By Sara Vilkomerson
July 01, 2014 at 03:53 PM EDT
Kerry Brown

Thou Shall 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. “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.”

NEXT: More exclusive images from Exodus

“He’s one of the most fascinating characters that I’ve ever studied,” says Christian Bale of playing Moses. “I think Achilles is described as the most passionate man alive but I think Moses would give him a very good run for his money.”

NEXT: Is that really you, Joel Edgerton? 

Joel Edgerton certainly looks dramatically different than he has in previous film such as The Great Gatsby or Animal Kingdom. “You take the hair off a man you never know what he’s going to look like. It’s like when you throw a bucket of water on a little dog,” jokes the actor. “When Ridley first called me I have to admit I was like, ‘Really, me—Pharaoh of Egypt?’ But he made it work.”

NEXT: Ridley Scott and Sigourney Weaver are together again 

Weaver and Scott’s first collaboration was 1979’s Alien. They re-teamed in 1992 in 1492: Conquest of Paradise and for their third outing, Exodus, Weaver plays Tuya, mother of Ramses.

NEXT: The complicated relationship between Moses and Ramses 

Ramses and Moses begin our story as close allies, having grown up together almost like brothers. “There’s a deep connection between the two of us,” says Edgerton. “It becomes a really complicated relationship that starts with a lot of love and companionship and ends with destruction.”

David McNew/Getty Images

For more on Exodus, pick up the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Friday.

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