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INT: John Travolta


Joaquin Phoenix / John Travolta / Robert Patrick

In LADDER 49, John Travolta plays Mike Kennedy, fire chief and mentor to Joaquin Phoenix's character, the earnest neophyte Jack Morrison. Over the course of his short career Morrison develops a unique bond with Kennedy, and when he finds himself trapped at the bottom of a burning building, it’s Kennedy who is called in to find a way to get him out.

Travolta is a fun guy to interview, primarily because he seems to enjoy the process, the give-and-take with the journalists. Though I’ve never been a huge fan of his work (I am, however, looking forward to BE COOL), I’ve enjoyed the opportunities I've had to chat with him. All too often other actors make it abundantly clear that they’d rather be in the dentist’s chair than at a roundtable, but Travolta is always bright and engaging. He was no different last week when I stopped by the Century Plaza hotel in Los Angeles for the Ladder 49 junket. He bounded into the room, shook everyone’s hand and talked enthusiastically about his latest film. He also dished a little about BE COOL and another upcoming project, A LOVE SONG FOR BOBBY LONG. Check it out.


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

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?

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.

Did you go through the firefighter boot camp with the other actors?

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, 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?

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?

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.  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?”  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 checked into it, and Black Eyed Peas made the most awesome rendition of a Jobim song.  They do a rap version of that, 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?

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?

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?

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 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 lives, and it’s very reminiscent of Tennessee Williams and Inge, but it’s really good. It’s really well-executed, I thought.

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

All of the were difficult. Even Urban Cowboy was difficult with the mechanical bull and country dancing, Saturday Night Fever was difficult, Staying Alive was difficult, theres 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 firefighter training?

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.

Are you keeping to your fitness regime?

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.

It did. It was the only thing…because I was the oldest guy, it was probably the only thing that helped me make it.  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.

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

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.

Questions? Comments? Manifestos? Send them to me at [email protected]





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