When Jim Caviezel agreed to play Jesus of Nazareth over a decade ago in a Mel Gibson film, it became a pivotal event both in his life and career. “The Passion of the Christ” is still the highest-grossing Christian movie of all time. But now when Caviezel goes to speak at schools and universities, he says he’s baffled when he’s told that he can talk about any of his movies except that one. We tiptoe around issues of faith in the strangest way, like visiting Rome only to ignore all the sacred architecture.
“You can’t isolate history and say, ‘Oh we’re not going to talk about God here’; that makes no sense at all. Obviously, faith, religion, have great influences, even in non-Christian societies, [they] have big influences on how societies think, act, walk, talk, everything,” said Caviezel by phone. The actor is also known for his role in the drama “Person of Interest.”
Caviezel’s character in his latest film, “Infidel,” which premieres on Sept. 18, is fearlessly outspoken about his Christian faith, and that was what drew Caviezel to the character.
“I related to the character, I guess, because he stands up for what he believes in. And I know that’s something that’s lacking in today’s cancel culture,” he said. “People want to be liked so badly; they’re so misinformed. You can be liked by the world, but do you want to be liked by many or loved by one?”
Caviezel initially wasn’t approached to play the lead character, an American kidnapped in Cairo who ends up in an Iranian prison on spying charges. But he insisted.
Writer and director Cyrus Nowrasteh had worked with Caviezel a decade ago on “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” beginning a long conversation between the two about faith and religion.
“So when he came to me, and he was looking for me to do a smaller part on the film [‘Infidel’], I’d spoken to him so much and at great length that I said, ‘Why didn’t you come to me for the lead in this movie?'” Caviezel said.
Nowrasteh said that he thought Caviezel would be too busy, but Caviezel replied: “Not too busy for this. This is too important.”
Bridging the Divide
“Infidel” is a suspenseful thriller that drops you right in the middle of an Islamic regime, where every character has their deepest beliefs, no matter how different, tested in the face of life-or-death situations. Caviezel plays an outspoken Christian blogger, Doug, and Claudia Karvan stars as his wife, a State Department official who has to try to rescue him herself when the American government refuses to intervene.
The film isn’t based on one true story; it’s an amalgamation of several true stories that viewers may recognize from the news. It is not a graphic film, though perhaps in today’s climate, religion is more provocative than violence.
Caviezel remembered the 21 Christians executed by ISIS when he read what the character Doug would go through, how it blew him away that none of them would deny their faith. He thought about the disappearance of American agent Robert Levinson in Iran and the CIA scandal it revealed just a few years ago.
“The Stoning of Soraya M.” put a spotlight on stonings, and Caviezel says that “Infidel” touches on other things that need light, like honor killings.
“There was one just recently where a father chased down his daughter and beat her to death, and drank tea next to her corpse while waiting for the police to show up,” he said. “Obviously, these are the things that we can’t even fathom, but in order to stop them we have to draw them out into the light.”
Caviezel adds that there is less media coverage of these injustices than there used to be, that these aren’t the stories they’re telling.
“When I was younger, we learned about the hostages in Iran,” Caviezel said. “When I was going to school in the ’70s, we would see daily tolls: day 2, day 10, day 300—you knew those hostages, how long they were there. They were part of the definite narrative; we had to get those Americans home. That’s different; that’s changed now.”
Acting is Caviezel’s craft, and he said that he wants to use it to lend a voice to those who are crying out. When he and Nowrasteh worked on “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” he remembers Nowrasteh telling him to be prepared to be asked tough questions about his religion by curious Muslims.
He told Caviezel: “Don’t be afraid of offending Muslims. They’re tough. They’ll ask you a lot of questions about your faith and why you believe what you believe, and you probably better know your faith well, because they’re going to want to know why [you believe that].”
And what Caviezel learned from these conversations was how the Muslims who want peace are suffering at the hands of the extremists.
“A lot of them said, much of the world panders to extremist Muslims, but the sad thing is the real victims are Muslims, the ones who aren’t extreme, who want peace. They’re the ones who are the most oppressed by these Islamic regimes, and many of them are in those prisons [that we see Doug in],” Caviezel said.
Caviezel had a lot of security while he worked on these two films, and he wrote down what one of his security personnel told him: “He wanted people to understand what it’s like there: Let people know in the West. Tell your media, you’re not harming [peaceful] Muslims by taking a stand against radicals; you’re helping [us],” Caviezel said.
What Caviezel learned on that first film and in conversation with Nowrasteh thereafter crystallized in the script for “Infidel,” so when Nowrasteh finally approached him, Caviezel already had the heart to tell this story.
No one wanted the film to be anti-Muslim.
“We have Muslim characters in the film that do take proactive measures, at the risk of their own lives, to fight against the extremists and the Islamic government,” he said. Pressure and oppressive regimes can never quash true faith. In fact, the opposite often occurs, and we’ve seen many times in history that religion grows right in the middle of oppressive regimes.
Speaking the Truth
Caviezel said that the absolute most important thing in “Infidel,” in any story, and in the conversations we have today between people of different faiths, is the truth.
“I’m looking for the truth that’s in the story, and is it a fake truth? Is it a fake respect? Is it a fake peace?” he asked. We see examples of both false peace and true reconciliation of ideas in “Infidel,” and their consequences.
“Like this [film], you’re looking at Muslims and Christians and trying to bring the bridges together, trying to bring the divide together, and you can’t do it by not being true, by pretending to be something you’re not … that solves nothing,” he said. “There’s some great, entertaining things going on in ‘Infidel’ as well. We’ve got this Hezbollah leader and this Christian professor who, on another day, they might have been very good friends.”
The truth is, people of different faiths aren’t at war with each other, Caviezel said. If anything, there is a culture war that has been waged against people of faith, and you don’t have to look far to find, sometimes rather vicious, anti-Christian rhetoric or policies that would draw outrage if it were against any other group.
“This is a war that has to be fought and has to be won, and no one has ever won a victory on the backs of fake moral platitudes. We have to be bold and speak the truth, so that’s what this thing equals to me. Looking for the moral redemption in that story is really what means [something] to me,” he said. “I don’t believe we can sit there and be victims, but we have to be bold still and speak the truth that God gave us.”
“At the end of the day, you’re going to be held accountable for what you did, you and your small voice,” he said.
As a child, Caviezel saw “Ben-Hur” on the big screen. “I would say to myself, ‘Man, these people really suffered for their faith,’ never thinking that I would be on the screen, big and small, playing a guy suffering for his faith and representing a people suffering for theirs,” he said. “The challenge from God is, ‘Yes, Jim, you have a purpose, and can I use you now, as a man?’ and that’s all I can do.”
Our culture isn’t one that tends to see the good that can come from suffering. Caviezel himself loves the stories of saints and how they created greatness from it, but he says that you don’t even need to look that far to understand it.
“Think about it like this: Look at an athlete; every day he goes in and works and trains, and he’s in a lot of pain he has to deal with. The muscles hurt, but he knows that if he continues and engages in that, then that muscle will get stronger,” Caviezel said. “Under pressure, how do you perform? Well, his training will show you if his training was good, when the rubber meets the pavement.”
Caviezel’s character goes through the same thing as those martyrs and those athletes, preparing long before he meets great suffering. The actor says that his character must have read the Gospel and the stories of the martyrs leading up to the story as we see it. “My character faces the same fate and has the same resolve in the face of evil, and I think that will inspire many people, even non-Christians who watch the film,” he said. “That’s how you start to engage in the truth of what’s really going on.”