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Sunday, February 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Northwest native grew 'closer to God' portraying Jesus in controversial 'Passion'

By Richard Seven
Seattle Times staff writer

Jim Caviezel stars as Jesus in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."
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From the archives: Jim Caviezel's stubborn sincerity cuts a swath through Hollywood
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With "The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson set out to make a visceral movie, one that shocks audiences into feeling what Jesus Christ suffered in his last 12 hours on Earth. Jim Caviezel, who plays Christ, did his part.

He carries a 14-inch scar on his back, a memento from when an actor playing a Roman torturer missed the board affixed to Caviezel's back not once, but twice. The gash became the template for all the scourging wounds the makeup crew later covered him with.

He suffered hypothermia from spending so much time on the cross perched on the edge of a canyon, in winter, wearing nothing but a loincloth. He has two lasting memories from the cross: looking down at the crew bundled in parkas, sipping steaming coffee; and how he eventually zoned out and "became closer to God."

He spent days lugging the 150-pound cross. He separated a shoulder. He got migraines from the crown of thorns wedged on too tight. He got spat on during mob scenes by extras just doing their jobs. He awoke at 2 a.m. so he could get through eight hours of makeup and attend morning Latin Mass before filming began.

Jesus (Jim Caviezel) sits with the apostles at the Last Supper in a scene from "The Passion of the Christ."
And moments before a scene on a hilltop, he got zapped by lightning along with a production assistant holding an umbrella over the star. They both walked away unhurt.

The movie opens Wednesday in more than 2,000 theaters nationwide and is shaping up to be one of the most powerful, controversial, graphic and — against all odds — commercial religious movies of all time.

For Caviezel, it was an opportunity to merge his craft with the spiritual journey to which he's held true since arriving in Hollywood 14 years ago.

Caviezel (ca-veez-uhl), who grew up in the Skagit County burg of Conway, has had a solid career since his breakout performance in the Oscar-nominated "The Thin Red Line" in 1999. But he walks his own thin line, between his intense religious beliefs and what Hollywood typically sells. You won't see much of him in People magazine or other celebrity gossip publications. He's not provocative enough. In fact, the Hollywood press paid him the most attention for balking at a love scene with Jennifer Lopez.

Jim Caviezel's performance in "The Thin Red Line" opened doors for him in Hollywood.
When Caviezel called me a few days ago, he was in a North Carolina airport. He was harried and weathered from defending accusations of anti-Semitism and concerns over violence leveled at the film. He was agitated how reporters incessantly refer to him as "Jim Caviezel, the devout Roman Catholic actor."

"If your plumbing needs fixing and I'm a plumber, are you going to ask me if I'm a Christian? I base my choices and performances on truth," he said. "That's how I've been able to be successful. I can play evil characters, all kinds of characters. I just have to be true to the character."

When Gibson was looking for an actor to play Jesus, he needed someone who could embody humanity and spiritual transcendence with little more than presence. That's because the film is spoken in Aramaic and Latin and depends heavily on visuals to tell the story. Gibson added English subtitles grudgingly.

Directors and actors who have worked with Caviezel often mention his unorthodox yet sincere aura, and that odd something the camera captures but the naked eye does not.

Caviezel, right, boosted his profile with the title role in 2002's "The Count of Monte Cristo."
It was his simple yet telling on-screen gazes that led Lopez to ask for him to play her love interest in "Angel Eyes." Sean Penn, who shared many scenes with Caviezel in "The Thin Red Line," told me soon after, "Jim's got an almost archaic sincerity, which is very pure — a rare and valuable thing for an actor." Kevin Reynolds, who directed him in "The Count of Monte Cristo," says, "Jim is absolutely genuine."

Gibson saw a picture of Caviezel and was struck, too. But he needed a closer look. He and partner Steve McEveety met Caviezel in Malibu under the ruse that they were casting for a surfing movie.

After three hours of sizing him up, Gibson asked if Caviezel fully understood the sacrifice Christ made to wash away the sins of mankind.

Caviezel replied, "You want me to play Jesus, don't you?"

The next day, Gibson called Caviezel and suggested he re-think his decision because the role could damage his career.

"I want people to see Christ, not me," Caviezel says of his role in "The Passion of the Christ."

Caviezel replied, "If this is the one that takes me out, I can live with that."

Gibson said he was drawn to the purity and innocence that Caviezel projects and, during an interview with EWTN, a Christian broadcasting network, he discussed what Caviezel ultimately delivered.

"Jim's got some other- or unworldly knowledge that seems to envelop him like a glow. And he has a very good light coming out of him. But that's just natural to Jim. That's who he is. He's very clear, and it's not that complicated until it needs to be, you know what I mean? And all of a sudden it is like, whoa. ... He can get pretty complex on you."

What about criticism that the film could fuel anti-Semitism by implicating Jewish leaders at the time for instigating the death of Jesus? Caviezel says he wouldn't have taken the role if he saw anti-Semitism; he didn't see any during the filming, and he doesn't see it in the finished product.

"It's about love," he said. "It's about sacrifice. It's about forgiveness and hope."

Gibson has shrewdly gathered support from leaders of Christian churches and groups through a series of selective private showings of the film.

Caviezel's already finished filming his next movie, in which he plays 1920s golfing champion Bobby Jones, who dominated professional golfing despite never giving up amateur status.
The grassroots strategy has worked so well that churches are buying out entire showings. Advance ticket sales and buzz, partially fueled by the controversy, indicate the movie could enjoy a big opening week. But the jury is still out on how it will weather the controversies surrounding it.

By spring, Caviezel will be back in theaters. This time, he'll be Bobby Jones, the 1920s golfing champion who dominated professional golfing despite never giving up amateur status. He'll play a concentration-camp prisoner in "I Am David," and Robin Williams' nemesis in the science-fiction film "The Final Cut."

Even "Madison," a true hydroplane-racing story that has been idling for three years, looks like it may finally get shown.

When I first met Caviezel in Los Angeles five years ago, he had just been minted a Hollywood rising star. He certainly looked the part: tall, slim, dark hair, striking blue eyes and the kind of angular face that the camera caresses.

He told me about how lean the nine years had been since leaving Seattle for L.A. He had knocked around auditions and scored small roles while falling just short of one breakthrough after another.

When our conversation turned to potential pitfalls ahead, he ticked off how he was already being typecast as a brooder and how he'd only be as hot as his next movie. Then, he said, "And I'm Christian. That doesn't go over real well in Hollywood."

I was struck not by what he said, but how he said it. There wasn't a hint of resentment or frustration in his voice, but the resolve was unmistakable. He didn't expect Hollywood to change on his account, but he wasn't about to change either.

And it's striking how he's found himself in the international spotlight for "The Passion of the Christ," playing a role at the core of his beliefs rather than odds with them, as he sometimes does.

What roles will come his way now? Will "The Passion of the Christ" expand his Hollywood horizons? Or will it typecast him? Will it be a career-killer that Gibson warned it might?

If nothing else, it is the highest-profile movie Caviezel, 35, has ever been a part of and the most in line with his priorities.

"I want people to see Christ, not me," he told me. "I always want them to see the character, not me."

Richard Seven:


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