Making It Count: An Interview with Jim Caviezel
March 18, 2002
by Dan Lybarger
Because Alexandre Dumasí serial novel The Count of Monte Cristo debuted in 1841, itís astonishing to discover that the story still grips people nearly two centuries later. As the grosses for the new film adaptation by director Kevin Reynolds (Waterworld) indicate, audiences still flock to follow the adventures of Edmund Dantes, an illiterate sailor who is sent to prison when his enemies falsely accuse him of supporting the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte. Edmund later escapes, assumes a royal identity and discovers a vast treasure that enables him to return the disfavor to each of the men who wronged him.
The Count himself has been a coveted role since the dawn of cinema, and many formidable thespians have tackled the part. Robert Donat, Richard Chamberlain and Gťrard Depardieu have all walked in the Countís shoes. As the latest thespian to hold the title, Jim Caviezel hasnít taken the task lightly. The 33-year-old Mount Vernon, Washington native learned fencing (a prerequisite for starring in just about any Dumas adaptation), read the massive 1,600-page novel, researched the lives of both Dumas and Napoleon and took a dip in the icy Atlantic during escape scenes.
Because of the chameleon-like transformations the Count goes through as the story progresses, any actor who plays him must have the range to play several men inhabiting the same skin. Since his debut in Gus Van Santís My Own Private Idaho, Caviezel has adeptly portrayed a junkie trying to go straight in Pay It Forward, a menacing bushwhacker in Ang Leeís Ride with the Devil, an innocent soldier in Terrence Malickís The Thin Red Line and Jennifer Lopezís enigmatic love interest in Angel Eyes. Until his turn as Edmund Dantes, he was probably best known for playing a cop who communicates with his late father (Dennis Quaid) through a ham radio in the sleeper hit Frequency.
Caviezel was in Kansas City last week to promote The Count of Monte Cristo and to host a benefit screening for the Midwest Ear Institute (www.mei-kc.org), which provides comprehensive audiological services, including hearing testing, hearing aids and cochlear implantation. In person, the actorís polite manner is almost undone by his most enduring trademark: his eyes. His blue eyes, which look even more pale in person, can be simultaneously calm and piercing. They are the perfect instruments to look into the soul of the Count.
Dan Lybarger: How did you get involved with the Midwest Ear Institute?
Jim Caviezel: Theyíre helping promote the film that weíre doing. Dave Johnson (of PMG) put me in touch with people here. We came together yesterday to show The Count of Monte Cristo, and thatís how I found out about it.
I was listening to this stuff about Rush Limbaugh (the talk radio host whose hearing had been restored through cochlear implantation), and I heard he got some of his hearing back when he was totally deaf. I guess (MEI) were a part of that. I had no idea about it, and itís great that there are places like this. I hope more people will know about it. The people out there who havenít been able to hear for years need to know this miracle exists our there for them.
DL: To get to the film, the role of Edmund Dantes must be really exciting for an actor because itís so dynamic.
JC: There are a lot of levels and a lot of places to grow, you know, where you get to start and end. You start to play it innocent and naÔve to a dangerous degree as someone who kind of represents in a lot of ways how this country was before September 11. And then injustice happens and loss of faith. His faith is challenged, and he loses it, and then he becomes obsessed with revenge.
We go on this journey with him. What would it be like to have so much money that you could buy anything and have this power? Heís physically fantastic with his fencing, with his eye-hand coordination, his mind and his will. He has more than the people who put him away. Eventually, he finds God.
Itís important to know that this is a very romantic film, too. When I went to play it, I wanted to make sure he wasnít someone who thought ďBy growing a beard and a lot of fancy clothes, that heís the count.Ē Itís the change thatís happening within him. Mr. Morell (played by Patrick Godfrey) doesnít recognize (Edmund) when he comes to see him. Itís because Edmund Dantes is dead. But the core of who (Edmund/The Count) is changing.
DL: Physically, you look radically different as the film progresses. It reminded me of watching Al Pacino in the Godfather. He starts off appearing innocent and open and later looks like heís growing scales.
JC: I remember that story because when (Pacino) was auditioning for the movie, the studio at the time couldnít see him as playing THE Godfather because of how innocent he was playing the (cafť) scene. I donít know if youíve ever seen the making of that. They had Jimmy Caan, Robert De Niro and all those guys come in, but (Francis Ford) Coppola stood by (Pacino).
The change (in Edmund Dantes) isnít just physical. Itís internal. Iím more of a predator. At the beginning of the film, he was more prey (laughs). He had no idea he was prey. He probably didnít even know what the word meant. He couldnít even read and write.
DL: You said that power does make him a different person.
JC: The catharsis of the film is in the prison scenes. The priest (Richard Harris) tries to teach him that you can live and walk around this earth, you can be free and have all the wealth in the world, but you can still be in prison. The odd thing is that people think that because theyíre walking around that they donít necessarily have freedom. Freedom comes from within. Thereís one book that I read, Manís Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. This is a prisoner in Auschwitz. How do you have freedom in Auschwitz? He calls it "internal freedom," and that freedom doesnít come solely from something physical. The idea that Frankl wrote it is abandonment of what you cannot control and mastering self-control. This is something the Count wants, but he canít get it because heís driven by the forces outside of himself: money, power, wealth. Thatís why heíll never know that peace.
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