Actor Jim Caviezel has starred in Hollywood hits from “The Count of Monte Cristo” to “The Thin Red Line.” But he is best known for playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” an experience that he says affected him very deeply and spiritually. In a new interview, Caviezel talks about the importance of his Catholic faith, the lasting impact that “The Passion” has had on his life, and his special devotion to the Virgin Mary.
The following interview was carried out by Polish journalist and film critic Lukasz Adamski, and published at http://wpolityce.pl. Reprinted here with permission, edited for clarity:
Lukasz Adamski: You became the narrator of a documentary about Karol Wojtyla called “Liberating the Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism.” While in Poland at the invitation of the Knights of Columbus, you have visited the area where he lived and worked. Who is Karol Wojtyla to you in a personal, and not only geopolitical sense?
Jim Caviezel: During my visit to Poland, I came to understand that he was carrying problems of the entire world on his shoulders…And there is a more personal side to it. Playing Jesus himself, I faced a lot of criticism and often derision. I had to get on with it somehow. There wouldn’t be Jim Caviezel as Jesus if it wasn’t for John Paul II. Looking at his life and the power of his evangelization, I said to myself: Why would you even care about that nonsense (of the critics)?
As a young person, I read a lot about Nazism and the genocide carried out by Germans on Polish territory. My knowledge was limited to books, but during my stay in Poland I realized how much Wojtyla must have suffered by being directly exposed to Nazism. I’ve been to Auschwitz where Maximillian Kolbe gave his life as a martyr for a fellow prisoner. It made me realize the scale of suffering of the Polish people. And then the Communism that followed meant that John Paul II had lived under two of the most monstrous regimes. As an American, I lived peacefully worrying about the Cold War at most. I did not experience totalitarian regimes. John Paul II had to live under two of them, just like your entire country. He represents all of Poland.
In a spiritual sense?
Poland, just like Christ, had been crucified. The Virgin Mary is the mother of Poland. Before he died, Wojtyla’s father told him that Mary is now also his mother. It is a great symbol of your nation.
Did the Pope’s teaching have an influence on you as well?
In the ‘80s when I was a teenager, John Paul II came to the USA. He was 90 minutes away from where I lived, and my family went to see him and listen to him. For many Catholics his visit was almost like a visit of Jesus Christ himself… I didn’t go to see him. I didn’t think it was important. The lightning strike came years later.
We will talk about the lightning strike later. You didn’t go to see the Pope but years later you caught up for it. You met John Paul II during an audience after playing Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ.” After watching the film he said “It is as it was.” How did you receive the praise coming from the Pope?
The Pope always called young people to break away from contaminated and demoralized civilization. “Be saints,” he said. Impossible? No, it is possible. I often hear the voice of Christ in my heart: “Jim, you will manage today.” It is a message saying that everyone in the world is equally important. It is also an appeal for a Christian life. A life in which one demonstrates to everyone they come across that Jesus is their Lord. I remember the Pope saying to Americans: “You can all be saints!” It makes me sad that so many people in my country do not seek sainthood. They substitute it with drugs and hedonism. It is simply filling the emotional void.
What did you tell the Pope during your audience at the Vatican?
I told him how much his letter to artists influenced me. It was aimed at those who look for beauty and give it to the world in the form of art. I try my best to carry out his instructions.
John Paul II was an actor, just like you. Therefore, he knew the power of art better than any of his predecessors.
Exactly. This is where his power came from. He understood people, and it helped him to win over the hearts of millions. He is simply a saint.
You were 33 years old, your initials were J.C. and you played Jesus.
Don’t you tell me it was a coincidence! There are no coincidences. I keep hearing about “accidents” and “strokes of luck.” Secularization affects the entire world, including the USA. Only atheists believe in coincidence. There are no coincidences for God. Even when God resurrects the dead, they will say it happened by accident.
When one doesn’t believe in God, one believes in anything. G.K. Chesterton claimed that.
At the same time, one doesn’t have the right to do what they like and decide about everything. Live without morality? Without goodness? Where is love in all of this?
Maybe that is the reason why they killed God, like Nietzsche. When there is no God, they can do what they want.
