Ladder 49: An Interview with Morris Chestnut
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By Todd Gilchrist
Were there additional scenes written for the film that addressed your character after he gets injured in the film?
Morris Chestnut: In the original script there were a few scenes, but then we had a rewrite. When you read a script as an actor, scripts are constantly changing. I don't think I've done one movie where the first script I read is the script I shot. Things are just constantly changing- you have time constraints while you are filming, other stories take precedence over your story line. The answer is yes.
When you were a boy, did you dream of becoming a firefighter?
MC: You know what? No. It was always an athlete. I wanted to be an athlete. I never wanted to be a firefighter, and after this movie I still wouldn't want to be a firefighter.
Did you discover a newfound respect for what they go through?
MC: I've always had respect [for them] but I found new respect because I never really thought about what it would be like going into a burning building until I shot this movie.
How heavy was the gear?
MC: The gear was heavy. Even the [uniform] by itself has some pretty good weight to it, because it's so thick. And then it's hot, and you are carrying the gear, and there's the smoke. It's not a fun thing to do.
Were there any close calls on set?
MC: We stayed in some of the fire houses so we went on a couple of calls with the actual local fire companies, but none of my calls were interesting. But a couple of the guys got to go on a couple of live fire calls.
What was the fireman boot camp like?
MC: The academy was eye-opening, because there were several things that we did and several exercises that we would do. In particular there was this maze that they have that is basically like this trailer big rigs carry, and it's a maze, because it simulates when a firefighter goes into a building. The buildings are dark because there is no electricity because there is a fire, so you have to go into this maze, and work your way around this truck and get back- work your way around the maze and get back. It's just claustrophobic; you get stuck, it's dark so you can't see where you are going, and it also has these little places you can go into where it's a dead end and you have to go back around and figure your way out. It's just a very claustrophobic thing.
Do you suffer from claustrophobia?
MC: Not until I went into that maze (laughs).
How did you initially become involved in the project?
MC: My agent sent me the script and I read it and was like, 'okay.' It was a small role, but I asked him who the lead was and he told me Joaquin Phoenix. I remembered Joaquin from "Gladiator" and I always wanted to work with him, so I said 'okay, put me down.' When they told me that John Travolta was considering the role of the captain, I said even better. So that's why I really did it, to work with Joaquin. I've done bad movies when I've been the lead, but it's cool to be in a good movie even if I don't have a larger role.
Was this more intense than the other action movies you've done?
MC: The only thing with this one is that I'm not really [participating] in a lot of the action scenes. I just basically have a couple of scenes in the movie, but the part was intense because when I read a script as an actor, I think about portraying a character in particular scenes, and I think about what it's going to take mentally to get to that place where you need to be. When I read this script, the scene in the hospital was already in there, and I already knew where I needed to go for that. But what I couldn't anticipate was the make-up they put on me. It's like three hours of make-up, and the thing about it was that the glue was on my face, and as an actor you have to be really attuned to your sensibilities, so it was much more difficult for me to get to a certain place because of that make-up.
How sensitive were you about doing a firefighter movie in the context of Sept. 11?
MC: Jay Russell had some strong feelings in regards to that, but this was not a movie that was made because of September 11th. We really wanted to depict the real life of a fire fighter. We wanted to make a good movie about fire fighters that didn't glamorize fire fighters. We didn't want to give what 'Hollywood's perception of fire fighters' was. We wanted to have a true and accurate portrayal of the different aspects of their lives, you know, their family, the conflicts, the emotional and the physical elements, and I think they did a good job with that.
Did you develop the same kind of camaraderie off camera that you did on screen?
MC: Yeah, actually, we did. We had a group of guys who were all good people. I think everybody really got along well. I think John sets the tone, because John, being the huge star that he is, when he comes to the set, he's relaxed, he's getting along with everybody. Everybody got along well.
Did you learn anything from this experience that might save your own life should you find yourself in a fire?
MC: There are things that you do learn that I could take with me in attempting to get myself out of a burning building. It's very difficult, because you don't realize that if it's 12 o'clock at night and it's pitch black in your house, you couldn't really walk from your front door to your bedroom without really hitting something. When a fire fighter goes into a building, he doesn't really know or know what the obstacles would be in trying to find people who are still alive. You have to stay on the ground, keep one hand on the wall while you're feeling for people who may still be alive, and it's a very challenging thing.
Have you gone as far as you would like to go in your career thus far?
MC: I'm enjoying where I am right now because I'm not a struggling actor and I work consistently, so I kind of get the benefits of that, but I'm not a huge star, so as soon as I walk outside my house, there aren't people trying to take pictures of me. I'm kind of at a place where I'm comfortable and I enjoy it.
Do you have a preference whether you play the romantic lead or action hero?
MC: The easiest role is the romantic lead. All of this fire fighting and fighting snakes and stuff, that stuff is tough, you know what I'm saying? You're going home with aches and bumps and bruises, and there are some days when you don't feel like doing it but you have to do it, and it's tough.
What was shooting "The Cave" like?
MC: That was cool. It was fun. I had a good time with [Cole Hauser], and we finished shooting that in Romania. As an actor, you see what's in a script, and when you're shooting it, you bring what you can to it, and as soon as you're done with it, it's up to everyone else. Hopefully it will turn out okay.
Have you seen the creature?
MC: On film? I've seen the creature, yes. I saw it while we were working. It's going to be a difficult thing, because we still have to see special effects with it. Obviously there are certain scenes where I'm working directly with the creature and I had to see him, but there are several of them, they're flying, and they're doing all kinds of crazy shit, so that's going to be some computer generated stuff. Did you see "Van Helsing"? You don't know as an actor what's there. They tell you what's there and you have imagine it. It's up to them how they make you look, and if it's real or not.
Was it more difficult to do something like that than lug your fire fighter equipment?
MC: The practical physicality helps a great deal because when you're doing stuff where you have to imagine things you really have to trust the director and the production team, and when the movie comes out, people look at you and say 'why did you do that movie? None of that shit looks real, and you did all of that bullshit.' but hey, didn't have control of that. I do my part and they do their part. But people don't understand that, and that's moviemaking. Then when you do a project and everything looks real as hell, you get credit for that. It comes with the business.
What do you like to see when you go to the movies?
MC: When you're a married man with kids, you don't have a choice. It's like most of the movies that I go to are kid-oriented. The last one I saw was [Superbabies]. I see all of those movies, then when I go to the movies with my wife, she dominates. So they are the love stories, with Jennifer Lopez or whatever; girlie movies. I like to go to matinees by myself in the afternoon, and I haven't been able to do it since I got back. I've been back [from Romania] for about a month and a half, but I will [go again].
How was Romania?
MC: Romania was interesting. It's a place that's interesting. A good salary there is like $300 a month, so we were thinking we could go there and pick up some Nikes for like 15 dollars, but you go there and the Nikes are still $140. But it was fun- Cole and I played a lot of cards.
What archetype does your character in "The Cave" film in the story, like "the hero" or "the sidekick?"
MC: In the movie, Cole is the leader. I'm the token black guy (laughs). Call a spade a spade, right? I'm the token black guy. Cole is the leader, Sabrine is the hero, Piper Perabo is the cute chick, and I'm the token black guy.
Does that mean you're the first to die?
MC: They put a spin on this one. You take movies for certain reasons. It was good to do this movie even though it was a smaller role, just to be in a good movie with some great actors. That movie, I'm the token black guy, but with a future. I'll say that. I won't be the token in the sequel.
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