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Jim Caviezel on Faith, Football and When the Game Stands Tall

The last time I got a phone call from actor Jim Caviezel (star of CBS’ current hit drama, Person of Interest) we spoke about his work on The Stoning of Soraya M., a heart-wrenching movie about modern Iran. The most recent call from the Washington state native covered quite a different movie, Affirm Films’ upcoming release, When the Game Stands Tall.

Caviezel leads the cast of When the Game Stands Tall portraying real-life coach Bob Ladouceur, a California high school football coach who holds the record for consecutive wins – 151 wins to be exact, which amounts to an astounding 12 back-to-back undefeated seasons.

The Passion of the Christ actor lends his talent to this new faith-infused feature about a Christian family man who battled doubt and struggled with loss. We covered quite a bit in our phone conversation the other day, including his thoughts on the new movie, playing Coach Ladouceur, his time with acting legend Jimmy Stewart and what faith in Jesus Christ means to him. Here are excerpts from our phone conversation:

Hannah Goodwyn: Jimmy Stewart once told you, ‘Whatever you do, Jim, you make good movies’. What makes When the Game Stands Tall a good one?

Jim Caviezel: You’ve seen the movie?

Goodwyn:  Yes.

Caviezel: Do you need me to spell it out for you?

[laughter]

Goodwyn:  In your own words.

Caviezel: Why this movie is a good movie is that I take it from a great experience of my life, when my team that I played for in high school, we were on the precipice of going to the state tournament. We had never done that before. Our high school had never done that, but to do that we had to beat the No. 1 team in the state. They had not lost that year. The No. 1 team in the state, they lost that night. We were out celebrating and we found out. We knew we were going to play them, and we knew they weren’t going to lose two in a row. The team that beat them was a fluke.

So long story short, the movie Hoosiers had just come out and that would be another Jimmy Stewart “make good movies” movie. So I saw that film with my teammates. And we went out that night and beat the No. 1 ranked team in the state. I remember feeling going into that game how scared I was. But by the fourth quarter, I was so full of love I could hear the theme music in my head from the movie. I knew I was never going to let my team down. My legs were burning. It’s the fourth quarter. I had pretty much left everything out there and I knew that at the end, we had more points than them.

But if we had not won that game, I would have been as proud because of what we accomplished as a team. That’s a good memory. That’s from my own experience. It’s a very personal experience, and that’s how I interpret Jimmy Stewart. There’s going to be moments of light in your life that you have an opportunity to allow a fear to take over or to allow love to come into your heart and play with desire and do a great thing. [When the Game Stands Tall] represented those words Stewart said to me.

Goodwyn:  You just mentioned fear. That line in the movie about giving a “perfect effort on every play from snap to whistle”... Living with that sentiment in mind must lend itself to living fearlessly, as if failure is an option. What thoughts come to mind when you reflect on those words?

Caviezel: Playing is one thing and that’s on the stage, but one of the greatest fears that these kids tackle is when they get up and get their commitment cards. The commitment card is a card where they would say something like, “This is my game goal, practice goal. This is how much weights I’m going to lift this week.” And what I would do is that I would have a guy and I would get up and I would read his goals. This is what he said about himself. This is what he’s going to accomplish or not, and then the coach asked him, “Did he accomplish that?”

So they start out with those basic things and they go into a much, much deeper place which is uncovering those areas in your life where this evolution of going from a person who’s selfish to a selfless person. That’s even more of a challenge, greater, more vulnerable, more fear that these kids have to expose themselves in front of their teammates. They eventually do in a fearless way. These boys literally become men in this program.

Unlike other high schools where some kids say, “Well, those are the best memories of my life” or they live back in those times. They use this to move forward, to be great men, to be great husbands, great businessmen, greater leaders in their community. They learn how to become greater leaders and build great teams.

You’ve talked about always wanting to play characters that are authentic. What surprised you about Bob Ladouceur as you worked on the film?

Caviezel: Well, nothing surprised me. What would’ve surprised me is that he wasn’t authentic. Bob Ladouceur doesn’t have to prove anything to Jim Caviezel. Jim Caviezel has to prove to others that he’s good enough to play Bob Ladouceur in this movie, that he represents the spirit of De La Salle. [I’m] honored to do so.

Bob Ladouceur, his reputation speaks for itself. They’re unimpressed with celebrities, Hollywood and all of that BS. Ladouceur turned down so many jobs that would have led to big seven-figure deals. The kind of man turns that down is a man usually not impressed by “thank you.” He’s impressed by substance. Those are the kind of people I’m drawn to. So it was an honor to play him and to get to know the people around him because they’re extraordinary people.

Goodwyn: Ladouceur was also a religion teacher. He’s said that faith is a big part of his life and it’s not something he could turn on or off. How did you approach the faith aspect of the man and how it would ultimately be seen in the film?

Caviezel: I never turned off my faith when I came into this industry. My faith…it’s in me. It’s who I am. I’m proud to know Jesus on that level. I’ve always taken my job as a service to help people in the same way that a doctor either works for money or he works to help people get better.

You mentioned the word “authentic.” The boys see that, see his soul. He looks into it and they look into his. They know that he loves them. His role model, Jesus’, and mine, when He said, “No greater love has you than to lay your life down for your brother.”

They have a philosophy in there where they sacrifice, push, checking your ego at the door and for the benefit of the team. It eventually leads to love, which is far better and greater. The boys leave that immaturity and become authentic like him. That’s why, you see, the greater story of that is not just these victories, but the victories of boys becoming men and what they do in their lives, how they turn into great people and great leaders themselves.

Goodwyn: Would you talk to me a little bit about the emotion felt as you filmed the funeral scene?

Caviezel: Well, obviously I didn’t know Terrance Kelly, and I can’t imagine what a parent goes through when that occurs. But I have personal experiences of brain tumors and chemotherapy with my own children and watching other parents lose their children, so I use those experiences.

The words that [Ladouceur] shared to the family when he said, let’s see, “Take some pride,” or “have condolence in knowing what an amazing, great job you did with your son.” Just broke my heart. He’s a father to these boys, and there are moments and time in history where I’ve seen...Gregory Peck in one of my great, favorite films, To Kill a Mockingbird.... He was a great father and this allowed me to play a great father in a different way, a roundabout way.

Goodwyn: There’s certainly Bible verses spoken and faith in action in When the Game Stands Tall. As a believer, is it refreshing to you to be in a movie like this?

Caviezel: Well, for me I think that should still be there. It should be in our country. It should be one nation under God. It should be all of those things. I’ll argue to anyone. You have to fight for that. That has to stay there. The only thing that it will lead to without it is division and war, strife and all of the things that don’t come from God. But the great thing that comes from God is love, and that has to be true.

[Ladouceur] reflects upon that when he had said, “To be apart of the Spartan tradition means one must be courageous. This does not mean just being brave in the face of a tough opponent; rather it is having the courage to conquer our own cowardly spirit. That little voice inside of us that says, ‘I can’t’, ‘that’s too hard’, or ‘I’m not good enough.’ The biggest reason why we don’t achieve is because we don’t believe we can. We place roadblocks in our own way sabotaging our own efforts. It takes courage and determination to crash down those roadblocks and push the limits that we have placed upon ourselves.”

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