February 20, 2004 10:15 AM

Facing whips and lightning strikes – not to mention a heated religious controversy – Jim Caviezel, 36, has weathered a storm in bringing director Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ to the big screen. The film, due Feb. 25, has the actor (Frequency, High Crimes) carrying his heaviest role yet: Jesus Christ. While some groups have claimed that Passion is anti-Semitic, others have objected to scenes depicting Christ’s graphic torture (the movie’s been called one of the most violent ever). Caviezel recently talked about the physical and emotional demands of the drama, and why he decided to put his faith in Gibson.

You went to great lengths while filming – you were even struck by lightning during the Sermon on the Mount.
I got lit up like a Christmas tree. About three seconds before it hit me, I knew that it was going to happen and I locked eyes with people, (and) it’s just a sickening feeling. I looked up and I said, “You don’t like that take, huh?” … (People) were saying that they saw fire on both sides of my head, and they saw a light come around me. My hair was all standing up.

Do you think it was a sign from above?

How is it that you ended up working with Mel – as Jesus?
When (he) initially came to me for this role, one thing led to the next. Here we are talking about the gospels, and then I said, “You want me to play Jesus, don’t you?” I was thinking in my head, My God, all I want to do is a comedy. …

I never thought about playing Jesus. I never thought that that would ever happen, and in fact, I’d been offered to play it twice: once on TV and once in a play, and I said no.

Are you satisfied with how it all came together?
Of course, yeah. It’s everything that I want it to be.

This movie has struck a nerve, to say the least, with its controversial subjects: politics and religion.
What I was hoping, and what I think comes through with the film, is that it’s above religion. When you go to the Vatican and you look at the Pieta, at the blessed mother and the son, you don’t have to be religious to appreciate this art. You can look at it and say, “My God, it’s done by a 24-year-old kid, Michelangelo. What a genius.” The same thing goes with this movie. It’s still a mother-and-son relationship that transcends whether you’re religious or not.

You’ve costarred with Jennifer Lopez (Angel Eyes), Dennis Quaid (Frequency) and Ashley Judd (High Crimes). How did you know this was the right project for you?
Well, Mel Gibson is not that bad of a director. Did you ever see Braveheart’? … But I didn’t care who (the director) was, I wanted to know what he wanted to do. If he was going to have Jesus walk down and get pizza at Domino’s, I wasn’t interested in that.

You make a great physical transformation in this movie. What was that like?
I started in the makeup chair at 2 in the morning and that went until 10. I was carrying a cross, and someone knocked my shoulder out. Then, the cross is on a 1,000-foot cliff and the wind would go up at about 30 knots and go right through you. At one point, I couldn’t feel my legs and my arms.

And you suffered from hypothermia, right?
Yeah, hypothermia, every day. We would go back and do a two-hour shower, and I’d drink a gallon of water, and then I would start to sweat … and you go home and you get maybe three and a half, four hours of sleep and start all over again.

What else?
Then, the scourging scenes – I experienced the whip.

Your suffering seems real.
Yeah, but I realize that I was just an actor playing this guy.

Is it fair to call this a profoundly spiritual experience?
There’s no question. There’s no passive onlookers, there’s no passive actors. This is just something that you take with you for the rest of your life. It’s a responsibility. I don’t always choose the best, (but) I think that what you see up there, at the end of day is two things: grace and truth.

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