Combustible Celluloid

John Travolta Steps Up

A Report from the 'Ladder 49' Junket

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I swore I would never do another junket. I'd only done one before, The Man Who Wasn't There in Los Angeles, and it was enough to make me take the oath. It's an avalanche of too many reporters, too many movie stars, not enough time and hardly any worthwhile questions or answers. The only benefit is the free food and the free stuff, which is probably why many underpaid reporters like them.

Yet somehow I wound up participating in a mini-junket for Ladder 49 in San Francisco. For over two hours I sat in a hotel room with the air conditioning blasting at sub artic levels. I'm sure the talent wondered as we shook hands why my extremities were so cold on such a warm day.

Several very talented and wonderful people file in and out of the room, and many of them have some great stories to tell. Robert Patrick (Terminator 2, "The X-Files") talks about his passion for motorcycles and how he worked that into his Ladder 49 character's backstory. He also takes pride in the fact that he helps raise over a million dollars every year for Muscular Dystrophy through The Love Ride.

The beautiful, delicate 30 year-old actress Jacinda Barrett (The Human Stain) talks in her soft Australian accent about how, to her, "The Real World" was just a documentary, and how she never assumed it would be a stepping stone to an acting career. She also mentions with a little smile just how heavy and awkward those "pregnant pillows" really are.

Morris Chestnut (Boyz N the Hood, The Best Man) breezes through the room looking like one of the sexiest men alive, and he explains a little about some of the firefighting techniques he learned before working on the film. The film's press kit mentioned that Chestnut would be working on Sidney Lumet's next film, but it turns out he's not. "I don't know where that came from," he says, perhaps for the 100th time.

Director Jay Russell (My Dog Skip, Tuck Everlasting) is fairly humorless, but talks about the conditions he insisted upon before making the movie. Most importantly, setting it in Baltimore, instead of New York, to distance it from 9/11.

I decide to try and make an impression with Joaquin Phoenix by bringing up something his sister Summer told me when I interviewed her in 2002, but he brushes me off and tells me he wishes to stick to Ladder 49. Phoenix had completed real firefighter training and worked at an actual firehouse for a month before filming. He describes the experiences he had, some of the things he saw and their intense emotional impact. Then he talks a little about his next role, as Johnny Cash in the biopic, I Walk the Line.

I'm pretty tired, thirsty and frozen by the time John Travolta walks into the room, carrying a plate of cookies. He passes the plate around and the publicist brings water. This is my fourth time talking with him, and I'm still impressed. He can play a junket like Charlie Parker played saxophone. I immediately feel better, and warmer.

He starts talking -- through a mouthful of chocolate cookie -- about his mentor on the film, a real-life firefigher, Lieutenant Mark Yant. "He never let me do a thing that wasn't authentic. I could call him at 2 in the morning. 'I have no idea of how to say this, and I don't like how the script says it.' He'd wake up, shake it out, and give me four things. 'I like number four.' I really felt like he cared about me, but he also cared that I portrayed this well. Now I'm getting compliments from chiefs and captains."

As with his 2003 film Basic, Travolta has a great entrance in Ladder 49. When the young rookie firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) first meets fire chief Mike Kennedy (Travolta), the chief is asleep at his desk, a bottle of booze by his elbow. When he wakes and stands up, he's wearing only boxer shorts.

I point out the similarities between the introduction to this character and the introduction to his Basic character, and Travolta, astonishingly, remembers the conversation we had over 18 months ago. How many other journalists had he spoken to since then? How many people in general? I'm even more impressed.

Travolta continues, talking about his young cast of co-stars, mentioning that off-screen as well as on, he acted as a mentor to them. "I've been around longer than all of them," he says. "And I have a lot to say, but I never forced my help on anyone. These are all wonderful actors; they needed very little help on that. Morris would ask me questions about acting, about other parts I'd played. Joaquin was very respectful of my opinion. I was glad of all of that. If they didn't have all of that off camera, they'd have to act it on camera. I was so relieved that they felt the same way about me off camera as they would their captain or chief on camera."

When Travolta visited San Francisco in the fall of 2001, promoting his film Domestic Disturbance, he finished his press obligations and then went to help the local firefighters gather toys for needy children. I wonder aloud if any correlation existed between this volunteer work and the new movie.

Much to my surprise, and continued astonishment, Travolta gets choked up as he answers, tears forming in his striking eyes. "In that mode of after 9/11, I was just trying to make up for something, trying to help in my own way," he says. "You feel helpless. I wanted to do something. So I went on that tour with Qantas around the world to promote air travel. I toured the firehouses to support the guys and gals. It was my way of doing something. You don't like to feel helpless."

Last year, Travolta and I spoke about his favorite film, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and in the intervening months, the actor contributed a few comments and memories for the Special Edition DVD release. I mention that a patriotic film like Ladder 49 just might be his personal answer to a film like Yankee Doodle Dandy.

"I have been thinking that all along," Travolta says enthusiastically. "In a country of political unrest like we're in now. It's such a perfect time for it, to remind us that we are a great country. If we do the right thing and help and have integrity about our jobs we can make a difference. I like that."

It's always a bonus when a Travolta film contains a little dancing, as in Saturday Night Fever, Grease or Pulp Fiction. In Ladder 49, Chief Kennedy dances with the bride, Linda (Barrett), at Jack's wedding. Earlier, Barrett had informed me that there was a lot more dancing when the cameras were not rolling.

"Oh that's a fact," Travolta says, smiling. He also mentions his upcoming film, a sequel to Get Shorty called Be Cool. "Wait till you see the dancing in that."

Unfortunately our time is up and Travolta has received the signal to leave. But our short time together has been like a little movie: laughter, tears, dancing and cookies... and maybe just a little something extra.

"My real inspiration is to inspire others like I was," he says. "I want to act and sing and dance or give messages in movies that help them understand their lives. That's fun to me. That's what I know how to do best."

Date: Oct. 1, 2004

Buy John Travolta movies from

Movies Unlimtied