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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

He waves away a question about where he worships. He says he attends Mass in both Latin [Tridentine] and in English.

How did he prepare for the role of Jesus? "I walked on my pool twice a day -- it's hard to do," he says, smiling.

Looking up from his coffee, he adds quietly, "Not just in our faith, but in any faith, if you put it out there you are subject to be criticized," he says.

Herrington says in Hollywood, as in larger society, religion is a delicate matter. "He has his own beliefs. I think that is a wonderful thing." But, he adds, "We are all a little suspicious of it ... at the same time everybody has an interest in it because we are all on the same train [of life]."

With perfect white teeth, a thick mane of black hair and chiseled cheekbones, Caviezel seems more suited for a Calvin Klein "Obsession" ad than an evangelist. But he says he hopes the film will be a hit at the box office because that might spur Hollywood to make more films with religious themes.

"If you want those kinds of movies," he says in a video that is being shown as part of a grass-roots campaign targeting Christian groups, "You have to support them."

Gibson had other ideas

When Caviezel was called two years ago by Steve McEveety, Gibson's producer, it was initially to talk about the lead in a surfing movie.

Over lunch at a Malibu burger joint, Gibson's attention quickly turned from the surfing movie to the Jesus movie. But they did not click instantly. Caviezel felt intimidated by Gibson and the way the director kept staring at him. Finally Caviezel looked at him and said, "You want me to play Jesus, don't you?"

Gibson and McEveety huddled -- with McEveety confessing that he thought Caviezel was "weird."

But they agreed he was right for the part. "He projects a kind of purity and childlike innocence which I thought was necessary," Gibson says. "He was my first choice."

Later, Gibson would warn the young actor that the role could mark the end of his career -- as much for the religious subject matter as the controversy swirling around the picture.

Gibson now says he didn't really mean it. "I think I did say something like that," he says by telephone. "I was just giving him an out. I was just thinking, 'What is the worst possible scenario? [But] it's not going to end his career."

Caviezel never hesitated.

Born in Washington state in 1968 to practicing Catholic parents, Caviezel is one of four siblings. At the University of Washington, he fell into acting while recuperating from a foot injury; he had entertained his teammates by doing impersonations and his basketball coach suggested he give acting a try.

Soon enough he was acting in Seattle, eventually starring in "Come Blow Your Horn." At 23, he moved to Los Angeles and began looking for work. For five months he struggled. His family was very concerned he would go down the wrong path.

Then he got a small role in "My Own Private Idaho" (1991), then "Diggstown" (1992). Soon after he was accepted with a scholarship into Juilliard. But when he was cast as Warren Earp in Kevin Costner's "Wyatt Earp" (1994), he dropped his plans to attend the prestigious school.

And then Terrence Malick took him under his wing. Malick, who had not directed a film since "Days of Heaven" (1978), was casting for "The Thin Red Line," a metaphysical exploration of the psychological violence of war, released in 1998.

Caviezel landed the role of Pvt. Witt, a young soldier trying to navigate the moral swamps of war. Like Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ," Caviezel's Pvt. Witt said little except with his eyes.

The performance launched his career. "He took a real chance on me, and I am forever grateful to him," Caviezel says. "What I learned from him was that he is very unaffected by [fame]. He is the greatest teacher I ever had."

He's had some good roles -- "Frequency" (2000) and "The Count of Monte Cristo" (2002) -- and some turkeys (most notably "Ed" (1996), a forgotten picture starring a monkey, Caviezel and Matt LeBlanc).

Caviezel's muscular, athletic build -- he ocean swims and learned to play golf for his coming movie about Jones -- is a far cry from his thin and beaten figure in "The Passion of the Christ."

So far in his career, he has had the luxury of walking through life unrecognized. Even publicists arranging his photo shoots have missed him in the crowd. There is a quietness about Caviezel that separates him from the often loud, attention-getting atmosphere of Hollywood.

A few years ago, as he approached the entrance to the premiere party of "Ed," he realized he didn't have a ticket. The guard stopped him at the door.

"No one gave me one," he recalls. "But I didn't want to scream out, 'I was in the movie, man!' I was embarrassed."

And he still wants to do that comedy.

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