It's in demand, so here it is, folks -- the full length of the interview I did with Jim Caviezel for Our Sunday Visitor last year (in English).
Playing Jesus Christ is no easy task, says James Caviezel, who plays the Lord in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion.” Caviezel has made it to the big-time in Hollywood, which is an unusual situation for a devout Catholic. He played the title role in The Count of Monte Cristo and is filming for two more movies to be released next year. He took some time while he was in Atlanta filming “Stroke of Genius” on Bobby Jones, and going to a meeting with Gibson to talk with Our Sunday Visitor.
Our Sunday Visitor: What is it like portraying your Lord and Master?
James Caviezel: The positive side is, I’m honored; the other side of me is, “Why would You pick a sinner like me?” Since I was picked, I tried to focus on being grateful that I was being asked to do it.
How it felt was, what I don’t think people can understand, is there was no time playing it where it was ever comfortable, so when I was finished playing it, I was glad to be done. It was excruciating. I don’t know if people want to hear that, but after some point you don’t really care anymore. At the end of the filming, we were taking the pictures together, all of us, and I was next to Mel and he had his arm around me and I had my arm around him, and all of a sudden he said, “Wow We’re almost finished” and then his back began to vibrate, and I looked over and he was crying, he had his head down and he was weeping. I didn’t feel that at all. It was just so bloody painful. There was nothing ever comfortable, from wearing the make-up, to... It would be so hard to do it again. I knew it was going to be painful doing it, but...
OSV: I understand it was literally painful for you. You got hit accidently once by the scourging.
Caviezel: I got hit twice by the scourging. That was just in the scourging scene. There were numerous times where they had whips while I was carrying the cross and I got scourged and I couldn’t drop the cross because it was so bloody heavy; Mel made that thing so heavy. If it hadn’t been for my years of playing competitive basketball, and all the lunges and squats I did to strengthen, there’s no way, there was nobody that could carry this. I was squatting enormous amounts of weight, doing lunges, stuff that I haven’t done since I was playing in college and had I not done that, there was no way I would have had the strength to put all my weight on my right front leg.
There was no time to rest. For example, if you go practice and you have a hard work-out, you go rest, but there was no time. The turn-over from one day to the next was insane.
Call times were at 2 in the morning for make-up. Eight hours of make-up, and then during the day they had to do another two hours of make-up and then when I took it off, it took me two hours in the evening to take it all off.
OSV: So this is 12 hours a day just dealing with make-up.
Caviezel: That’s just make-up. The problem is that there is maintenance, there’s a lot of chemicals, there’s alcohol and things like that that they have to use. Some days they weren’t able to use me and they would put a towel over me, put talcum powder to the make-up and then I’d go to bed. Then you itch. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a sunburn and you go through that itching stage, it’s like that through the night. So it’s Chinese torture; you couldn’t rest. You couldn’t rest in the make-up chair because when they’re putting the make-up on, you’re standing up in a cross position with your arms extended, so you’re not sleeping.
How I balanced this was, I had to pray the Rosary. I prayed all of the Rosary throughout the make-up process. You start to nod off, and you know, they have to “Jim, Jim. Wake up, Jim.”
You had a headache all the time because your right eye is covered, so you’re looking out your left eye and your left eye gets exhausted, so I was always looking down to see with both my eyes. If I looked up, I could only see through one, if I looked down I could through both, so my head was always down, so you get a crick in your neck.
I separated my shoulder during the carrying of the cross. Someone came over and dropped the arm of the cross and separated my shoulder and I went down. I don’t know if you’ve ever separated your shoulder...
OSV: I have not.
Caviezel: When they had me on the cross, the shoulder was just killing me. It was freezing cold – two weeks of hypothermia everyday.
The last day we filmed, we did the Sermon on the Mount, and whether it will be in there [in the film] or not, I got hit by a bolt of lightning.
Caviezel: People were screaming and my hair was all frizzed out. By the time the pan of the camera came around, Mel yelled out, “What the hell happened to his hair?” The people that witnessed it said they didn’t see the bolt, they just saw me illuminated. When I came off the mountain, Mel said, “What happened to your hair?” And I said, “I got hit by lightning.” I felt the electricity in my head. It didn’t hit my heart.
The other thing it’s so big as far as people walking up to you, bowing before you, and they’re calling you Jesus. Before we started to film, I said to Mel, “We’ve got to have Mass said everyday. Before I get on the cross, before we roll that film, I need to have the Eucharist in me.” And I went to daily Confession. Someone told me that sometimes the even more serious sins than your sins of commission are your sins of omission. I don’t love enough – there’s mine.
