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September 2004
Ladder 49: An Interview with Joaquin Phoenix

Ladder 49: An Interview with Joaquin Phoenix

By Todd Gilchrist

Joaquin Phoenix has played so many supporting roles in such films as "Signs" and "Gladiator" that he's long overdue for a major starring role. Luckily, that's just what he found in "Ladder 49", in which he heads up an all-star cast that includes John Travolta, Morris Chestnut and Robert Patrick. Phoenix recently sat down with blackfilm.com to discuss the ramifications of playing a real-life hero, about progressing through the studio system towards superstardom, and about handling those press clippings when they turn unfavorable.

You're particularly proud of this film?

Jaoquin Phoenix: I am but why I'm proud of it is that firefighters that have seen it are proud of it and feel that it's a really accurate depiction of their lives. That's the thing that has meant most to me. And that was something we talked about, Jay and I, very early on was that really the only important thing is that firefighters see this movie and feel that it's authentic and that takes precedence over financial success or critical success or any of that shit. So it's just been amazing going around the country to these different fire houses and having these guys thank us for making this movie. I don't think anyone's ever thanked me for making a movie before. That's just been an amazing experience.

This more than other firefighter movies?

JP: Yeah. I've had a few of them say, 'Finally, someone got it right.' And that means so much. It was the most important thing to me, I think to all of us going into it is that it was authentic. We really worked hard at that and we were always trying to capture what it is that they experience on an everyday basis.

What did you do to be sensitive after September 11th?

JP: Well, this was in the works before September 11th, but the important thing- - I think that September 11th obviously raised awareness about the fire department, but this is about what happens on September 10th and September 13th and September 14th and every day. Oftentimes, you only hear about firefighters in these extreme situations, massive inferno, but to spend time with them and see what they encountered and experienced every day, and the toll it takes on their bodies and on their psyche was I thought something that I didn't really know about. I kind of thought that every once in a while they get a fire. I didn't know about all the medic runs that they do. Something else I like about this film is seeing the effect that the job has on the family, not only the fire fighters. But to see how courageous and brave they have to be as well.

Did you want to be a firefighter when you grew up?

JP: I always was hypnotized by firefighters. Any time a truck went by, I loved watching, I loved the sound of the thing. But I never really thought about being a firefighter. I always wanted to appreciate them for a distance. I didn't think I had what it took to be a firefighter.

Which is?

JP: Well, it's the endurance. Again, it's the day in, day out of the job. It's not just handling one situation. It's the cumulative effect.

After going through the fire academy, do you think you'd have what it takes?

JP: No. For a short amount of time, which I did, for a few weeks, but long term, no. It's too difficult. I still have some pretty awful memories from some of the stuff that I saw and I don't think I could deal with it over the course of 10 years.

Saw some fires?

JP: The most difficult for me were the medical runs which was something I wasn't really expecting. The fire department and paramedics are joined and I think it's in the last 10 years. So now there's at least one person at each company that can perform advanced life support. They always do basic life support, but so you're going on some pretty heavy medical calls. I think my first or second call, the first one was a fire and the second one was a shooting. And I wasn't prepared for that at all. That's the thing that firefighters like least, the medic runs.

Takes a lot to be an actor, so what gives you the endurance for that?

JP: I don't know.

Does it get easier?

JP: It's been more challenging just because I feel like I've taken on roles that have been more challenging, going into- - I mean, for this, I had no experience with anything like this. It's totally foreign to me. And I don't know how- - I mean, why I keep going is just for those brief moments, maybe one scene if you're lucky every three movies, where you feel like you really hit it and that feeling is so good. It's the best feeling I ever had. But that's what keeps me going back.

Getting more opportunities now?

JP: I'm definitely getting better opportunities. It's great, you always hear actors talk about supporting roles or lead roles and the amazing thing about doing a 'lead role' is just the amount of time that you get to work on the script and work with the director, and what a difference that makes. It ' s great training to play a supporting role because they don't give you much time to work on the thing. You've got to come in and nail it and be gone because the director's spending all this time with the crew with the lead actor. And I really- - I like going to work every day and working really closely with everyone and working on the character with the director. Just the amount of time that you get is great.

Is it disappointing when you're invested and it's not critically perceived well?

JP: No. I don't care. It's so terrible and I know everyone at the studio especially hates when I say this, but I'm totally selfish. I really just do it for me and for the process. I'm just process oriented. Because there are too many factors that go into why a movie is successful and why it isn't. I have no effect over that and so I can't worry about it. So I don't think about- - I don't read reviews, I don't look at box office reports. I don't want that stuff to affect me. I don't want to go into a job thinking about that. I don't want to take a job because I think it's going to be successful. I just don't think that way.

Is it rewarding when something like Gladiator is a box office and critical success?

JP: No. The good thing about that is it just makes it easier to get another job. That's it.

What would you rescue from a burning building?

JP: I don't know. I haven't thought of that. I like my wallet which I lost.

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