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Jim Caviezel: Star of The Count of Monte Cristo

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Even though Jim Caviezel’s acting career is only 12 years old, his résumé and depth of talent would make even a seasoned actor squirm in envy. He has worked with such acclaimed directors as Gus Van Sant, Ridley Scott, Ang Lee and Terrence Malick. He has shared the screen with such high-powered actors as Nick Nolte, Andre Braugher, Helen Hunt and the legendary Richard Harris.

He has been critically acclaimed for his performances in The Thin Red Line, Frequency, Pay It Forward and Angel Eyes. Jim’s latest film, The Count of Monte Cristo, which opened nationwide on January 25, may just launch him to even greater heights.

Put simply, Jim Caviezel, 33, is emerging as a major player in the movie industry. But all of the fame and adulation that he has achieved run a distant fifth to the top priorities in his life: a deep-seated love for God, a successful marriage with his wife, Kerri, and his family and friends.

When Jim sat down with St. Anthony Messenger last November at a stylish restaurant called Marmalade Café in Westlake Village, California, he was on the threshold of the publicity whirlwind for The Count. Jim’s casual attire—black T-shirt, khaki pants and a bomber jacket—is in contrast to what is expected of a movie star. But then again, he’s unlike most stars in the business.

Wearing a golden cross around his neck, Jim almost immediately begins making the connection between his lifelong spirituality and his career as an actor.

“I have no doubt that God put me in this business. When I was a teenager in a movie theater in my hometown, I felt this huge pain in my chest, like a voice saying, ‘Please get into this business—this is what I need for you to do.’ And I asked, ‘But who am I? I know nothing about acting. I don’t know any actors. I’ve never taken any classes,'” he says.

Jim’s self-doubt was evident but, nevertheless, a roadway to cinematic success was already being laid.

From Hoop Dreams to Movie Stardom

Jim’s hometown of Mount Vernon, Washington, is a far cry from the bright lights of Hollywood. Born in 1968 to a close-knit Catholic family, Jim dreamed of little else but playing in the NBA. “Most people saw me with a basketball, working on my dribbling, shooting, defense.” His parents, Jim and Maggie, nurtured all the dreams of their three daughters and two sons, provided those aspirations didn’t interfere with Church.

“We always went to Mass. No matter what, we always went. It has always been a safe-keeper for all of us and the one thing that’s been very consistent in our lives. I think the old saying, ‘The family that prays together, stays together,’ is very true,” he says.

Jim played basketball throughout high school and early college, but when a foot injury benched his NBA hopes, he sought a different career path. Armed with a talent in mimicry, Jim answered his calling and, while in Seattle, auditioned in 1990 for a role in Gus Van Sant’s independent feature My Own Private Idaho.

After fooling casting agents into believing he was a recent Italian immigrant, he won a role as a foreign airline clerk. It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him scene, but it was enough incentive for Jim to pack his bags for Los Angeles, eager for more significant parts.

But bigger roles were hard to come by. Jim waited tables and labored in bit parts on television and in movies before flirting with academia. He auditioned for New York’s Juilliard School of Drama and, to his surprise, was accepted, but education would have to wait. At the time of his acceptance, Jim landed a role in 1994’s Wyatt Earp, a western starring Kevin Costner.

His personal life would take an upswing as well when, in 1996, he married his girlfriend, Kerri, a high school English teacher whom he had met on a blind date three years earlier. Jim described his feelings for Kerri in an interview with Caroline Eichenberg of You! Magazine. “My greatest joy right now is that I know I met somebody who loves me…but loves God more….I know I will see God, and I know she will, too,” he said.

With his faith as his foundation and Kerri as a source of great strength, Jim once again focused on his career. He had only a short wait before capturing the role that would change the course of his life forever.

An Auspicious Beginning

In 1996, renowned director Terrence Malick, who helmed such ’70s classics as Badlands and Days of Heaven, began holding auditions for his first film in some 20 years, the World War II epic The Thin Red Line. Most of Hollywood clamored to work with the celebrated director. Not only did Jim win a part in the film, but he even nabbed one of its five principal leads, no small feat considering the movie boasted an array of big-screen heavyweights that included John Travolta, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, George Clooney and John Cusack.

