EXCLUSIVE: MGM, Paramount and Timur Bekmambetov set a February 26, 2016, release date on an epic remake of Ben-Hur; have they found their chariot driver inTom Hiddleston? I hear that he’s the one the studios are courting to play Judah Ben-Hur in the adaptation of the 1880 Lew Wallace novel Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ, which was the biggest-selling novel of its time until it was eclipsed by Gone With The Wind.
Hiddleston isn’t being fitted for a toga just yet. He has other projects vying for his services, including the MGM pic Me Before You. Keith Clarke, who scripted the Peter Weir-directed The Way Back, wrote the script that MGM pounced on after that company got ambitious following its emergence from bankruptcy and huge hits in Skyfall and The Hobbit. Mark Burnett and Roma Downey joined Sean Daniel and Joni Levin as producers, with Clarke and Jason Brown exec producing. Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave scribe John Ridley wrote the last draft.
Can you talk about the cast? Were these people the first choices?
DEL TORO: It’s pretty public that Benedict [Cumberbatch] was there. He came out. Then when I sent the screenplay to Jessica, I didn’t send it with any part in mind, but everyone was assuming she was going to read Edith. And then she read the part and said she wanted to play Lucille, which is the antagonist. I thought, smart girl! It’s a surprise. And then Emma [Stone] was in, Emma was out. Then Mia was the first choice after Emma. It’s been a blessing man. It’s like going out to take a spin on a Porsche.
Tom came within 72 hours of Benedict leaving. Benedict called me, Tom was my next choice, and we handed him the screenplay. I think he read it overnight, at least it felt like that for me. I had just sent it and he called back to say all the right things about the script. I needed people that could embrace the very perverse nature and the very humane. It’s a very dark but at the same time very human movie. It’s really beautiful but it’s full of really disturbing stuff. Charlie was on from the beginning, from Pacific Rim, I told him.
How is it for you when people drop out of a film? Is it jarring to reassess that character with another person in that role?
DEL TORO: Yes, of course. You need to recalibrate. But if you recalibrate and you say this is my first choice next, then it’s great. The transition was so smooth. If we had gone six months without somebody … but it was literally within hours of somebody falling out, somebody else had read it that we wanted. It was really, really great. But then you have to rewrite for the actors. And what we did is we have a very … once I gave them the biographies, we had a table work session where we read the screenplay, talked about the biography, listen to him read the part, come back, rewrite, send it back, get their voice in, and you rewrite it for them. We all went to London to see Tom in his play and then work in London with him and Jessica, to rehearse and work on what we had learned from the biographies.
How early did the cast get here before production began to do any rehearsals?
DEL TORO: Again, Charlie was the first one. He went in, and then Mia came, and then Jim, and the last two were Jessica and Tom because Jessica was shooting in New York and Tom was finishing the play in London. Mia and Charlie are playing American characters. The only American is playing an Englishman.
Tom Hiddleston has this fan base that’s very active, a little younger, female. How are they going to react to his character?
DEL TORO: I think they will like him no matter what he does. (Laughs) My daughters could see him grinding poppies, they’d be like, ‘Ohhh, he’s so sweet! He grinds them so carefully.’ My daughters are first in line. He goes by them, they go, ‘Awww.’ There is the thing they said more than any other. (Laughs)
Did they say to you, ‘He would be good?’ Or was it you saying to them at the dinner table.
DEL TORO: No, no, no. My daughters are a vital part of the way I function with the world. Without them, I wouldn’t have discovered Adventure Time, for example, which is vital for me. When I said Mia, they went, ‘Yes! Absolutely!’ Or when I said, Tom, they went, [snaps] ‘In!’ They’re completely connected to the world in a way that they keep my playlist younger. It’s not just Barry Manilow anymore. I gotta get a little hipper. (Laughs) It is now Phil Collins, and the music the young ones like. They keep me connected to the world.
The full set visit and more 1:1 interviews are still to come (I expect many a jealous fangirl email once I describe the circumstances of my Tom Hiddleston interview… I’ll just say he has the nicest-smelling trailer I’ve ever been in), but I have permission to share this chat well in advance of the embargo lift on the whole enchilada.