Jim Caviezel interview: The Prisoner, The Count Of Monte Cristo, Frequency and comic book movies

Duncan chats with Jim Caviezel about the Prisoner remake, Ian McKellen and the marvellous The Count Of Monte Cristo...

Jim Caviezel is an actor who’s long been on my radar. I have strong memories of his performance in The Thin Red Line etched in to my brain, yet have only seen it once at the cinema. Following that, I thoroughly enjoyed Frequency, absolutely fell in love with The Count of Monte Cristo (if you haven’t seen it yet, then I can’t recommend it highly enough – in time it’s become a five star movie for me) and after that I actively sought out his films.

He was in town to promote the TV remake of The Prisoner (currently screening on ITV and released on Blu-ray and DVD on 3 May and reviews of which can be found starting here), so I leapt at the chance to ask him about his work.

Despite the trains either being cancelled, or running late, I made it to the interview with about a minute to spare and was just regaining my breath when I walked into the room to meet him.

While I apologised and set up, he told me that he often runs in the morning, if he’s about to perform, to help get prepared, which makes a lot of sense when you know that he trained as an athlete for many years and was on the verge of a pro career, when an injury put an end to it.

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In the interview that follows, he makes quite a few references to how sport shaped him and his attitude to work, yet, was incredibly humble, every bit as soft spoken as you’d expect, with a slight intensity that’s hard to describe.

Asking him about some of his work from years ago, he was telling me memories, as he remembered them, which gave quite a different insight to the usual standard responses.

We started talking informally and when he glanced out the window, which overlooked the Thames and things got started as he said, “It’s kind of surreal to be back here, full circle.”

How come?

Well, our rehearsals were right up here, in these rooms, just looking out… and I remember thinking, you know ‘am I going to be able to do this?’ And Ian (McKellen) was sitting there and I’m sitting there, and he said, “How do you feel?” and I said, “I’m really nervous,” and he said something like, “Oh, darling, get used to it!”

That sounds about right! Why were you so nervous?

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Well, I guess because it’s a remake and, of course, I never saw the original. I was waiting for this all to be done, to just sit down and watch it. I’m a mimic, that’s how I started, that’s how acting began, I just started mimicking people and I didn’t want to just mimic Patrick McGoohan.

(The original Prisoner) was great for that time and this one will be great for this time, so it is with respect to him that I wanted to do… as the cold war influenced him, the time period that we are living in would influence me and my take on it.

Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel in The Prisoner (2004)
It must have been quite strange for you because it was not only a remake, which is something new for you, but being a TV series it was a new medium too, how did you adjust to that?

Well, I just looked at this one from a future standpoint… it is kind of a two part answer here. I was looking for something, anything that moved me. So the medium, whether it is TV or film, is irrelevant to me.

Preferably I like stuff on the big screen, but the show has been shot in 35 and has a 35 look on screen, so it has big, long lenses and an AMC look that looks like a giant, classic piece of work and the other part of…sorry, I’m a little tired here!

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I didn’t know anything about it (The Prisoner), I just read this script and I was expected to do another movie, but there was a glitch in the financing, I mean there were glitches in all the financing, everywhere with the banks.

But it worked out because, while that was going on, this one came across. I read the material and knew nothing about The Prisoner. What caught my attention first was ‘Ian McKellan is doing this, you need to read this.’ I read the first two scripts and I said, “This is amazing!” and they said, “Wait until you get the next two!”

And how was it working with Ian McKellen?

He is an actor. He could be my professor, he is like a teacher, he is very immediate, certainly I knew that with someone of his experience, I would be an idiot if I were to think that I wasn’t going to sit there and learn something from this guy, and I feel that with most actors I work with in general, I am always trying to pick things up from them, so especially with him.

What I would like to do, if it is alright with you, in the time we’ve got is to talk about as many different things as possible.

Sure.

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That would lead me on to the fact you got to work with the late great Sir Richard Harris…

Ah, he’s amazing, amazing.

Jim Caviezel in The Count Of Monte Cristo (2002)
And The Count Of Monte Cristo I adore, I am a fan of a lot of your work, but The Count of Monte Cristo is really close to me. Richard Harris always seemed to instil a certain respect in all the other actors he worked with. Did he tell you any stories or give you any advice that stuck with you from that time?

With him there are personal things. He was amazing, and personally he said a few things that will always be here [points to his chest], but that I never bring up publicly.

But he was like Ian McKellen, these people were born to act. They will always be the greats and in the sporting world, which I came from, I had a lot in common with Richard.

He came from Ireland with a sport background as I did, so we had something in common and a great understanding of acting because, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction – the physics to sport and team mates and things – and so I shared a camaraderie with Richard that I haven’t had with other actors, because we both came from that background, but nonetheless he, as I was, were both drawn to acting.

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And it’s more than just a profession, it’s a passion, or a vocation and what’s interesting is that you could talk to me about how you go from your 20s to your 30s and I was probably 32, 31 then? I made that film with him 10 years ago and it just goes like this! [gestures speed]

You evolve as an actor and I feel that I’ve evolved in the last decade, just from working with him. I used a lot of him as the count, watching him, picking up his energy. So, what I was able to do as a mimic, is pick up his energy and wisdom and use that to become Monte Cristo.