We did the Rosary. Every relic I asked for, I got; I had them in my loincloth. I had St. Francis of Assisi, I had St. Maria Goretti, and, who else did I have, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Padre Pio. Even Anne Catherine Emmerich, even though she’s just blessed right now, she’s a big inspiration; and two pieces of the Cross.
OSV: This obviously effected your spiritual life.
Caviezel: Oh, yes; profoundly.
OSV: Did you feel as though you were entering into the mind of Christ, as St. Paul says?
Caviezel: My prayer was this: the only reason I did it was for the conversion of the world. That’s what I asked for; number one for conversion, that this would do that for people. Number two, that they don’t see me, they only see Jesus; that’s what I asked for. And I prayed the Rosary incessantly to basically get Our Lady to guide me to her Son.
OSV: What’s the name of this film you’re shooting now?
Caviezel: It’s called “The Stroke of Genius.” It’s on Bobby Jones.
OSV: I was going to ask you if it is a letdown to go from playing the Creator and Savior of the world to one of his creatures, but it sounds like it’s more of a relief.
Caviezel: People ask me that a lot and all I say is, “It’s a different kind of part.” I probably will never do something like that part [Jesus] in my life again. In this film I have to learn how to swing a club, and I’ve never golfed before, but not only how to swing a club, but do it the way this guy did and kind of grasp who he is.
When I got done working with John Smelik on Thin Red Line, people said to me, “He only works with actors once. You’ll never get to work with him again.” And I said, “Well, at least I have.” People say, “You’ll never find a better role than [Jesus].” And I say, “Well, at least I did it.” I got to do it.
Nobody, I mean nobody has ever seen a passion like this. This is the most authentic passion there is. This is like walking back in time and watching it. We have some projected numbers of people who see this. There could be as many as 2 billion people that see this film. If that’s the truth, and if Titanic’s numbers are “it” -- you can imagine what that did in the box office, then you can imagine... But none of us did it for money; this was all for love. I took nothing for it, Mel took nothing for it; everyone donated their own time – they did for it love.
OSV: Seriously? Nobody took any money on this one?
Caviezel: No. If the money comes in, we’ll get something out of it. But most films you do like this, you don’t ever get any money back.
OSV: I heard a piece on a public radio show that compared this to the Last Temptation of Christ, and they obviously didn’t know what they were talking about. But one of the things the commentator said was that no one knows if this works as a film. What’s your sense? Does it work as a film?
Caviezel: My sense is it is not a film – it’s something else. But yet, it could be the greatest film ever made, but I think it’s greater than that.
OSV: Greater in a different sense, or greater in that same sense?
Caviezel: When you see the film, you ask yourself, “Did I just get done watching a film, or did I watch a meditation?” It is so real.
Every Christian or whatever faith, whoever saw “Schindler’s List” at the end of that film, you felt like people were stunned. When I watched it, I felt like it happened to my friend. When I watch this film on Christ, I feel like it’s happening to my brother, my family.
When I talked to people about anti-Semitism, I said, “Look. When I watched Schindler’s List, it opened my heart and I said, ‘This could happen in any form of genocide.’ And that includes abortion. I wish people could make that jump, but the evil one has a great way to just blind people.
I just want to say to all our brothers in the Jewish faith, “Look, you’re going to have people here coming back. Life will be easier for you because people are going to start enforcing the law better; they’ll start to do the right things in private.”
Something happens in the heart where no one can see it and it eventually comes out into the open and there is where you see war. When a whole generation of people are living in the sin and eventually you can’t hide it anymore, it has come to fruition, it has to come out in the open and sin wants to do that. We see more of it here, all the pornography. Heck, in my business it’s become more and more prevalent. Actually, you’re looked upon as very chic to be in a strip joint.
Caviezel: Oh, absolutely. You can walk in and out of those no problem now. It’s a problem for me, but not for anyone else because sin is more and more open. It’s becoming more of a..., more of a....
Caviezel: Yea, it’s kind of like. Evil does that. There’s evil in your life and eventually you have that evil to good; you have to make it good and everyone else has to make it good. You have to make it good and everyone else has to make it good.
OSV: Have you ever found yourself saying, “Should I have done this film?”
Caviezel: You always feel that every time you do a film.
OSV: Even The Passion?
Caviezel: No, I should have done that film. Even if that’s my last film. When Mel Gibson met with me to tell me about it, I said, “You want me to play Jesus, don’t you?” And he says, “Yea.”
The next day he called me and three times he tried to talk me out of it. And I said, “Mel, why are you trying to talk me out of this?” He said, “Because this could be the end of your career. It could be the end of all of our careers. You need to understand what I want to do with this.”
And I said, “Man, it’s like this: Each one of is called to carry our cross. If you don’t carry your cross, you’re going to be crushed under the weight of it.” I said, “My final answer to you is, ‘Yes.’” That’s what happened.
