Jesus, he's hot
Hung on a cross, accidentally scourged, Jim Caviezel recounts trials of Passion Despite his strict moral code, actor all the buz
SPECIAL TO THE STAR
LOS ANGELES— Pope John Paul II took a long hard look at Jim Caviezel and asked, "What have you learned in playing Jesus Christ?"
"Well, Holy Father," Caviezel replied, "I've been hanging around with the Italians lately, and I am starting to think that Jesus was Italian."
"Why is that?" the Pope asked.
"Well, think about it," the actor said. "He didn't leave home until he was 30. He always hung out with the same 12 guys and his mother believed he was God."
Okay, that conversation never actually took place. But it did provide Caviezel with a brief moment of levity during an otherwise serious conversation last week about his new movie, The Passion Of The Christ.
The film, which depicts in graphic detail the torture and crucifixion of Jesus, has already created a firestorm of controversy. It arrives in theatres on Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday.
"It is as it was," the Pope is said to have remarked after seeing director Mel Gibson's account of the last 12 hours of Jesus's life. And the Rev. Billy Graham declared it contains "a lifetime of sermons."
Still, Caviezel — looking more like a movie star than a saviour in a black button-down shirt and brown suede jacket — finds himself defending charges that Gibson's movie is anti-Semitic.
"That's just one attack," he acknowledges, quite matter-of-factly. "There will be others. The sad thing about it is that this is the most Semitic-looking Jesus in history. (Gibson) didn't want any blue-eyed, blonde Christ on the cross."
So to further his own vision of authenticity, Gibson coloured Caviezel's trademark baby blues to brown in post production. He also required his entire cast to speak their lines in a number of dead languages (subtitles are provided in English).
"The Aramaic, the Hebrew and the Latin were much easier than the physical requirements," says Caviezel, who endured eight-hour daily makeup sessions — from 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. — and was struck by lightning while shooting the Sermon on The Mount scene.
"I am about 100 feet away from him and I look over and I see lightning coming out of his ears," producer Stephen McEveety recounted after the bizarre October, 2003 occurrence.
Caviezel's reaction? "I think it was a sign I needed to act better."
The devoutly religious actor — best known for his supporting roles in The Thin Red Line and Frequency — found less humour when he was accidentally whacked several times while filming the many bloody scenes of Jesus's scourging.
"There was a board on my back about a half inch thick, so the Roman soldiers wouldn't hit my back, but one of the soldiers missed, hit me square on the back and ripped the skin right off," he told Newsweek.
"I couldn't scream. I couldn't breathe. It is so painful that it shocks your system."
The crucifixion scene was even more painful. Filmed in —4C weather with extremely high winds, he could only be hung on the cross for 10 minutes at a time, so it literally took days to shoot.
During that time, Caviezel aggravated a prior chest injury and separated his shoulder.
"I would only eat a little bit here and there and I lost 15 pounds," he remembers.
"I was throwing up all the time. With the hypothermia, you can't really digest properly."
So why would someone endure so much suffering for a role?
It could have something to do with his own strong religious beliefs.
Caviezel, 35, was born in Mount Vernon, Wash. and raised in a strict Catholic family along with his brother Tim and sisters Amy, Ann and Erin.
He has never hidden his devotion to the Lord — "I love Him more than I ever knew possible.
"I love Him more than my wife, my family" — and he has even allowed his faith and strong family values to influence his career choices.
Caviezel refused to participate in erotic or topless scenes with Jennifer Lopez in Angel Eyes and Ashley Judd in High Crimes and threatened to walk off the set rather than offend his wife of eight years, Kerri, a high school English teacher.
They met on a blind date in 1993 and travel together each year to Bosnia and Croatia.
"I was there in December visiting an orphanage," he shares.
"These kids have no parents, no family, nothing. There was hand-to-hand killing.
"It was very nasty and provokes a thought in people."
With such deep conviction to religious and social issues, it is a wonder Caviezel became an actor and not a priest.
"It's interesting," he says.
"I came home one day and I told my dad, `I think I am supposed to be an actor.'
"He said, `Jim, if God wanted you to do anything, he would want you to be a priest.'"
But what the 6-foot-2 Caviezel really dreamed about was playing in the NBA. "Most people saw me with a basketball, working on my dribbling, shooting, defence," he said in a 1999 interview.
At the University of Washington, he entertained his teammates with impersonations, so when a foot injury left his hoop dreams on the sidelines, Caviezel's coach suggested he give acting a try.
He made his theatrical debut in the Seattle production of Come Blow Your Horn and moved to Los Angeles at 23 to pursue a career on the big screen.
He earned small roles in My Own Private Idaho (1991) and Diggstown (1992) and was soon after accepted to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York.
But Caviezel decided to remain in Los Angeles and eventually landed the breakout role of Private Witt, a young soldier trying to navigate the moral course of war in director Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line.
He has since appeared in Frequency (2000) and The Count Of Monte Cristo (2002), but Caviezel knows that The Passion Of The Christ may well be the work he is most remembered for.
Caviezel says he knew taking on the role of his Lord would be a hefty challenge.
But what if he didn't get it right? Was he ever afraid the one he reveres most might condemn him to a life of eternal damnation?
Caviezel cracks only the slightest of smiles.
"I think he would probably give me a pass because at least I tried."
Special to the star