This interview originally appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader on January 15, 1999. Interview by Heather Svokos, Pop Culture Writer. Copyright of the Lexington Herald-Leader.
In The Thin Red Line, Jim Caviezel plays the movie's central figure, an idealistic Kentucky farm boy caught in the horrors of front-line combat in World War II.
Caviezel's performance is gripping, and as audiences watch it unfold they'll hear traces of Dave DeMarcus, a young Fayette County cattle farmer.
And see glimpses of Elhannen Stacey, Bert Goff, Frank Hickey, and Kelly Watkins, four World War II veterans from Breathitt County.
With the part of Private Witt in The Thin Red Line, Caviezel, 30, has snagged his first major part, after 10 years of plugging away in show business. And at least part of his critically acclaimed performance was shaped in Kentucky.
After director Terrence Malick selected him for the role, he suggested that Caviezel visit the Bluegrass.
No problem - he was bent on going anyway.
Caviezel figured one of his acting buddies might be able to help. So he called Josh Hopkins, a Lexington up-and-comer whom he worked with in G.I. Jane. Hopkins is also the son of former U.S. Rep. Larry Hopkins and his wife, Carolyn.
"I thought of Josh right away," Caviezel said from his Los Angeles home. "He was my only tie into Kentucky. Josh and I are very close."
Although Caviezel, like Hopkins, is a natural-born mimic, he hails from Mount Vernon, Wash . "I couldn't speak a lick of Southern dialect, let alone Kentucky."
Recalls Hopkins: "He wanted me to help him with the accent. I said: 'Jimmy, you gotta go to Kentucky.'"
Hopkins hooked Caviezel up with Dave DeMarcus, a Sayre School classmate who now raises cattle and tobacco at his farm off Winchester Road. DeMarcus and his wife obliged, and for two weeks Caviezel watched, learned and rolled up his sleeves. He milked cows and watched while DeMarcus oversaw cattle breeding and tested bulls for fertility.
So, was the Hollywood boy grossed out by the down-and-dirty business of farm life?
"Not really," DeMarcus said. "He was right in there."
The whole time Caviezel observed DeMarcus at work, he'd watch the farmer's mouth - he also video and audiotaped DeMarcus, so he could hone his speech pattern.
"Jim really worked on the sound," Hopkins said. "Dave has a pretty thick accent, and Jim came away sounding exactly like him."
DeMarcus thought so, too. "At supper, he'd say: `Tell me how I'm doing. Do I sound like you?'"
"Yeah, I guess you do," DeMarcus recalled with a grin. "My family thought it was hilarious."
Meeting with veterans
While Caviezel was doing his research, Hopkins' mother, Carolyn, took the actor to Breathitt County, where he met four World War II veterans.
"We just sat down and talked about what life was like before, and the Depression," Caviezel said. "They were poor - they walked to school for about 4 or 5 miles, so going into the military and having to run 15 miles - that was nothing - they were tough. For them it was like going into the Boy Scouts."
One of the veterans was Elhannen Stacey of Jackson, who saw frontline combat in Italy and southern France.
"He asked a lot of questions to get a better understanding of what the people were like in this area," Stacey said. "He seemed to be very sincere about doing his research. He wanted to be as realistic as possible in the part he played."
Stacey says he and the three other veterans who met with Caviezel plan to catch the film when it opens this weekend, and they'll be rooting for Caviezel. "I understand it's a blood-and-guts, front-line type of part," Stacey said.
Caviezel extracted a few things from each of his research subjects to help him find Private Witt's foundation. He used DeMarcus' work ethic, his youth and his physicality. From the veterans, he got an idea of their experiences during the war, and what it was like growing up in pre-World War II Kentucky. "That right there was the heart of the whole trip," he said.
Caviezel has already received excellent notices for his work - Rolling Stone movie critic Peter Travers said he gave a performance of "shattering intensity."
The actor seems elated that he landed such a major role in a Malick film. (The acclaimed director has steered clear of moviemaking for 21 years. His two previous films were Badlands in 1973, and 1978's Days of Heaven.)
When he describes the emotional roller coaster that led him - a self-described "no-namer" - to being selected, he loads the saga with tales of letdown, basketball metaphors, fate-filled meetings and games of career roulette. But it boils down to this:
10 years of trying
One night, perched on the edge of his bed, he told his wife, Kerri: "This is it. If it doesn't happen, it's over."
"It wasn't about quitting," he recalled. "It's just that it's been 10 years. I look at the future and I want to have kids some day, and I want to feed them."
"It comes to a point where play time's over."
Then, after months of pins-and-needles, Malick finally rang him up.
"He just said," and here Caviezel breaks into a Texan-meets-Kermit the Frog imitation of Malick: "`Well Jim, I was wondering if, uh, you know, well, you know, you would like to play the role of Witt.'
"If my eyes had flood dams, they were released - they broke. I pulled the phone away, because I didn't want him to think I was desperate."
He told Malick: "You made the right decision. I will give you more than you expected, or would ask of anybody."
"He said, `I know.'
"I just walked around, I could see colors differently - I noticed the dirty colors of the smog. ... It's always an asphalt jungle, but the Hollywood signs - I just wanted to go over and kiss them."
Hopkins is thrilled for his friend. Both actors agree that it's great to see the guys you struggled with make a breakthrough. (Incidentally, Hopkins has another Thin Red Line connection: his L.A. roommate, Dash Mihok, has a part in the film.)
Caviezel's Private Witt, is an idealist who proves to be a thorn in the side of Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn).
Similar to character
"I think Terry (Malick) casted a lot of guys who are similar to their characters. I'm not as good as Witt, but I have idealistic leanings. I think Sean's character is a lot like him - he doesn't trust people, and he thinks you've got to get what you can, but deep down, he's got a heart of gold.
"If you had to go to war and fight with someone, I'd definitely pick (Penn). He's the kind of guy that works when everyone's got their back turned. He's very brash - he doesn't come off pretty - but he's the very thing a coach would love."
With all the sweat and homework Caviezel put into his part, his coach - Malick - might think the same of him.
"He came away really treasuring his time in Kentucky," Hopkins said. "He wants to come back. He said, `Someday I'd like to have a big house and a horse farm in Kentucky.' He loved it.
"I knew he would."Back to The Thin Red Line Interviews Page