The Unexpected Star -- Jim Caviezel's Stubborn Sincerity Cuts A Swath Through Hollywood

AT FIRST GLANCE, Jim Caviezel's big, ocean-blue eyes seem little more than the requisite work tools of a movie star.

They were as polished as new-car paint in "The Thin Red Line," the impressionistic World War II movie that catapulted him toward celebrity. In his role as Private Witt, Kentucky-bred GI existentialist, he spent much of his time standing by like a battlefield aura, staring and soaking in the chaos. In one powerful scene, he communicated shock, fear, helplessness and then joyful peace in a 15-second span using nothing but his gaze.

His look has always grabbed attention, at least as far back as 1987, his senior year at Kennedy High School in Burien, when he was voted "boy with the prettiest eyes."

They are more than props of a pretty boy, though. Look closer and you'll see an earnestness staring back that announces what or how he's feeling and reveals he is far more Skagit Valley, where he grew up, than Tinseltown.

In fact, at 30, Caviezel finds himself a Hollywood commodity in part because he's not Hollywood at all.

He has a child's curiosity that lets him introduce himself to Al Pacino, Magic Johnson or any stranger who grabs his attention. He looks flush at you when he talks about his Catholic faith, or his determination not to let learning difficulties slow him or fame change him. He is direct and intense, once frightening a casting director while portraying a menacing jerk. "I didn't get the part," he recalls.

He can seem quaintly courteous, yet possesses a righteous temper. While walking through the Los Angeles airport once with his wife, Kerri, he sighted a known scam artist posing as a priest and soliciting "donations." Caviezel pointed, shouted "You're a fraud!" and hunted for security guards.

There are times he burrows into a hyperfocus so strong it seems a trance. Other times, his thoughts drift like smoke while someone is talking to him.

He struck casting directors as over-eager or spacey when he was struggling. Now that he has momentum, they consider him fresh. Idiosyncratic director Terrence Malick saw something new when he chose Caviezel (ka-VEEZ-uhl) to be Witt, the spiritual core of the Oscar-nominated film, instead of Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt or Matthew McConaughey.

Caviezel has finished supporting roles in two high-profile movies opening this fall and is starring in one set for spring. He receives several scripts a week, studio brass are dangling projects, and fashion designers, in their way of rewarding people more the less they need it, send him free clothes.

His run could stop at anytime and for any reason, but the debate in Hollywood isn't about whether he's got what it takes. What they wonder is how a wide-open Northwest man with a strict moral code, an aggressive sincerity and windows for eyes can survive in an industry that runs on illusion.

Back in December, as photographers crowded Caviezel at the premiere party for "The Thin Red Line," friend and co-star Sean Penn walked up, put his arm around his shoulders and whispered, "I don't know how you're going to last in this business. You don't fit in."

It was both compliment and caution.

AT 5:15 A.M. CAVIEZEL has the dark lanes of Beverly Glen Boulevard to himself as he drives his 1993 Honda Accord, with a University of Washington "W" decal on the back window, from his Sherman Oaks apartment toward UCLA. He is headed for a two-hour workout before a day of research and practice for a potential role as an autistic man.

Two nights before, his face and wistful look, magnified on a movie screen, had dominated the best-picture clip for "The Thin Red Line" during the Academy Awards.

He is 6-feet-2, a slender 185 pounds, with short, coal-black hair and an angular face with high cheekbones. In the dim dashboard glow, he looks far younger than in the movie, perhaps 22, the age at which he moved to L.A. to become an actor in early 1991.

He never considered the impossible odds then. He was so confident that he struck people as naive or cocky, like when he was dumped into a garbage bin at Mount Vernon High School as a freshman for saying he planned to make the varsity basketball team.

He was a gifted mimic, even as a kid, doing imitations of Mr. T, the gruff goon on TV's "The A Team," and others. He made people laugh and felt warm in the spotlight. He modeled clothing and appeared in a few Seattle-area plays. He got his Screen Actors Guild card after scoring a 10-second part in the Northwest-filmed "My Own Private Idaho." Playing an airline ticket-taker, he said, "Do you have any bags to check?" and "Have a nice flight."