I believe God gave me my career. I have people ask me all the time now [about moral situations] because I did a scene with Jennifer Lopez, it was a love scene. Yea, I don’t always play great characters; I look for redemption in them.
I also get letters, and oooh boy, “You did this and you did that and you’re Catholic.” “Yea, but my character’s not.” What do you propose me to do? Find a character that’s good, becomes gooder and ends the goodest and that would move you to tears or what?
I look for characters in the story that are redeemed. I may play a Nazi. I may play someone who is horrible, but the story itself is redeemable. There’s a lesson you learn from it.
Whether it has to do with nudity or anything, I say O.K., in Schindler’s List I see there was no problem with that. And in a lot of stuff, there is so much gratuitous stuff. In this film, they’re going to say, “Ha-ha Yes, you did gratuitous violence.” It’s not gratuitous violence on our Lord. And it’s as violent as the opening scene of Private Ryan was. No, that’s not gratuitous. There’s a form of common sense I try use in doing that, and when I fail, then I go ask in prayer and say “Help me. I’m not here to offend you, God. I want to do the right thing.” I want to continue to do just the right projects out there, as few as they are.
OSV: What was the atmosphere on the set for The Passion versus the set of other films you’ve done, Pay It Forward or The Count of Monte Cristo?
Caviezel: I’ve been fortunate to be a part of many great sets, with people who have been really kind. Even the one I’m doing right now is wonderful. But need I say, how many people have Mass every morning on the set? How many times can you grab a guy and say, “Hey Mel, before we lunch today, you want to pray the Rosary?” “O.K.”
I’ll go over [to Mel] and people are thinking we’ve been talking for a while as the camera’s being set up, we did a decade of the Rosary. “O.K., we’re ready Jim” and it’s over.
Someone said, “Gee, Jim and Mel have long discussions about what they’re going to do.” How ‘bout just prayer, eh?
OSV: So, obviously, it was quite different than what you found on other sets.
Caviezel: Oh, sure. But this one had to be that way, though. It had to be. It was part of making the movie. I said, “Mel, we gotta watch what we say. If we get upset or whatever, we gotta watch the cursing and stuff. ‘Cause it all comes down from us. I don’t ever want to utter a curse word out while I’m playing Jesus. So most of the time, I just shut my mouth and just prayed. It was continually praying the Rosary, and reading the passage from that day’s reading. That was part of the process. It was just simple things, going to Confession.
What I realized was that the more I made sin rare in my life, the more I had a great joy even in the hell that I was going through. So you say you want to go do it. No, would you want to go back to Auschwitz? It’s during that time, it’s like Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning and you have to because you would go out of your mind, you would go insane and sometimes I did.
I remember one day, I was so angry during the make-up, I was so exhausted and I couldn’t cope anymore and I said, “I can’t take it anymore” I got up, I rammed my head into the wall. I said, “You know, I may be playing Jesus, but I feel more like Lucifer.” That’s what I told the make-up crew. And I said, “If this is going to hurt your conversion or anything, just look at me as being attacked by the devil.” I couldn’t do it at times.
The same thing with Mel. About two months into it, we both experienced this horrible lung problem. If SARS had been out at that time, I’d have thought I had SARS. I thought I had mono, I came back here, and the doc said, “Well, you have a form of pneumonia that’s outside of your lungs and it’s trying to get into your lungs, but it’s effecting your back and everything.”
OSV: You’re a devout Catholic, an actor, and there are a lot of other Catholics who want to do what you’re doing. Is there room for more of these folks in Hollywood, and if so, how do they get in?
Caviezel: That’s for the Holy Spirit to guide them. I had no idea whether I was going to achieve that. I was tested vehemently, tested all the time about whether to do a role that will sell you out. The devil’s going to prod you first to buy you out, especially if you’re talented. What [Hollywood] has room for is talented people. There are many people out here who are so good; they don’t believe, but regardless, they’re really good. If you were getting a doctor, would you say, “What religion are you?” And the doctor says, “I’m Buddhist.” “Nope, sorry I need a Catholic to work on me.” This might be the best doctor in the world. You go with the best guys there and it’s the same thing here. There’s no affirmative action here. The best guys usually make it. Actually, I should say not always the best guys, it’s the guys that can handle of the war of attrition. It’s a long, long road. Martin Sheen told me one time, “You never really make it in this town” and it’s true. You work one job at a time, do the best job you can on that and then you go on to the next.
With me, I knew what my faith was and I wasn’t going to change it; I never was. That’s something I can never sell out; it’s me. It’s where my soul is. The soul that you like on the screen is that right there and that’s what gives me happiness.
