Jim Caviezel: 'I don't care if people think I'm a wimp'

Jim Caviezel doesn't like doing sex scenes - he wants to save himself for his wife. Charlotte O'Sullivan meets a rising star at war with his poster-boy image

Jim Caviezel comes with a health warning. "Don't ask him about his Catholicism," says the PR desperately. "Or at least, ask about the film first. He did a radio interview yesterday and once he started on religion... well, they could only use" (she holds her fingers a few inches apart) "this much."

Jim Caviezel comes with a health warning. "Don't ask him about his Catholicism," says the PR desperately. "Or at least, ask about the film first. He did a radio interview yesterday and once he started on religion... well, they could only use" (she holds her fingers a few inches apart) "this much."

Religion – like tea – goes down best in polite society when it's been allowed to cool. Piping hot, it tends to scald. Some people get away with it: Martin Sheen is evangelical about Catholicism; so is Mel Gibson; so (when the zany mood takes him) is Lars von Trier. But they're established names and Caviezel isn't, quite. The traumatised innocent at the centre of Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line; the earnest son trying to change the past in Frequency; the intense oddball opposite Jennifer Lopez in Angel Eyes, Caviezel is a consistently mesmerising presence, but means very little to Joe 'n' Joanna Public. Until now. In Kevin Reynold's slick and strutting adventure yarn, The Count of Monte Cristo, Caviezel takes the lead as sailor-turned-nobleman, Edmond Dantès. If he wants to become a "movie star", this is exactly the point at which he needs to start talking himself up. It's something of a surprise that he'd rather plug God.

The zealot arrives, looking like Ralph Fiennes' stern younger brother, his beauty fittingly marred by a mashed-down haircut, whiter-than-white shirt and heavy suit. He sits down on the couch, head pressed back against the wall. "I'm going to push the tape recorder towards you," I say nervously, "because you're sitting quite far back." He smiles, then says, in a sweetly childish voice, "It's my neck, it's sore." He pats the cushion next to him, "Come and sit over here."

Having been prepared for get-thee-to-a-nunnery thunder, I'm somewhat taken aback (in fact, I'm too shocked to move). Men of God are supposed to keep the world at a distance; Caviezel, it turns out, is the most intimate of obsessives. He talks about his recent re-conversion during the shooting of Monte Cristo. He'd been feeling unhappy and "overwhelmed" by his work schedule, so his wife arranged for him to meet a visionary. And while they were praying together the Virgin Mary came into the room. Caviezel says that for two weeks afterwards, he was able to pray from his heart. "It was the most beautiful thing," he says, with a hiccup of pleasure. "If you talk to young men these days about being priests, they say, 'Oh God, I wouldn't be able to have sex, forget it!' But this... I don't want to make this sound disgraceful to God, but it's like an orgasm that the holy spirit gives you."

Caviezel gets very animated when talking about "the flesh". For one love scene in Monte Cristo, he and his co-star were required to appear topless, so he asked that she put something between her breasts and his chest (she made pasties out of her flesh-coloured underwear). "If it is embarrassing for people on set," he says, without prompting, "if they think you're a wimp, that you're an embarrassment, talking this way – well, I'd rather be embarrassed before the whole country than before God. I think men need to take the lead on these things... If I say to my wife, 'Kerri, honey, I'm going to do a love scene today but I'm not going to sleep with this girl, I'm not going to allow her to put her breasts upon my skin'" (he touches his chest reverentially), "'because I see that as only for you, does that offend you?'" He fixes his eyes on me. "Do you think she would be offended by that? I don't think so."

For whatever reason, the love scenes are not what you remember about Monte Cristo. Thrown into a cell by his best friend, Edmond Dantès is whipped, beaten and starved until his faith in God is destroyed. His friendship with another inmate (Richard Harris) gives him a new project, self-improvement, and you can see the anguish in his eyes as he makes the decision to claw his way back into life. These are the film's most erotic moments. Monte Cristo's sword fights, bodices and crashing waves never have the same impact – they're too easy.

You have to wonder, of course, why Caviezel signed up for such a film in the first place. I think he can't decide whether a high-profile career is important or not. Sometimes he talks as if God were a second AD, existing purely to smooth out production details. "One day we were filming," he says, "and it was really raining, but the clouds cleared above us, so for 30 yards there was this circle around us. Isn't that bizarre?" Yet when I express a modicum of surprise that God takes such an interest, he nods sympathetically and says: "You mean, because films like this are too insignificant?"

Far be it from me to suggest that Caviezel has two feet planted on the ground. At times, especially when he's quoting "beautiful" lines from The Sound of Music, or complaining about men's reluctance to be role models and jump on their horses "like Braveheart", the man sounds positively witless. His honesty, though, is disarming. When I ask which saint he chose for his confirmation, he squirms and says, "My middle name is Patrick... and I went with Gregory, because that's my dad's name." So what good deeds is Gregory famous for? He squirms again, "I don't know. I..." He blushes. "Nothing in the face of Gregory, I just chose it because of my father."

His parents are very devout, but he says it took him some time to catch up. "I used to look at pretty girls and think, 'yeah, she's really pretty'." He mashes his hair some more with a distracted hand. "I always believed in God, I would go to mass most of the time, but I had no idea of the calling to holiness.I remember the visionary saying to me, 'Jim, you will always make time for the things you love. The reason you do not make time for us is because you do not love God.' And that's so true, I don't make", he corrects himself, "I didn't make time."

But that was only a year ago, I say. Was he really so sinful then? "Conversion is a daily thing," he says, closing his eyes with a sigh. "I know now that I have a cross, that if I don't choose now to carry it that I will be crushed under the weight of it." He's not interested in half measures. "If you do enough little sins, you're not there" (he points upwards), "and you're not there" (he points down), but you're right in the middle and you become really lukewarm." He says "lukewarm" as others might say "filthy". He wants to scald.

He's just finished making a movie called Brother Bill, about a real-life Catholic lay-worker, Bill Tomes, who stops gun fights in Chicago's drug-infested ghettoes by standing in the way of the bullets – which apparently pass "around" him. Frankly, it sounds stinky. Here's a better idea. Caviezel's old friend Malick (also a Catholic) is apparently planning to make a film of the Middle English poem, Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain is a proud and virtuous knight tempted three times by a beautiful lady, the Green Knight an emissary from God who ultimately exposes the chinks in his armour. Caviezel may well have talked himself out of a job by the time Malick gets round to casting, but he'd make a perfect Gawain. He's so determined to be a saint, but what he always sounds is human.

'The Count of Monte Cristo' is released on 19 April

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