How The Passion Changed Him
Jim Caviezel was already a devout Catholic when he got the role of Christ in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.
But after acting out Christ's harrowing death in the movie (related story, page 5), scheduled to be released Ash Wednesday, he says his faith is stronger still. The actor's career includes a breakout performance in The Thin Red Line, a role opposite Jennifer Lopez in Angel Eyes and the starring part in The Count of Monte Cristo. Register staff writer Tim Drake interviewed him on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
How did you get the part of Christ?
It all started when I got a phone call from my agent saying that Steve McEveety, Mel Gibson's partner, wanted to meet with me on a film called Mavericks. What I later found from Steve and Mel was that was just a front to see what I was really like. So we met at some picnic table up in Malibu, and we started talking.
It went on for about three and a half hours, and Mel finally brings up this story about what he's been thinking about for many years.
He asked, “You know how Jesus really died?” And it hit me and I just said, “You want me to play Jesus, don't you?”
He stopped and looked at me and said, “Yeah.”
The next day he called me and said, “Do you still want to do this movie? If I were you, I wouldn't want to play this role.” It was like he was trying to talk me out of it, because it could be a career killer. And my response was that each one of us has our own cross to carry — we either pick it up and carry it or we get crushed under the weight of it.
Was there anything in particular Gibson had you do to prepare for the part?
Mel and I are just administrators of God's work, and that's all that we continually ask for. And that's why we centered every day on the Mass and receiving the Eucharist. There was not one day that I was on film that I didn't receive Communion. I just try to be the best Catholic. I go back to the truth — what does the Lord want? It always comes down to that — what does the Lord want?
What did you have to go through to make the part work?
This movie was torture right from the beginning in all forms. I was spit on, beaten, and I carried my cross for days, over and over the same road; it was brutal. I had a 2 a.m. call time to get skin and makeup put on for the flagellation and crucifixion scenes, so I was there long before the rest of the cast and crew.
I considered all of it worth it to play this role; it's important to me.
I’ve always made acting follow truth, and Mary has always pointed me toward that truth. I really believe that she was setting me up, getting me ready to play her Son. She architected this whole thing.
People have asked me, “Were you scared about getting this film?” And I say, “Yes, apart of me.” But the other part of me says that I'm absolutely honored that he, through Mary, would pick me to play this role.
How has playing the part of Christ impacted how you pray the rosary?
Before going to the set every day I prepared myself in meditation or through the rosary, always through Mary. I also went to confession, and the Holy Spirit would convict me of my sins. Once I’d done that, the rest was very fundamental; it really was.
The scourging at the pillar, I understand, was a painful scene for you. Literally.
Every day when I came to play, when I started to complain of the pain, that pain gave in to understanding as to what this was like. During the scourging scene, Mel had set it up so there was a board behind my back so the Roman soldiers wouldn't hit me. They were to strike and I could see through a mirror “off-camera” when it was coming.
I had an idea how bad that would hurt, but one of them missed and it hit me, flush, right on the back. It ripped the skin right off my back, but I couldn't scream because the pain knocked the wind out of me. It was so horrendous that my voice got away from me, quicker than I could scream. I fell over and Mel said, “Jim, get back up.” He didn't realize I got hit.
But that mark on my back was the mark that we based all the other scourging marks off of and how it really looked. I wasn't struck again after that, but that incident let me begin to understand what it was like.
What was the experience of the crucifixion scene like?
When I was on the cross, I was in a loincloth in incredibly cold conditions. They stick heaters on both sides of you, but it's useless when the wind just blows past you. I would look out and see a good hundreds of crew members, shaking from the cold, with mittens and scarves and jackets on. And there's nothing you can do because your arms are tied up. So they move the heaters closer, and you start to feel the heat, but when the wind slows down just a little bit it fries your skin off. I remember just calling out to God at one point, “So you don't want this movie to be made?”
One time I was up there for an hour, and because of the wind chill, I had difficulty keeping my core temperature up. It was extremely hard, and I was getting nauseous all the time.
Also, because the makeup was so severe I couldn't see out of my right eye, which caused me to hyper-focus out of the left eye. Because of all the makeup I was wearing, my skin was just ripped to shreds. It was like the healing stages after a sunburn, when you want to itch every single part of your body and you can’t.
As a result of playing this part, I have become even more passionate about the way of the cross. It is about Our Lord's sacrifice for mankind, for our sins, bringing us back to God, and it's love that did this.
Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.