Joaquin Phoenix (left) and Tim Guinee (right) in Ladder 49.
Photo credit: Touchstone Pictures
Actor Tim Guinee didn't want to leave the fire service behind after filming "Ladder 49," so he took on the role of a firefighter in real life.
Guinee joined his hometown Stone Ridge Volunteer Fire Department in upstate New York in September 2003. The small department may not be as glamorous as his movie role or his training in inner-city Baltimore, but down-to-earth Guinee loves the small town fire service just the same. At the time of the interview he was preparing a grant proposal for much needed equipment.
"There is something really incredible about the realization of the service to community that firefighters provide, which I think is basically unrecognized," he said.
Guinee first became interested in the fire service through ride-alongs with his friend at the FDNY, Capt. Paddy Brown of Ladder 3. After Brown was killed on 9/11, Guinee helped out at Ground Zero with supply and warehouse activities. "It was terrible," he said. The experience marked him for life, and prompted his interest in "Ladder 49."
"I had heard about the movie but for some reason I couldn't get an audition," Guinee said. Then a friend arranged to have him seated next to movie director Jay Russell at a dinner, and Guinee told him about his experiences after 9/11. Russell asked him to audition, and "That's how that happened," he said.
After getting the role he immediately went for several ride-alongs with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, and even after the filming was over, he took an opportunity to ride along with the Winnipeg Fire Department.
However, it was during his intense movie training with the Baltimore City Fire Department that Guinee got hooked on the fire service and resolved to join it for real, he said. "But I don't think I told anyone in the cast, and I certainly don't think I told my wife," Guinee joked.
After joining the fire service, Guinee mentioned to his wife that he enjoyed working with draft horses on another film project, and she warned him, "You can't have a draft horse."
Guinee said the Stone Ridge Volunteer Fire Department in Ulster County was very welcoming. It has about 20 members and serves a population of 1,100 in a mostly residential area. Guinee has now been with them for more than a year and throughout the "Ladder 49" debut. He jokes that he doesn't know how well he would have been accepted if the fire service hadn't embraced the film.
Chief John Roosa said Guinee came in around midnight one night to fill out his volunteer firefighter application. When another member teased him about the time of night, "Tim didn't hesitate, he gave him a shot right back and shut him right up," the chief laughed. "He lights things up and his experience is good to have."
Roosa said the department has had members with professional training from New York, but Guinee brought different experiences from Maryland.
And where he is inexperienced, Guinee is extremely dedicated about learning, the chief said. Before training to operate the pumps on the engines, Guinee prepared for the training by first buying a book on pump operations.
Guinee also has a good sense of humor, Roosa said, and naturally, the firefighters like to tease him about "Ladder 49." During one drill Roosa was timing Guinee, and "I started shaking my head, and said, 'I bet Travolta could have done it quicker,'" he laughed.
Baltimore Lieutenant Steve Cobo, who trained Guinee for his movie role as "Tony Corrigan," said Guinee is a natural in the fire service.
"I think the bug bit him," Cobo said. "The gratification you get by helping others - that's what inspires us, that's why we're here," he said. "It's certainly not the money."
Guinee's training for "Ladder 49" with the BCFD focused on search and rescue activities including SCBA training, the burn building, the maze, rapelling, and riding with real Baltimore fire crews. Guinee took the Firefighter 1 test and kept going back to take classes on his days off, he said. He also spent as much time at the firehouse as possible.
Guinee recalled the first time he entered a burning structure with the BCFD.
"It was a lot like the burn building," he said. "You think 'What the hell am I doing,' but on a level, it's kind of exhilarating."
Cobo said Guinee has a lot to offer as a real volunteer firefighter because he got a taste of everything in Baltimore, including rescuing a woman from a high rise.
He said Guinee felt like one of their own and would always take care of desserts during dinner with 1 Truck and 6 Engine. He said Guinee still keeps in touch, and spent the entire weekend riding with them during the Baltimore "Ladder 49" premiere.
Guinee credited the BCFD for accepting the film makers and helping to make the movie a success. "I hope the Baltimore community knows how grateful we are," he said. "Any kind of realism we achieved was because all of us were constantly asking the firemen, 'Would you say this line? How would you say it? Does that seem real to you? How can we make it better?'"
Guinee said that for all of the "Ladder 49" actors, the movie was a special experience. "The actors bonded in a way that happens very rarely," he said. Also, he said, "For me on some level this movie was a real chance to mourn my friend."
"Ladder 49" is entering its final weekend of wide release. It currently sits a few million shy of "Backdraft's" box office take of $77 million.