Playing Jesus Christ is a great acting challenge, but some believe it can be a problem. Coincidence or not, three actors, Powell, Caviezel, and Hunter, who played the Son of God, ruined their careers.
Representing the Son of God in a film is a wish for some people, but what of the actors who have passed through that line? Their roles as Jesus Christ never give them the whole happiness they wanted. Is the saying true that every actor who plays the Son of God will suffer a curse and will no longer excel in his work?
Robert Powell, Jesus of Nazareth
In 1975, Pope Paul VI noted the success of the film Moses and The Acts of the Apostles, two religious programs broadcast on Italian television, and proposed to the authorities to film the life of Jesus. The producers were enthusiastic about the idea and sought out Franco Zeffirelli, known and recognized throughout the world for his rigorous historical recreations and avowed Catholic. However, the director was a homosexual, something the Church condemns, but as he never acknowledged his homosexuality in public and was opposed to gay marriage, he passed the filter.
Zeffirelli set off to find his protagonist. It was not easy. He had to speak English because the story would be shot in that language, and there was no budget to dub it. Also, not be under 30 but not over 35. The first option was Dustin Hoffmann, and the name of Al Pacino was considered, but their faces were already well known. The director traveled to England to see different works. He ran into Robert Powell and summoned him to play Judas.
After the test, Zeffirelli was shocked by the actor’s eyes and asked him to audition for Jesus because “If Judas has those eyes, what eyes will Jesus have.” He asked to be dressed and made up with the clothes that the Nazarene would wear. The result was surprising. The Englishman not only fulfilled his role with attitude, but he also radiated a magnetism that silenced everyone.
Perhaps because it was a production about the Son of God, “the devil stuck his tail.” Powell lived with his concubine partner, something condemned by the Church at the time, and headlines such as “Jesus lives in sin with his girlfriend” appeared. To avoid problems, the actor went through the altar.
Getting married was not the only demand he had to face. Zeffirelli thought that if he kept his eyes open during filming, he would look more like the Messiah, so he forced him to film without blinking. In the almost 400 minutes of the film, he only blinks once, and that is on the cross. To enhance his look, his eyes were made up in blue and white.
After the film’s release, the British man’s face was reproduced on millions of religious cards. They can still be found today in some santeria. “I was once in Venezuela filming a series, and my mates went to a mass. When they came back, they were all laughing and said to me, ‘it’s a good thing you didn’t go with us to the church, because behind the altar, the image they worship is yours’. It was a picture from a magazine,” Powell recounted.
What was a “blessing” during filming turned out to be a real “curse” for the actor in the long run. He had to seek psychiatric help to get rid of his character, and despite more than 30 productions, he never again excelled in film or television and devoted himself to literature. He never wore a beard again, let alone long hair, because people persecuted him and even asked him for miracles as if he were Christ himself.
Later he did audio work and book readings for radio programs. In 2017 he released a documentary about… the Redeemer. At the age of 75, he takes refuge in his home, dedicated to literary creation, and trying to forget that to this day, many people see his face when they imagine the Nazarene.
Jim Caviezel in ‘The Passion of the Christ’
With his six-foot-two, clear eyes and enviable bearing, Jim Caviezel rose to fame in 1998 as Robert Witt in ‘The Thin Red Line’. To critical and public acclaim, he made a string of good films: Frequency, Mirada de Ángel, and La Venganza del Conde de Monte Cristo.
With a string of excellent work, he was not surprised when Mel Gibson called him for a new project. He asked him to play Jesus in ‘The Passion of the Christ’. The Lethal Weapon star warned him that the character would be very difficult and that he could be maginated in Hollywood. Caviezel asked for a day to think about it. Twenty-four hours later, his response was: “I think we have to do it, even if it’s difficult. And one more thing, my initials are J.C., and I’m 33 years old. I didn’t realize it until now”.
The working conditions were extreme. Caviezel’s make-up was an eight-hour job. He was scheduled for 2 a.m. to finish at 10 a.m. and started filming. Filming was interrupted to “touch him up”; if the shooting was suspended due to bad weather, he slept in make-up. The products were resistant, they only came off in a furious shower with very hot water. His skin was covered with blisters that caused him severe pain at the slightest touch.
For the scenes on the way to Calvary he carried a cross weighing 70 kilos, the weight dislocating his shoulder. The crucifixion was worse. For 15 days, he was suspended for hours on top of a cross. In the middle of winter, barely covered with a loincloth, he suffered attacks of hypothermia. He was shivering so violently that three heaters were brought to him. They worked well, but if the wind blew, they could burn his legs.
