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September 2004
Ladder 49: An Interview with John Travolta

Ladder 49: An Interview with John Travolta

By Todd Gilchrist

John Travolta has been the star of so many films, it's hard to imagine he could possibly play back-up to another actor. And yet, in "Ladder 49", that's exactly what he does, supporting Joaquin Phoenix ("The Village") as a fire chief who tries to rescue his star fire fighter when he becomes trapped inside a burning building. Travolta recently spoke to blackfilm.com about his experience on the film, about dancing his way across the screen later this year in the "Get Shorty" sequel "Be Cool", and about continuing to challenge himself mentally, physically and professionally as a major Hollywood star.

Besides you and your loved ones, what would you take out of a burning building?

John Travolta: Just that. There's nothing in the material world that is that [important]. The thing that worries me most is admin, like because if you had administrative papers, it can goof up your life. I'd think 'get the admin out of there, get the will, get the deeds, the rights.' Those would scare me the most about not having, because paperwork is what the whole planet is based on, do you know what I mean? So other than that, all I care about is the lives.

Was part of the appeal of this movie that it provided you with a supporting instead of a lead role?

JT: Yeah, it was, a little bit. I liked the idea, because I knew that I could still... when I did "Be Cool", I'm sorry, "Get Shorty", or a "Civil Action", Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman were these really significant parts of those movies for me, and I really liked that balance of energy, of me and them, and I knew that I would give that to this. Because comparatively it's kind of the same- I'm the oldest guy, I have the built-in seniority, and it's kind of a... I used it. I used the carry over from real life to film life to some degree.

How difficult was it to act on a walkie-talkie, as you have to do for much of the film?

JT: Oh my God. You hit the- did you ask Joaquin that? Because you're the only one that's asked me that, and that is the most challenging part of the whole movie, because it could so easily be 'one Adam twelve' or 'emergency' and when I read it I thought, 'oh God, oh man! How do I make that real?' So what they did was they said 'look, to make it seem like something we've not seen before, we're going to add reality to it,' so they had the burning building, they had Joaquin off-camera on a walkie talkie with me. They had all of the layers because I had a graph of emotional heightening to portray with the end of it [being this] selfish choice, do you know what I mean? Ten men or my boy? And I had to do it all by myself with a camera and a microphone, so then they added the faces of the guys coming out, and all of that added to the life of it to some degree. So it was probably the most difficult part of the part. He may win the best question award (laughs).

Did you go through the firefighter boot camp?

JT: Oh gosh yes. I would have anyway, but we were mandated for it. We had to do it because the director really wanted us to be safe on the set. They wanted us to be accurate in our technical knowledge, they wanted us to bond, and there's no way of doing that without really experiencing some of that together. He picked the kind of actors that really are like firemen, meaning these guys are all kind of naturally macho, but there's a humanity in their presence that is undeniable, which I find that firefighters have that. You know, the rough and ready guys that there's just this heart that bleeds out of them and it's hard to deny it, and I think with his choice of actors he chose all of the actors that kind of have that. They're generous, and I could see them easily putting their ego on the doorstep and seeing them diving into this kind of thing easily and well.

Who were your heroes growing up?

JT: Well, airline pilots were mine. I like airplanes. Firefighters were- I grew up in an Irish Catholic neighborhood so firefighters were a natural, but it was a little more romantic to see those planes go across the sky, you know, where are they going, what are they doing, who's on board, where are we going to go next? So there's that, but in acting, I loved Jimmy Cagney, he was a hero of mine.

Did you feel a lot of pressure to portray this realistically?

JT: Oh completely. If you had to say 'what was the quintessential mandate, pressure, it would be getting it right for these people. It was so important we didn't want to make a mistake because we were the only film of this genre. Hitherto this point, "Backdraft" was about an arsonist, it was not about firefighters, so we had a one-shot deal, like if we don't do it right, they will probably never talk about, I mean they'll probably never do firefighter films, and because they are innately humble and modest, they don't demand any attention at all, so it's kind of like that kid in the family that's the best student is the best worker around the house but he doesn't want any attention, but then you want to give that on the attention. I felt like it was our time to give them the attention they deserved, even though they don't like being considered heroes. But they are." How did the production of the film change after September 11? "Only to the degree of getting it right, because the firefighters were in the limelight now and their courage was unquestionable. Their integrity was unquestionable, and now it was 'are you going to live up to that and get it right or you're not?' That was mostly the demand. The ball was in our court, kind of." Do you have a dance scene with Uma Thurman in Be Cool? "Yeah- I hear it's great. I did it and I know what it was about, but I haven't seen it yet, but I was told it is awesome. I take full responsibility for that dance and I tell you why- because I grew up in the '60s when there was a certain Brazilian feeling in the air, you know, Stan Getz and Jobim would fill the air on jazz stations and stuff, and I associated that with a lot of good times as a kid. So the director and Uma thought I was crazy because they said 'why would you pick a samba to dance?' and I said 'because it's really classic, it's really elegant and it's timeless, so I promise you if you trust me we will choreograph something that's really cool.' Well, they didn't like the idea, and then they check into it, and Black Eyed Peas made the most awesome rendition of a Jobim song, I could probably sing it to you before I could give you the title because I don't remember titles very well. They do a rap version of that, 'you called my number,' so there's like this mix of sounds and stuff and she asks if I can dance, and as Chili Palmer I said, 'I'm from Brooklyn. Of course I can dance.' And we get out and we do this very cool kind of homage to classic... I know that it probably came off well.

