One of the many perks of living in Los Angeles is one’s ability to run into actors, filmmakers and other random celebrities at any time. While I get to talk to actors and filmmakers regularly as part of my job, it’s always pleasant when you run into someone in public, who is just genuinely nice and cool. In January, while waiting in a concessions line at a movie theater, I realized I was standing in front of Toby Kebbell. I eventually introduced myself, told him I was a fan, and we had a pleasant and brief conversation. Over the weekend, when we met again to chat about Ben-Hur, I was surprised he remembered our conversation from the “candy line,” from more than eight months ago.
I’ve been a fan of Toby Kebbell‘s work for quite some time, since his performances as Joy Division manager Rob Gretton in Control and maniacal rocker Johnny Quid in Rocknrolla, two roles which were instrumental in launching his career. Since then, he has put together quite the diverse resume, appearing in indie dramas (Cheri, The Conspirator, The East), Oscar-caliber dramas (War Horse) and big-budget tentpoles (Wrath of the Titans, The Prince of Persia), just to name a few. He is also quickly becoming a go-to star for motion capture roles, after critically-acclaimed turns as the nefarious ape Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the Orc Durotan in this summer’s Warcraft.
In Paramount‘s Ben-Hur, Toby Kebbell portrays the iconic villain Messala, who turns against his adopted brother Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), accusing him of treason that leads him to be sold into slavery. After several years, he gets a chance at redemption, after being rescued by Shiek Ilderim (Morgan Freeman) after Ben-Hur washes up on sea after a shipwreck. After much training, Ben-Hur is finally ready to get his revenge against Mesalla in the iconic chariot races.
There is quite a lot that is different in this remake, when compared to the iconic 1959 film, based on Lew Wallace‘s 1880 novel. The original movie completely discarded the character of Jesus Christ, but this remake brings back this element to the original Lew Wallace story, with Rodrigo Santoro portraying Jesus Christ in the remake. Still, much is the same as well, with the chariot race scene being shot in the same studio as the original, Italy’s Cinecittà Studios.
During my chat with Toby Kebbell, we discussed his training for the chariot races, working with Jack Huston, internal discussions about how villainous Messala should be, and how nervous seemingly everyone involved was about taking on this iconic story. We also spoke about his upcoming Kong: Skull Island, and whether or not he’s actually playing King Kong. Take a look at our conversation below.
This is quite an epic tale you have here.
Toby Kebbell: Thank you. We were worried. We were all scared. I called my mom, and I was like, ‘Yeah, mom, I got the role in Ben-Hur.’ ‘Oh, why?’ (Laughs) Come on, mom.
‘You’re supposed to be happy for me!’
Toby Kebbell: Exactly. I heard how handsome Steven Boyd was and Charlton Heston was. Jesus, thanks mom. I appreciate the vote of confidence.
We always heard, right away, when this was announced, that it was going to be a lot different from the original movie, and it was going to be more faithful to the book. When you come on for something like this, do you even look at the original movie as much, or did you just base your research on the actual book?
Toby Kebbell: Well, this was such a nicely-written script by John Ridley, that I went and read the book, because that’s what we were being told to do. They said, ‘This isn’t a remake. We’re not doing what they did.’ They had their own thing. They had their own writer at that time, who was very popular, who had his own views and points to make, and what we’re going to do is base it off the story, because the story follows a young team of brothers… one who’s very ambitious and feels slightly held back by the family duties, and the other is like, ‘Well, these are my family duties, this is what I have to do.’ You sort of see that he’s a villain from the beginning, and that wasn’t 100% interesting to me, so that was the script we received, because that was the book we were re-telling. I really wanted to make sure that the story had someone making a bad decision at some point, especially coming off Koba, and the success of people understanding how Koba was played. That was all agreed upon, and what was so nice about when I bonded with Jack, was we were both trying to change the same things about how we were going to tell the story. Of course, we had that fear. We were nervous, like, ‘S–t, why are we re-telling this?’
That’s one of the things I enjoyed about it, how their arcs keep crossing, and they have their ups and downs. Yeah, Messala is the villain, so to speak, but you can relate to him and you can see where he’s coming from, even though he’s doing some pretty bad things.
Toby Kebbell: Yeah, that was the trauma of it. Of course, he has to do these terrible things, and the studio said, ‘Well, you can’t be so unlikable that you…’ and I said, ‘Well, then, there’s no reason to forgive anything.’ If my superior officer makes the decision to take everyone away, then I get away with it. I didn’t stop it, but then that’s a different story. Me not stopping it, is me not being able to stand up to a Roman army, and suddenly it’s not as repulsive, and therefore, there’s no reason to give the real forgiveness. And that’s kind of… not to be rude to the old film, but that’s kind of what the old film does. It’s a mistake. He knocks the thing off by mistake, so they make Messala this beast, ‘No, they must all go!’ I didn’t understand it, when I watched it as a kid even, I was like, ‘Why is he doing that?’ The script that John had written had the bow and arrow, and it made it very clear that this was an act that Judah was hiding from a brother he had told, ‘Well, I’ll do my best.’ He didn’t talk to anyone, he didn’t solve anything, but he could have gotten rid of the zealot, for that day. I think that’s the reason for Pontius (Pilou Asbaek) to be such a hard-ass, because he’s that element of Rome. So, I’m stuck between Judah and this very sweet, loving family, and the tyranny of Rome. Marcus really represents that so much more, David (Walmsley), who played Marcus, represents that kind of, ‘I’m the bulldog. I’m the brute, who’s just gonna go forward.’ It was nice to work with such good actors who understood the material so well.
