This comes as no surprise from the actor, who's been working for nearly three decades, since Steven Spielberg spotted something special in him as a 13-year-old, and cast him in the lead role of 'Empire of the Sun'. 'American Psycho', 'The Machinist' and the 'Dark Knight' trilogy have cemented his unique place on the screen, rewarded with an Oscar for 'The Fighter' in 2010.
In Ridley Scott’s Biblical epic, he takes the lead role of Moses, and talks to HuffPostUK about working through the pain and why he turned to Monty Python for inspiration...
How difficult was it to shoot the battle scenes after the crash you suffered on your motorcycle?
It was okay. I lost all my nerves in one arm but the body is phenomenal. You grow your nerves back about one millimetre a day so I had to wait and wait and gradually they started to develop in my fingers, very slowly. I started to think, ‘Maybe I can make the movie on time.’ And then, eventually, I started to do some archery practice. That was awful because my whole arm was shaking and I couldn’t hold it together, but it was okay in the end because by the time I had to get on a horse and fire a bow and arrow, my nerves had almost completely grown back.
Did you see The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston?
I always loved sword-and-sandal epics when I was growing up. I guess it was on the BBC — they would always show Ben-Hur every Christmas and I would often watch it by myself when my family was still sleeping. And after Ridley came to me with the idea of me playing Moses I first went to 'Life of Brian' and 'History of the World' and that wonderful bit with Mel Brooks where he is going ‘I bring you the 15 commandments! Oops, I bring you the 10 commandments!’ They are great films and so informative. Then I looked at 'The Ten Commandments' and Charlton Heston is so imposing and he is so big. And I knew Chuck. He was a huge guy, and he had the grey streaks in his hair and I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going to do that!’
And then I gave Ridley a fright because the iconic image of Moses is of him with the long hair and the beard — which makes sense because he’s probably not going to be shaving that often in Sinai. I had just made 'American Hustle' and I was shaped like Santa Claus! Also, I had shaved my head with a razor, right down to the scalp, and I walked into the office to see him. He is a much better actor than me because clearly he was thinking, ‘What have I done?’ because I looked the exact opposite of what Moses should be. He should be gaunt and hairy, while I was fat with no hair! He just casually went, ‘Hmm, very short hair.’ But we worked it out!
Why 'Life of Brian'?
Why not? It’s a fantastic film and any excuse to watch it is a good thing. It is very easy when you’re making a film that has this gravitas and weight to it that you can unintentionally start making 'Life of Brian', so you have to watch out for that. We had takes now and then when it became a bit Monty Python, and it was good to have those red flags. So it was good to study it ahead of time. Also, for me, Moses is such an intense character and so relentless that you had to have a little mental break from him, otherwise it’d just be exhausting. So I was singing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,’ and saying, ‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy,’ and that helped me!
When you act with a green screen does it change the way you approach the role?
There wasn’t that much green screen that we were in front of because Ridley created a lot, from the ground up to about 30-feet. That was all real. Above that there was green screen, or no green screen. Actually, when I look back on this film, I think about the incredible locations. I don’t think about any green screens and I love location work more than anything. Ridley found the most incredible beaches and locations that were perfect for the Red Sea and these were just stunning, mind-blowing places. I don’t know how he did it. I don’t recall much green screen.
Do you consider Moses an icon of freedom?
Moses has become a symbol for salvation and revolution in many instances throughout history, and for very good reason. He was the original liberator and also, as you saw from the story, he made a radical transition himself — from the archetypal collaborator with the Egyptian regime, which is presented here as quite a fascist regime, to becoming an archetypal victim of that regime. So his story resonates. He is a very, very human prophet. I read a lot about him and his story is so complex. He is such a fascinating character and it was a shame we only had 2hrs and 20mins because his story is so full. And he was at times such a contradictory character but always engaging and always very extreme. That’s clearly why his story is still so engaging to all of us.
'Exodus: Gods and Kings' is out now on Digital HD and on Blu-ray 3D™, Blu-ray™ and DVD from 27 April.