LOS ANGELES — Playing Jesus meant a world of torment for Jim Caviezel, who stars in Mel Gibson’s ferociously violent “The Passion of the Christ.”
Caviezel dangled nearly naked on a cross in bone-chilling winds through weeks of filming. He was struck by lightning during a recreation of the Sermon on the Mount. An actor playing a Roman torturer cut a 14-inch gash in Caviezel’s back during scenes of Christ’s scourging.
He dislocated his shoulder carrying the cross, caught pneumonia and a lung infection, endured cuts, scrapes and backaches from the chains he bore.
A devout Roman Catholic, Caviezel, 35, would not have had it any other way.
He previously had turned down the role of Jesus in a play and two TV projects but accepted this time because he sensed Gibson’s commitment to telling the story without restraint.
“I didn’t look at it and go, ‘Gee, I’m Catholic, and I’m going to play Jesus,”’ Caviezel said. “The other times, I said no, not interested. Not unless you’re really going to go there. That’s where Mel and I both share the same common denominator. I want the absolute fullness of the truth, or I don’t want to do it at all.”
Gibson’s approach to that truth is a gory rendering that will test the emotional stamina of moviegoers as Roman soldiers sadistically carry out the lashing and execution while Christ quietly endures.
The pain of creating a realistic performance
Many days, Caviezel rose at 2 a.m. and spent eight hours in makeup to simulate the wounds: An eye swollen shut from a beating, the crown of thorns, welts and torn flesh from head to toe.
The prolonged scourging sequence is as agonizing to watch as the Crucifixion, when nails are driven through Christ’s hands and feet. Caviezel was chained to a post with a board set up behind him to absorb the blows.
At one point, Gibson instructed the two actors inflicting the beating to hurl their lashes overhand as if throwing a baseball. Caviezel took a blow to his back after one of the actors aimed poorly.
“It just extended over the board and hit me with such a velocity that I couldn’t breathe,” Caviezel said. “It’s like getting the wind knocked out of you. The stinging is so horrific that you can’t get air.
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“I turned around and looked at the guy, and I tell you, I may be playing Jesus, but I felt like Satan at that moment. I turned to him, a couple of expletives came out of my mouth.”
Moments later, Caviezel was struck again, the lash slicing the gash in his back.
A lot to suffer, considering Gibson’s camp originally approached Caviezel about doing a surfing movie. Caviezel turned up for a meeting with Gibson’s producing partner, Stephen McEveety, and talked awhile about the surfing flick.
“Then I ended up finding out that was just a front,” Caviezel said. “The real purpose was, old Mel Gibson comes in and sits down, and the story sort of changes to what really went down during the passion of Christ.”
Caviezel defends the extremes to which Gibson went on the violence, saying it was necessary to authentically portray Christ’s suffering. Likewise, shooting the dialogue in Aramaic, the language of Christ, and Latin lends a visceral effect that heightens the sense that viewers are eavesdropping on the Crucifixion rather than watching a cinematic restaging, Caviezel said.
The actor also defends Gibson over criticism from some Jewish and Christian leaders that the movie could provoke anti-Semitism and revive the notion that Jews collectively were responsible for Christ’s death.
“The Passion” depicts Jewish elders, backed by a screaming mob, pleading with Roman governor Pontius Pilate to crucify Christ. It also shows Jewish sympathizers of Jesus: Mary Magdalene, Christ’s disciples, Simon of Cyrene, who helps carry the cross and is identified in the film’s dialogue as a Jew.
“There’s no broad brush applied here to any particular group. Mel says this quite frequently, that this film does not play the blame game,” Caviezel said. “That crowd standing before Pilate does not condemn an entire race for the death of Christ any more than the heinous acts of Mussolini condemn all Italians or the vicious acts of Stalin condemn all Russians. We’re all culpable in the death of Christ. My sins, your sins, all of our sins put him up on that cross. ...
“If anti-Semitism was in any way at play here, I would have said, ‘I’m not doing this, Mel. I don’t care who you are.”’
On set, Gibson often sounded out Maia Morgenstern, a Jewish actress from Romania who plays the mother Mary, to make sure the film’s action and trappings fit Judaic traditions, Caviezel said.
“He wanted to make the most Semitic Mary and the most Semitic Jesus there has ever been. No blue-eyed, blond Jesus. Mel said from the start, this was going to be very Semitic, and he kept to the traditions,” Caviezel said. “And Maia, who’s more fit to speak about this than any of us, has said unequivocally that this film is not anti-Semitic.”
The intense scrutiny the film is receiving is a new experience for Caviezel, who has quietly built a solid list of credits in lower-profile movies, mostly with supporting or ensemble roles.
Brooding and soft spoken
The oldest son in a family of five children, Caviezel grew up in rural Washington and settled on an acting career after a foot injury ended his college basketball days.
After moving to Los Angeles, Caviezel worked his way up from bit parts in “My Own Private Idaho,” “Wyatt Earp” and “The Rock” in the early to mid 1990s, eventually landing a solid supporting role in “G.I. Jane.”
Terrence Malick then cast him in a pivotal role in 1998’s war epic “The Thin Red Line,” with the little known Caviezel holding his own in an ensemble that included Sean Penn, George Clooney, Nick Nolte and John Cusack.
The exposure helped Caviezel land major roles in the thrillers “Frequency,” co-starring Dennis Quaid, “Angel Eyes,” with Jennifer Lopez, and “High Crimes,” starring Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman. Caviezel had the title role in the 2002 update of “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
Upcoming films for Caviezel — who lives near Los Angeles with his wife, Kerri, an English teacher — include the science fiction thriller “The Final Cut,” starring Robin Williams, and the golfing film biography “Bobby Jones, Stroke of Genius,” in which he plays the lead. Caviezel also stars in the current murder thriller “Highwaymen,” playing in limited release.
Soft-spoken and unassuming, Caviezel often has been cast as somber, brooding characters with an otherworldly detachment, sound preparation for the role of Christ. He drew heavily on his Catholic upbringing, reread the Gospels and studied writings of Christian mystics and other literature about Jesus’ final hours.
Caviezel also prayed for guidance, particularly during the rigors of the Crucifixion scenes, when he would be shouting down to the filmmakers to begin shooting so he could come down off the cross and warm his freezing body.
“At some point, I said to God, ‘You obviously don’t care if we get this done. You don’t care if we do this,”’ Caviezel said. “It was at that point that I realized the only way I was going to be able to do this was getting to a place of prayer that came from here (placing a hand over his heart), not from here (pointing to his head).
“It forced me into the arms of God. That’s the only place I could go. That’s when God’s voice came to me. ‘Hey, don’t you worry about it. Let me take care of it, and will you allow me to use you to play?’ And that’s when I just said, ‘All right, I’m going to let you perform, and I’m going to step out of the way.’
“That was the key to this film. I didn’t want people to see me. I just wanted them to see the Christ.”