Interview: 'You Want Me to Play Jesus?'; He Thought He Was Meeting for a Surfing Movie. Then Mel Gibson Showed Up

Newsweek, February 16, 2004 | Go to article overview

Interview: 'You Want Me to Play Jesus?'; He Thought He Was Meeting for a Surfing Movie. Then Mel Gibson Showed Up


Byline: Sean Smith

James Caviezel, the 35-year-old actor who first came to attention in Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" and starred in "The Count of Monte Cristo," talks to NEWSWEEK's Sean Smith about the agony and the ecstasy of playing the Savior in the controversial "The Passion of the Christ."

SMITH: Before you played this part, did anyone ever tell you that you looked like Jesus?

CAVIEZEL: Not at all. When I was younger someone once said, "You look like Mel Gibson." I told Mel that, and he said, "No you don't. I'm much better looking."[Laughs ]

Playing Jesus is obviously a daunting proposition. Why did you say yes to Mel?

I got a phone call telling me that producer Stephen McEveety wanted to meet with me about a surfing movie. I went and met him for lunch, and after a few hours Mel Gibson shows up. He starts talking about what Christ really went through, and I said, "Yeah, I saw the Zeffirelli movie ['Jesus of Nazareth']." He goes, "No, no. I'm talking about the real thing." And then it hit me. I said, "You want me to play Jesus."

So the surfing movie...

Was just a front. They were trying to get a feel for me.

Did he tell you he wanted you to play it in Aramaic?

He was talking about that--Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin--but I thought, "He isn't really thinking about doing it." [Laughs ] Working with Mel Gibson is a little like waltzing with a hurricane. It's always exciting, and you're never quite sure where it's going to take you. I thought learning the languages was going to be the most difficult part. It turned out the physical pain was the worst because of the cold.

The cold? Didn't you shoot this in Italy?

Yeah, in winter . I was freezing in that loincloth. The physical pain started at 2 in the morning. At the worst it was eight hours of makeup, and I couldn't sit down; I was in this crouched position. [During the Crucifixion] the wind was just coming down those canyons, slicing me apart. The cold was just... have you seen those things at the fair where there's a guy on a wheel, and they spin the wheel and throw knives at him and they just miss? On this movie I felt like they were all hitting me.

The long scene where Jesus gets scourged with metal lashes is incredibly difficult to watch.

There was a board on my back, about a half-inch thick, so the Roman soldiers wouldn't hit my back. But one of the soldiers missed, hit me flush on the back and ripped the skin right off. I couldn't scream, I couldn't breathe. It's so painful that it shocks your system. I looked over at the guy, and I probably said the F word. Within a couple of strokes he missed again. There's like a 14-inch scar on my back . So we had good days and bad days.

Sounds like more bad than good.

You know I got struck by lightning.

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