Jim’s audition alone was a memorable one. En route to meeting with Malick at his home, Jim felt a need to say the rosary. As he made his way to the director’s front door, he realized that he still had the beads clenched in his hand.

When a woman Jim believed was the maid greeted him, he saw that she was wearing a miraculous medal. Assuming she was Catholic, Jim, for reasons he can’t explain, felt compelled to give her the rosary.

Stunned, the woman confessed that she had recently lost a rosary that a friend had given her from Mother Teresa. “She said, ‘I prayed this morning that I would get another one and you walked in and gave this to me.'” To his astonishment, the woman wasn’t a maid; she was Terrence Malick’s wife. This has led Jim to believe that, although God put him on this path, it is the Blessed Mother who has been his guide, shepherding him through his career.

“I prayed the rosary and it took me to another level. She’s been guiding me in this career. I feel her hand, I feel her drawing me to her son. I feel her for what she is: She is full of grace and giving me grace in times when I don’t even deserve it,” he says.

Winning a leading role in The Thin Red Line proved to be an auspicious new beginning. Jim’s performance as the self-sacrificing, conscience-driven Private Witt was a triumph, as was the film, which received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Suddenly, Jim graduated from playing minor parts in mostly forgettable films to being one of the most versatile actors of his generation.

Jim followed this success with Ang Lee’s Civil War epic Ride With the Devil, but made a bigger splash in 2000 with the drama/thriller Frequency. As John Sullivan, Jim played a New York homicide detective who, through an old ham radio, contacts his dead father, played by Dennis Quaid, 30 years in the past. Although the film wasn’t a hit in theaters, its popularity has grown, achieving wide success on video.

With those films under his belt, Jim had the credentials to demand leading roles, but he scoffed at convention, opting for the supporting role of Jerry, the homeless heroin addict in Mimi Leder’s Pay It Forward, co-starring Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey. In his next film, Angel Eyes, Jim played Catch, a man damaged by the loss of his wife and son but who is emotionally resurrected through his love for a hardened police officer, played by Jennifer Lopez.

Despite these successes, Jim still wrestles with doubt and uncertainty when approaching a character. “When I begin a role, I start again and I say, ‘I can’t act. I don’t know what to do.’ I have to start all over again and find who this guy is.

“I always come to a place of complete vulnerability, so much so that it brings me to my knees, and prayer becomes a major part of allowing God above to do any kind of work he wants me to do,” he says.

‘Count’ on a Challenging Role

Falling back on his faith would prove essential for Jim when tackling Alexandre Dumas’s classic The Count of Monte Cristo, directed by Kevin Reynolds and co-starring Guy Pearce, Dagmara Dominczyk and Richard Harris.

In arguably the most demanding role of his career, Jim plays Edmond Dantes, a noble but naïve young sailor who is unjustly accused of treason and jailed in a deplorable underground cell for 13 years. He escapes his captors, comes into a sizable fortune and, with “the Count of Monte Cristo” as his new identity, systematically avenges those who betrayed him.

Jim spent months mastering the art of fencing and hours in the make-up chair each morning. Although the physical requirements were considerable, the emotional and psychological demands were even greater.

Edmond Dantes endures a vast evolution in the film: a kind of spiritual and existential roller coaster. He starts out idealistic and virtuous, loses his faith after years of imprisonment and, after executing his intricate plan, reestablishes a bond with God.

“Edmond’s faith is challenged and he believes in it to such an extent that he loses it. That void must be filled, and I felt that had to be accurate,” Jim says. “If being a count is what makes you someone, then my character finally says, ‘I’ll be a count and I’ll be one greater than anyone has ever been.'”

Jim says he survived the rigors of filming largely due to God’s presence. One day when they were shooting in Malta, a massive rainstorm hit. Director Kevin Reynolds desperately needed to shoot the scene, and, miraculously, the clouds directly above them parted. Every inch of land around them and for miles beyond was saturated with heavy rain, except for the small area where they were filming. The moment the scene was shot, the clouds above them closed once again and a hard rain began to fall. Cast and crew alike stood in amazement at their good fortune.

