Skip to comments.CHRIST COMPLEX - Interview with actor Jim Caviezel
Posted on 12/27/2002 10:08:15 AM PST by NYer
Make me a channel of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow your love, and where there is injury, your pardon, Lord. And when there's doubt, new faith in you.
The Prayer of St. Francis
The cross sits on the crest of a hill in the windswept, ancient section of the Italian town of Matera. The temperature is frigid. And the man nailed to the cross, wears only a loincloth, is covered in blood, with his flesh shorn from much of his body.
Jim Caviezel, who plays Jesus in the new Mel Gibson film The Passion, is beyond cold. Beyond bone-tired. Beyond explaining coherently the hell of shooting a film about the last 12 hours of Christ's life, and specifically the Crucifixion, which has meant this actor has been trussed, practically naked, to a cross in a field in southern Italy for the past 15 days.
So he tries to paint a mental picture. "Put a cross on the edge of the Grand Canyon, surrounded by thousand-foot cliffs, all around you. The wind whips down the ravine, where the river is at the bottom, and when it hits that island you're on, it literally shoots up the side of the hill," says Caviezel, who speaks softly, wearily.
"When it hits the cross, several feet up in the air, it's just bone-chilling. Crazy. The cross starts to sway and you think, it's going to break. All you do is shake -- and pray -- all day."
Caviezel, who sailed through some pretty rigorous scenes while filming Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, and more recently, The Count of Monte Cristo, says he has never been so exhausted, in so much mental and physical pain.
"After my first day on the cross, I had borderline hypothermia," he says with a dry laugh. "So they brought out heaters. That worked great when the wind was up, but when it died down, the heaters would burn my leg. I'd try to eat something, but just get nauseous. I knew this role would be the hardest, most difficult of my career. It has also been incredible. Right now, in the middle of it, all I do is take one day at a time."
In Hollywood, Caviezel is known as Gentleman Jim. The devout Catholic and devoted husband to his schoolteacher wife, Kerri, politely refused to do a love scene with Jennifer Lopez in last year's Angel Eyes, until she covered those famous breasts. He's also the guy with eyes like windows. Blue pools, so cloudless, they seem liquid, transparent. On the screen, Caviezel's natural intensity can unnerve. He seems to stare back at audiences, as if he's in a trance or hyperfocused on a different plane the rest of us don't know about.
With his coal-black hair, tall, lean build and angular face, he looks, frankly, just as you'd like to envision the Son of God. Caviezel was Gibson's first choice. It's the fourth time, Caviezel says, he has been offered the role of Jesus. Before, he's always said no. This time he took the Aussie-bred director's offer because Gibson -- a deeply devout Roman Catholic himself, who has a private chapel in the backyard of his home in Malibu, Calif. -- understood the importance of this project. Promised to treat it with the respect it deserves. And, above all else, is committed to recreating Jesus's last hours -- from the Garden of Gethsemane to his death -- as authentically as possible. This will be nothing like a Ben Hur-type epic recreation. Or a bizarre account like Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ.
Gibson and Caviezel plan to show, in a brutal, honest way, how Jesus perished. The actors will speak only the ancient languages of Hebrew, Latin and Aramaic. There will be no subtitles. (Hollywood is agog.)
And since Christ was tortured beyond reason, Caviezel is immersed in this living hell.
"Right now, it's an absolute necessity to pray all the time," confesses Caviezel, on a cellphone, while driving with his assistant Cassie through the mad streets of Rome. "And I don't just pray with my head, but from the heart. It's the only way I can find any peace," says the actor, who apparently never takes off a cross-shaped scapular that declares, in the event of mortal emergency: I am Catholic, please call a priest.
"God always gives you great strength. And great love. And peace, all those things. So I ask Him all the time, I say, 'Holy spirit, please fill me. Jesus love me. God save me. And I keep saying it over, and over, and over again."
The physical and emotional torment, aside, Caviezel nevertheless insists he's thrilled -- no, honoured -- to be part of Gibson's film. "Doing this movie, particularly at this time of year, it's extraordinary," Caviezel says. He also believes it was meant to happen, was almost preordained.
"I believe there are no coincidences. The fact Mel came to me when I was still 33 years of age [the same age Christ died], there was a reason. I believe that Our Lord meant it. I believe He has a great hand in this film. That's why I'm continually asking Mary for help, to show me the perfect way to be her son."
The film, which will shoot in Italy until February, is clearly a labour of love, as well, for Gibson, describes himself as an old-fashioned Catholic (the former Road Warrior will only attend Mass if it's said in Latin).
