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John Travolta
Here's what I learned at the Ladder 49 press junket: Joaquin Phoenix does not like to have his picture taken.

Here's the other thing I learned:

John Travolta is the nicest guy on the planet.

The young star on the rise, and the established legend: a classic dynamic. And just like in real life, that paradigm is very much a part of this movie about those who rush into burning buildings when mere mortals like us are rushing out.

Ladder 49 is the best movie about firefighters ever made -- better than Backdraft (that relied on a mystery element to keep its plot going). Ladder 49 focuses on a realistic portrayal of the day-to-day life of the men who, since 9/11, have gained renewed respect in the minds of most. This is a movie about their lives and the risks they take. It also captures the power and danger of fire like nothing that's ever been realized onscreen. As Jack Morrison, Joaquin Phoenix stars as the rookie who joins the men of Ladder 49, under the tutelage of Travolta, the Captain who runs the firehouse like a wise uncle. Jack is bold, and eager to save people; he lives for the job and for his family. The "Cap" has seen it all, death and destruction, and as a result is fatalistically calm. This is true even when it comes to rescuing the young man he's grown to love, who, as the movie begins, saves a civilian from a burning building and becomes trapped himself. The movie is a long flashback of how Jack came to this point -- the life story of a quiet local hero.

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Robert Patrick
Director Jay Russell, best known for My Dog Skip and Tuck Everlasting, has a family member who's a firefighter and an overpowering need to get this movie right. "We wanted more than anything else to make a movie that firefighters would appreciate. And so far, the reaction of those we've shown it too has been great." Russell demanded that his cast go through the boot camp for rookie firefighters called "Fire Academy" in Baltimore where the film is set. He also asked his cast (including Morris Chestnut, Robert Patrick, Billy Burke and Balthazar Getty) to live in firehouses and go out on calls. They learned a lot. And using all the little details they picked up from their experience, they captured the nuance as well as the overall sweep of what the job entrails.

But the actors weren't always prepared for some of the things they saw. "We went on one call where a guy had been shot dead," recalls Billy Burke. "Very tough to see." And Morris Chestnut admits that the severe burns his character receives in the film is something he is not anxious for his own children to see. But there were some moments that were fun, too. "It was a real rush to get on the fire trucks and race through town," says Getty. "That was my favorite part of the job." But in every detail of the fireman's daily life, they wanted to be as accurate as possible. "There's a part in the film," says Russell. "When Joaquin's character talks to his wife (Jacinda Barrett) about the seventy cent per hour raise he's going to get. And when we did that scene, we got a huge laugh from the Baltimore City Fire Department consultants on the set. That was exactly the amount of the raise that particular promotion offers."

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Billy Burke & Balthazar Getty
As the wife of the young firefighter, Jacinda Barrett was cast not only because of her beauty and acting ability, but due to the fact her father was a firefighter in her home country of Australia. "When I got the part, I asked my parents to write a little about what it was like, and I used a lot of what they experienced in this part." Though Jacinda (the only reality TV star [MTV's The Real World] to my knowledge to make the transition to a real acting career) does not remember any particular moment in which she was afraid for her father, she does recall the fact that her parents tried hard to keep their children shielded from the dangers of the job, just as she and Joaquin do with their children in this film. "I remember my Dad getting very quiet once. He'd just been on a call where he'd seen a mid-air collision I found out later. That's how he dealt with it."

It's the veteran actors who give the most surprising turns to their roles. Robert Patrick (TheX-Files, Terminator) is nearly unrecognizable as the mustachioed "Lenny," the short-fused prankster of the fire company and gives one of his best performances to date. And Travolta gives weight to his part in the same way he gave a calm, knowing presence to other actors on the set. "We wanted to give the guy in charge automatic authority," director Russell insists. "And John gave us that from day one of filming."

In person, Travolta is pleasant, upbeat, and amazingly generous. In addition to Ladder 49, he is also proud of a new film he has coming out, sure to be an Oscar contender, called A Love Song For Bobby Long that just played to standing ovations at the Venice Film Festival. In Ladder 49 he plays a guy with just a touch of gray at his temples "I don't mind," he says. "In fact, I kind of liked it." And in Bobby Long, he plays a professor. "My hair is white in that." In fact, in his every reaction, he seems unruffled by anything and completely on top of the world. At the end of the session, Travolta is asked if we can get a photo of him; and he stops and smiles happily. "Why of course you can."