The cold froze his lips, and the attendants passed him warm clothes so that he could babble a few words. Neither cloths nor heaters were enough, and he ended up with an attack of pneumonia. On one of the days, in extreme wind, one of the supports of the cross gave way and bruised his shoulder even more. On another day, a thunderstorm started, and he suffered an electric shock that burnt part of his hair.
More was needed. According to the Gospel story, Jesus was scourged by the soldiers. In reenacting the situation, a metal plate was placed on his back to protect the protagonist, but one of the actors miscalculated, and the blow tore his skin. Caviezel was left gasping for air and out of breath from the pain. “I was playing Jesus, but I felt enraged as a devil.”
The shot was to no avail. As he collapsed twice over in pain, the plate used as a protector was exposed, and the film had to be reshot. The incident seemed forgotten, but another actor mistimed the shot a few days later and hit him in the injured back. Again the pain was so intense that his body twisted, the uncontrolled movement caused him to cut his hands on the metal rings to which he was attached. They noticed that a 30 centimetre gash had opened up on his back as they approached to assist him.
Despite this, Caviezel described the filming as a “spiritual experience” and said he felt the “great presence” of Jesus at times during the filming. The actor was so into his role that the extras hired to watch him pass by would spontaneously and unscripted kneel. The residents of Sassi di Matera, the village where he attended mass, would cross themselves and say “Jesus” when they passed him in the street.
Filming lasted five months. With a budget of 30 million dollars, it grossed 611 million dollars worldwide. As Christian churchgoers flocked to the cinemas, it was severely criticized for its anti-Semitism. It had three Oscar nominations but won none.
Stigmatized by some and blessed by others for his role as Jesus, Caviezel was never seen again. He went unnoticed in the psychological thriller Blank Minds and in Déjà Vu. Bryan Singer turned him down for Superman Returns because he thought people would end up identifying him with… Christ.
Three years ago, he returned to religious themes and starred in Paul, the Apostle of Christ. He was also seen in The Sound of Freedom about human trafficking, but not much else. His figure no longer generates passion, let alone good contracts in Hollywood.
Jeffrey Hunter, ‘King of Kings’
In the early 1950s, there were two big stars: Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter. Gallant, fine actors, they were the leading lights of the mighty 20th Century Fox.
Hunter’s first starring role was in Crying in the Swamp and then in Her Majesty’s Mariner. “To me, Jeff is the pinnacle of American youth. He looks like he just stepped off a college campus. He’s extremely handsome, but that’s not what impresses me. He has a kind of… well, an all-encompassing kind of magnetism.” Who said this? Marylin Monroe. No further questions, Your Honor.
Various productions followed, including The Princess of the Nile, ‘The Law of the Brave’, and ‘The western Seven Angry Men’. In 1960 he played one of his best roles in ‘From Hell to Eternity’. The next role was to play Jesus in the production King of Kings.
Although he was the same age at the time of filming that Jesus is believed to have died – 33 – the actor’s youthful appearance led to him being called “the teenage Jesus”. The film caused controversy because it portrayed Barabbas – the prisoner who, according to the gospels, was freed in Jesus’ place – as a political liberator of his people in contrast to a spiritual Messiah, reinforcing the contrast between action and contemplation.
The film was shot in Spain. Hunter was accompanied by Spain’s Carmen Sevilla as Mary Magdalene and Orson Welles as the narrator of the original version. Critics praised the epic style of the film and said that Hunter would be remembered as one of the greatest interpreters of Jesus Christ in the history of cinema. It seemed that this role would be Hunter’s breakthrough role, but it was not.
After King of Kings, he only appeared in modest class productions and supporting roles. Several events began to unfold to make matters worse, which led one to believe in a real curse.
In 1969, while filming ‘Viva América!’, an accidental explosion on the set caused burns on his arms, and several broken glasses caused injuries on his face. Weeks later, training judo with a friend, he received a blow to the chin that he failed to dodge, fell to the ground, and hit his head on a door.
On the flight back to the United States, he suffered paralysis of his right arm and lost his speech. He was diagnosed with a stroke and underwent treatment. He was discharged but soon after continued to complain of dizziness and headaches.
He was at home alone when he felt one of these dizzy spells. He was on the stairs, lost his balance, and fell to the ground with such bad luck that he fractured his skull. He was found hours later, unconscious, taken to hospital, and died during the operation on 27 May 1969. He was 42 years old.
All these stories support the legend that claims that every actor who plays the Son of God will suffer a curse and will no longer be able to excel in his work. Perhaps because, as the saying goes, “everyone who becomes a redeemer ends up crucified”.