Jim Caviezel Speaks to Broadcasters about Playing Jesus
- Janet Chismar Senior Editor, News & Culture
- 2004 20 Feb
Jim Caviezel, the man who plays Jesus in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ answered questions about his role during a press conference Feb. 17 at the National Religious Broadcasters convention. "I don’t what was harder – the scourging, the crucifixion or doing interviews," he joked with reporters. "God bless Starbucks coffee."
Q – How would you go on to another role once you have played Jesus Christ?
Caviezel: “At least I’ve played Him, I’ve played Christ. I’ve been offered to play Christ three different times. It’s a real sacred thing. I figured I am going to it right or not do it at all. When Mel originally came to me, he wanted to make it very visceral, something people would not passively watch – nor would I be passively acting it. So that’s what I was drawn to.
Q – How has this experience of playing Jesus impacted you personally?
Caviezel: I get asked that quite a bit. The most I can tell you, the first part, I can’t go into the depths of how it personally – there’s some things I have to save for myself. But, it’s on the screen; you see it. I have said, “I don’t want people to see me. I want them to see Christ.” I wanted to make Him fully human and also divine. And how are you going to do that? It’s through prayer and not just from the head. It has to be from the heart. That’s the prayer, I feel, God asks from us. So the physical beatings and suffering – it forced me into the arms of God. I had no other choice.
Q - What to you is the message of the film?
Caviezel: Clearly in the film, when Pilate – the scene that was one of my favorite scenes in the film – Jesus talks to him about truth, and he says, “What is truth?” and he goes and he asks his wife Claudia. And she says, “If you don’t know, I can’t tell you.” And I felt that the whole way since this film has come out. Either people see it [the truth] or they don’t, but not to compromise it. That’s what I loved about this film, if we were going to do that in a way I wasn’t interested in making some film that (….)?
Q - Were there any spiritual aspects on the set among the crew and the actors?
Caviezel: We had one of the actors in the film who was a Muslim convert and that wasn’t anyone voicing it to anybody. It just happened. When we’re going to work, when we’re filming, we’re not doing a film about a doctor. This is about Christ. All the professionals had to ponder the screenplay – the screenplay itself had great substance in it – these words that we spoke in Aramaic and Hebrew and Latin. It forced us to do a lot of research and probably a lot of people found on the set that they really hadn’t looked at it in a long time, or they were never privy to it. But you can’t be passive when you are doing this film. It’s the same thing in watching it.
What I found was, when I was walking around, my experience, was people couldn’t - a lot of the actors – they put makeup on me – the difference in looking at me and understanding what I was – and they would look away a lot. I had several people come up to me and say, “Bellisimo, Jesu” and call me Jesus. … I was completely uncomfortable with that. Everyday, I had this burden, this responsibility, but one that I was willing to take.
I have this dilemma inside me all the time – when you think about your life, and the things you’ve done – the good and the bad – if you think a lot about the bad, even though God’s forgiven you, a lot of times you haven’t forgiven yourself. So I would continue to think about those things that I was unworthy – but we are – and I felt in my heart, “I would say, why would you choose me?” and I felt as if God would say, “I don’t always choose the best. Will you accept this responsibility?” and I said “yes” – so one day at a time.
I go back to the years of playing sports – I thought for years I was called to be an athlete. That’s all I dreamed about. But what I was good at in sports, I could handle a lot of things, and I could play with an injury or play with exhaustion, and that finally came to fruition with this film. All that training, everything over the years that I thought was ?pointless? – I thought it was the discipline that I learned from it for acting, coming to Hollywood, there’s a lot of temptations out there – and I thought the discipline was the thing, but it was the actual tolerance for physical pain that I had to endure on this film – and then the prayer came in because of physical suffering; it got to be too much.
It came to the point where I would be screaming out from the cross, “My God, why you have forsaken me?” – and, hello, I am actually saying this. “You obviously don’t care.” It came out that way on the screen that I couldn’t have done it in a controlled environment. It would have lost the effect and the reality of Christ.
Q - What was the most difficult scene for you to shoot?
Caviezel: Mel said it was going to be physical. I was an athlete; I thought I could handle the physical. Then pretty soon, the separated shoulder, lacerations from the scourging, hypothermia, pneumonia, infection – all started taking a toll. I guess, growing up as an athlete, you get to the fourth quarter and it’s gut-check time. I had that everyday; it wasn’t supposed to be in the first quarter.
Every day was hard because my body wouldn’t recover. I was always at 70 percent. I remember I was in the makeup trailer at one point, and they were putting my nose on and taking it off and they were putting alcohol around it and it kept going in my eyes and I just screamed. And after a point, there’s no more patience. You’re in the red zone. And I remember getting up and putting my fist through a wall. I had thorns around my head and I turned to the makeup people and said, “I may be playing Jesus, but I feel like Satan right now.” Never feeling good enough – that was hard -- the emotional part of getting on that cross.
My food wouldn’t stay down; I had enormous migraine headaches from the crown of thorns. So I couldn’t have done this without any grace from God. It continually forced me into a meditative state – the whole time I was meditating and in prayer – continually rehearsing in my heart what this all means, but I always felt He gave me just enough to keep going, but I had to suffer. It was imperative that I suffer and that’s what I learned a great deal throughout this film but it was different levels of it. You could never get used to any part of it, you could never get comfortable because as soon as you started adjusting, wham, something else would get you and you’d begin again.
Q – Any comments about personal or professional crises that have resulted from being involved in the project?
Caviezel: That’s yet to be seen. It’s the same thing as in the film. They persecuted Christ first and no servant is greater than his master. I am not asking it on myself though. I am still an actor. When you get a quarterback on an NFL team who believes in God, do you say, “Get out of here” and then he goes and wins the Super Bowl for somebody else? I am still good at what I do. Whether I prepare for Christ or prepare for Monte Cristo, the same thing goes into it. I work just as hard as anything. I believe that who I am in person is how I live my life. What I do in private is who I am.
Q- Can you talk about the scourging scene?
Caviezel: I couldn’t breathe. The scourging knocked the wind out of me. That something could be so painful that your autonomic system – your skin being your biggest organ in your body – just shuts down. It sends a shock wave through your whole system and it knocks the air out of your body - it was as hard as any wind I ever had knocked out of me playing football. I couldn’t get air in. I could hear Mel yell, “Jim, get up, get up.” And I got back up and my eyes were just tearing. I had a 14-inch gash on my back …and I ripped my hands out of the chains and I dropped. I could not breathe properly for about 8 minutes. I could not get air into my system. And I thought, “My God, if they were hitting Him that hard, how did He breathe?” You experience a great amount of horrific pain, but also suffocation, which He experience again on the cross. He was even suffocating while He was carrying the cross. The horrific pain that He went through, it had to be God. That’s what was going through my mind. It has to be God. How could people not know this?
There were three reactions that I would get. When I would be around the audience, there were people who were indifferent – they would just bug out. If you have ever tried to talk to someone about your faith, and they just look around, you know how stupid you feel? On the other side were the people who would just love me – they would be in love with Jesus. And they would come up to me and say “Bellisimo Jesu” and they would want to touch me. And last was the complete hatred. I said to Mel, “That’s what we have to have on that screen, those three reactions.”
There are those who hate the whole idea of Christianity – there are persecutions of other religions as well. But the acknowledgement that you were made by a higher being and then to be so specific, like in our faith, you are open for major ridicule.
Q - Have you been surprised by the controversy leading up to the opening?
Caviezel: No, I am not surprised.