This interview originally appeared on Rough Cut on January 13, 1999. Interview by David Poland. Copyright of Rough Cut.
Jim Caviezel needed to "act" to get into acting. While a teenager, he tricked casting agents into thinking he was a recent Italian immigrant to get a small role in My Own Private Idaho. He was later accepted into the performing arts school, Juilliard, and soon afterward starred opposite Kevin Costner in Wyatt Earp. Caviezel talks about his experiences working alongside big-name stars such as Sean Penn and Nick Nolte and reclusive director Terrence Malick. He also notes his reaction to Saving Private Ryan and explains his alternate choice in profession, should he quit acting.
Let's start with the great mystery of The Thin Red Line. What's Terrence Malick really like?
He is an extremely kind, kind man. You would see an extra walk along and he would treat the extras as well as he would treat me or Sean Penn or Nick Nolte or anybody. As far as a director is concerned, he's like a farmer. He likes to make sure the soil is tilled right and we're, like, his crop. He really takes care of his crop. He works real hard. He works from, like, 4:30 in the morning till 12 at night, and it's never done. And he's always calling you up and saying that, "Well, let's work on your accent a little bit more." He's got this way about him that's wonderful. He's a great listener; [he] doesn't forget a name. You could be some complex five-syllable name and he'd remember [it]. He's extraordinary that way. As far as a director and his techniques, no two days were the same. One day you could come out there and it'd be real intimate and another day he's giving you line readings. I enjoyed not knowing what he was going to do. One day he'd say, "Jim, we don't have a scene yet put down today, I don't have anything written, but maybe I know something needs to be done there between you and Sean (Penn), and so we're gonna try our best to figure it out." So, we'd sit down and thoroughly think through a scene that's not even there yet. It could be real controlled chaos, some days. He likes to keep the actors around him, like we're paints. Some of the guys would complain. Maybe we're up a hill and have to hike and it'd be like 40 minutes away from where our trailers were, so he needed us right there. But it was really hard because of the heat -- you know, 100 degrees every day, humidity was real hard -- and he'd keep you by him like you were a paint and that's how he did it. And then, when he was done, he'd just kind of painted this piece of art, this film.
You're kind of new to this business. What's going through your mind when you find out you're going to be in a Terrence Malick film, with all of these famous actors, playing one of the leading roles?
It's an incredible [feeling]... it's a miracle. I definitely won a lottery, at least for now. No words could describe what a great experience.... Terry Malick had the courage to give me this role. He didn't have to. There were plenty of guys who were much better-suited, [who] had way more credentials than I did. I hadn't proven to him that I could do this role, only the two auditions I'd done on video. But he put his reputation on the line for me and there are no words to describe what a wonderful experience it was, working with him.
Did he explain to you why you were chosen?
No. He wouldn't do that. Maybe it's a sense of we're a lot alike. Every character in the film, as you get to know them -- each guy in the film, the essence of who they are -- is a lot like their character. Now, I'm not saying that I'm as good as my character, because I'm not. But I do believe in a better day. I try to be the best man I can for the day. I love my country. I am a humanitarian, so maybe it was those things that we were similar on (sic). And Sean Penn, maybe, you know, he's so much like [his character] Welsh. He can be such a viper, but in the next sense he could be picking you up and carrying you over his shoulder. I don't know if it made the [movie], but him running out there and picking that guy up is very much like him. And you love him. And there are times when you want to hit him, but there are other times you want to just kiss and hug him. You'd do anything for him.
Did you ever think that you wouldn't get here? Did you ever think of just giving up acting?
I didn't want to quit acting, but I felt like it was impossible. I realized that I knew I wasn't going to change who I was as a person. I had a strong sense of who I was, always have, and I was much happier in staying the way I am, in the way God intended me to be, instead of changing to fit my generation or the area, Hollywood, that we're always in. I needed to stay as close to home as I could, because what was important was being happy. What was important was when I found my wife. I married a woman who is much better than me, I'm very fortunate to be with her and I know I'll be happy with her the rest of my life. People have asked me, "There's a lot of temptations down here," but I said, "Use the best [temptation], go ahead and challenge me, go seek me out." I don't ever want you to print anything that says... I don't want it ever to come out that I've cheated on her. I don't want to ever do that. It's not something that I can afford to do. I would never go back to my wedding day and say that we had a great time. We were so in love, but I'm so much more in love with her now than I've ever been. And that is real happiness. I want to be closer to her as I get older. I've had too many good examples in both directions. People who say, "Well, there's probably something out there that I'm missing, so I need to try some [of them]." You know, I'm just telling you what I've found that I know I can be happy.
