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Thursday, April 14, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Jim Caviezel, finally in the driver's seat for hydro film

Special to The Seattle Times

Jim Caviezel stars as hydroplane racer Jim McCormick in "Madison."

It's hard to imagine, but Jim Caviezel's career as a film actor might have taken a very different bounce if he had kept his famously soulful eyes behind a superhero's visor.

"I was cast as Cyclops in 'X-Men,' " says the 36-year-old Mount Vernon native during a phone call from Nashville, where he's preparing for a new film. "Somewhere during pre-production, it became clear that 'X-Men' was no longer my character's film but had become Hugh Jackman's film. I was literally in costume as Cyclops when the script for 'Madison' came along. I read it and said, 'I need to do this instead.' "

Caviezel had no idea that "Madison" — shot in 2001 and very loosely based on a true story about Madison, Ind., hydroplane driver Jim McCormick and a legendary 1971 Gold Cup race — would run into distribution troubles that would keep the film on a shelf for four years. ("Madison" opens in Seattle on April 22.) But he maintains his early enthusiasm for the project.

"It's still an important film," Caviezel, the star of "The Passion of the Christ," "Frequency" and "The Thin Red Line," says with raw earnestness. "It has a lot to say about family, about how tough it is to find answers together during hard times. It has down-home values, and while it's a family film, it's not sugarcoated."


KAREN OGLE

Jim Caviezel and Jake Lloyd play father and son in "Madison," a drama about a hydroplane driver opening in theaters next week.

Caviezel regrets not having time for a "Madison" publicity stop in the Northwest. "I know how much hydros mean to Seattle and the Tri-Cities," he says. "I wish I could be there."

In the film, Caviezel plays McCormick, who stopped racing hydros after a serious accident. He becomes lead mechanic on the aging, perpetually underdog Miss Madison (now stored at Kent's Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum, not far from Caviezel's alma mater, John F. Kennedy Memorial High School in Burien) and leaves the driving to others. But when his economically depressed hometown acquires the rights to host the Gold Cup, local pride buoys his decision to steer the Miss M personally through its championship laps.

"[McCormick] feels a lot of pressure to leave his dying town," says Caviezel. "But he also feels a need to stay. His friends and neighbors needed him to give them something to hang onto."

Caviezel says "Madison" was supposed to cost $5 million, but the budget "went up and up. I gave up my salary and we went the independent route. The film got into Sundance and was met with a standing ovation. But financing for the release fell apart."

Caviezel's heightened fame since playing Jesus in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" helped get "Madison" into theaters.

"Studios know me better now after 'Passion,' " Caviezel says. "It's a little easier to get things done. And people who recognize me feel they know me well, too."

Asked for his assessment of the dismal box-office performance for "The Passion Recut," in which the original film's violence was somewhat tempered, Caviezel is unequivocal.

"People didn't want to see it," he says. "Audiences felt they had seen the real one and it was a powerful experience they didn't want to alter."

Next up for Caviezel is a thriller called "Unknown," currently in pre-production. Along with Greg Kinnear and Jeremy Sisto, he plays one of several people who could be the film's villain.

"I look for a variety of characters and good material that moves me," says Caviezel. "Things dry up when I can't find the right story."

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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