This interview originally appeared in This Is London on February 23, 1999. Interview by Steven Goldman. Copyright of Associated Newspapers, Limited.
If Jim Caviezel carries the translucent shroud of shell-shock about him, it's with good cause. The 30-year-old actor is, after all, a survivor of Terrence Malick's Second World War epic, The Thin Red Line - easily one of the most anticipated and perplexing films of the year. Still, it's hard to say if Caviezel's aw'-shucks farm-boy bewilderment is due to the sudden spotlight which surrounds his de facto stardom or the fact that his performance somehow managed to survive one of the messiest cutting-room floors in recent memory.
"My whole thing was to do the best I could," says the man himself, a virtual unknown outside casting circles until hand-picked by Malick for the central role of Private Witt - an AWOL grunt who returns to his unit for the battle of Guadalcanal. "There were many voices who said, 'We could get Brad Pitt. We could get Matthew McConaughey. We could get Johnny Depp ... Caviezel - we can't even pronounce the name'. Well, I told Mr Malick, 'You ask them if, when they first saw it, they could pronounce the name Schwarzenegger - I certainly bet they were able to do it after a few million dollars'."
In short order, Hollywood has learned to pronounce the name (it's of Swiss origin and sadly rhymes with "weasel"). All it took was rave reviews and a million-dollar-plus opening in the US, despite a release initially limited to a scant seven theatres. And so, all of a sudden, Hollywood has come to court an actor often dismissed in the past.
Dressed in a rag-wool sweater and sporting the requisite blend of humility and braggadocio, Caviezel certainly looks as if he's the new male lead. The fact that he is, in The Thin Red Line at least, is down to pure luck. Initially 20th Century Fox decided to build an early publicity campaign around newcomer Adrien Brody, who was central to the original screenplay, only to discover that his performance was largely excised from the final cut. (Among the other amputees from the million feet of footage: Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas and a voiceover narration by Billy Thornton; stars John Travolta and George Clooney survive, but enjoy less than six minutes of screen time combined.)
"I was so focused on the job at hand that I never thought beyond filming," says Caviezel, who spent 127 days on a shoot which moved from Daintree Rainforest in northern Australia to the Solomon Islands. "Every day I would say, 'Today is the last day of the rest of my life ... this hour, this moment, this scene right here'. So I never thought I'd be sitting here in front of you. Never conceived it ... I had simply promised the man who had given me the opportunity that I would give it all I had. And I knew what a responsibility it was."
A Catholic schoolboy from rural Mount Vernon in Washington State, Caviezel describes himself as a "shy kid" who developed a taste for mimicry at an early age and, soon after, the stage. "I would do Eddie Murphy, just about anyone to get a laugh. But then when I started doing plays in school, things began to change. All the nuns and teachers would come up afterwards and tell me I just had to go into acting. Of course there were two things I didn't want to be back then, namely an actor or a priest. I mean, if I had my choice, I would have been a basketball player."
Caviezel, nevertheless, soon made his break from hoops to acting with a bit part as an Italian ticket agent in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho - securing the role only after fooling local casting agents into believing he was a recent Italian immigrant. With a Screen Actors' Guild card in hand, he moved to California with his wife Kerri (the couple now divide their time between LA and Mount Vernon), landing minor roles in lacklustre films like Diggstown, Wyatt Earp and Matt Le Blanc's monkey movie, Ed. To put it bluntly, Caviezel found himself going nowhere fast. "I was looking ahead through my life, where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. It was around that time I started thinking about going back to school to become a chiropractor, like my father. Fortunately it was around that time that I also got the call from Terrence Malick.
"I grabbed the phone and tears started coming out of my eyes," says Caviezel when asked about the summons from the maverick director of Badlands and Days of Heaven. "I told him that whatever he needed me to do, I had the confidence to do it. That I'd be there for him."
And in the end, it was Malick - returning with his first movie in 20 years - who remained faithful to Caviezel's performance. "Towards the end of filming, I'd get calls from my agent about new projects casting out of [20th Century] Fox. But they needed to see this film first and I didn't know who was going to be cut out. I could have been cut out, for all I knew ... I just happened to be fortunate that I ended up in the situation I'm in right now."
Whether The Thin Red Line can ignite Caviezel's career as Malick's Days of Heaven did for Richard Gere remains to be seen. But the formerly struggling actor will make dramatic inroads in the months ahead with Ang Lee's US Civil War drama, Ride With the Devil, and the American football pic, Any Given Sunday, which he is currently filming with Oliver Stone. The roles are notably supporting ones in ensemble films which may not give Caviezel the break-out he deserves. No matter, as far as the actor is concerned. "After being involved with a project like this," he says, "what could you possibly do to top it?"Back to The Thin Red Line Interviews Page