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Jim Caviezel on suffering for his art

Story by: Jack Foley

PLENTY of actors have suffered for their art, but few would appear to have gone through the ordeal that Passion of the Christ star, Jim Caviezel, went through, in order to depict the final 12 hours of Christ’s life.

Having been selected by director, Mel Gibson, at an early stage in the development process, Caviezel, who is a practising Catholic, set about trying to deliver as authentic a portrayal of Jesus as he possibly could - going to extreme lengths on several occasions.

But not even he could have anticipated the journey the role would take him on.

"For day after day of filming, I was spat upon, beaten up, flagellated, and forced to carry a heavy cross on my back, in the freezing cold. It was a brutal experience, almost beyond description. But I considered it all worth it to play this role."

Gibson was adamant, from the outset, that he intended to film Christ’s suffering with as much authenticity as possible, never flinching from the chaos and violence that Christ was swept up in, according to accounts.

Even for Caviezel, the torment Jesus endures throughout the film was terrifying, but a necessary part of realising Gibson’s vision.

"No one has ever showed Jesus in this way before, and I think Mel is showing the truth," he maintains. "Mel hasn’t used violence for violence’s sake, and it has never felt gratuitous.

"I do think the realism will probably shock people, but that is why the film is so incredibly powerful."

During the demanding production, Caviezel had to face his own physical vulnerabilities in a profound way.

In one of the film’s most graphic sequences, Chris is scourged - or whipped - extensively, then further flayed with an infamous Roman torture device, known as a flagrum, or ‘the cat o’ nine tails’ - a whip designed with multiple straps and embedded with barbed metal tips to catch and shred the skin and cause considerable blood loss.

To capture Christ’s resulting wounds, Caviezel had to undergo gruelling, full-body make-up sessions that lasted for hours. But such was the extent of the make-up, it quickly became an irritant, and caused his body to blister, preventing him from sleeping during this time.

He also spent more than two weeks filming the crucifixion scenes, during which he had to carry, or more often drag, under great duress, a 150-pound cross (about half the weight of a real crucifixion cross) to Golgotha, and later be suspended from it.

Caviezel trained for the torturous positions he would have to stand in by holding squats against a wall for up to ten minutes at a time, and lifting weights to strengthen his lower back.

In addition, he spent these weeks working in a loin cloth in the middle of the Italian Winter, and experienced several bouts with hypothermia, often becoming so cold that he could no longer speak. At times, the crew had to put heat packs on his frozen face, just to warm up his lips enough to move.

It was fire and ice, almost literally, for Caviezel, culminating in one of the most shocking moments on the set, when both he and assistant director, Jan Michelini, were struck by lightning while shooting in the midst of a thunderstorm.

The bolt went right through Michelini’s umbrella and zapped Caviezel as well, yet, fortunately, neither man was seriously injured.

The toll of physical and mental stress did not stop there, however, as Caviezel also suffered a lung infection at one point, as well as an excruciating shoulder dislocation, and numerous cuts and bruises.

But he remains remarkably candid about the whole process, stating: "If I hadn’t gone through all that, the suffering would never have been authentic. It had to be done."

Needless to say, the actor feels that the role has changed his life: "I’m no longer afraid of doing the right thing. I’m now more afraid of not doing the right thing."

In Caviezel’s case, however, the suffering would appear to have been worth it, for no matter what people think of the movie itself, most have praised his performance.

Gibson, too, was impressed with his star’s dedication, stating: "Jim is just perfect. He doesn’t actually make one single mistake, anywhere, in this film.

"It’s perfectly unflawed. He just was. You never see him acting or anything, he just was, he was Jesus. There’s nothing that takes your attention away from that, you can just watch him and think ‘Wow. That’s Jesus’."

But perhaps the most significant achievement to have emerged, thus far, from his performance, was being granted a brief meeting with Pope John Paul II, who blessed him in the presence of his wife and parents-in-law.

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