We can see that in America every day.
It’s even more visible in Europe. The founding fathers of America could not imagine it without God. The French Revolution started with killing the priests and spitting on Jesus. But let’s go back to Hollywood and your work. Mel Gibson warned you, when you took the role in his film, “You will not work here (in Hollywood) anymore.” To what extent was he right?
All of the sudden I stopped being one of five most popular actors in the studio, and I hadn’t done anything wrong. I just played Jesus. Was I personally affected by this rejection? Well, everyone has their cross to bear. The world changes…but I will not be in this world forever. Neither will the producers from Hollywood. At some point, everyone will have to answer for what they have done.
Where do you think this reaction comes from? Are people afraid of such films? Of evocative pictures of Jesus on the screen? People really loved it. Over half a billion dollars global earnings is a great success for a movie. There are even reports on conversions after watching the film!
It isn’t me who should answer this question. They should, shouldn’t they? I just did my job. The film has inspired millions of viewers. Let the producers answer whether they are afraid of this success. My career is not over. After all, I starred in some prominent, Hollywood films. I also played in a popular TV series called “Person of Interest.”
At the same time, I’ve never forgotten that the name of Jesus is above all else. It is also the most controversial name of all times. Love is controversial and he is love incarnate. Jesus was telling the Romans about love and they killed him because of that. “Who is that man to tell me what kind of person I’m supposed to be?” they asked arrogantly. He was betrayed by his own people and abandoned by everyone. My duty was not only to show it all on the screen. My real duty is to live in accordance with the Gospel every day and to give witness to the truth. And it all comes down to John Paul II again: “Totus Tuus” – “Totally Yours.” If you want to know how he inspires me, this is it. Totally Yours.
Devotion to the Virgin Mary.
This is the essence of my faith. My relationship with Jesus is thanks to her. She brought Jesus to us. My evangelical friend asked me once why I don’t reach out to Jesus directly… I think it’s a valuable question. Back then, I didn’t know how to respond to him. However, looking at John Paul II, I found the answer. That’s why Poland like no other country is tied closely to Jesus. You bond East and West together. The Devil hates it, although he has already lost. Jesus and Mary have already crushed him. A single Polish man crushed Communism. How did John Paul II achieved this? With love.
In my opinion, we weren’t stuck behind the iron curtain for no reason. Maybe it was the plan of God that we don’t understand yet. Poland was not so affected by the events of 1968, unlike the USA and the West. We didn’t adopt moral relativism, nihilism and hedonism. Therefore, the counterrevolution and evangelization of the Western World may actually start in Poland.
An atheist would say it’s a coincidence! But you’re right, it’s the plan of God. My country was blessed, it was said to be like heaven. In spite of that, people are losing faith. They abandon Jesus. (In the story of Moses), 40 days in the desert happened for a reason. For me, the Catholic Mass is the source of constant empowerment. That’s where I can meet Jesus. And it’s not simply about having the symbolic wafer. It’s about an actual transformation. Bread and wine? No, it’s the body and blood of the Christ. This is worth dying for. Every day I pray to die with Jesus in my heart, not to ever abandon him.
Now I would like to talk about the lightning that quite literally struck you during the filming of “The Passion of the Christ.” Was is the crucifixion scene?
It wasn’t the crucifixion. We filmed in Rome. It was the scene of the Sermon on the Mount. I climbed the mountain, clouds had formed, and five seconds before the stroke I had felt what was going to happen. It was windy, but I couldn’t hear the wind blowing. Suddenly, I was struck by the lightning. I was terrified, but at the same time I felt peace on the inside. Before it all happened, Mel had shouted “action” and the cameras were directed at me. It was the moment I was struck. Afterwards I heard Mel shouting: “What the hell happened to his hair?” It was funny. People think I’m gloomy and serious. That’s not true. A Polish nun came up to me today and asked: “Why aren’t you smiling?” I told her that I was smiling with my eyes but the signal hadn’t reached the rest of the face yet.
This is the first time I’ve seen you smile! I’ll note that in the interview. You are one of the very few devoted Catholics in Hollywood. Is it tough?