So, there is a big part of (his character) Abbe Faria, in my performance as the Count, but Richard’s wisdom, Richard’s calmness and fury. His great, great fury. There was something lying behind that man’s eyes that I think a lot of guys have. You meet these really great, sweet, sports guys and you think they’re a push over. You get them on the field [snaps fingers] and it switches.

Jim Caviezel in Oultlander (2008)
The character of Edmond Dantes must have been such a great character to play, not just because of the story, but because of the transformation you have from the innocent to the ‘master of his destiny.’

Yeah, remember that scene where we put all the treasure chests up? It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, but I remember I throw them up and pull the map out and he (Jacopo) asks, “What more could you want?” and Dantes says. “Revenge.” And it’s like it’s insatiable.

You think ‘okay I’ll get this and I’ll be happy,’ but it’s that insatiable feeling that draws you to think that, maybe for me it’ll work for me. Even though Abbe Faria told me, “Do not commit the crime, you now serve the sentence for.”

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I remember he (Faria) says, “God save vengeance is mine,” and I say, “Well, I don’t believe in God,’ and he says, “It doesn’t matter, he believes in you.” And that scene I remember becoming very emotional, because there was so much in the way that Richard said that, as a great actor, to hit me at my core.

I never think I’m good enough, yet I always think ‘I’m going to show you!’ It doesn’t matter, busted lip, broken nose I’ll keep getting up.

When you’re younger and you’re getting cut down and you finally say ‘I’m going to be so good, I’m gonna make you all pay.’ You know, when you’re younger, they won’t throw you the ball anymore, unless you can catch, it’s brutal as a kid.

I remember with Richard, him saying, “I don’t care if I break my nose, I’m going to learn how to catch a ball and I’m going to practice over and over again and I’m not going to be picked last again.”

All of those things, you go back into your past and use them, but with someone like him you can throw all that away and be in that moment and just be natural.

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Jim Caviezel in Déjà vu (2006)
The chemistry you had on screen with him definitely came across, which leads me to ask about another film which depended on that dynamic.

When you did Frequency you had the father/son relationship, but it was detached – you were in one setting, while talking to Dennis Quaid’s character in another, yet that bond was very much there. How was that nurtured? How did the director approach it and how did you as an actor establish that?

I went from The Thin Red Line to Frequency and I was really new to the whole filming thing, I had only really just started coming into my own I guess at that point. Greg Hoblit (the director) built two sets, the ‘69 set and the 1999 set and he kept the pressure on me.

And again having played 17 years of sports, he really put the screws on you, tight, and put you under pressure, which I really respond well to. I think he had to, because I was the new guy on the block and I had to get my chops busted a bit.

Dennis had been around for years, but I loved the competition of the whole thing and I had worked with Dennis in Wyatt Earp several years before, and the piece, when I read it, just jumped off the page.

I remember we did this thing where we would ‘run and gun’, so, in other words, we wouldn’t cut. We’d do a quick reset, you know, put a big mag of film on (the camera) and not yell cut. So, when we would end one scene, they would quickly reset the cameras as they were filming, and where we had ended (one scene) we used that energy and began the next.

There was a piece in the film… I remember where he (Quaid) said, “I love you, son.” and I said, “I love you, too,” and then I said something like, “God I miss you so much…” and I just broke. But you know that kind of stuff happens really easily, when you are working with people that really know what they’re doing.

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You’re relying a lot on instinct and trusting the fact that their experience will help you get through those moments, and thankfully, I’ve had good mentors, that have helped me get to those places.

Dennis Quaid in Frequency (2000)
Jim Caviezel in Frequency (2000)
I have one last question, I don’t know if it’s true, but I read you were nearly involved in two of the big comic book movies – X-Men (as Cyclops) and that you were really keen on playing Superman. I was curious, are you a fan of that genre?

Sure! I first saw Superman with Christopher Reeve and I just thought that he set the standard there, the first one, the Donner film, was amazing. But (my involvement in Superman) just never came to be, you know?

I think that by playing Jesus in The Passion (Of The Christ) made them stay away from that, as there was too much attention drawn to it [Bryan Singer was always keen to cast a relative unknown], but that I just thought was a great piece of work.

So, it didn’t end up working out, but it would have to be done right anyway – you have to meet with the director, but I never met with the director on that movie at all, not with one of them, as there were several directors attached – but, you know, it’s like a date – you might like them and they don’t like you enough, or they like you and you don’t feel the same way so…

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Jim Caviezel in The Passion Of The Christ (2004)
But it’s possible in the future we might get to see you in a comic book movie?

[He smiled wryly at this point, as he suddenly twigged I was keen for some kind of confirmation!] I wouldn’t count on it, but you never know. We’ll see! Thank you.

No, thank you, Jim Caviezel!

The Prisoner is being released on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK on May 3rd by ITV Studios Home Entertainment.