A local talent agent said he had what it took, and that was all the nudging he needed.

"I came down here with the same sort of expectations I had as a freshman at Mount Vernon, and I got pummeled again," he says, his soft monotone harmonizing with the hum of tires on road. "I didn't know what acting was, and no one down here cares if you make it or not. I was pressing, and it showed."

He still hasn't veered much from the over-achieving straight arrow who studied hard and dreamed big while growing up in a close-knit family unified by Catholicism and basketball. His father, James Sr., a longtime Mount Vernon chiropractor, was a high-school All-American and played at UCLA for Coach John Wooden. All five children - Ann, Jim Jr., Amy, Tim and Erin - played college ball.

Jimmy, as they call him, had the least relative ability but worked the hardest. While his younger brother, Tim, a highly recruited high-school player in 1990, hoisted half-court shots on the family's court, Jimmy did ball-handling drills. He transferred as a junior to O'Dea High School in Seattle because it was a Catholic school and seemed to offer a better chance to play basketball. He moved to Kennedy as a senior and started at point guard. He lived with friends, commuting home to Conway, a Skagit Valley town just south of Mount Vernon, on weekends.

He played two years at Bellevue Community College. Coach Ernie Woods says Caviezel was the hardest worker he had in 30 years and also made his mark by charming a Bay Area restaurant owner into giving the team a free dinner during a road trip.

The blend of intensity, personality and faith helped separate him from the hordes of young, good-looking wannabes who swarm L.A.

He was there about a month when he met Father Lawrence Jenco, the Catholic priest who had been held hostage in Lebanon for 19 months in the mid-1980s. Jenco introduced him to Chuck Weber, a USC professor with a big house near Hollywood.

"The idea was for Jimmy to stay a month so he could get his feet on the ground," said Weber. "He stayed more than five years. But that was fine. We'll be lifelong friends."

Cheap rent let Caviezel spend more time practicing and auditioning and less time waiting tables. The early years were dry, but he trudged ahead.

Once, as President George Bush left a fund-raising party at a producer's Malibu home, he pushed between Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell to shake Caviezel's hand. "Nice job" he told Caviezel, who was there not as a guest, but as a server. Bush saw a vote, but Caviezel had made sure he was nearby.

In 1993, he turned down a scholarship to Juilliard, the prestigious New York performing-arts school, to take a bit part in "Wyatt Earp." His role involved a few days of filming, but director Lawrence Kasdan liked him so much he paid him to stay for the entire four-month shoot. When the star, Kevin Costner, needed to go to Seattle, he gave Caviezel a lift in his private plane.

He always did better with people he got to know on the job than with casting directors. His agent, Pamela Cole, says his sincerity can win people over - or throw them off. "Jimmy's not like most actors," she says. "He cares about other people."

AT MID-MORNING, his workout finished, Caviezel heads down Pacific Coast Highway South while Frank Sinatra croons "Strangers in the Night" from the car's tape deck. He points out a beachside restaurant called Gladstone's.

"That's the place to eat breakfast," he says. "I should know. I used to work there." He points to the other side of the highway into the Malibu hillsides. "This is Sean Penn country, too."

The autistic role Caviezel is considering was Penn's before Penn had a falling out with the studio. The men maintain an odd-couple bond developed while filming "The Thin Red Line." Like their characters, Caviezel is the stubborn optimist while Penn is guarded. There was a scene in which Penn's character, Sergeant Welsh, asks Witt, "You still seeing that beautiful light? How do you do that? You're a magician to me." Witt responds, "I still see a spark in you."

The scene was ad-libbed, the two speaking based on their friendship. As in the movie, Penn is both taken and baffled by Caviezel. (Though known for his distrust of reporters, Penn agreed to say something: "Jim's got an almost archaic sincerity, which is very pure - a rare and valuable thing for an actor.")

Long before they met, Caviezel had a dream in which he was acting with Penn. About a year later, in 1996, they were auditioning for lead roles in "The Hi-Lo Country," about two cowboys.

Caviezel was sure it was his break, but he came home one day and found a note from the director saying the studio wanted someone else. He was crushed and decided to give Hollywood six more months and then look for a stable life.

