Being at the center of one of the highest grossing movies of all time can be both a blessing and a curse for an actor. The world now recognizes their name and face, but a role can be so iconic that they’ll have trouble breaking free of it in audiences’ minds (Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, for example.) If the role in question happens to be Jesus of Nazareth, that effect can be magnified many times over. It is a predicament that Jim Caviezel knows all too well. When Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was released in 2004, Caviezel, a devout Catholic, went from being a Hollywood actor who worked steadily to being the star of one of the most controversial — and profitable — films in movie history.
Since then Caviezel has kept a relatively low profile, but when Passion producer Stephen McEveety approached him about The Stoning of Soraya M. (opens June 26), based on the true story of an innocent Iranian woman who was stoned to death in 1986, Caviezel signed on. He plays Freidoune Sahebjam, the French-Iranian novelist/journalist whose 1994 book inspired the film, a supporting role to the film’s stars, Academy Award nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) and Mozhan Marnò. Caviezel hopes the movie will draw attention to women’s rights violations around the world. (To get involved with organizations working on this issue, click here or see our list of contacts at the end of our Q&A.)
In the interview that follows, 40-year-old Caviezel is surprisingly open about faith in a secular world, the effect The Passion has had on his career and why, five years after The Passion, he was drawn to another project that takes place at the controversial intersection of religious belief — Islam in this case — and graphic violence.
[Stay Tuned: More on the movie as well as insights on the current election crisis in Iran from Shohreh Aghdashloo and director Cyrus Nowrasteh—both of whom are Iranian—as well as with producer Stephen McEveety.]
Busted Halo: Can you tell a little more about how you got involved with The Stoning of Soraya M.?
Jim Caviezel: Steve McEveety, who produced the film, was a great friend, a terrific producer, and worked with me on The Passion of the Christ. He talked to me about it and I knew it would be a strong film and of course I read the script. I think it’s hard to accept that stoning still exists in the world today and I was floored to realize that the story was relatively recent. There have been very recent similar instances as well. However, I was also caught by the universality of the story. While the stoning is an extreme example, power in the wrong hands can be very dangerous whether it’s in another part of the world or down the street. In the story and in the film, the power is based in religion. And it’s particularly frightening to me to recognize that people can misuse religion in such an extreme and frightening way. I was also drawn to the courage of many of the characters, particularly the two ladies, and of course the character I played, a journalist. In a community where no one spoke up or stopped to question, many of course out of fear (and it’s always that way), it was intriguing to work on a character who was an outsider and was willing to risk his life, I think much in the same way as the story of the Good Samaritan. And of course the character of Freidoune, the character that I played, was of course tried and sentenced to death. And pretty much about 48 hours before I was going to meet him he died. I’m sure stress had a big part of that.
BH: You talk about your own faith a lot, you’re a very devout Roman Catholic…
JC: Well I mean I had to defend it, playing in The Passion, I had to defend it.
BH: Defend being Catholic?
JC: I had to defend the story, the Gospels. It was all I knew. I mean, I don’t know Shakespeare as much as I know the Gospels. And you cannot tell me something that’s been over 2,000 years that suddenly in this secular environment, the modern world all of the sudden knows better than this. I’d really have to take a stupid pill to believe that.
BH: What was that like?
JC: Well, I think Jesus’ friends in the world know suffering. It’s not going to change; it’s always been that way. But I think what separates our Lord’s friends from those who walk without him is the grace that accompanies his followers. If the soul is willing to accept heavenly grace, then that soul’s suffering is changed. Crosses carried in union with heaven benefit both the individual soul and the world. When viewed this way, which is the true way, souls understand that suffering is not a bad thing but a valuable thing to be exploited for heaven.
BH: It sounds like it’s had a deep impact on your faith and your career even. Can you talk a little bit about that?
JC: There’s nowhere I can go now. If you were a priest you would have a collar on. Many priests today don’t want to wear their collars. There is a little bit of freedom in that so that no one can identify you with that and you can just be yourself. But do you really want to? In the same way where when I was going to do The Passion of the Christ I knew that if I took this role it was going to identify me with this forever. And they went to me and said “Look at all the money here, there’s so much temptation.” However, it’s not bad. If you do this movie, it’s not an immorality not to do the movie. I guess it’s not an immorality not to wear your collar. But what it did was profound in the way where, I will always be… once I cross that line, that stigmata is with me for the rest of the life.
When you become a priest, a Catholic priest, I don’t know where I’m going with this but I’m trying to go where the Spirit leads me, is that it can be a bad thing in the world’s eyes but in Heaven it’s always good because our service on earth has to always be one of, “How can I get more souls to heaven?” How can I, you know, suffer, and when I’m in union with Heaven, how can I suffer to help someone else? When they look at me and I have my collar on, how can I use the pain that I feel right now to convert another soul? Its redemptive suffering, we’ve always believed this, we don’t talk about it now because we’ve become a church of Happy Jesus. It’s sentimental hogwash. We want to talk about positive talk and everybody gets in. It’s just not so, people choose through disobedience, and this is the age of disobedience that we live in now.
I wear my role with me everywhere now. See, I can’t take my collar off. It doesn’t matter what I wear now. It has gone beyond that. People used to mouth the words, “There goes Jim” and “You can see, there’s Jim Caviezel.” Now they mouth the words, “There goes Jesus.” That’s a good and a bad thing. And it’s the same thing with a priest when he walks in with a collar. Some people are going to say, “Wow, that man is a priest.” Well, nowadays, the attacks are so strong. But imagine though, if we go back to using that suffering to exploit Heaven. In other words, using that suffering and joining with Heaven and all those believers in the world, you’re going to save so many souls. Hopefully that is The Passion of the Christ‘s message.
BH: That’s interesting because your new movie, The Stoning of Soraya M. is, in some ways, based so deeply in religion. These are people in a small Muslim village who are using God for their own purposes: to murder an innocent woman. Was that something you had to pray over? Was that confusing territory for you to work in?
JC: I think the Gospel is very, very clear when Jesus talks about the story of the Good Samaritan. And you have a guy who is not of the particular faith, beaten up, lying on the street, and of the same faith of the two passersby, one even being a priest, and they do nothing. And the one that does something is an enemy, a Samaritan. Certainly theologians can tell this story better than I can but I get the gist of it. The one that helped him and did something about it wasn’t even someone of his own faith. So here you have a story of Muslims in Iran who practice Sha’ria law, which I don’t believe in, and this is prevalent in many other countries.
So why should I take my Catholicism and Christianity and get involved in it? If that’s my attitude then I think truly I miss the story of the Gospels. And I think people do, often. If people really lived their faith today this world would convert in a heartbeat. And part of that is lacking an understanding of redemptive suffering and using it. And really in the last 40 years, it’s something more focused on a faith about a positive-mental-attitude-Christianity versus the real thing — that through the suffering and the courage, true courage, when you have true courage you know suffering is a part of it — and then we become more a group of indifference, and people say, “Well it’s not really your issue,” and, “Who are you to get involved in that?”