Do you expect problems since MGM just got bought?

JT: Well, I know it's their number one film they're working on, so whether it does or not, it will carry over to whoever takes it on, I think.

Could you do a third film if they asked you?

JT: Only if Elmore Leonard wrote another book. The reason I liked it was because he wrote a book, and that book was taken to script, which legitimized it for me, because by nature I'm not really attracted to sequels. They're not interesting to me- I like new units of time for creativity- but he made it different, made it like a different movie, a new movie."

Do you have anything coming up after that?

JT: Yeah I do. The one that I'm most excited for you to see is a movie called "A Love Song for Bobby Long", and that got a tremendous acclaim at the Venice Film Festival. I was there and I saw the standing ovation. I saw everything- it was awesome. But the thing is that we will release it one week before the new year to qualify, we're going to show it at the Hollywood Film Festival, closing night, and I'm very excited for all of you to see that. It's a very interesting and special movie. Scarlett Johansson is in it with me, and Gabriel Macht and Gabriel and I, I'm an old professor, an English professor, and he's a roommate, a student I've kind of mentored, and Scarlett comes into our live, and it's very reminiscent of Tennessee Williams and Inge, but it's really good. It's really well-executed, I thought.

Are you keeping to your fitness regime?

JT: I've been trying to. It's not easy. I don't like that we have to exercise, I really don't. It's bothersome- why can't we grow old gracefully? It does help, you know, it makes you feel better and all of that stuff.

It probably helped you get through the fire academy.

JT: It did. It was the only thing [that helped] because I was the oldest guy, it was probably the only thing that helped me make it. I probably made it better than most because I was in really good shape, but I still (can't hear). I've always been a natural athlete and all that and I can do it all, it's just that it's a pain in the ass.

Physically how daunting was this movie in comparison to other movies you've done?

JT: All of them were difficult. Even "Urban Cowboy" was difficult with the mechanical bull and country dancing, "Saturday Night Fever" was difficult, "Staying Alive" was difficult, there's been a lot of them that were difficult, so physical exhaustion is not new to me. This is more technically-oriented, like you really had to know your technical data, but I like it anyway. Even though I don't... I'd rather have a reason like this to do it, you know, you've got a purpose, which is to learn firefighting and do it well to make it right, then I can get through all of that physical activity and exhaustion because of the bigger purpose to it. But for its own sake is when I get, like, not as interested, but if you give me a movie to do, with a lot of training involved, I rather like it. You know, it gives me a reason to exhaust myself.

Did you learn anything as a result of your training?

JT: Yes, because I stay in an awful lot of hotels, and I fly in airplanes, and I have homes where it could be possible so I think that I'm better off for having done it. I learned that different buildings and different furnishings and accoutrement lead to different kinds of fires, and different ways of putting them out. Like for instance, a kitchen fire is the most dangerous, why, because of the nylon materials and the pans and things are made of. When you inhale them, they sloidify in your chest and you can't make it, so you have to be protected. That's why when they see a burning frying pan they say 'whoa, masks,' and they put it out withy a certain chemical versus another thing, because if you steam it up, the particles get in the air and you breathe it in. You know, the whole underneath the smoke idea of feeling the doors, different types of materials are more vulnerable to flames and heat than other things, you know, interesting stuff that will save your life.

How did you like seeing the greying sideburns?

JT: Oh, it was fine, because I've done that a few times. I did that with "Primary Colors", and in "Love Song for Bobby Long" I'm completely white. It's dye, and bleached out and all white, but it's effective. I look quite a bit older with it, but it's right for the part. When you see it you'll know what I mean.

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