"I gained a little freedom from that," he said. "I decided to quit being so worried about getting the next part and just do the best I could. Instead of doing 10 auditions, I'd only go for the parts I wanted. I'd go down fighting and let people laugh, because I was designing my own life.

"I put my faith in God. It was about Him and my family. It had to be more than about me."

IT SEEMED EVERY ACTOR wanted a role in Malick's first movie in 20 years. He had done only two films, but both were unique and lasting. He made stars out of Martin Sheen in "Badlands" and Richard Gere in "Days of Heaven." Caviezel had never heard of him.

Penn, the first to sign on, suggested Caviezel. Malick planned a feature-length poem and became intrigued by Caviezel's soulful presence. The two dined a few times so he could size up the unknown.

Malick wasn't interested in Caviezel's resume, which was peppered with tiny roles such as a fighter pilot in "The Rock," and a dim-bulb Navy SEAL recruit in "G.I. Jane." In "Ed," perhaps the worst baseball movie ever, his character was cut from the team and movie midway through after Ed the monkey outplayed him at third base. Caviezel's greatest exposure might have been a 1997 job modeling jeans for The Gap on buildings, kiosks and buses across the country.

Malick warned Caviezel not to turn down other offers, but he did, ignoring chances to make television pilots at $100,000 apiece. He was visiting his parents in Conway months later when Malick finally called and said, "You're Witt."

Malick shot enough film for several movies and seemed to be winging it. Big names were axed; featured parts became glorified cameos. Caviezel wound up front and center. The beautiful, meandering movie confounded some customers and critics, but Caviezel was widely praised for how he translated Malick's spiritual vision.

What he does next is critical if he is to keep momentum. His eyes will stare out with menace from the bearded face of a Civil War bushwhacker in "Ride With the Devil," due in October. He's a bad guy, but a complicated one. He plays Al Pacino's estranged son in "Any Given Sunday," an Oliver Stone movie coming in the fall.

He is wrapping "Frequency," a time-tripping thriller in which he stars as a New York homicide cop who learns he can communicate with his dead father, played by Dennis Quaid.

He is weighing other projects, but really wants one still deep in development. It's the story of Jimmy Braddock, an underdog who became boxing's heavyweight world champion in 1935. He is drawn to it because Braddock was a devout Catholic family man.

Directors and producers call Caviezel's charisma "old-fashioned" and liken him to Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart.

"The only thing that scares me is Jim's such a kind soul," said Beverly Dean, his longtime manager, who recalls the lean early years. "The studios all want to be his friend now, but he has to learn to say no."

AFTER CRUISING past Malibu and stopping for juice at a Starbucks (where a pretty woman recognizes him and exclaims, "You look so young!"), Caviezel pulls his Honda to the curb in front of Agoura Hills High School.

Wearing blue jeans, a sweatshirt and glowing-white Reeboks, he walks into a special-education classroom where he has spent days observing and talking with autistic teenagers to prepare for the audition.

The teacher suggests Caviezel sit in a student's desk to see how important routine, such as always using the same desk, can be to an autistic person. The developmental disorder severely limits the ability to make social connections; the teacher warns Caviezel that the student likely would express his displeasure without looking him in the eyes.

"Actually," she adds after regarding Caviezel, "he might look in your eyes."

When the boy walks in, he not only looks Caviezel in the eyes but seems happy to see him.

A few days before, Caviezel had stood in front of the class and told the students about his own learning problems. In 1994, at age 25, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder. He also struggles with dyslexia. He told the students he felt stupid in school because he had to study so much harder than everyone else. He had bouts of frustration that led to fights and was turned down for dates by girls who thought he was weird.

But he learned to use what makes him different and find his talent, he said, and they could, too.

"I'm like you," he said.

While a stretch, it made an impression. One boy walked up and, while looking over Caviezel's right shoulder, said, "Thank you for what you said."

Caviezel won't take Ritalin, the drug often prescribed for ADHD. He uses diet, his early-morning fitness regimen and a Marine's discipline. He has worked on a machine designed to retrain brain waves and enhance focus and found he is exceptionally good at it. There are times his mind feels groggy, as if he just got out of bed, but he also has long periods of crystal clarity most actors can't touch, he said.

