Playing Jesus

Associated Press

Los Angeles

It 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.

Many days, Caviezel rose at 2 am and spent eight hours in make-up 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 agonising 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. I turned around and looked at the guy, and I tell you, I may be playing Jesus, but I felt like Satan then. 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 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.

He 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 sympathisers 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.”

The oldest son in a family of five children, Caviezel grew up in Washington and settled on an acting career after a foot injury ended his 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 him 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.

Soft-spoken and unassuming, Caviezel often has been cast as sombre, brooding characters with an otherworldly detachment, sound preparation for the role of Christ. He drew heavily on his Catholic upbringing, re-read 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.