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Class Acting

With remarkable candor, John Travolta talks about the highs and lows of his tumultuous and fascinating career—and what he's learned along the way.
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

(continued from page 3)

In his youth, Travolta may have had some confusions about his male identity, but now he's come through that and he counts himself among the lucky: "I'm very comfortable with the kind of man I am. I just notice discomfort in other men with certain behavioral traits. After years and years of observing this, I said, 'You know what? It's tough being a guy.' I think there are very few men who really understand what it's all about. They're so confused by images, by the media, by confusing role models, by how women have changed over the past 25 or 30 years. Finally, after getting frustrated for many years, trying to find men I could be friends with, finally I did find a few."

By the end of the 1980s, after long years of introspection and growth, Travolta emerged stronger, and his career was ready for a turn for the better--and so was his love life. While in Toronto, making a lackluster comedy called The Experts, Travolta met Kelly Preston. According to Preston's account, published in Redbook, the two did not rush into romance; they took it slowly, trying to clear up their lives and trying to get it right. Then, in 1990, at a New Year's Eve party in Gstaad, Switzerland, Travolta, the ultimate romantic, came before the assembled throng, dropped down on one knee and asked Preston to be his bride. They were married in September 1991, in a ceremony in Paris, of course.

Their marriage is strong, Travolta says now, because he and Preston, also a follower of Scientology, are well suited and place enormous importance on quality communication. "It's been a wonderful union," he says. "And I think it's because we're very realistic about relationships and who we are. We already know. I waited late to get married and she had been married before."

When they have problems, they work hard to maintain their balance and perspective. "In marriage, you have to be willing to look at 'the D word,'" Travolta says. "Realistically. Because it's always an option. We have. But we don't want that. We want to actually make it work out. We know that you could choose to move on to someone else, do the Hollywood thing. But then why bother to get married? If we come to a crossroads, we always know the option. But the option is no longer interesting to us. After one year of being together and one year of marriage, we decided, 'Well, what do you do? Just do this again with the next person?' That doesn't solve anything."

Jett, they've found, is always a compelling reason to work through any problems that may arise from trying to mesh two high-powered lives and careers. Travolta says it's an added blessing that Preston is herself a successful actress; she understands the craziness of the movie world and the time, passion and commitment it takes to be a dedicated artist.

"I don't know how you could do it without that, really," Travolta says. "I mean, you could if you were in the situation where one of you had a career and the other devoted their life, as a career, to you. But, short of that, I don't know how you could do it."

With Preston providing this sort of balance, Travolta began moving his career out of the doldrums. Starring opposite Kirstie Alley, he made the warm-hearted comedy Look Who's Talking in 1989, and its huge box-office success led them to make two sequels during the early 1990s. Then Quentin Tarantino reached out for him for the 1994 film Pulp Fiction and told him to fly. "Quentin just let me go. He trusted me," Travolta explains. Later, when Roman Polanski was thinking of hiring Travolta for a project called The Double, he called Tarantino for advice.

"Quentin said, 'If you hire John, be prepared to not know what you're going to get,'" Travolta recalls. "'But I'd rather take that ride. He's not a predictable actor, I have no idea what choices he's going to make, and they're always different from what I expect. But, man, that's a much more fun ride for me to be a part of, as a director or as an audience.' And he's right. Because I don't always know what choices I'm going to make. That's what keeps it fun."

Pulp Fiction was the first of a string of performances that would bring the actor to the height of his powers. In the film, Travolta played a heroin-hazed hit man with a zany charm. Next, in Get Shorty, he played a suave, steely Mafioso intent on becoming a Hollywood producer. In John Woo's action film Broken Arrow, he took an evil turn as a psycho bad guy. For Nora Ephron's whimsical Michael, Travolta donned wings and fantasy and played a chain-smoking, sugar-gulping, honey-chasing archangel. For Mad City, he switched gears again and became a dim-witted yet oddly endearing museum terrorist. Last year, in the eerily prescient satire Primary Colors, Travolta morphed himself into Jack Stanton, a wily, smooth-talking Southern governor with Clintonesque charm, no scruples, and a weakness for bedding vulnerable young women.

The success of these movies, and the quality of his performances, brought Travolta the two things that almost all artists crave: recognition and fresh creative energy. Today in Hollywood a clear consensus has emerged: with his expressive blue eyes and dance-floor magic, Travolta always had sex appeal and a winning presence on screen; now he's matured into one of America's most gifted and versatile actors.


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