“I have no doubt that God’s hand had a part in this film. I feel there was something divine going on when we were making this,” he says.

‘God Will Give Me Justice’

The Count of Monte Cristo, which I was fortunate enough to preview at Disney Studios in Burbank, California, isn’t simply an adrenalin-fueled swashbuckler of swordplay and intrigue. The film, which is rated PG-13, tackles an assortment of weighty issues, but the pounding theme behind it is the same message carved on the stone wall of Edmond’s cell: “God Will Give Me Justice.”

Jim says, “My character is so consumed with hatred. A big thing that was going through my mind was a ticking clock: Will this guy get his salvation or will he go down in hatred? Will hatred fill him?”

Because of Edmond’s long and undeserved imprisonment, he feels cruelly abandoned by God. After he escapes, Edmond tries to fill the abyss of his soul with animosity and retribution, before realizing that vengeance is a directionless journey. It is placing one’s complete faith in God that offers a clearer road to salvation. “It’s in you to want [revenge], but God will give you justice. God will take care of you. My character is full of hatred and revenge and, finally, he comes full circle,” Jim says.

Looking back on the experience, Jim is often reminded of the scenes he shared with Richard Harris, who plays Abbé Faria, an old priest who is also wrongfully imprisoned and who educates an embittered Edmond.

“One of my favorite lines in the film,” Jim says, “is when Richard’s character says to Edmond, ‘Remember, don’t commit the crime for which you now serve. God sayeth: Vengeance is mine.’ Edmond replies, ‘I don’t believe in God,’ and then Richard’s character responds, ‘It doesn’t matter, he believes in you.’

“Things like that drove me to the role, knowing that we might be able to make something wonderful here,” Jim says.

Great Expectations

It may seem contradictory that a young actor can be so grounded in his faith and survive the sometimes murky waters of Hollywood. But Jim is able to keep the two worlds apart, separate and entirely unequal, with priorities unscathed. Mass is something that anchors him.

“Mass is everything to me. It is my life and that’s what it all revolves around. So you ask, ‘What does it feel like to be Catholic in Hollywood?’ That’s who I am.”

That doesn’t mean that Jim is blind to life’s temptations. “I have a wife that I have to be responsible to, and there are always temptations out there. Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden and they gave up quite a bit to have a nice taste of an apple. Well, I’m in the Garden of Eden and I’m going to be held accountable for everything I do.

“Chasing the world, chasing riches or fame or fortune isn’t going to make me any happier. In fact, from everyone I’ve talked to, once you win an award or have a hit film, you want another, but it won’t fill the void,” he says.

Jim is more concerned about living a life of integrity than he is about impressing critics or scoring at the box office. And although Jim is humble, he is aware that he’s been given a remarkable gift. He is also mindful of how responsible he must be with that gift. “Everybody has a Michael Jordan talent. But even so, when much is given, much is expected, and much is expected of me in my profession.

“As an actor, I have to take it upon myself to serve the people. That will help check your ego at the door. People say to me, ‘Wow, that’s a great film.’ My response is: ‘Hey—I’ll give glory to God for that one.'”

Keeping the Faith

Jim’s need to keep God as the focal point of his life is evident in a tradition that he shares with the team of people who work for him. Once, while riding to work, he and his driver, Michael, prayed the rosary together. From that day forward, Jim, and anyone else who wishes to join him, keep their beads within reach.

“We start our day off the right way, in prayer, in total submission to God, and allow this to be God’s work,” he says.

And God’s work can be filled with frustration, but Jim is philosophical about his career; he realizes that there are no guarantees. “I don’t know how much longer it’ll last,” he says. “You only get one shot in this business and I want to make sure that I do the right thing. Sometimes it’s difficult.”

He often questions the violence and profanity in films, including his own, and understands that he may endure criticism from people who question the authenticity of his beliefs when one of his characters commits an act that is less than honorable.

