VanCamp takes on Morocco’s heat and surly camels for Ben Hur remake

There’s an old joke about a review of Ben Hur that goes like this: “Loved Ben, hated her.”

Emily VanCamp plays Ben Hur’s wife Esther in a Canadian remake of the classic tale Ben Hur

Emily VanCamp plays Ben Hur’s wife Esther in a Canadian remake of the classic tale Ben Hur

There’s an old joke about a review of Ben Hur that goes like this: “Loved Ben, hated her.”

Her, in this case, is Emily VanCamp, and there’s just no hating her. The sunny, 23-year-old actress plays Esther in the new, Canadian co-produced two-part TV movie Ben Hur. Part One premieres Easter Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBC and ABC.

VanCamp, a native of Port Perry, Ont., now lives in Los Angeles where she’s a regular on ABC’s Sunday night soap, Brothers & Sisters. She was back in Canada this week to help promote Ben Hur, attending a screening in Montreal Wednesday with several members of the Canadian crew.

Ben Hur was shot in Morocco, where VanCamp spent 2 1/2 months last spring and summer.

“It becomes excruciatingly hot there,” she said, especially for the male members of the cast who were often “racing around in chariots and doing all this sword fighting and other physical activity. In that heat it was unbearable.”

The sword-and-sandals epic stars Joseph Morgan (Master and Commander) as Judah Ben-Hur, the Judaean forced into slavery and famously portrayed by Charlton Heston in the 1959 Oscar-winning Best Picture of the same name.

VanCamp plays his wife, Esther, with Hugh Bonneville, Ray Winstone, Ben Cross, Alex Kingston and VanCamp’s fellow Canadian Kristin Kreuk (Smallville) rounding out the cast.

With so many Brits in the company, VanCamp had to affect an English accent in order to “blend in,” she says. Working opposite so many British actors helped her keep her accent in check. “At one point I was told I was sounding a bit posh,” she says. “I tried to tone that down a bit.”

VanCamp says this Ben Hur departs from the 1880 book and classic film adaptations in several ways and is very much a modern re-telling of the story. The major plot points remain, however, including themes of “justice and revenge and betrayal and forgiveness,” says VanCamp.

“There are a lot of moments where you’re going, ’Really? I think you’re overreacting a little!”’

One of her most vivid memories of the production was getting to ride a camel, although she says the experience may not be for everybody.

“I’ll tell you one thing about Morocco,” says VanCamp. “They do not have the same safety codes on film sets as they do in North America.”

Getting on and off the camel was “incredibly nerve wracking,” she says. “They’re incredibly miserable, mean-spirited, they spit and they smell,” she says. Plus they “talked” all over her lines. “They make this dinosaur noise and they would do it all over my lines. They’re the biggest divas I’ve ever met.”

And VanCamp’s met a few, although she’s far to polite to describe any of her Brothers & Sisters co-stars that way. That large ensemble includes Sally Field, Calista Flockhart, Rob Lowe and Rachel Griffiths. VanCamp says they still have two or three episodes left to shoot this season and she doesn’t know exactly where it is all heading, although “everyone knows about Rob Lowe’s departure. None of us know how he’s going yet. There’s always a bit of drama going on and it’s hard for me to keep up with it.”

VanCamp admits she was a bit intimidated when she joined Brothers & Sisters in 2007. She’d been on executive producer Greg Berlanti’s previous drama, Everwood, but this cast was a whole other level of Hollywood A-listers.

According to co-star Griffiths, VanCamp kept her cool and never let the others see her sweat.

“Emily added a wonderful colour when she came into the show,” says Griffiths. She remembers VanCamp’s first day on the set where she had to walk in cold and deliver a big speech in front of the entire cast.

“I’m sure she was nervous,” says Griffiths. “She gave a speech and walked out of the room and we all looked at each other and said, ‘She kind of nailed it.”’

The young actress owes her cool to years of dance discipline. As a young teen, VanCamp attended the training program for Les Grand Ballets Canadiens in Montreal. TV work followed, including roles on the star-making YTV series Are You Afraid of the Dark? That series helped launch the careers of fellow Canadians Elisha Cuthbert, Jay Baruchel and Laura Vandervoort (V).

Re-connecting with her Canadian roots has been a high point of this promotional stint. VanCamp hopes to celebrate Easter with family as she swings back into Ontario this weekend before heading back to Brothers & Sisters.

The four hour, two-part mini-series Ben Hur begins Easter Sunday, April 4 at 8 p.m. on CBC and ABC, concluding the following Sunday, April 11, at 8 p.m.