A Heavy Cross To Bear

Friday, February 20th, 2004
New York Daily News

Jim Caviezel, the 35-year-old actor who plays Jesus in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," doesn't believe the R-rated movie is suitable for everyone. "I don't think that kids under 12 should be seeing this thing," he says, but then qualifies the thought. "On the other hand, maybe this film would be good for kids living in violent areas - who see people dying every day."

The movie, opening Wednesday, has started a public firestorm with its alleged anti-Semitism.

It will be sure to stir further controversy with its graphic depictions of Jesus being brutalized and crucified.

"Mel wanted to take Jesus out of the mythological captivity of fairy tales and show the reality of Christ's suffering," says Caviezel. "There's nothing gratuitous about the violence whatsoever."

When asked about the charges of anti-Semitism, Caviezel says, "We don't look at it and say, 'Oh, well the Jews killed Jesus.' No, we killed Him. Our sins put Him up there. He didn't die for the people back then. He died for the past, present, the future. He died for us now.

"I think that the character and the story speak for themselves," he adds, "and that the controversy is creating a healthy dialogue. But I do wish people would back off and let Mel alone. You know, this is America - you can believe what you want and express your faith through your art, and that's what we have done."

Caviezel, like Gibson, is a devout Catholic. Born in Mount Vernon, Wash., he got his start playing small parts in films like "Diggstown" (1992) and "Wyatt­ Earp" (1994). But it was his lead performance as a soulful G.I. in Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" (1998) that brought him to Gibson's attention.

"I had Jim in mind to play Jesus from the very beginning," Gibson says. "I saw in him a kind of childlike simplicity, a sense of the serene. It almost seemed like he was too good for this world, that he was this pure spirit, you know?

"For most of us, it gets knocked out along the way, mostly due to betrayal. I remember looking at my mom after the first day of school and thinking, 'How could you leave me there with those savages?' But somehow Jim survived it all with his innocence intact."

Caviezel's physical endurance was severely tested during the long sequence of Jesus' persecution by barbaric Roman soldiers.

"Yeah, it was torture [for Jim] - pure and simple," Gibson admits. "Ten hours of makeup, of having these pieces slapped on him with airplane glue, hypothermia and frostbite and injuries and physical hardship.

"We tried our best to make him comfortable, but sometimes I'd get to planning the next shot, or get caught up in something, and I'd forget that he's up there on the cross.

"What's funny is that you can become so callous so quickly. I wouldn't have blamed him if he'd gotten a little hot under the collar, but the guy didn't flinch one time, didn't even get slightly testy. He really did suffer for his art."

But Caviezel admits to losing his patience at least once. He "got hit twice during the whipping scene. I may have been playing Jesus, but I felt a lot more like Satan for a couple moments when I jerked out of my chains, turned around and let out a few expletives at the guy playing the guard. I had a 14-inch gash on my back."


But it was worth it apparently.

"Honestly, you couldn't play a part like this and not be affected by it," he says. "Everything that I learned from my faith growing up, all those things became critical. I was sleep-deprived, in pain, freezing, and I reached a point where I'm up on this cross, screaming out in my mind, 'We're just these little people on this earth trying to have some form of communion with You [God] and You don't care.'

"And then I heard this gentle voice inside me and I realized I had nowhere else to go but into the arms of God, asking Him to guide me."

As to the impact "The Passion of the Christ" might have on his career, Caviezel says, "Someone asked me if I was worried that playing Jesus might get me stuck in the role in people's minds.

"Funny thing is, I was actually looking for a comedy when Mel offered me this role, and I thought, 'My God, I'll never get a comedy.' But when I first started in this business, I did a Neil Simon play in Seattle, and a casting director told my manager, 'He's a great comedic actor, but he has no talent for drama.'"

Caviezel has several films in the can, including the Robin Williams sci-fi film "The Final Cut" and "I Am David," a World War II-era drama. He starred in the revenge thriller "Highwaymen," which opened in limited release earlier this month.

"I also just got done playing the legendary golfer and Grand Slam winner Bobby Jones in 'A Stroke of Genius,'" he says. "One guy with a Georgia accent walked up to me and said, 'Y'all just got done playin' the Messiah, now you're playin' the Messiah of golf.'" The film is scheduled to open in April.

Having played Jesus on the cross, however, Caviezel understandably wants to savor the moment.

"This film inspires greatness," he says of "The Passion of the Christ," "and there was never a moment when I didn't share Mel's dream. If Terrence Malick was like a father to me, Mel was like a brother. I wanted to kiss him every day."

"Yeah, it didn't quite come to that," Gibson says with a laugh.

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