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In the eye of the storm

Jim Caviezel, centered and calm, portrays Jesus in 'The Passion of the Christ.' The role proved grueling, physically and emotionally, for the devout Catholic.

February 15, 2004|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

All Jim Caviezel wanted to do was a comedy.

In his beginnings as a starving thespian in Seattle, at least one casting agent agreed with him by telling him he didn't have the chops to be a dramatic actor.

But fate would have it a different way.

More than a decade after his debut in a Seattle dinner theater performance of Neil Simon's "Come Blow Your Horn," the 35-year-old actor is playing one of the most dramatic characters an actor could ask for: Jesus Christ.

Caviezel, known more for playing supporting roles in films such as "The Thin Red Line" or "Frequency," was Mel Gibson's first choice to play the role of Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ," which focuses on the last 12 hours in Jesus' life and explores, in graphic detail, the torture and crucifixion of Jesus. The film will be released Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday.

In the film, Caviezel speaks little, and when he does it is soft-spoken Aramaic or Latin.

Unlike Willem Dafoe's conflicted Jesus in "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988) or Jeffrey Hunter's sweet-natured Jesus in "King of Kings" (1961), Caviezel's Jesus could be a character in a silent film. He evokes emotion mainly through his eyes and through haunting visuals that could have served more as paintings than scenes from a motion picture.

In fact, Caviezel's ability to stir emotion with a glance has become his trademark. "You look into his eyes and there is a whole lot going on," says Rowdy Herrington, director of "Stroke of Genius," in which Caviezel plays golf great Bobby Jones. (That film is set for release April 30.) "It makes you imagine a lot of things."

In the brief moments during the two-hour "Passion" in which Caviezel is not drenched in blood, he emits sincerity with a smile and tenderness with a glimmer in his eyes (which were colored brown in post-production for the part). But it is hard to say whether the average moviegoer will notice him over the unrelenting violence. More than launch his career as a mainstream star, "The Passion" may ignite a fire for him among evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics.

And perhaps it was a role Caviezel, a devout Catholic active in the religious community, was raised to play. Certainly, he was put through a physical test during five months of filming that included a brutal Italian winter. He was struck by lightning on the set. He endured daily eight-hour makeup sessions (from 2 to 10 a.m.) before filming the many bloody scenes of Jesus' scourging, during which he was actually struck several times -- Gibson later said this allowed the makeup people to get a realistic idea of what a welt looked like.

For the crucifixion he was tied to the cross but could hang there for only 10 minutes at a time, which meant it took days to shoot, during which he separated his shoulder and aggravated a previous chest injury. He also got hypothermia from hanging on the cross in a canyon with chilling winds. He also suffered a spinal form of pneumonia and then an infection in his lungs.

"Eventually I had to get to a place that was deeper than my head, I had to get into my heart," he says. "And the only way I could get there was through prayer. It was painful."

But perhaps the most painful experience was hearing charges, leveled by critics who had not seen the final film, that "The Passion of the Christ" was anti-Semitic or had the potential to fuel anti-Semitic attacks.

Caviezel says he was initially concerned how the story would be told. For centuries the Passion plays were used to fuel charges of deicide against the Jews and subsequently years of anti-Semitic attacks. And Caviezel says he wanted no part in that.

"When we first got together to talk about it, I was concerned about what we were going to do with it," he says.

"It was very hard," he says of the weeks when charges of anti-Semitism were made against Gibson and the film. "This [movie] does not condemn an entire race for the death of Christ. It's a movie for all people. It is very important to do it the way it is in the Scripture. That is our faith. It condemns no race."

A man of faith

Caviezel has no qualms about letting the world know he is religious. He is proud of his faith and relishes talking about it -- even though Hollywood publicists have asked him to refrain from proselytizing in interviews.

Talking about religion has not had good results for him in the past. When he made his spiritual beliefs known while doing publicity for "The Count of Monte Cristo" and in subsequent interviews, some members of the press labeled him "a genuine cuckoo in the Hollywood nest," a "zealot" and "an oddity in Tinseltown."

He has raised eyebrows among journalists for talking about visions of the Virgin Mary and for not wanting to do nude scenes with Jennifer Lopez in "Angel Eyes" or Ashley Judd in "High Crimes" for fear of offending his wife of eight years, Kerri, a schoolteacher. But on this cloudy, wintry morning at a Malibu Starbucks, Caviezel clearly does not want to talk about religion.

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