Actress Ayelet Zurer arrives at the Hollywood premiere of "Ben-Hur" this week. Actress Ayelet Zurer arrives at the Hollywood premiere of "Ben-Hur" this week. Actress Ayelet Zurer arrives at the Hollywood premiere of "Ben-Hur" this week. (Photo: Kevin Winter / Getty Images)

Inside the swashbuckling 'Ben Hur' remake with one of its stars

Actress Ayelet Zurer says, 'audiences should prepare themselves for a ride.'

As epics go, “Ben-Hur” is probably the most famous, largely because of the iconic chariot race at the climax of the 11 Oscar-winning 1959 movie starring Charlton Heston. Based on Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel and originally brought to the screen in a 1925 silent film, the ancient story of rivalry, revenge and forgiveness is re-imagined for the modern millennium in a new 3D version culminating in a thrilling chariot race shot in part with Go-Pro cameras. Opening this Friday, “Ben-Hur” is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, with Jack Huston in the title role.

Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer portrays Naomi, the mother of Judah Ben-Hur. “It’s high-stakes drama from the first scene. It’s an emotional roller coaster,” she told From The Grapevine. “The camera work is beautiful, the clothes and sets are unbelievable, it’s cut very tightly, and the story is timeless with relevance today. Audiences should prepare themselves for a ride.”

Adds the director: "There is no airbags. There is no brakes. It's like today's NASCAR."

Confident that Bekmambetov would make it modern and not simply a reproduction of the old movies, Zurer signed on to play the “very protective and controlling” matriarch of the house of Hur, who fights to preserve her family’s elite status quo.

Although she doesn’t appear in the chariot sequence, Zurer was on set at Rome’s famed Cinecitta studios – where the 1959 “Ben Hur” was also filmed – for part of the shoot, as she had to learn to ride a horse for other parts of the movie. “To be there with the horses running around me, the energy was amazing. It was one of the most memorable parts of the movie for me,” says the actress, who enjoyed taking a tour of the historic studio with her son Liad, now 11. “Timur’s office was Fellini’s office,” she notes.

Zurer grew up in Israel on the beaches of Tel Aviv, where as a teenager she decided she wanted to be an actress. She made good on that intention when she received drama training in Israel, and then moved to New York to continue her studies. She starred in several Israeli projects in the late 1990s and early 2000s, winning an Israeli Film Academy Award for “Nina’s Tragedies.” But it was an invitation to read for a famous American director that would change the course of her career forever.

A new mother at the time, Zurer had her hands full. But when she found out that it was Steven Spielberg, she auditioned and won the role of Eric Bana’s wife in “Munich,” which would become her international big break.

Roles in “Vantage Point,” “Angels & Demons” and “Man of Steel” (as Superman’s mom) followed, but she has continued to work in Israel, notably in the series that inspired HBO’s “In Treatment” and CBS’ “Hostages,” winning the Israeli equivalent of the Emmy for both. “I think my best work was ‘In Treatment’ because the writing was so unique, and you don’t get to play a 40-page monologue every day,” she tells us. She also considers playing opposite Vincent D’Onofrio in Netflix’s “Daredevil” last year a career highlight.

Currently, Zurer is working on producing her own movie. “I want to have a little more control over the story and what I can tell or not tell,” reveals Zurer, who would also like to add screenwriting to her resumé.

She lives in Los Angeles with her son and husband Gilad, a surfing instructor who runs camps for kids, but returns to Israel two or three times a year to visit family and do projects like “Shtisel,” a 2013 series that earned her another Israeli Television Academy Award nomination. Zurer, whose name means "morning star," has clearly found the perfect profession.

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Inside the swashbuckling 'Ben Hur' remake with one of its stars
Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer talks about the epic reboot and that fast-and-furious chariot race.