What would you have done if you quit acting?
Well, I'd probably have gone into [the] chiropractic [field], like my dad. And I'd probably have done theater on the side, you know? But yeah, I've really got into my kids, like he did. He invested a heck of a lot of time, and my mom, especially, who was always there for us and we're very tight today because of it. We're a real strong unit. My father had open-heart surgery about five months ago and I was devastated. We didn't know if he was going to make it. He's not a man so much to tell you, I mean, I've never seen him cry. But I said, "I'm scared," and I could tell he was, 'cause his hand was shaking and he said, "Well, if I go, it's because God wanted me to, because I don't want to. I want to see The Thin Red Line, I want to see your film."
If this movie makes you a big star, how hard is it going to be to maintain this attitude you have?
Well, it's like I said, there are some things in your life that you can't do. If people ask me, I don't plan on going to strip clubs, I don't want to be tempted, so I won't go there. I don't want to be [tempted]. If I'm around a woman who I know I would want to be with, physically, if that was an attractedness, I would just make sure I'm in the public, so I wouldn't do something (sic). I'd try to put myself in a situation where it's not going to happen. Do I have feelings of physicalness around other females? Well, sure, I mean, I'm as human as anybody, but the big thing is I'm not going to act on it. And I try to [think], if it gets in my mind, it's like, "Hey, stop."
Have you seen Saving Private Ryan?
Yes. I did. I've seen it three times. It's a masterpiece. Someone asked me earlier, "Do you not want that film to do as well?" and I said, "Absolutely not." The big thing is that I'd like for my generation and the generations to come, to see how bad war can be. To see the 50 million people die, [more than] 54, 56 million people died in WWII. To see what these veterans went through... let us not do it again. After going to Guadalcanal and then coming to watch Pvt. Ryan, I wept. But first, I was numb. I walked out of there, and maybe 14 hours later, I just broke down. I saw the veterans there, when they came to Guadalcanal. A couple of them came up and were saying, "Hello," and one of them turned around and I could hear him crying. And he goes, "I apologize," and I go, "No. You don't apologize." And he goes, "No. You don't understand. You are us. You look like us. This area... we were here."
Can you tell us about your experience with the WWII veterans?
I spent time with the veterans, right before the filming, in Kentucky, where I did a lot of my research. And spent time with the boys there, who told me what it was like before growing up, they say, you know, "I walked a couple of miles to school everyday [and] walked back." Some guys walked five miles. They carried guns, nobody messed around with anybody. They'd hunt a lot, and [have] chicken farms. There was always plenty to eat, but they were always poor. How intimate do you want me to get?
Were the veterans watching on the set?
No. They didn't. Those guys were just telling me the experience in Guadalcanal and in the Philippines and some of them told me about Germany and D-Day. But the actual veterans, there are all these guys going uphill to [make] pilgrimages to Guadalcanal. A lot of them have to get through what happened. It was so devastating. Many of them were coming and seeing where their comrades had dropped and died.
And they were welcome?
Oh, yeah. Terry would welcome them anytime they came out there. Terry would even say, "Well, do you see anything here that you would change?" That's where Malick is smart, he knows where he can use experience, and these veterans were that.
Did anyone in your family fight in WWII?
Two of my uncles were in Vietnam, my great-uncle was in WWI, I had cousins in WWII, but as far as my mom's brothers, they missed that part. They were too old. Even more devastating was the Battle of the Sun. We weren't involved with that, with the machine gun, they'd never dealt with machine guns. They'd get up and run out of trenches and you'd lose a couple hundred thousand [soldiers] in a matter of a week.
Can you tell us what the title, The Thin Red Line means?
That line of being sane and insane, that fine line. And the thin red line that you go through. I wanted to tell you about that, some guys get Superman Syndrome. That's how they deal with it. Some guys go insane, they do go insane. They go into a mental ward. They can't handle it anymore. Some guys could never take somebody's life. Nobody wants to, it's just kill or be killed. But it would be the fine line of sane and insane.Back to The Thin Red Line Interviews Page