”I could take a lot of heat,” Kurt Russell says of his up-close-and-personal approach to playing a firefighter in Backdraft. ”When we started one of the most intense fires, this whole building was going up and I thought, man, this is really hot. It was a bitch and a half. Snot was running out of my nose, I could barely breathe, my eyes felt like they were going to burst. I felt a rising panic. I really wanted out of there bad. I turned around saying my line and the cameraman wasn’t there, Billy (Baldwin) wasn’t there, nobody was there! The room was completely black smoke. It was sort of a great moment. I said to myself, ‘Nobody could ever accuse me of not being totally there.’ It was like my fire. I had forgotten that we were making a movie.”
After spending nearly three quarters of his 40 years as an actor, Kurt Russell may finally have found his elusive perfect role — one that lets him forget he’s acting. Though the square-jawed former child star has appeared in dozens of films and countless TV shows, he has always claimed to take acting less seriously than a number of his more primal pursuits, namely hunting, speedboats, dirt bikes, flying, and baseball. For a man who, armed with only a jackknife, once took on a wild boar, and who sees acting as a slightly wimpy occupation he isn’t sure he respects, the role of hard-driving Chicago firefighter Stephen McCaffrey was almost too good to be true. In director Ron Howard’s $39 million salute to America’s flame busters, McCaffrey is a firefighter’s firefighter — too stubborn to wear his air mask, too hard on his firefighter-in-training brother (William Baldwin), and an all-out hero when he should be. ”It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Russell says. ”I worked my ass off on this.”
Much of the role’s appeal was that playing a fireman is as close as Russell may get to work he admires. ”It’s the only job I’ve seen in a long, long time that I could see myself being excited enough and proud enough about,” he says. And unlike most action films, in which stuntmen do the daring stuff and much of the excitement is created in a special effects lab, Backdraft put the actors face-to-face with real flames. ”These actors are in there flat-out doing it,” Russell says about costars Baldwin and Scott Glenn. ”Putting out fires.”
Russell’s career has been in need of real heat for some time. Despite his varied credits — ranging from the no-nuke message movie Silkwood (1983) to the no-brain beefcake fest Tango & Cash (1989) — he has long been stuck on the special back burner Hollywood reserves for second-tier leading men. His critical successes, like 1988’s Tequila Sunrise, have often been box office disappointments. Possibly doubting his drawing power, Universal didn’t even put his face on Backdraft’s poster. But Backdraft may change a lot of minds: It took in $15.7 million its first weekend, a record for a non-sequel opening over the Memorial Day holiday, and has remained No. 1 at the box office. Kurt Russell finally has a hit he’s proud of.
It’s just past noon on the first clear day after a week of desperately needed heavy Southern California rains. I’m sitting in the cockpit of a six-seat twin-engine Cessna and looking straight out at the snow-covered Sierra Madre mountains. My hands are on the control yoke, and they’re moistening as I instinctively pull back on the stick to gain altitude. In the pilot’s seat, Russell is clearly enjoying my discomfort, unfazed by the fact that I’ve never flown a plane before and have no idea what I’m doing.
”You’re rising at a rate of 500 feet per minute,” he says casually. ”Look at your altimeter. We’ve gone from 5,000 to 6,000 feet. You don’t want to do that, you want to keep it steady.”
”I don’t want to hit the mountains,” I point out.
”You’re above them, just lower the plane.”
”You want me to go down? I don’t want to go down. I want to go up, away from those mountains.”
Russell is actually laughing now. So I push the yoke slowly away, showing him I’ll play his game; the plane descends, and the mountains loom larger — I can see individual trees jutting from the snow.
”That’s it, now you’ve got it,” he says. ”See, you can fly.”
”Any time you want to take back the controls is fine,” I offer.
”You did good,” Russell says and takes over, dipping down and then up away from the mountains.
We are on our way to Oceano, near Pismo Beach, about 140 miles and 50 flying minutes from Santa Monica, where Russell keeps his plane. Since he would rather talk about flying than acting, an altitude of several thousand feet seemed like the perfect place for an interview. Russell learned to fly only about three years ago, but he took to it with characteristic passion and now owns two planes, this Cessna and a biplane that he and his longtime companion, Goldie Hawn, like to take up for thrills. ”In the cockpit, there’s no such thing as bullshit,” Russell says over the engine noise. ”When you talk to pilots, it’s another language. There’s no posturing. It’s exactly the opposite of the movie business, where 90 percent of it is bullshit.”
It was in this very cockpit that Russell first heard about Backdraft, a movie named for the frightening phenomenon that can occur when a fire, starved for oxygen in an enclosed space, explodes ferociously as soon as fresh air is introduced. He and Tom Cruise were winging to Catalina Island, and Cruise was suggesting a role for Russell in his upcoming raceway romance, Days of Thunder. Russell wasn’t biting, so Cruise changed the subject to another script he’d been considering — a drama about two firefighter brothers working side by side in a Chicago firehouse. When they got back, Russell called his agent and said he wanted to know more about Backdraft.
”I had been pursuing Tom Cruise,” recalls Ron Howard, ”and Tom asked who would play the role of his older brother. I thought Tom and Kurt would be good together.” Cruise finally had to decline because of other commitments, but Russell jumped at the part. ”He was born to play this character,” Howard says.
Russell turns almost gleeful discussing how well Backdraft suited his adrenaline-junkie nature. ”All of us were getting burned every day,” he says. ”Your hair would burn. You’d put this gel on to keep your skin from burning, but it also attracted these little bits of ash which stuck to your face. Billy got set on fire twice. I got set on fire three times. Scott got fried once.” And that, as far as Russell is concerned, is real job satisfaction. ”If you took a fireman’s 10-year career and asked him what were the three best fires he had been in, those are the fires in our movie,” he says proudly. ”One of the firemen who worked with us and had won commendations and awards as a firefighter said, ‘In 14 years I never got burned till I did this goddamn movie. Now I’ve been burned twice.’”