"Ladder 49" actor Kevin Chapman spoke with Firehouse.com this summer about the emotional and heart-thumping experiences he went through while taking on the role of firefighter Frank Mckinny.
During the Firehouse Expo in Baltimore, Maryland, the city where the film was shot, Chapman spent hours chatting with firefighters, signing movie posters and posing for photos with fans.
"I can really understand this world after doing this picture," he said.
Chapman and the other "Ladder 49" stars, including Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta, spent a month in the spring of 2003 training for their firefighter roles with the Baltimore City Fire Department. Chapman said that responding to real emergencies was a "rush like no other."
"These guys are like adrenaline junkies, and I mean that with the utmost respect," he said. When responding to a fire, he said, "It's amazing ... You have no idea what's on the other side when you get there. You don't know how big this beast is."
He said the reality of the firefighter experience hit home during one particular fire call he ran toward the end of his training. His fire company responded to a 15-story dwelling fire, he said, and as they entered, one of the firefighters told him, "Don't move."
"There was a victim right there on the floor," Chapman said. "When I saw that man... I said this is the mission, this is what it's all about. That really moved me."
As he lived, trained, and bonded with the Baltimore firefighters, Chapman said he also learned firsthand about the real sense of brotherhood and camaraderie among them. Even between firefighters who are not friends, he said, "There's this unspoken, 'I don't like you, but I love you.'"
Chapman said that ever since his involvement in the film, firefighters from many departments have embraced him and welcomed him into their world. "It could not have been a better experience," he said. "I have two shelves with nothing but fire department T-shirts."
He said another experience that has been etched in his memory was going through the maze at the training academy. Until that experience, he said, "I never thought myself to be claustrophobic." He marveled at the maze's complete darkness, the tightness of the space, and the twists and tumbles required to move through it. He said he came out panting and sweating, with his heart racing. "Talk about your senses becoming aware of every little thing," he said.
Chapman said he found the overall experience of playing a firefighter incomparable to anything he had done before. He had previously played cops and gone on police ride-alongs, he said, but "I never had the kind of fear riding with police as I did with the fire department," he said.
Although it has been over a year since filming ended, Chapman said he still keeps in touch from time to time with some of the Baltimore City firefighters, and he still perks up when he sees a fire engine rush by.
"It was a pretty powerful experience," he said.
Chapman said that thanks to his work on "Ladder 49," he could understand all the pride he saw in the men and women at the Firehouse Expo.
"Every firefighter I meet says, 'I'm at the busiest company in the city,' and it's great that they take such pride in their work and their company," he said.
He said that the many firefighters he has spoken to seem very eager for a good production to portray what they do for a living.
"I think that we have done a great job at portraying that," he said. "I think we got as close as you're possibly going to get."
When he initially got involved with the film, after doing the drama "Mystic River," Chapman said he wrongly expected "Ladder 49" to be all about action.
"This movie is so much more than that," he said. "I didn't know that [Director Jay Russell] had something so powerful. I'm so proud to be a part of it, and I'm sad to see it end."