HOLLYWOOD - While promoting his new film “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Christian Bale referred to his character, Moses, as “likely schizophrenic” and “one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.”
Bale has understandably backed away from much of the media in light of this statement, but it hasn’t hurt the box office of the Ridley Scott-directed picture. “Exodus” was No. 1 when it was released, currently grossing $254.1 million. Co-star Joel Edgerton, who plays Ramses, the prince who Moses grows up with before they become enemies, believes that’s because the biblical story is so widely revered.
“Everybody knows Moses, or thinks they do,” he tells The Japan Times. “You don’t need the savvy of a top director like Ridley Scott to realize that any subject so widely known is, in a way, already presold.”
Moses, the son of Hebrew slaves, is adopted by Tuya, wife of the Egyptian pharaoh Seti I. The royal couple raise him alongside Ramses, their natural son. After running afoul of the prince, Moses is banished from the kingdom. While in the wilderness, he receives a message from God telling him to deliver the Hebrews from bondage.
The story was also memorably dramatized in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments,” in which Charlton Heston took on the role of the Old Testament hero.
“It’s fascinating, the junction between history and religion,” says Sigourney Weaver, who plays Tuya. “The question as to whether Moses existed and whether the Exodus took place is not irrelevant, because despite all the ancient Egyptian writings and historical texts, none actually mentioned him or it. It can only be inferred.
“Not to say that Moses didn’t exist or wasn’t a great leader and a universal inspiration. But if you go back to prior movie versions of Exodus, you find that provable accuracy is either missing or just not possible.”
After the content, the main draw of Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” are the spectacular visual effects — something unavailable to DeMille in his time, though the scale of the 1956 film remains quite impressive.
“Ridley is someone most actors will line up to work with,” offers John Turturro, who plays Seti. “His movies are usually very successful and look great on your resume. But it’s understandable the hot water you get into when it’s a historical subject — more, when it’s a biblical subject.”
What does Turturro think of Bale’s comments on Moses? “Christian’s still young,” he states diplomatically.
Scott has drawn some hefty criticism for his casting choices with white actors portraying individuals from the Ancient Egyptian time period. It’s an issue that has touched Sir Ben Kingsley, who plays Nun, the Hebrew slave who informs Moses of his true ancestry. Kingsley is half-Indian, and won an Oscar for his portrayal as Mahatma Gandhi in the 1982 film “Gandhi.”
“The (United States) tends toward a simplistic view of geography and race,” he says. “India is in Asia. Indians are Caucasian despite often being darker-skinned. What Hollywood calls ‘Asian’ is East Asian, and Egyptians were, and I presume still are, Caucasian.”
Turturro says he studied the dynasties of the Ramesside period and points out that most of them were redheads.
“I didn’t feel odd playing Egyptian . . . maybe a bit odd playing an ancient Egyptian. It was all so long ago,” he says, adding in regards to the casting, “Sure, the Egyptians weren’t Nordic, and neither am I. But you know how it is, once controversy enters the picture . . . people are either afraid to address the ‘issue’ or else keep apologizing or explaining.
“To me a central engrossing aspect of ‘Exodus’ is that someone can be raised as something they’re not — like Moses — and then discover he’s part of an oppressed group. . . . So his new identity gives birth to a conscience and he foregoes wealth, power and privilege to become sort of a martyr. At the same time, he leads his people and pursues a mission he feels compelled to undertake.”
Weaver is no stranger to blockbusters. She played the iconic Ellen Ripley in the “Alien” series and Grace Augustine in “Avatar,” the highest-grossing movie of all time. She believes movies can’t be judged by the same criteria as books, especially today.
“As expensive as they now are, films have to consider the bottom line in depth,” she says. “Which, ironically, may mean less depth in the portrayals or veracity. In a fast-moving film like this, with so much material to cover, you have to flesh out the character as best you can.
“You’re given only so many lines, so many scenes. You’re part of the passing — the fast-moving passing — parade. But I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish, character-wise, and impressed by the rest of it. The meld of action and thrills with the time-honored biblical story yields a more indelible experience than any action or historical film.”
Besides Moses, Kingsley’s Nun is the other major Hebrew character in “Exodus.” Like many key characters in historical epics, he is said to be a composite of other individuals. (“Exodus” has been banned in several Muslim countries for straying from its biblical source).
“Nun has a quiet inner strength. He’s older and wiser,” Kingsley says. “I enjoy playing characters who don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves or display obvious emotional or internal conflicts. I find it more interesting when a character reserves a part of himself, when he hides something from the audience.”
Weaver’s characterization was partly inspired by a surprising source.
“In Japanese noh plays, expression basically comes from within and from subtle stylization,” says Weaver, who studied noh early in her career. “The mask is a human symbol. We all try to hide our emotions. If you’re crying, in real life or on stage, you try to hide it. Royalty are even more apt to dissimulate their true feelings.”
Australian-born Edgerton was concerned with “bringing life to one of the most powerful rulers in the ancient world.” The actor read up on Ramses II, who built more temples, monuments and statues of himself (including at Abu Simbel) than any pharaoh.
“That was pretty daunting,” he says. “He was as famous in his day as anyone we can name from the last several centuries — and with power of life and death over everyone in Egypt. He was also worshipped as a god.
“I think a big part of his psychological makeup was being brought up with Moses, their forced togetherness. When this future god-king finds out who Moses was — and that’s a whole class issue, with the royal prince looking down on a whole class of people for their difference — then Ramses is affected by a feeling of revulsion and definitely betrayal. Moses feels betrayed, too. One big theme here is how the closer two people are, the worse enemies they can become.”
The much-anticipated parting of the Red Sea is still the big capper in “Exodus,” just as it was in DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments.” Back then, however, few people openly questioned the story; today the miraculous parting is questioned or posited as a metaphor or interpreted as an actual tsunami.
“We all really decide for ourselves what to believe — what did or didn’t happen,” Weaver says. “The thing is, movies were — and are — a visual medium and a necessarily dramatic one. No, they’re not documentaries and they can’t be faithfully religious re-tellings anymore. Due to more education and because of technology and astronomical costs, movies are their own take-it-or-leave-it category. They’re a form of primarily visual, high-impact, wide-appeal storytelling. They do what books can’t do . . . and books offer what movies don’t. So, fortunately, you can have it both ways.”
Weaver, Kingsley offer up tips for getting into a historic frame of mind
Sigourney Weaver and Sir Ben Kingsley play people from Ancient Egypt in “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” but what are the techniques they use when getting into character?
“One thing you don’t do when you get your costume is think, ‘Oh, that’s Tuya’s costume,’ ” Weaver says. “No. It’s my costume. I’m not on a set, I’m in my own home — my palace, where I and my husband and my son and my foster son Moses live.
“You don’t mentally separate from your character. You are the character. She lives in my body. I’m just the shell. In a way, it’s like time travel or reincarnation . . . and very satisfying!”
Kingsley believes psychology is key to unlocking characters from any time period. Knowing motivation and anxiety is good, but he suggests getting more detailed.
“How does he move? One’s carriage reveals much about self-worth. When he speaks, what’s the volume . . . does he enunciate, how wide is his vocabulary, what does he avoid saying? There is almost as much in what characters choose to avoid as in what they show or announce.
“Finally, when playing someone from another time or culture, don’t assume he is very different — people are people. The emotions of a human are few. It’s the mixture and reactions and situations that make things complex.
“I don’t think the Israelites, the ancient Egyptians or the Japanese of the shogun era or the Vikings were all that different from people today. . . . Today there may be lots new under the sun — but it’s mostly things, not people. People don’t change that much. That’s a good thing for actors.”
The Japan Times has five “Exodus: Gods and Kings” T-shirts to give away. The deadline for entries is Feb. 9. For more information, visit jtimes.jp/film.