NEW YORK – When actor Jim Caviezel (search) was called in for the audition, he was told it was for a surfing movie.
"Then Mel Gibson (search) walked into the room and started talking to me about the Gospels," recalls Caviezel.
"I said to him, 'You want me to play Jesus?' and he said, 'You've got it.' "
Caviezel leapt at the chance to work with the Oscar-winning director, but in filming the controversial "The Passion of the Christ," (search) which hits screens next week, the actor got more than he bargained for.
During the shooting of the film, which depicts the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus, as he's beaten, tortured and crucified, the 35-year-old actor dislocated his shoulder, battled hypothermia, suffered a lung infection and pneumonia, endured eight-hour makeup sessions that left him with severe headaches and skin infections - and was struck by lightning.
But Caviezel - who, like Gibson, is a devout conservative Catholic (search) - insists he never regretted taking the role.
"This is the greatest part I've ever had," he says. "I felt like it would be ridiculous not to work with a guy like Mel Gibson."
His toughest task wasn't struggling with his lines in Aramaic and Latin - Gibson finally changed his mind and agreed to subtitle the film - but coping with a ferocious physical toll.
"The physical part was horrendous," says Caviezel, who starred in "High Crimes," "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "Frequency."
"You are going to work every day with only one eye functioning which gives you headaches.
"They've got these thorns they tie on your head as hard as they can, and then there's a cross to carry that weighs 150 pounds. It feels like 600 pounds as the day goes on.
"Later they stick you up on a cross in 25-degree temperatures with 30-knot winds."
Most of Caviezel's crippling injuries were the result of planned scenes of torture - but not all.
"We were preparing to shoot the Sermon on the Mount and three seconds before, I was hit by lightning. I knew it was going to happen," he says.
"People started screaming and they said I had fire on both sides of my head and a light around me.
"I had locked eyes with people and it was very eerie because they made a weird sound - the kind of sound people made when they saw the jet plane run into the World Trade Center.
"It was a sickening feeling."
Critics have blasted Gibson for writing, directing and personally financing a $25 million film that they say lays blame for Jesus' crucifixion squarely with Jewish leaders.
But Caviezel vigorously defends the director.
"If he'd said, 'Hey, I'm going to make an anti-Semitic film, would you like to join me?' I wouldn't have been part of a film like that," he says.
"That would have been a lie to my faith as well as a mortal sin. What would have been the purpose of making it? I wouldn't have cared who the director was."
He insists the anti-Semitic charges leveled against Gibson are unjustified.
"The sad thing about it all is that I'm the most Semitic-looking Jesus in history - Mel didn't want a blue-eyed, blonde Aryan Christ on the cross," he says.
"The gal that plays Mary [actress Maia Morgenstern] is Jewish and her parents were in the Holocaust. Talk to her. There are Romanian and Jewish actors in this film who say unequivocally that this film is not anti-Semitic."
Romanian actress Morgenstern recently rejected the notion that the film would fuel anti-Semitism, telling the AP: "Mel Gibson is an artist, a director. He never imposed his religious convictions on anyone."
Despite the furor - which he says Gibson warned him may end his career - Caviezel says he has no regrets about taking the role.
"I'm not saying that no one is going to do something stupid out there after seeing this film," he concedes.
"You can take anything and make something bad of it. In this film, you've got three different types of people: indifferent people, sympathetic people and people who don't give a rat's ass about God and couldn't care less.
"That's the way it is in the world."