He has seen the raised eyebrows among his film peers in Los Angeles. He has heard their derision and snickers. Gibson admits the dead-language thing has made it difficult, nay, impossible, to find a distributor. But Gibson, who is both directing and financing the project, has kept faith in his original vision of this biblical drama.
At a press conference in Italy recently, the Academy Award-winning director of Braveheart joked that no U.S. studio wants to touch his movie with a 10-foot pole. "They think I'm crazy," says the action hero of such flicks as Mad Max, Lethal Weapon and The Patriot. "Maybe I am. But maybe I'm a genius. I want to show the film without subtitles. Hopefully it'll be able to transcend the language barriers with visual storytelling."
Much of the script, which Gibson co-wrote, is based on the diaries of St. Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824) as collected in the book The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Mary Magdalene will be played by Italian seductress Monica Bellucci. The screenplay was translated into Latin and Aramaic by a Jesuit linguistics scholar based in Los Angeles.
Caviezel -- pronounced ka-VEEZ-uhl -- is confident, too, that people will get the film, understanding the message of the movie without the aid of subtitles. "You'll understand from your heart, is all I can really say to you," he says earnestly as the mad Roman taxis roar noisily in the background. "I admire Mel Gibson for sticking to a project like this because no one else would do this. The guy's energy is extraordinary. That's one of his gifts. To be able to go as long, and as hard as he can," says Caviezel, who has been camped out with Gibson, the largely Italian cast and crew in the area of Italy known as Basilicata since early November. "I've seen great peace in this man, it's continually evolving inside him as this film is going on. There's a beautiful feeling on the set. There are days that are hard for all of us . . . and he has strong opinions about things. But in his heart, he really loves people."
Caviezel recounts the day that Gibson called him at his home in Los Angeles to offer him the part. "From the moment he asked me, I thought, Oh man. Do I finally take the plunge? Half of me wanted to say no. And the other half said, Don't think, just react. So I said yes.
"Mel called me back the next day, and almost tried to talk me out of it," Caviezel recalls. "He said, 'Do you have any idea how hard this is going to be? I've got to tell you, I wouldn't even want to play this.'
"I said, 'Well, we each have our own cross to bear, don't we?' "
On the day of this interview, Caviezel has just wrapped a 17-hour day of Christ's interrogation, weighed down with ropes and chains, at the mercy of Pontius Pilate and his centurions. That was a cinch compared with the cross scenes, which he adds, thankfully, are almost all behind him. The flagellation of Christ is still to go. And that makes Caviezel feel, frankly, sick all over again.
"To have the look of a man who has been scourged, beaten until the flesh hangs in shreds from his body, means makeup sometimes takes eight hours. I get up at 2 in the morning, to be ready to go on set by 10 or 11," says Caviezel. "Imagine a sunburn when it's got to the itchy stage. That's what it feels like, and sometimes if the weather is bad and we can't shoot, I have to sleep in it."
Apparently, his portrayal of Christ is so eerily real, so true, that the good folk of Matera are regularly rocked by the sight of Caviezel as he walks the tumbled streets, attends daily communion at Don Angelo's church, and chants his rosary. The actor admits he tends to get two reactions: They either shriek with laughter. Or they fall on their knees at his feet, lay their hands on him, and chant, "Jesu! Jesu!"
"A lot of times I'm so focused, that I don't hear anything," Caviezel continues in that quiet, solemn monotone that puts your skin on edge. "I find the polar nature of their reactions fascinating. You can almost pick out from their behaviour, the side of the fence people would have been on in Christ's time. It's wild, man."
The Passion is the first film Gibson has committed to direct since his Oscar sweep with Braveheart in 1995. The story, apparently, has been on his mind for 10 years. He's paying for it. He personally scouted the locations. He's as intense on the set as his leading man.
A few weeks ago, he told a member of the foreign press, in halting Italian, that this project is "buono per l'anima, non buono per il portafoglio," which means, good for the soul, not good for the wallet.
As a man who respects the old traditions of the Roman Catholic Church and has apparently consulted with the Vatican on the direction of the film, Gibson has vowed to shoot everything as close as possible to how it happened 2,000 years ago. Hence the location of Matera, in an area called Sassi (abandoned 50 years ago), which looks very similar to Jerusalem, with its ancient ruins and caves.
"I think this is a pretty timeless and timely story to tell, involving an area where there's turbulence now, just as there was turbulence then, because history repeats itself. I want to show the humanity of Christ as well as the divine aspect," Gibson told a reporter recently. "It's a rendering that for me is very realistic and as close as possible to what I perceive the truth to be."