I was really fascinated about how they brought Jesus’ story back. I’ve never actually read the book, but I know it was always there.
Toby Kebbell: The book’s hard going. Not to give any disrespect, but I sat with his (author Lew Wallace) granddaughter, his great-grand-daughter, and she said, ‘No, that book is hard going.’ I mean, I find For Whom the Bell Tolls hard going, and it’s a classic, but it’s a lot, you know.
It was really fascinating to see that element that the original movie cast aside. Was that one of the elements that they wanted to make sure this would stand on its own, and was that one of the aspects that drew you to the project?
Toby Kebbell: It was once I’d read it. When I was getting involved, (director) Timur (Bekmambetov) was… like I auditioned. I did 10 pages, I got the job, and then I sat with Timur and Timur said, ‘No, look, we’re gonna do the chariots for real,’ that was the number one draw. When I started to talk about it, I said, ‘I haven’t watched the old film for a long time, I remember watching it at Easter,’ he said, ‘Don’t watch it. You have to read the book.’ That’s when I realized… I learned a bunch. I learned a bunch of history. Firstly, it was a best-selling book. He was the toast of the town, traveled by train, first class carriages, it was turned into a play, a long-running play, 12 years.
Oh, really? I didn’t know that.
Toby Kebbell: Then it was a silent movie, then a TV series, then the original. Then all of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh, the original wasn’t the original. OK.’
Exactly. I remember hearing about the silent film, but there isn’t much I know about it. It was 1925, if I remember right.
Toby Kebbell: Precisely, yeah. So, what’s weird is, all of the papers from around that time are like, ‘Ben-Hur has turned into a money-making movie.’ I’ve met a lot of people who were like, ‘This is an interesting story from the Bible.’ And I’m like, ‘No, it’s not… wait, is this from the f—ing Bible?’ Then I realize, no, it’s not. It’s just a book. A 130-year-old book, but still.
I thought it was really interesting when Messala decides to leave, and you can tell he’s dealing with a lot. That decision to leave is the biggest in his life. Was there something specific that got you into that mindset when you were doing that scene? Because he has so much going on, but he knows he has to leave and establish himself on his own terms.
Toby Kebbell: Yeah, this is one of my first times in my experience being an actor that it represented a part of my life. I was that angsty teenager, who felt like I needed my brothers to feel proud of me. I wanted to go away, and, going away, from where I was, was to Nottingham or to London, to be an actor. I didn’t comprehend how it would work, or how it would be, but I knew I wanted their respect more than anything. That was a hard thing to do. It was hard to leave the family, you know, it’s always hard to do. The difference is, I had a very supportive family. My brothers would come and visit me, come and hang out with me, we’re brothers till the end. It doesn’t have that same dramatic storytelling ability, but it is basically the same thing. That was the first time where I played a role and was like, ‘I was this kid.’ I wanted to be respected and, slightly blindly and slightly foolishly, and I don’t feel that way now as an adult, but at the time, I understood that very clearly.
The chariot scenes were just phenomenal. I saw that you had like 12 weeks of training…
Toby Kebbell: We trained for a month and a half in Matera, a full two and a half months to train, and then we shot that sequence for three months. Word is going around that it was 30 days.
That’s what it says in the production notes.
Toby Kebbell: 30 days of main unit, perhaps. I would go from main unit to second unit to shoot scenes. It was three months.
It said in the production notes that it was 31 days for that sequences. I thought, that sounds like a lot, but it doesn’t seem like enough.
Toby Kebbell: It wasn’t. It was triple that. It was 90 days.
Is there anything you can say about Kong: Skull Isand? I saw you had to put down some rumors that you’re actually playing Kong a few months ago.
Toby Kebbell: I did, yeah, put them down. It’s a tricky one. I think… time will tell who’s playing Kong, but, for the time being, I’ve been asked to promote playing Major Chapman. Jack Chapman is my character, and he’s the sidekick of Sam Jackson‘s character. It was… I tell you, man, I’m sure people go on about, ‘Oh, Sam does this…’ You don’t know who Sam Jackson is. Sam Jackson doesn’t play the same person… he doesn’t play himself, first of all. He’s one of the most hilarious, good-natured, most well-read people. And I’m talking about next to Rhys Ifans and my uncle David and my brother James. He is so articulate and so well-read. It’s a pleasure to spend any time with him. I wish Sam was my best friend. I wish I could call Sam up and go, ‘What’s up? How are you doing?’ He’s a dream come true. I guess maybe the saying ‘Don’t work with your heroes’ only applies to white people. I feel terrible saying that, but Morgan Freeman was a dream, and so was Sam Jackson. This must be a white man thing. It’s terrible, but Morgan Freeman and Sam Jackson were two heroes of mine… but it can’t be, because John Goodman was a hero of mine, and I had a dream working with him. It was heaven. So, I don’t know. It’s bulls–t. I don’t know where that comes from, and I don’t want that to be true, and I guess it’s not for me, so I’m lucky.
That’s awesome. Thanks so much. This was fantastic.
Toby Kebbell: It was my pleasure, man. Thanks for taking the time. Maybe I’ll see you at the Arclight again.
You can check out Toby Kebbell as Messala in Ben-Hur, which hits theaters on Friday, August 19. Toby Kebbell will next be seen in a pair of highly-anticipated fall releases, the adaptation of A Monster Calls (October 21), alongside Felicity Jones, and Gold (December 25) alongside Matthew McConaughey, Bryce Dallas Howard, Edgar Ramirez and Corey Stoll. We’ll be sure to keep you posted with the latest on Toby Kebbell‘s upcoming projects as soon as we have more information.