People in Hollywood keep asking me why I can’t separate my acting career from being a Catholic. Actually my faith helps me. When I played basketball it motivated me. It’s the same now. I’m aware of the fact that I’m lazy, but that’s the reason I work so hard to overcome my weakness. My faith helps me to make the right choices, even though many people who inspired me didn’t have faith. Mel Gibson struggles with his faith too. But he invested his own money into making “The Passion of the Christ.”
In 1998, you played in the flamboyant Terrence Malick’s masterpiece “The Thin Red Line.” In my opinion, he is one of the biggest metaphysicians of contemporary cinematography. Before “The Passion of the Christ” did your faith and career align?
Malick is a genius. He’s very spiritual himself and he makes beautiful, poetic and metaphysical films carrying a universal message. Therefore, he can reach further. In my opinion, if John Paul II was a director, he would be just like Malik. He penetrates the very recesses of the soul and leave the viewers with questions which can lead them to God. So many people nowadays are so prejudiced against Christianity that they wouldn’t watch Malick’s films if they were so straight forward and labelled as “Christian movies.” Mel Gibson saw me in his film and even though he wanted the cast of “The Passion of the Christ” to be entirely from outside of the U.S., he decided that guy, Jim Caviezel, may be suitable for the role of Jesus. Malick and Gibson are very much alike. They both can interest viewers who are so far away from religion.
Gibson has returned after 10 years of exile from Hollywood with his magnificent Christian film “Hacksaw Ridge.” Will a sequel to “The Passion of the Christ” come next?
I’ve played various roles in my career. I once played a serial killer and I had to look into his soul. I had to ask myself whether I would be able to kill another person. I’ve played soldiers and athletes. I was also in the screen adaptation of “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Lately, I starred in a western film inspired by John Ford’s classics. But the role of Jesus was the most difficult endeavor I’ve ever taken up. There is nothing more glorious and at the same time more humbling than this role. Nothing could teach me humility better.
The thought of doing it again feels like a nightmare. However, when I come to a country like Poland and see the places of martyrdom and sacrifice, I come to realize that only love can save the world. The love of the Christ. Therefore, I want to work with Gibson again. This time it will be a film about the resurrection. If “The Passion of the Christ” inspired so many people to do good, why don’t we try again? I feel like there is a purpose in my life again. That’s why I’ve played in a TV series about a man looking for a purpose for the last five years. I don’t do it just for the money. I do it for the love. It’s my Christian mission.
To inspire others?
Isn’t that what John Paul II did? He inspired people. He was telling them about the truth and love, but not in a banal way… When I played Jesus, I prayed a lot. I asked God to show me how I could present Jesus in the most accurate way. How to make the viewers feel closer to him. How to inspire them. It has been my inner journey which hasn’t finished yet. While working on “The Passion of the Christ,” Mel reserved the right to stop filming anytime. He needed to be 100 percent ready in a spiritual sense. This story could only be told with absolute involvement. Totus Tuus. I wouldn’t have managed to finish this project either if it wasn’t for the Virgin Mary. I’m absolutely devoted to her, just like Poland is.
You give witness of your faith in every aspect of your life. You adopted three children with cancer. You’re also against abortion.
The children (that we adopted) were abandoned and unwanted. Two of them had brain cancer. The third one had sarcoma. My wife said it doesn’t matter whether children are wanted or not. They are people, just like we are.
That’s another lesson of John Paul II about the civilization of death.
I would never have done it (the adoptions) without my wife. She impersonates beauty and kindness. She prays for me not to leave the right path. Jesus said that whatever we do the least of us, we do to him. He wants to be in us, in all the simplest actions.
I’ve just remembered that long ago, you rejected a role in “X-Men.” If you had taken it back then, you would probably be in “The Avengers” today and be adored by teenagers. Instead, a few years, later you played the biggest superhero of humanity – Jesus Christ.
Do you think that was a coincidence too? The most beautiful aspect of “The Passion of the Christ” is that everyone is focused while watching this film – conservatives and liberals, atheists and religious people. They watch it in silence and hear: “Ehjeh aszer Ehjeh” – “I am who I am.”