Movie stars found heroes in Baltimore

Firefighters earn respect for their bravery, modesty


October 03, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

Movie stars John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix want to be like firefighters.

Better yet, they want to be like Baltimore firefighters!

How cool is that?

"They're the most humble, modest group of people I know," says Travolta, who plays a fire chief in Ladder 49, the recently released ode to firefighters that was filmed and set in Baltimore. "Their humanity seeps out of them, but they don't want to be looked on as heroes. That's why I love them so much."

To Phoenix, whose Jack Morrison is the firefighter at the center of Ladder 49, the resilience of Baltimore's elite was impressive. "It's realizing what they have to face every day, and the cumulative effect of it all, which I think is the most difficult thing for me," he says.

The actor, who trained at the city's fire academy and spent six weeks at a working firehouse to prepare for his role, was particularly struck by the unyielding demands of the job. "It's one thing when you think about going into one fire and dealing with it. ... It's not just those few minutes that are extreme; it's going out, sometimes on multiple calls a night, going on medic runs. There's things that I saw on medic runs that I wish I never saw, and these guys have to deal with it every day."

In Washington last week to promote the movie, the two actors and director Jay Russell spoke with astonishment at the lives led by real firefighters. All three went through academy training or spent time at fire scenes; in addition, dozens of fire department members worked on the film as advisers and extras.

"It's a very appealing combination in a person: A kind of gruff exterior with a huge humanity that balances [it], to an almost Eastern degree," Travolta says.

Although the men were suffering from jet lag (having just flown in from San Francisco on Travolta's private jet), they brightened when talk turned from the movie to the men with whom they had worked.

"They're not saints at all," says Russell. "In fact, some of them are less saintly than others. But still, they do the job. When the moment happens, they'll go in there, they'll put their lives on the line and, without thought, they just use their training and their ability, and they do it."

All this may be comforting to Baltimoreans, whose city is often portrayed in movies or on television as a darkly dangerous spot. Ladder 49, though it suggests Baltimore is riddled with fires, also bathes the city in a favorable light. Certainly, it extols the virtues of those manning its fire stations.

"That's why it's important that we do it," says Travolta of the movie's focus on the men and the almost routinely heroic lives they lead. Actors can study their lives and interpret them on screen as the heroes they are, he adds, "and they can remain modest."

Phoenix, his eyes shadowed by a black baseball cap, says his time at the academy, spent working beside 20-year-old recruits, gave him a sense of why a person might choose such a perilous career. Later, working at the firehouse next to 15- and 20-year veterans, those insights were reinforced.

"Every single person I talked to had a different reason" for joining the department, he says. But each seemed to stay for one reason: "They realize they're having a profound and positive effect on their community.

"You ask them why they do it, why do you run into a burning house, and they will say it's just a job. But I think there really is a calling, something they can't articulate, a need."

A testament to how impressed the three Hollywood professionals were may be that none can envision actually being a firefighter. "Definitely not for me," Phoenix says with a shake of his head.

Director Russell had a moment of clarity when accompanying a crew inside an actual burning building. "I had that moment [firefighters] don't have when I realized then that I ain't cutting it. Because I stood up there realizing this whole thing could fall in on us at any second, and I started heading for the back door. Because I started thinking of my kid at home, how much he would hate me for getting killed, doing something stupid. And I realized, 'I'm nothing but hesitation, and these guys have no hesitation.' "

Star vehicles

Two of the Baltimore City Fire Department vehicles used in the making of Ladder 49, Engine 33 and the actual Ladder 49, will be on display throughout the weekend in front of The Senator Theatre, 5904 York Road.

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