What I’ve found here is there are plenty of Catholics, plenty of ‘em. Just many of them didn’t have the faith to believe that it was going to take them where they needed to be taken. What I found is that our Lady will take you further than you ever even imagined. I thought, “Hey, in Thin Red Line, Wow Cool Done it ” Worked with one of the greatest directors in the business, then “God, looks like we can’t top that one.” Oooh, no way. He came back and said, “Would you like to play my Son?”
You’re always going to suffer. I spoke to a cardinal recently and I said, “I admire what you do. I know you probably get persecuted for standing up for the truth. Thank you.” And he said, “You know, I’m more afraid of what I don’t do at the end of my life when I stand before God.” And that right there sums up exactly how I feel about that.
The devil, a lot of times, he works in two ways. The first way he works is fear; he scares you. When that doesn’t work, he compliments you. And it’s his compliments that I’m more afraid of than anything; trying to make me comfortable and I don’t want that,
OSV: Well you certainly didn’t have a comfortable role in playing Jesus.
Caviezel: No, but there were a lot of ways to cut corners, there were a lot of ways to cut corners, a lot of ways to cut corners during that filming.
OSV: How so? What do you mean? In the filming itself?
Caviezel: Through filming, in preparation, things like that could have done to make it a lot easier. If we hadn’t set this thing on the mountainside, for example, if we’d have cut a corner and gone into a studio and shot it, I would not have suffered like that. Had I not suffered, you would have never have seen the kind of performance on the cross. I had to experience going through that point of feeling like I may die on that cross.
OSV: You actually felt like you might have done that?
Caviezel: Yea, absolutely, I was freezing. I couldn’t even feel my own arms, I was shaking uncontrollably.
You have to know your flesh is telling you that, but your spirit is telling you you’re going to be fine. At one point I was screaming out when I was saying, “Elahi, Elahi, lama sabachthani – Why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46) I was saying in my heart, “You obviously don’t care whether we make this film or not, whether this cross breaks and goes down a thousand foot cliff, You could care less.” And this is what I was yelling, it hurt so bad. Then after that hard day, Mel comes back and we watch the dailies and he said, “Yup, we’ve got to shoot that whole scene again.” And I said, “Why? Why? I thought it was great.” He says, “That cross is moving back and forth. If they’re noticing that cross is moving, they’re not noticing you. We’ve got to shoot it again.” And I thought, “Oh, man.” It just killed me. But he goes, “Ha But you know what? I found some more angles, though, it’s really more interesting here and there.” And inside it was the feeling of “Oh, I don’t want to do that.” But you’ve got to go against...
You asked me earlier about the people who are coming into this business. When you train as an athlete, some days you love training, other days you absolutely hate it. And when the coach gets in there... I remember Herb Brooks who coached the 1980 Olympic (hockey) team, those guys, they called them “Herbies,” they had them doing sprints and sprints and sprints and sprints and then more sprints. And the players were screaming at him so much, their legs were screaming. They said, “You’re abusing us too much. This is too much.” But he wouldn’t let up and he even put on more work. Most of the games when they got into the playoff rounds in the 1980 Olympics, by they time they got to Olympic competition, they came from behind, they came from behind to win, and that’s [training] what ended up doing it to put them over the top against the Russians. He didn’t want his players to show up, they went for the gold, they went to win.
I have a friend of mine who won a gold medal in the 800 [meter]. I told him, “In high school, I’d get so nervous before my matches I couldn’t even eat that day.” And he said, “Yea, that’s pretty common.” And I said, “In fact, during my mile runs during competition, I would almost think of ways to fall out. I would try to find ways of failing, maybe trip or something and say, “I could have won, but I tripped” or something like that, sabotaging yourself. My friend said, “In the gold medal race I had, it hurt so bad that I wanted to quit and had I quit, I would never have won the gold medal.” And that’s the one race he won; it wasn’t like he was doing great.
It’s who can outlast one another and suffer the most, and take it the most. And that’s what it’s like when you come here. The devil will turn around and say, “Hey, hey, hey, you’re working too hard.” He starts complimenting you on your talent. And pretty soon you stop serving our Lord and your work really then becomes insignificant and that’s how I feel about it. And I don’t ever feel like I’m doing anything that’s not, I feel, everything He’s given me.
OSV: This is analogous to the Christian life.
Caviezel: Yes. You see a farmer. Everyday he goes out, he tills the soil, he works on it and during the time he prays. And during the time he says, “God, please give me rain, but not too much. Please give me sunlight, but not too much.” These are things he has absolutely no control, absolutely none. And there are forces out there that say, “Oh no, no, you have control. You have this absolute control.” Well, you don’t. You have to pray, you have to submit.