But to Jim, acting allows him that very freedom, to inhabit characters whose motivations and ideologies may not necessarily correlate with his own. It’s simply a part of the job. Therefore, as an artist, Jim has no objection to journeying into the heart of an evil character, provided it’s a worthwhile endeavor. “I look for projects that are redeemable. I love playing different characters and searching for the message of the story,” he says.

Jim is delighted that he’s been able to do quality work consistently, but is still thirsty for new opportunities in his field. Worried that he might be typecast as the troubled, sullen leading man, Jim says that he’s been searching high and low for a well-crafted romantic comedy. Given his love and proficiency for humor (which includes, among other things, a mean impersonation of actor Christopher Walken), it should only be a matter of time before he finds one.

Jim insists that his job as an actor has been a calling, not only to entertain, but also to serve others. His father, a chiropractor, once conveyed some words of wisdom about his medical career that Jim now uses to encapsulate his own. “My dad said to me once, ‘You can look at a job as a lot of money to be had, or as a service to other people.'” Jim has obviously chosen the latter.

“So when people have pain in their lives and they go to a film, I want them to get away from it for a while, to take a journey and maybe say, ‘Hey, there is hope—I know that there’s something better out there.’ Hopefully, I’ll continue to get the opportunity to do that.”

And Jim is interested in accompanying people on their journey. Occasionally, he will buy a ticket to one of his own films, sneak into the darkened theater, quietly take a seat in the back and observe an audience’s honest, unrehearsed responses. “I love that—to get the live feedback and to see the audience enjoy something. That excites me as an actor.”

Jim Caviezel looks forward to making more films, wrestling with challenging and redeemable characters, doing his part to offer at least a fleeting moment of hope and escapism to those who are willing to take the journey with him.

On Sharing Scenes With Screen Legend Richard Harris

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Jim Caviezel looks back fondly on his experiences filming The Count of Monte Cristo. He credits Director Kevin Reynolds for creating a solid interpretation of Alexandre Dumas’s enduring classic, along with the cast and crew for pulling together to present a praiseworthy rendition of the much-read story.

But perhaps Jim’s fondest memories are of the days he spent with Richard Harris, who plays Abbé Faria, the priest who is Edmond’s cellmate, mentor and friend. Harris, who has been one of stage and screen’s most respected actors for over 40 years, is only in the first third of the film. But his character’s effect on Edmond and the actor’s effect on Jim are both equally profound. So how was it working with a living legend?

“Oh, he’s wonderful,” Jim says. “I picked up a script of his one day and saw his notes and I got to see how his brain worked. He would take words and draw lines around them and through them. I got to learn a lot about what he was doing.” It’s no surprise Harris has a love affair with language. The Irish actor is also a published poet.

In the film, Jim and Richard epitomize the classic teacher/student relationship. As the two imprisoned characters spend years trying to tunnel their way to freedom, Abbé Faria teaches his young and illiterate cellmate to read, as well as learn mathematics, economics, swordplay and philosophy. But perhaps the greatest lesson the old priest imparts is the beauty of peace and how vengeance will darken Edmond’s heart, describing revenge as “…a meal endlessly cooked but seldom eaten.”

Offscreen, their relationship was slightly different, but the essence of the mentor/pupil relationship still lingered. They spoke of their shared craft of acting, the differences and similarities between European rugby and American football, as well as a mutual admiration and love for the Virgin Mary.

Sharing scenes with someone as renowned as Harris could have been daunting, but Jim says the two-time Academy Award-nominated actor was a wonderfully kind and encouraging man, the consummate artist who left Jim a gift when his scenes wrapped. “At the end, he gave me the cross that [his character] wore in the film and wrote a little poem for me. It was very moving,” he says.

Harris also thanked Jim for the time they shared and offered a shot of professional support as well. “When we finished, [Richard] said, ‘We did great work together. Now it’s your ball—it’s your baby. You’ve got to run with it.'”

This article first appeared in the February 2002 edition of St. Anthony Messenger.