INTERVIEW: 'YOU WANT ME TO PLAY JESUS?'

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.

You got struck by lightning?

Oh, yeah. We were shooting the Sermon on the Mount. About four seconds before it happened it was quiet, and then it was like someone slapped my ears. I had seven or eight seconds of, like, a pink, fuzzy color, and people started screaming. They said I had fire on the left side of my head and light around my body. All I can tell you is that I looked like I went to Don King's hairstylist.

Did it occur to you that if you're playing Christ and you get struck by lightning, maybe--

[Laughs, then, as if speaking to God:] "Didn't like that take, huh?"

You're Catholic. Did playing Christ deepen your faith?

I love him more than I ever knew possible. I love him more than my wife, my family. There were times when I was up there [on the cross], and I could barely speak. Continual hypothermia is so excruciating. I connected to a place I could have never, ever gone. I don't want people to see me. All I want them to see is Jesus Christ.

Did Mel tell you why he wanted to make the film?

He told me that he went through a rough stretch in his life, and that he rediscovered the Gospels about 12 years ago. He began meditating on the passion and death of Jesus. In doing so, he said the wounds of Christ healed his wounds. And I think the film expresses that.

Has the controversy around the film--and the fact that Mel's been accused of anti-Semitism--surprised you?

It's been the most frustrating thing to watch. I can tell you this much, the guy is not in the least anti-Semitic. I never saw it. Maia Morgenstern [who plays the Virgin Mary] is this beautiful Jewish Romanian actress whose parents were in the Holocaust. Every day he'd say, "Maia, tell me about your traditions. Is this OK to do?" He wanted to make this film very Semitic. Instead of having an Aryan, blue-eyed Jesus, he wanted to have a very Semitic Jesus. Our faith is grounded in our Jewish tradition. We believe we're from the House of David. We believe we're from the House of Abraham, so we cannot hate our own. That crowd standing before Pontius Pilate screaming for the head of Christ in no way convicts an entire race for the death of Jesus Christ any more than the actions of Mussolini condemn all Italians, or the heinous actions of Stalin condemn all Russians. We're all culpable in the death of Christ. My sins put him up there. Yours did. That's what this story is about.

Was it hard to keep silent when Jewish leaders were voicing their concerns?

They have every right to defend their faith. But I believe that when all my Jewish brothers see this film, they will realize that it's not about assigning blame. It's about love. It's about sacrifice. It's about forgiveness and hope.