Actors who play iconic roles sometimes regret it afterward, not least because their careers often suffer later. Jim Caviezel has said Mel Gibson warned him that playing Jesus in The Passion of the Christ would hurt his career — but he has no regrets about playing the most iconic role of all time.
Caviezel never again played a central role in a Hollywood film like Frequency, The Count of Monte Cristo or High Crimes, though he did find mainstream success on the small screen as the lead in the critical and popular hit series Person of Interest, which ran five seasons.
Now, for the first time since The Passion, Caviezel has returned to the Bible-film genre to play the role of St. Luke the Evangelist in the upcoming film Paul, Apostle of Christ, written and directed by Andrew Hyatt (Full of Grace) and produced by Sony’s faith-based label Affirm Films.
Caviezel recently spoke by phone with Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus about his approach to playing iconic roles like Jesus and Luke and the pitfalls of expecting faith-based films to be family-friendly.
Paul, Apostle of Christ will open Wednesday of Holy Week, March 28, 2018.
How does it feel to step back into the world of the New Testament and the Bible film?
As long as it’s good material — that’s what kept me from doing all the ones before The Passion and all the ones after The Passion. Finally I found another good one. It takes a long time to find the right screenplays.
It’s quite remarkable, if you have the right team around you. It’s like that with every film. You might think, “I’d love to do a World War II film,” but if it’s poorly produced, and the set designs aren’t great … all those things have to be part of making it.
Going into that world — playing Our Lord — was … I didn’t know how to do it, and I said, “I’m not going to play Jesus. I want him to play me.” It’s the same thing with Luke. I’m praying very deeply.
Recently, I was watching one of the players of the Dallas Cowboys making the Sign of the Cross before they kicked off to him. I guess when you’ve got those guys running at you, going at full speed, and a collision could happen and you could tear your knee, you gotta go into it knowing [the challenge]. I do the same thing on my films.
I am praying for the audience — that what I read on script is conveyed to the person in the theater, and that they have the possibility of changing their lives. When you are playing Jesus or Luke or Paul … it just requires someone like me to get out of the way. And that’s what I pray about.
As Jesus, obviously you were playing someone for whom, for countless people all over the world, there’s an image that they have in their heads and their hearts that’s very specific. With St. Luke, you’re playing a character whom we meet in the New Testament, if at all, only as an author writing about other people — as it were, behind the scenes, not onscreen. So Luke is less defined in our collective imaginations than St. Paul, and certainly than Jesus.
Does that vagueness about the role make the role more challenging? More liberating? Both at once? Something else?
Yeah, as you say, the vagueness is very difficult. You start talking to the director — Andrew Hyatt wrote the screenplay. I read the Acts of the Apostles and started lifting little clues here and there, and I went to Mass and prayed on them. And then we see how he wrote, how Paul sees [Luke], and I started cross-examining him — and there is a lot of cross-examining and asking him about it — and, slowly, it starts to all come together.
I think one part of it is that he was a physician, and he had this particular lifestyle — he was wealthy, and he left it all. Why? He saw Paul speak. Was it Paul who spoke, or was it Christ speaking through him? I believe it was the latter, and that changed his life. So that’s kind of where I started.
You mentioned turning down a lot of Bible scripts. Obviously The Passion was a divisive film, but it did have an artistic integrity that engaged viewers beyond regular churchgoers. Since then, few Christian films have been that provocative, but most of them are content to preach to the choir, to put it politely. Less politely, most of them stink. Do you have any thoughts about why that is?
Well, there is truth and there is grace. Maybe years ago there was too much of the truth, and they got one side of it — you know: “You screw up, and you go to hell.” Fire and brimstone drove a lot of people away. Nowadays, it’s all grace and no truth. That’s sentimental hogwash. It isn’t truth or grace — both are important.
So when people go out and make movies, they — excuse my grammar — they have a good guy becoming gooder and ending the goodest. Where’s the turns here? Were these guys sinners?
And when you have people more concerned about saying, “We have no swear words; we don’t have this and that.” … Watch Schindler’s List or Private Ryan. You can’t have Tom Hanks running up the beach going: “Get your rootin’-tootin’ butts up here” while a guy gets his brains blown out. This is what happened — this is the reality of sin, and I’m not soft-pedaling it.
But Hollywood does it as well. For example, you make the movie The Count of Monte Cristo, and they may not want “God will give me justice” in there, so they remove it from the screenplay. And if you are going to make Alexandre Dumas, you’ve got to put that back in there. If we’re doing The Count of Monte Cristo, then we have to stay to the spirit of what this man wrote. People do that in screenplays all the time.
The Bible is a living word — it is alive, and it pretty much does what God wants it to do, if we don’t get in its way. The same way when we are making films — that’s why this thing has power behind it. That’s why it had power in The Passion, not just for Christians, because I do believe that Our Lord didn’t just come for the Christians — he also came for those who do not believe.
So is this a harder-hitting film than most films in the Christian movie genre? Do you have any idea what rating it’s aiming for?
I think it probably will be an R. I think it only based on: This is what really happened. It’s hard for me, too, but when you read about the grisly things that Nero did, what do you do? How do you show that? Or don’t show it … maybe you just talk about it. But we chose to show it, just like The Passion of the Christ. This is the reality of it. Also, the reality is Jesus saying, “Do not be afraid — I go before you always; you see greater that is in me than is in this world.”