On the set, Caviezel admits he's often sad, silent, pensive and irritable -- a testy Christ. Such is the cross he has to bear. This is a role he's taking to heart. It is ripping him inside out. But he had no choice, he explains, it was a role of lifetime. Something he was destined to play.
Caviezel grew up an overachieving straight arrow in a Skagit Valley town, just south of Mount Vernon, Wash. He was one of five kids in a close-knit family brought up worshipping Catholicism and basketball. Early in his career, he struggled to find roles. His first was a bit part in My Own Private Idaho, followed by a few lines in Kevin Costner's western, Wyatt Earp.
To weather the rejection, Caviezel prayed to the patron saint of acting, St. Genesius of Arles, and St. Anthony of Padua, who helps find scripts.
According to a magazine interview several years ago, Caviezel believes God and the saints showed him the way, and helped him land plum parts. Mary led him to choose acting over basketball. He believes that saying the rosary before auditioning for the part of the spiritual hero Witt in The Thin Red Line helped land him that breakthrough role. (At the premiere for that film, co-star and pal Sean Penn reportedly went up to Caviezel, put his arms around his shoulders, and whispered, "I don't know how you're going to last in this business. You don't fit in.")
Indeed, but Caviezel's doesn't want to. He is proud of his faith, but he doesn't walk around with a Bible in his back pocket, quoting scriptures, trying to convert the unclean. Caviezel and his wife, Kerri, also Roman Catholic, just do their own thing, follow their own spiritual path.
A few years ago, Caviezel says, he visited the village of Medjugorje in Bosnia, where Mary is reported to deliver a message to the world once a month. (She's been appearing since 1981.)
That was a turning point, says the actor. "I felt extraordinary peace and love there, in this little town of 300 families. The sun literally dances in the sky. It's the only place Slobodan Milosevic couldn't get with his guns. They'd fly missions over this little town, try to drop bombs, and clouds would come up and they couldn't find it. That place led me to this role. It was Mary, again, who led me to do this."
Tomorrow, Caviezel will slip out of Jesus's cloak and loincloth and put on street clothes. He's heading back to L.A. for a two-week break for Christmas. On the one hand, he's relieved. On the other hand, he's terrified. Slipping out of this character doesn't seem right. And he knows he's returning in the New Year to the flagellation scene, which will be horrific.
"From all the depictions I've read, what actually happened to Jesus Christ is worse than anything we're showing. Mel and I grappled with going all the way with it. But we couldn't do that, to Him, or to our audience. The third whip they used on Him had hooks in it, which literally tore the flesh off His body. He was shredded. He would have just been a slab of meat. It was just nasty, man."
So they drew the line at that kind of gore and torture. "It would've reached a point where people would have been so hardened inside, that they could not have gotten anything out of it. We didn't want to do that."
This film isn't about passion, Caviezel adds, it's about convergence. In other words, changing your heart. Coming back to God.
While hanging on the cross, Caviezel confesses he keeps a tiny piece of wood, reputedly a relic from the cross that Jesus was actually on, in the left pocket of his loincloth. It was a gift from a visionary in Bosnia. It gives him strength.
"The world right now is becoming a living, walking hell," says the Hollywood actor, with the looks of a supermodel and the soul of a saint. "This film asks basic questions: It asks why are we not happy? Why are we tearing each other apart?"
Working on this movie, he adds, has been the greatest lesson of his life. "I want to bring mankind back together, that's all," he says, as the cellphone static begins to crescendo. "It won't be me doing it. I just want to be the instrument."
"After my first day on the cross, I had borderline hypothermia"
This is a very disturbing report. I'm really disappointed in Mel Gibson, who is the producer. Couldn't he have found a warmer climate for Caviezel to do his difficult outdoor scenes in? Mel Gibson loses several points for this. I hope I never forget how poorly he treats his fellow actors.
I believe that Our Lord meant it. I believe He has a great hand in this film. That's why I'm continually asking Mary for help, to show me the perfect way to be her son."
This will be troubling to watch. I agree, homeschool. I pray that God blesses this work.
Sorry .... forgot to bump you!!
"After my first day on the cross, I had borderline hypothermia"
Sorry you don't understand. The guy was tied practically naked to a cross in FRIGID weather for 15 days, he had borderline hypothermia, they had heaters blasting on him that burned his skin. I find that to be poor treatment of an actor.
Wouldn't it have been more sensible to do those difficult scenes in a warmer climate? Mel Gibson, as the producer, had a responsibility to see that the working conditions were better. Was it all just to save a few bucks? They could have done those outdoor scenes ANYWHERE.
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