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The actors’ respective divergent backgrounds also proved to be assets in achieving their on-camera antagonism.
“The two of them had a huge respect for each other, and the characters sparred brilliantly on screen coming from the two different worlds of acting in film and theater,” says producer Trevor Hopkins.
“He’s a Catholic and I’m an atheist,” says McKellen simply. “It was very appropriate that he and I are so different in ages and nationality and belief system and experience, because we could be interested in each other easily and we could perhaps be equally suspicious of each other.”
Religion, it turns out, is one topic on which Caviezel is not chatty. When his turn in Mel Gibson’s controversial “Passion of the Christ” hit in 2004, he was very outspoken about his devout Catholicism. But today, both his current spiritual state and his family (he is married with two young children) remain off-limits.
“I’m trying to be respectful [of them],” he says. “To me, it’s not an issue; to others, it is.”
As for his role as Jesus Christ, well, it elicits a similarly tight-lipped commentary.
“It was to me as Christopher Reeves was to Superman — I can tell you that much,” he offers. “This business has a tendency to stigmatize you. Once you do ‘The Thin Red Line’ [his critically acclaimed breakout], you can no longer do comedies, and that’s one of those things I used to do.…When I’m committed to something, what I do is I get so involved in it that people will say, ‘That’s all he does.’ It’s just not so.”
There is no better indicator of Caviezel’s versatility than his unconventional path toward acting itself. Born into a large athletic family in Mount Vernon, Wash., Caviezel always enjoyed “horsing around” with impersonations of Eddie Murphy and Michael Jackson and dabbled in a school play. But his real focus was on basketball: He spent 17 years playing, with the intention of turning pro.
“I just wasn’t good enough,” he says. While at Bellevue Community College, he injured himself and, during recovery, would entertain teammates by mimicking his coach. They encouraged him to turn his knack into an acting career. He landed a role in the play “Come Blow Your Horn” and realized such a transition wasn’t a complete non sequitur.
“Listening to those actors deliver their lines with intent, I was able to translate that to the game of basketball. Same thing: You’re on the court and your intent is to get to the pocket, and you don’t just plan a move — it happens,” he says. “It’s the tens of thousands of hours of practice until a move becomes second nature. And the same thing happens in acting.”
Many projects later — including films like “Frequency,” “Angel Eyes” and “The Count of Monte Cristo” — the analogy continues to pervade his approach. He uses a complex description of backspin to explain keying into “The Prisoner” (“When I’m looking at a screenplay and it defies physics, I look for mental math”), and sees a bad take as no different than a bad play. Even the industry receives the sports treatment.
“Here’s the main thing: The business is always going to be what it is. In basketball, there were always going to be things that I didn’t like that weren’t going to go away. All I could do was change myself,” says Caviezel. “My family is most important to me. Not this business. This business is a product by which I make money and do work, but it’s for my family. And the only frustrating thing is, like my character, you feel like you’re not adequate enough to do the very work you need to get done.”