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A sexed up Ben-Hur, focused on guilt and revenge

Like most atheists, I adore a tunic-ripping, beards-and-sandals biblical epic.

When watched without reverence, Bible flicks, with their melodramatic plots, high pieties and low villainies, prophecies, golden idols, miracles and visitations, are as magical as Harry Potter movies, but with better source material. Rule No. 1: If there's a glittering heathen temple shown in the first half, said palace of pleasure will come to spectacular, bone-crushing ruin in the second half. Rule No. 2: plenty of loincloths.

Keeping up the tradition, the latest version of Ben Hur (airing this Sunday and the next on CBC Television at 8 p.m.) offers lots of sex, manly, bare-chested combat, a spectacular Roman battleship sequence, more sex, lepers and centurions, underdressed lady pagans, a murderous chariot race, and Christ Himself (looking suspiciously like Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski).

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In the title role is the strapping young British actor Joseph Morgan, who is best known in North America for his roles in Master and Commander, alongside Russell Crowe, and in Oliver Stone's lavish Alexander. To British audiences, Morgan is a perennial TV charmer, having appeared in four popular series and a much-discussed version of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (Austen fans are a hard, bitter lot).

Despite his ample credentials, taking on a monumental role like Judah Ben-Hur has to have been daunting - but Morgan, on the phone from Montreal where he is filming an action picture, betrayed no such misgivings. Maybe he took prayer breaks between scenes?

May I congratulate you on a Heston-free performance?

Ha! Thank you! Yeah, well, it's interesting. When I was auditioning and reading for the role in the beginning, I hadn't seen the Charlton Heston movie, and then as soon as I got offered the part I thought I better watch it, just to sort of know what it was. I think he was about 10 years older than me, when he did it, and our script wasn't based on the Heston movie, it was based more on the General Lew Wallace book, so there were enough differences there already.

Heston was beloved and derided for the fact that he was such a vain actor - but I wonder if a certain amount of vanity is needed to play Judah Ben-Hur, a self-absorbed nobleman?

That's interesting.… I haven't been asked that before … hmm. I'm not sure that he necessarily requires vanity, I would say the thing that I really focused on, the thing that I felt consumed Judah, was his focus on revenge. And also on the guilt, the fact that he felt responsible for everything that had happened to him and his family. I think Judah felt he deserved all the misfortune that came his way, and kind of lost himself in that darkness.

Now, you are blond, and blue-eyed -

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Yeah, sort of blue-green.

It's not exactly a Semitic look.

What do you mean by that?

You don't look like somebody born in Judea during the time of Christ.

Ha! Did Charlton Heston? Ha! I think there's certainly some things, like, for example, I have a little bit of stubble, and I think as a Jew I would have been bearded. There's a certain amount of dramatic licence taken in general. From the beginning, the director, Steve Shill, was concerned with what was going to look good on camera, what would play cinematically, as opposed to trying to get every detail authentic.

Why does this story keep getting filmed again and again?

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It's just a fantastic story. I mean, the journey this guy goes on, from being a rich Jew to being a slave to being a gladiator to being a rich Roman, you know, it's a massive, massive character arc. I think it's fascinating to watch someone go through so many dramatic changes. And, you know, it's been 50 years since the Heston one, so it was due an update as well.

Is Judah Ben-Hur a Jewish hero, or an early-adaptor Christian?

That's interesting. I think he undergoes a change. In our version, the reason why he forgives [his enemy]Messala, and understands forgiveness, is because of Jesus Christ. So I guess you could say he is maybe a Jew turned Christian, in the space of the story.

You spend a lot of time in this movie with no clothes on - what have we got here, biblical soft core?

Biblical soft core! Ha! I dunno about that, but it's made for a younger audience, so certainly they've sexed it up a bit. Also, back in the day, the Romans - there's that scene where I take an outdoor shower after the gladiator battle - I mean, there was no kind of worry back then about that. I did a fair amount of the diet and the training (sighs), all of which I'm going through again for this new movie.

Do you like being naked on screen?

Do I like it? It's not something I'm afraid of, but it takes a fair bit of hard work beforehand. I don't read a script and go, 'How much am I naked in this?' But since Ben Hur, I've been reading scripts going, 'How much horse riding is in this?'

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