also means having to endure the film’s centerpiece: a redo of the famed chariot race, which took three grueling months to shoot.

You have to play Judah Ben-Hur in two very different stages: When he’s wealthy and fancy-free and when he’s starving and ripped. It must be particularly rough not eating great food when you’re shooting in Rome.
If you’re in the galleys of a slave ship, you’re not going to be eating three-course Italian meals. You’re just rowing every day. So I went a little Method and managed to drop down to 155 pounds. That’s pretty nuts.

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How did you do that?
It’s kind of a funny story. The studio gave me a chef who’s also a nutritionist. He was this wonderful Italian man named Giuliano, who loved cooking and had the best heart. And he was just in a state of disarray every day. He’d come in to hand the food out, and I could see he wanted to cry every time. He had to make me the most bland, boring food — proteins and veg and no salt. It was tearing him apart inside. He really wanted to cook me the most extravagant pasta dishes with the best wine. Instead he was under strict instructions not do give me any food with any flavor.

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Did you go out and gorge once you were done?
I did. I ate the equivalent of four meals in one go. I actually laid down after it. I was convinced I was going to vomit. It was a transcendent moment.

Speaking of pushing yourself to the limit, tell me about the chariot race. You already knew how to ride a horse coming in to this, but that’s nothing like driving four of them.
I was very comfortable and confident with horses; I could ride like I could walk. I thought that would give me a leg-up. But nothing really prepares you for a chariot — four horses and the end of your rein. There’s a reason why we still refer to the power of cars as “horse-power.” It’s like something you’ve never felt before. And the horses loved it. They just want to run. They’re basically racing each other. They don’t even know they’ve got a 150-pound person behind them.

How long did it take you to feel like a pro?
We had about three and a half months of training, which starts with a seated car, then you progress to two horses, and finally four. It’s quite a rigorous process. The first day you’re convinced you’re going to die. Then the second day, funnily enough, it sort of becomes addictive. You don’t think about anything when you’re on that chariot, going around the track at full speed. When you’re really tearing it, you are literally only focusing on the job at hand. You don’t question yourself; you’re not in that constant battle for your life. It’s rather meditative. It’s liberating to be free of one’s ways.

Remaking a classic as big as “Ben-Hur” must be nerve-wracking. How do you think this one is different enough to exist as its own thing?
The story has been done so perfectly and beautifully before. But this is a beautiful reimagining. The ’59 movie was about revenge. This one is about forgiveness and love and kindness, and how people are able to overcome the thirst for revenge. It was such an amazing thing to be a part of that message.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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