Jim Caviezel: News from the Front

The way we hear it, it's going to fall to Jim Caviezel and Sean Penn to carry much of The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick's highly anticipated war movie about the emotional turmoil overwhelming a young Army rifle company fighting the Japanese at Guadalcanal during World War II.


Just about every actor in America wanted in on the legendary Badlands/_Days of Heaven_ director's first film in 20 years, and a heavy A-list team did get recruited. But as the results of the 213-page shooting script went into the editing room, it wasn't certain which of the ensemble actors were getting the major screen time. About the importance of Sean Penn's role there was much less ambiguity than of the 30-year-old Caviezel's.

Hearing the soft-spoken Caviezel recite his resume in slow, steady cadences enhances the mystery of his high profile in Malick's movie. What part did he play in his film debut, My Own Private Idaho? "I was a ticket-taker and it got me my SAG card." In Lawrence Kasdan's Wyatt Earp? "I really didn't have any big scenes. I played the youngest brother, Warren Earp. I just had a line here and there." In The Rock? "You know that island that got blown up, Alcatraz? I helped blow that thing up." In G.I. Jane? "There was a scene where Demi Moore walked into the bunkhouse and was going to sleep there. And I was like, 'You can't sleep here."'

No wonder Caviezel found it understandable that the notoriously vague Malick dragged his heels through dozens of meetings and conversations over four months before offering him the key role of the sensitive Southern boxer Private Witt (who is based on the same character played by Montgomery Clift in the 1953 film From Here to Etemitynovelist James Jones wove this young soldier into both of his books about his wartime experiences in the Pacific). When Malick's actual offer came in, Caviezel was beyond recognizing it. "I got a phone call from Terry one day and I said, 'Hey, how are you?' I just thought we were going to chat again. And he said, 'Jim, I would, I was wondering if, you know, if, well' I was like, 'Please.' He said, 'I'd like for you to, ah, play, I'd like you to play the role of Witt.' I said, Terry, are you saying that you would like for me to play the role of Witt but other forces, other people don't?' And he said, 'No!' and started laughing."

While things may have started out barely decipherable, Caviezel did eventually get a fix on the reclusive filmmaker who'd abandoned an annual million-bucks-a-year studio stipend to lead a nearly anonymous existence in Austin and Paris. "I think he guards his personal life for a reason," proposes Caviezel. "He understands that anybody who's spoiled, even good people that are spoiled, it ruins you. It's like, every morning I get up and I go swimming on a swim team. I don't particularly like it, but when I'm done, I've accomplished something." Well, is it true Malick comes from oil money and doesn't have to work? "I don't know." How about that in making The Thin Red Line he was obsessed with birds, grass and feral pigs? "Terry, as a hobby, knows every bird that exists in the world," Caviezel confirms. "Rule number one in his mind, I believe, is, go with what nature gives you. If you've got a thunderstorm, use it." Does he really have a frightful temper? "He told me once that he's very ashamed of his temper." And what about his being secretive? "Yes." Deeply spiritual? "Yes." Insecure? "Oh, sure." The best-read person on the planet? "Yes."

Malick is also so generous with film stock he went through a million-and-a-half feet of it on _The Thin Red Lin_e, doing up to 20 retakes of scenes to get at a spontaneous truth, and keeping guys like Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, George Clooney, John Travolta, Woody Harrelson and John Cusack sweating their khakis off in the stifling heat of Queensland, Australia. "He uses actors like paints. A painter needs his paints right there, even if he's not using all of them," explains Caviezel. Malick's directives can apparently be wonderfully oblique, as when he instructed one actor to play a scene "like a squid coming out of the abyss." He appears to be fairly cagey in psychological terms, too. "Terry walked over before a battle sequence and he said, 'You know, Jim, you were saying you were a pretty good athlete before this thing here. I kind of wonder about that.' He walked away and that got me steaming."

As for what kind of movie will result from all this, Caviezel says only that it won't be simplistic: "It's very philosophical with the dialogue that Terry writes. I would say that somebody who's 14, 15 years old may not get what the person is saying."

One last thing--should he ever have to go to war himself, which of his battlefield costars would Caviezel want in his unit? "Sean Penn. He may not come off pretty, but he's real. He works so damn hard. He pushes himself and he works hard when people aren't looking."


Wolf Schneider