Thou shalt not attempt to outdo Charlton Heston. Okay, so that's not an official Hollywood commandment, but the prospect of taking on the role of Moses in Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings (in theaters Dec. 12) did give Christian Bale pause. ''Charlton Heston does Charlton Heston better than anyone,'' says Bale. ''But the biblical account of Moses is extraordinary, and there was lots of room for us to go to places that [Heston's movie] The Ten Commandments never dreamed of going.'' (Bale's biggest stipulation before signing on? ''No fake beards,'' he says with a laugh.)
A pivotal figure in the Old Testament, Moses was a prophet who fought against Pharaoh Ramses to free 600,000 slaves, whom he then led through the desert to escape from Egypt and its 10 deadly plagues. (Along the way he parted the Red Sea and unveiled the Ten Commandments.) But the biblical journey was even more epic than the director remembered. ''What I thought I knew about Moses I didn't really,'' Scott says. ''Either I wasn't paying attention in Sunday school or I had forgotten. I was knocked out by who he was and the basics of the story it has to be one of the greatest adventures and spiritual experiences that could ever have been.''
For his 22nd film, Scott assembled an IMDb-busting cast, including Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, John Turturro, and Aaron Paul. ''When you're Ridley, you pick up the phone and people will turn up,'' says Edgerton (The Great Gatsby), who plays Ramses with a shaved head and eyeliner. ''I had to battle demons of self-doubt to feel like I belonged in this club.''
Production took the cast to Spain, for filming in Almería, along the Mediterranean Sea, and Fuerteventura, one of the Canary Islands. ''It has these stunning beaches,'' Bale says of the picturesque coast. ''It looks like a Tyrannosaurus rex could come running around a corner.'' Edgerton recalls how Scott would whip out a pen and paper on set to draw the complex backdrops that would eventually replace the working greenscreen. ''It would be a quick, one-minute sketch, but you'd suddenly see what's out there,'' Edgerton says. ''Filmmaking for him must be like breathing.'' Bale also has nothing but praise for the veteran director: ''He's got all the passion of a young filmmaker. He's not jaded.''
While the movie delves into rather dark subject matter ''There's nothing mild about the Exodus or Moses,'' says Bale the actors managed to keep their senses of humor. Like when they discovered during the iconic crossing of the Red Sea that Breaking Bad's Paul has a rather sensitive gag reflex. ''Over a series of takes, some of the camels had taken a dump in the sea,'' says Edgerton. ''I guess it didn't smell so good and it kind of wafted up.... It became a real problem for him.'' He laughs. ''And you don't want me or Christian to have that to hold over you!"
So, yes, the shoot was camel-filled and intense, but even with its elaborate battle sequences, it clocked in at an efficient 74 days. ''I still privately don't know how we did it, but we did,'' Scott says. ''I haven't had that much fun in a while.''