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Could he be handsome-er? Um, no!Bluntly Speaking | Joaquin Phoenix
an emily blunt interview

Ladder 49 Review
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Bluntly Speaking? Joaquin Phoenix isn't known for taking the easy paychecky roles…he's an actor's actor- and respected. So when you see his name attached to a cast list one expects a certain caliber of film. And his latest, Ladder 49, doesn't disappoint.

The filmmakers made great sacrifices to make the film ring true and honor the men and women who wear a firefighter's uniform. For the role Joaquin and his cast members went through grueling training - attending the actual fireman academy and propelling off buildings. The result is a realism and ode to this noble profession every person can salute.

Joac's a laid back sort. He showed up in a Louisville Fire Department baseball cap casually dressed and looking his usual handsome shyish self. Still reeling from the images of this extraordinary actor in his McHotty-styled fireman's gear I attempted to focus on his work and stay clear of getting lost in those piercing blues he was flashing:

Emily: Okay, so the buzz about town - and we'll get this over with right up front - is that you were afraid of heights. Did you not think about that when deciding on taking the part?

Joaquin: (laughter) Yeah. What was I thinking? That's what Jay [Russell, director] was asking himself when I got to the first firehouse and I couldn't go down the pole. He was like 'Who have I cast for this?' And I was panicking! I was like, 'What am I gonna do?' But, training at the academy made all the difference. It was an amazing experience. You don't totally overcome your fears. Firefighters tell you if you aren't scared, then get out of the job. But you learn to control your fear. You learn to trust your crew and trust your equipment. That was the thing. I was just certain that the rope was gonna break when we were rappelling off this tower, I turned to my instructor and said 'There's no way I can do this. I can do the other stuff but I can't do this'. 'Yes, you can'. He said 'just look in my eyes and trust me. I promise you, you're gonna make it. You're gonna be fine'.

Emily: Was it important for you to do this film after 9-11 and all the firefighter sacrifices?

Joaquin: It was important. I mean I think everybody was thinking 'how do we express our thanks?' And, it was an amazing opportunity really to say thank you. It's a thing that Jay and I talked about from the very beginning. The most important thing is that firefighters see this film and feel that it's an accurate depiction of their lives. If that happens and that works, that's all we could ask for and that takes precedence over whether it's financially or critically successful.

Emily: Have you gotten any feedback from firemen yet?

Joaquin: Yeah and it's been the most amazing experience. They've thanked us for making this movie. I can't tell you what that's like to go to these fire houses and have these guys come up and take your hand and look you in the eye and say 'thank you for making this movie'. It's so powerful. I had a woman in Dallas at the firehouse. She told me her husband was a fire fighter and he passed away fifteen years ago under a similar circumstance like my character trapped in a building. And she said, 'I want to thank you for making this movie because I always wondered what he thought about' (at this point Joaquin actually tears up). It was so powerful. I don't think anyone's ever thanked me for making a movie before so it's meant so much to me. I can't tell you how good that feels to know they like this film and say 'finally, someone got it right. Someone has told our story'. And that's been amazing.

Emily: Perhaps that's why there seemed to be a special energy on this film. You all went through the training and "became" firemen for a while.

Joaquin: Yeah. And for me, the energy on set is as important as anything and really creating the feeling that you're experiencing in that scene. If something is intense, then I want the energy on set to feel intense. I'm going to do whatever I can to make it intense for myself. If it's supposed to be light and joyous, then you create that sense and so it just depended on what scene we were doing?

Emily: You were running around all manly manned up- propelling and stuff - Were you injured at all on this film?

Joaquin: [laughter] No. Well, my knees are shot!

Emily: No!

Joaquin: Yeah, they are. I was supposed to do some physical therapy but I didn't have time. I'd done this movie and I'd been doing so much physical stuff, just the word 'physical' made me uncomfortable. You're on your knees all the time and I just did it for real and it just ended up being that we were actually in the gear and on our knees longer than firefighters usually are because they go in, they knock out the fire and take the gear off but we would be in it all day long. It's fine walking around. It's just really tender when I actually get on my knees.

Emily: So no more priest roles for you. [a reference to his Quills role]

Joaquin: (laughs) Right! Exactly.

Emily: So what helped shape the realness of the film then - besides jumpin' around on your knees all day?

Joaquin: [laughter] The training that we did really helped form the story that affected the script. It always had its heart and had some grit to it. But initially it
was just a northeastern city, it wasn't Baltimore, and each department is
different and once we got to Baltimore and learned the specifics of the
Baltimore city fire department that helped make some difference. But to be
honest there's a writer named Terry George that came in and saved or lives. He came in and went on the ride alongs with me. He hung out with all the guys, went to the bars afterwards everything we did he hung out with us for a couple weeks.

Emily: The Hotel Rwanda Terry George?

Joaquin: Exactly! That's why I did Hotel Rwanda. Actually we were in
pre-production for this and I asked him what he was doing and he said Hotel Rwanda. We talked about it.

Emily: You were great in that as well by the way. [oops, I swooned]

Joaquin: Thanks! It was a great be a part of that film and [Don] Cheadle is phenomenal in it.

Emily: What kind of a challenge was it going from this to that?

Joaquin: It was actually the other way around. I did this first. It was hard. This was in total six months of my life were all I thought about was fire
department. It's weird you know it like what helps you shake a character is
to have another character. I don't know how to explain what goes on. I don't
even fuckin' understand it.

Emily: Your not attracted to the real blockbuster. Gladiator was a fluke. Where does that come from? And is that something that has always been important to you?

Joaquin: Yeah. I wanna do things that reflect our experiences and our realty. I guess. I don't know what it's from. But those are movies that I love. When I see 'Dog Day Afternoon' you know? As much as it's this wild story its grounded in reality. All those characters seem authentic and I don't know - to me it' s a whole new way to make movies. I'm sure at some point I'll make some ridiculous frivolous comedy for the hell of it - just to say I did! [laughter] But the thing that moved me always is these things in real life. I think there's a need in films to tell stories about heroes. I've always avoided those parts because they rarely ring true for me. There's all these contrived little plots in order to give our protagonist some sense of goodness and with firefighters, that sense of goodness and heroism is inherent in what they do, in their profession and, because of that, it seemed we were able to explore some other parts of the character, not always be concerned about how do we make this guy heroic? Initially, in the first script I read, he was a perfect character and it just didn't feel true and, talking with Jay about some of the stuff, we felt that there were always long embraces with Linda (wife) and I every morning - the staring at each other longingly - and things like that. I really liked the idea of being able to play a heroic character but to try and capture some of what, to me, felt like real life in that things aren't always perfect with your family. You're tired. You're annoyed. There were some things that we brought to scenes, scenes that we changed that, for me, gave it a sense of authenticity and made us feel like 'yeah, we're really watching what it's life for this husband and wife to sit together at dinner after his best friend has been burned and he doesn't know how to talk about it and yet she's pressing him. Initially they held each others' hands and looked at each other and said 'yeah, babe'. And that's not what happens. Most of the time when you have a quote, unquote 'hero', you spend the entire time just trying to set up that he's a hero, that he's doing something good. It was so nice to not have to worry about that. That's why I felt comfortable in taking on a role like this because I felt like it was still true to life and reflective of our reality.

END

And Ladder 49 is filled with reality folks. Gut retching emotional bits that'll have you baking cookies in thanks for your local fire house and saluting as they drive by…still ogling their manly beauty…. but with a bit more seriousness attached. Joaquin deserves the Oscar for his portrayal here. It's like no other hero I've ever seen on film. It's an exquisite job.

 


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