Struck by an Artistic Commission for the Ages
Many know him as the young assistant director dubbed “Lightning Boy” by Mel Gibson during the filming of The Passion of the Christ.
But 24-year-old Jan (pronounced “Yon”) Michelini has accomplished more than just getting struck by bolts from the sky — twice — on the set of an instant cinematic classic. In fact, the young Italian national seemed destined for great things from the day he and his twin sister were baptized by Pope John Paul II. And that was in 1979, when they were only a month old. (They were the new Pope's first baptisms.)
The multitalented young Catholic squeezed in 20 minutes over the phone with Register features editor David Pearson while gearing up for the first exhibit of his sacred and secular paintings in Los Angeles, where he now lives — and while on his way to Mass with Father William Fulco, the Jesuit who translated the Passion script into Latin and Aramaic.
What's a good Catholic like you doing in a place like Hollywood?
[Laughs.] Telling them about Jesus Christ, reminding everyone that he loves them.
How do you do that?
It could be music, it could be movies. And now I've started this adventure with paintings. I am painting mostly faces of Jesus Christ and angels, and I'm trying to go back and paint all the steps that I went through to get to this point.
And that will tell a story about me and maybe give an example, telling people: “You've got to investigate for yourself, you've got to look for him, you've got to ask God to reveal himself to you.”
You're 24 and the world is your oyster. And yet you see yourself as a Catholic with something of an evangelization mission?
Yes, I think so. I think so. … I don't know if I have an evangelical mission exactly; I don't want to dramatize this. I know that I have this responsibility, so I am helping to give Jesus to others. I try to be a good Catholic. I go to Sunday Mass and I put my faith into every [aspect] of my life.
Have you always been a faithful Catholic?
I was raised Catholic; my family got all dressed up and went to Mass every Sunday. And I was happy about that. I didn't have anything against it. But I was not really understanding, and one day I came to the point where I just didn't want to go to Mass anymore. I was, like, 17 years old at the time. And for a couple of years after that, I didn't even want to hear about it. [Eventually] I began praying and asking God to reveal himself to me, to make this faith be really mine and to understand it. I was asking him, “Okay, give me some signs.”
Then I started to work in the movie business and, when I was 21, it happened that I went to shoot this movie with Richard Harris in Morocco. It's called The Apocalypse. I was the assistant director. And one day the director comes in and says, “Jan, one of the actors is not going to make it.” I asked him which role he was supposed to play and he said, “Don't worry. Just go to makeup and put on a beard and a wig.” I said, “What?” He said, “Go, go, go, go! I will show you just what to do.” So I went to makeup and they put a beard and a wig on me and then the director came in and said, “You're playing Jesus.” [Laughs.]
Now, this was not a big role in this movie, but it took 10 days of shooting. I didn't have any lines to say; it was all about movements and expressions of the face. And I really had to get into the seven visions of the Apocalypse. So I went to the desert, speaking with Richard Harris and reading the Bible with him, especially the Old Testament and the Apocalypse [Book of Revelation]. And for me it was sort of a coming back to the faith somehow. That [interior] dialogue started again. That investigation into God.
How long before the Gibson movie was this?
About six months before I started work on The Passion of the Christ. And that was another coincidence; even if I didn't believe in God I would have noticed it. I came back from this movie, The Apocalypse, and I was in my country house, I remember. I picked up a newspaper and I read that Mel Gibson was going to shoot a movie about Jesus Christ. I said to myself, “That's not possible — I just came back from something just like that!”
Mel Gibson was one of my favorite actors and directors. When I watched Braveheart I was crazy about it. I said, “Okay, now you see that, with movies, you can speak about good values; you can tell a story about a good man, about love, about sacrificing for others.” That was a great movie. It was maybe my favorite. So I said, “Okay, Jesus Christ by Mel Gibson. I love this. I want to work on it.”
So I called Rachel Griffiths, an assistant director. And I said, “Do you know who is working on this movie?” She said, “Don't tell me you didn't know that I was doing it.” I did not know that. So she said I could come over to talk about it and maybe work on it. So that's what happened. I took my car and I just drove there, and I got the job.
So Jesus Christ again. I was praying for signs and I was getting them. And then, you know, you probably heard that I got a couple of lightning strikes [on the set of The Passion].
Oh, yes. Thank God you weren't hurt. What do you think God was saying to you there?
He was saying, “Okay, now you've got to think about me seriously again.” So it became a moment when it was not just that I took the lightning strikes. I could see that it was part of a long process. I knew this because of the fact that it happened when I was on the set of The Passion of the Christ, when I was coming to understand the meaning of the Mass.
When the priest holds up the bread and the wine, that is the body and the blood of Christ. And until then, I had never really thought about it. My attention was never focused. They had told me a lot of times, but my attention was not focused. So in making this movie, I understood the meaning of the Eucharist. … It finally made sense to me.
What do you think God is calling you to do next?
I don't know, but I think I have some talents in art things. Film, painting, music — I play piano and compose. … It might be in movies, art, music — I think if that's what God wants me to do, he will give me the power to do it.
Jan Michelini's paintings are on permanent display at the Kolibri Gallery in Rolling Hills Estates, California. Also, the artist has launched a new website, JanMichelini.com.
- June 6-12, 2004