Neither of the men who played Gandalf and Jesus were hesitant to tackle Patrick McGoohan's revered cult classic, but nor did they feel the pressure to match the original British TV series from four decades ago. In that Prisoner, a former secret agent is held captive in a seaside village by men who want to know why he suddenly resigned from his job. Both Caviezel and McKellen emphasize, though, that this isn't a remake.
"I didn't know what it was before I got it," says Caviezel, who starred in The Passion of the Christ (the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time). "I just went by the screenplay. I thought that the screenplay stood alone. And then I was finding out that this was a re-creation of the original. And I say 're-creation.' It's definitely not a remake. But it's very respectful to the original."
And he's right — to the extent that the new Prisoner genuflects to parts of its antecedent: Fans will recognize The Village, No. 6, No. 2, Rover (the ominous white balloon that prevented escapes), the saying "Be seeing you," the mystery about the protagonist's captivity, and the existential angst shrouding the whole shebang. Beyond that, screenwriter Bill Gallagher's reimagining of the 17-episode original series — which aired on British and Canadian television, and then on CBS in the summer of 1968 — goes its own way.
The new No. 6 (Caviezel) is a New Yorker who quits a creepy corporation that gathers information about people, not a disgruntled British spy; the Village is now apparently in the desert, not along the ocean; No. 2 is now played by one actor (McKellen), and he's conflicted; he's no longer a rotating group of third-degree manipulators. Caviezel displays anti-hero doubts and dithering, while McGoohan exuded Bond-like cool and courage.
"But it deals with what's going on in our time period. I guess the beast has changed its face. But nonetheless there is a beast there," Caviezel says.
"As Jim says, this is not the original," says McKellen, a two-time Oscar nominee (for 1998's God and Monsters and 2001's Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring). "This is taking the same themes, the same basic plot, and renovating it and polishing it and making it fit for our times. Thus, it leaves the original the way it is; it can be admired and enjoyed. But this is not the same story, but it's inspired by the original. And I think, on reflection, when people see what we've done, they'll agree that was the way to do it. There would be no point in copying."
He then turns to Caviezel and says: "You couldn't have copied McGoohan [the original No. 6] any more than I could have copied [Leo] McKern [the most memorable No. 2]."
In fact, Caviezel purposely avoided revisiting McGoohan's rendering of the role because he didn't want to "fail by comparison." "It could happen anyway, but the fact is, at least I'll be able to say, hey, it was my own," he says.
McKellen says he has seen "bits" of the original Prisoner, but never watched them all the way through. "But I had some sense of what they are. I've spent a lifetime playing parts that other people have already played, whether it's Hamlet or Macbeth or Iago," says the actor, who's forged a formidable, Tony-winning career in Shakespearean roles as well as in the movie Richard III. "That doesn't seem to me an odd concept that I might be doing a part that Leo McKern, who was a good friend of mine, played in the original."
In the '60s, the world had Cold War sense and sensibilities, and much was made of the struggle for individuality. What are today's equivalent preoccupations?
"Corporate power. State terrorism," Caviezel offers.
"Surveillance," McKellen adds.
"Lack of trust. Continually devaluing not just the economic dollar but the value of human life," Caviezel says.
And most of all, McKellen avers: "Technology. Technology affects our lives and we don't even know it's happening. And it doesn't go through any Parliament, any Congress."
When it comes to technology and such things as Twitter, the 70-year-old McKellen — who played Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Magneto in the X-Men films — admits to being "a bit of a Luddite."
"Which means I don't really understand the new technology, and therefore I'm rather anti- it. I'm always saying to kids: Look, when you go out of the house, turn your phone off. Because you're out of the house now, things could happen. And I promise you: While you're busy texting, walking along, taking a call, the love of your life is just going to walk by and you won't see. I met a great love of my life on the street..."
Caviezel is a devout Roman Catholic who has campaigned against stem-cell research; McKellen came out in 1988 and has been a vocal gay activist. But the new themes of The Prisoner resonate with both actors. "It affects everybody — whatever their belief system, or whatever their life style," McKellen concludes.
The six-hour, three-night miniseries runs Sunday through Tuesday at 8/7c on AMC.
Will The Prisoner update "be seeing you" tune in?
Watch our interviews with Caviezel and McKellen: