James Caviezel depicts Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ," the story of the Christ's crucifixion.

Embodying Christ

The lead actor in Mel Gibson’s
"The Passion" considers his role
an expression of his faith

'Jesus" looks exhausted. His dark, penetrating eyes are bloodshot, eyelids are drooping and his smile turned down a bit.

James Caviezel spreads across a plush, velour love seat in the Four Seasons Hotel Beverly Hills suite trying to stifle a yawn in the late afternoon.

Caviezel's spirit is resurrected and a broad grin spreads over his narrow face when asked about the rigors of playing Jesus Christ in director Mel Gibson's controversial and much anticipated "The Passion of the Christ," which opens Wednesday.

"Uh, let's see: a dislocated shoulder, hypothermia, body sores, 14-inch scar from being whipped, and being struck by lightning," Caviezel says. "Maybe God was testing my will."

The two-hour film is the story of Christ's crucifixion.

"The key to making 'Passion' was finding an actor capable of embodying to the highest degree possible both the humanity and spiritual transcendence of Jesus Christ," Gibson said earlier. "I had to find an actor who could lose himself in the role entirely and whose personal identity wouldn't interfere with the realism I wanted."

When Caviezel auditioned, he was led to believe it was for a surf film.

"Mel kept talking about this other film, and then it hit me. I said to him, 'My gosh, you want me to play Jesus!'

"And Mel said, 'Uh, yeah.'"

A day later, Caviezel was surprised to get a call from Gibson, asking, "Mel who?"

"Mel Brooks," Gibson said.

That would be the last joke Caviezel, a devout Catholic, would hear from Gibson for some time.

"I told Jim from the start that it was my intention to film Jesus' suffering with as much authenticity as possible," he said. "I wasn't going to flinch from the chaos and violence that Christ was swept up in according to (biblical) accounts."

The film's whipping and crucifixion scenes are arguably the most graphically violent footage ever used in a commercial film. "Passion" is rated R.

Gibson asked Caviezel a second time if he was sure he knew what he was getting into.

"I told him I have to do this," Caviezel said. "We're all called to carry our cross, and if we don't carry it, we'll be crushed under its weight."

Caviezel, a former altar boy, then told the Academy Award-winning director, "My initials are also J.C. and I'm 33 years old, the same age of Christ when he died."

"Hey, you're freaking me out," Gibson said, and hung up.

Caviezel was born and raised in Skagitt County, Wash. His first acting job was in an undergraduate stage adaptation of the Frank Sinatra musical "Come Blow Your Horn."

In the early 1980s he moved to Los Angeles, eventually finding small TV roles on shows like "Murder, She Wrote" and "The Wonder Years." He talked his way into his big-screen debut as an airline reservations clerk in Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho" (1991) by pretending to be an Italian immigrant. He also appeared in Lawrence Kasdan's "Wyatt Earp" (1994) and played "Slov" Slovnik in "G.I. Jane" (1997) with Demi Moore.

His breakthrough role was another military assignment, as brooding pacifist private Witt in Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" (1998). Gibson says he first noticed Caviezel in Kevin Reynolds' adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' classic "The Count of Monte Cristo" (2002).

To prepare for the Jesus role, Caviezel began rigorous workouts. Even after 16-hour days on the set that included up to eight hours of makeup, Caviezel would train for another two hours.

Much of the training focused on leg strength because Caviezel would be carrying the 150-pound cross -- half the real cross's weight -- and hanging from it. The training paid off.

"When I was hanging from the cross, I tried to push my butt into this little indentation for support, but I really had to use my legs to keep me upright."

Caviezel wore only a loincloth for the crucifixion scenes, in 40-degree temperatures with 15-mph winds. He suffered hypothermia several times.

"The crew had to put heat packs on my face just to warm my lips enough to move," he said. "I was throwing up while on the set because the hypothermia prevented me from digesting my food properly."

If that weren't enough, the cross was swaying in the wind, causing the ropes binding his arms to the beam to blister his skin.

"I had migraine headaches because the wire for the crown of thorns was attached so tightly to my head, and from hyper-focusing one eye because the other one had been made up to be shut," Caviezel said. "I was one giant sore."

James Caviezel trained rigorously to carry the 150-pound cross, which is half the real cross' weight.

IN THE FILM'S most graphic sequences, Christ is scourged repeatedly, then further flayed with an infamous Roman torture device known as a flagrum, or cat-o'-nine-tails, a whip with multiple straps embedded with barbed-metal tips to catch and shred the skin.

"One of the actors whipping me accidentally missed the protective device on my back and cut into my side," Caviezel said. "Now I have a 14-inch scar."

And was it divine intervention that saved Caviezel and assistant director Jan Michelini from death when they were filming the Sermon on the Mount scene?

A lightning bolt went through Michelini's umbrella and zapped Caviezel. Neither was seriously injured.

"Three seconds before the bolt struck, I knew I was going to be hit, and I said to myself, 'God, this is it, I'm going to die like a little ant ready to be stepped on,'" Caviezel said. "The bolt exploded like a horrible clapping in my ear, and then it was over."

Caviezel believes that his daily Mass attendance and Holy Communion not only helped him stay in character, but saved his life.

"I prepared every day with the Eucharist," he said. "The only time I didn't take Communion -- they had run out of hosts -- was when I got struck by lightning."

But like Jesus' words on the cross when he believes his father has forsaken him, Caviezel also questioned why God was making the filming so difficult.

"I got to the point where I would scream out to God, 'Obviously, you don't care whether we do this movie or not, because look at what you are putting me through!'" he said.

Caviezel says he will never take such a physically demanding role again.

"I know this sounds melodramatic, but if it wasn't for my belief in God and the story we were trying to tell, I'm not sure I could have withstood it. But the point is moot; I did it. It's like you served your country in war but you wouldn't want to do it again.

"When I'm dead and gone, people will be able to see and listen to this forever, the true testament of what my faith is. My faith is up there on the screen. It's cleansing for me."

Caviezel defends Gibson's use of violence, saying: "It has never felt gratuitous. The realism will probably shock some people, but that's why the film is so incredibly powerful," he said. "This was a test, a fight for Jesus' soul. ... It inspires us to understand the power of God and the devastation of sin."

CAVIEZEL ALSO had to learn the ancient language Aramaic for the role. During the hour-long interview, the actor recited lengthy proverbs and other dialogue in the ancient language, including one of his favorites, when Jesus responds to Pontius Pilate, who offers to free him rather than handing him over to the Roman soldiers for crucifixion.

"No power would you have over me if it hadn't been given to you from above," he says in Aramaic. "I'll never forget any of the Aramaic I spoke in this film," he said.

Being a part of a film like "Passion" was the reason he became an actor.

"It's truthful and honest," he said. "When people see me on the screen, they will see who I am and what I believe in."

His training, however, was a little unorthodox.

"Did you know I mimic people? I used to watch 'Saturday Night Live' to see how they imitate others," Caviezel said, smiling, before delivering impressions of Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush, then pondering his next move.

"I would really love to do a good romantic comedy," he says. "I hope it's in God's plan for me."

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