It has led to an holistic approach to work. He reads a script dozens of times but doesn't stop at memorization. He tries to understand a character so he can assume the personality.

Jim Schamus, producer and writer of "Ride With The Devil," said Caviezel was by far the most prepared actor on the set. He carefully read the book the movie is based on and pointed out key lines Schamus had missed in his adaptation. Caviezel grilled Schamus about the purpose of the film's violence, became close to its guerrilla-warfare expert and brought a band to the set that played Civil War-era music.

FROM THE HIGH SCHOOL, Caviezel drives to Hollywood and the office of John Kirby, his acting coach. Kirby sits in a corner, surrounded by framed pictures of actors and a poster that begins, "How To Be Creative . . ." Caviezel sits so close their knees almost touch.

The role he is practicing is that of an autistic father fighting to keep custody of his 5-year-old daughter. Caviezel isn't sure he wants it; parts of the script feel manipulative to him.

They run through a scene in which Kirby plays the daughter, asking questions like, "Where does the sky go?" and "Where's Mommy?" Caviezel gropes through his lines, searching for tone, cadence, posture.

Soon, he is pacing across the room and grumbling about getting involved. How can he learn autism in a few days? he asks. He can't afford to bomb the audition, and he is growing agitated. He puts his face inches from Kirby's to make a point.

Kirby calmly offers specific tips and reminds him to lighten up. Caviezel begins using mannerisms he picked up in the classroom, scrubbing the side of his head with his knuckles, pinching his fingertips, rocking and humming. The fidgeting right leg is his own.

The reading flows from there. In a scene where the character defends his parenting ability in court, Caviezel's voice explodes in anger while his eyes bore into Kirby. A look of shock sweeps over the coach's face - until he realizes this is in the script.

Hollywood used to laugh at Caviezel's jock exuberance, Kirby says later, but that's who he is.

"He has such a soul, such a spiritual center, that it is easier for him to show everything," Kirby said. "He's not a cliche. It's real."

BY THE TIME HE leaves Kirby's office, Caviezel feels better about the part. (He eventually auditioned and said it went well, but the movie project has been put on indefinite hold.) He also looks frayed, though. He hasn't eaten all day, and his eyes have reddened.

The question of fame comes up. Hollywood wants to know if he is the re-incarnation of Montgomery Clift, whom he resembles, or a one-hit wonder. How will he handle it once TV tabloids learn how to pronounce Caviezel? Will it all blur his clear-eyed vision?

He becomes solemn. He's aware celebrity comes cheap. He likes to cite what Nick Nolte told him: that fame is a big red balloon, flashy but filled with nothing but air. It grows and grows until there's no room for anything else, and then pop, it's gone.

Besides, he says, he wants to be only famous enough to get good roles and successful enough to someday run his acting career from a place like Spokane. That leads him to talk about his wife, who is not impressed with Hollywood.

They met on a blind date while he was struggling in L.A. and she was a basketball star, Kerri Browitt, at Western Washington University in Bellingham. They rendezvoused at Alderwood Mall and have been married three years. An English-literature teacher, she is, like him, a devout Catholic, serious and small-town, with family roots in Roslyn, Kittitas County, that go back 100 years.

Now that Caviezel seems on the verge of finding the dream he came to Hollywood for, his perspective of the dream has changed.

"I know this can all go away tomorrow." he says. "I've done nothing to brag about, but I thank God I was able to hang on long enough to find that one thing I can do well."

Before merging into the swelling freeway traffic to drive home, Caviezel stops at a gas station on Melrose Avenue. He recalls how, early in his career, he auditioned for "Melrose Place," a soap opera about beautiful but miserable people. He hadn't really wanted the part, but felt he needed to get noticed. The casting director didn't think he fit in. In fact, she thought he was strange and told his agent never to send him again.

Leaning on the roof of his car in the late-afternoon L.A. sun, a few days before flying to the East Coast to film with Quaid, the Melrose memory returns a spark to his eyes, as if he were, again, thanking God.

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Harley Soltes is staff photographer for the magazine.