This interview originally appeared in the New York Daily News on December 29, 1998. Interview by Ron Givens. Copyright of The New York Daily News.
Funny things can happen to a movie in the editing room. Take "The Thin Red Line," for example. The WWII movie, which opened last week, had been widely anticipated because its legendarily reclusive director, Terrence Malick, was making his first movie in 25 years. Also because its all-star cast which includes Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta and George Clooney, was supposed to surround an up-and-comer named Adrien Brody.
Well, "The Thin Red Line" showcases an almost totally unknown actor all right. Only his name is Jim Caviezel.
His character, Witt, is the spiritual heart of this very intense depiction of the Battle of Guadalcanal.
"It's really been tremendous being a part of this," says the 30-year-old Caviezel, who has only had small roles in movies like "Wyatt Earp" and "Diggstown." "It's like winning the lottery."
The victory was all the sweeter because Caviezel landed the part after nearly seven years of frustration.
"I was almost out the door," says the soft-spoken actor, who was on the verge of moving with his schoolteacher wife back to his native Washington State and studying chiropractic medicine.
The straw that nearly broke this Caviezel's back was a movie called "The Hi-Lo Country," which comes into theaters tomorrow. Caviezel was up for the part won by Billy Crudup and Sean Penn was under consideration for the role that went to Woody Harrelson.
"I had been close before," says Caviezel, "but I thought maybe I had a shot with this. One day I came home and there was a letter on the door from ['Hi-Lo' director] Stephen Frears. It took the wind out of me."
Getting the part of Witt in "Red Line" did not come easily. Caviezel met with Malick several times over the course of the three months it took to land the assignment. They had lunch. There were long talks on the phone. Caviezel took a pass on three separate TV pilots. (They didn't go anywhere anyway.)
Finally, the actor got a call from the director, which he re-creates using what he calls Malick's "Texas-meets-Kermit the Frog" voice.
"Jim, hello, how's everything?"
"Well, I was wondering, uh, if you would, uh . . . "
"If you would like to . . . is Kerry [Caviezel's wife] there? . . . "
"No, she's not here."
"I was wondering if you would like to play Witt."
Once Caviezel went off to Australia for the making of the movie, he had to cope with working in the midst of A-list stars. What got Caviezel through was sheer talent and a rugged work ethic.
"I was a basketball player and that was all I did," says Caviezel. "My goal was to play in the NBA. As I look back, I realize I wasn't good enough to play at the highest level, but I felt that I got everything out of my physical ability."
In "The Thin Red Line," Caviezel creates tremendous impact by not doing much. With bodies being cut down all around him, his character remains remarkably still.
"Jim reflects a kind of innocence and purity that made him very attractive for this role," says George Stevens Jr., executive producer for the movie.
Stevens is very careful when describing the way that the Brody character became almost nonexistent in the movie.
"Jim's character was always intended to be one of the two or three most important parts," he says. "So it's less a matter of Witt becoming more important than there not being room for the development of other characters."
Almost like the understudy who must replace the star on opening night, Caviezel already has seen the benefits of his good fortune. There is a big part in the next Ang Lee movie, "Ride With the Devil," and three more roles are under negotiation. But, the actor emphasizes at the end of the interview, "Don't worry about me getting a big head."
The aw-shucks attitude is not an act. Like the character he plays in "The Thin Red Line," Caviezel doesn't seem to have an insincere bone in his body.
"Everything from this point on," he says, "is just cake."Back to The Thin Red Line Interviews Page