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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 4)

His work in Get Shorty was perhaps his most riveting performance. How did he create the sharply etched character of Chili Palmer? "If you get the physicalities right, then usually the internals come right," he explains. Once those both gel, there's a click, the character is locked in, and Travolta is free, free to take the character in front of the cameras and spontaneously create.

"Scripts will really tell you--right away," he explains. "The words usually lead me to the right physicalities. Chili had gravity. And the less he moved his body, and always with economy, the more effective he was. So if he looked at you with stillness, he'd penetrate. Total focus."

His rendering of Chili Palmer brought Travolta a shower of raves and a Golden Globe Award for best actor. What touched him even more deeply was the high praise he received from some of the actors Travolta respects mosts. "Dustin Hoffman called, saying: 'How did you do that? What was the secret? Tell me what the secret was.' And Sean Connery called me. [Travolta slips into Connery's Scottish accent.] 'I gotta tell you, boy, that was, that was something else there. That was one of my favorite performances ever.' I loved those reactions."

Travolta's latest film, A Civil Action, is set in Boston. He plays a greedy, low-bore lawyer, one step away from being an ambulance chaser. When a small community outside Boston is polluted by toxic waste, and a number of adults and children are killed, the families come together to look for a good lawyer to take up their case. But no prominent lawyer will take the case; there's no sign of a deep corporate pocket to sue. Desperate and dispirited, the families go to Travolta, as a dismal last resort.

Though he liked the script, Travolta initially was not inclined to take the role. Then Michael Eisner, the head of Disney, twisted his arm and Travolta agreed to take another look. "I said, 'OK, I'll do my real test: I'll sit and read it aloud.' " Then, as he did with the scripts for Pulp Fiction and Primary Colors, Travolta sat down with his two business and creative partners, Anson Downes and Linda Favila, for a trial run.

"This guy in Civil Action, his verbiage is theatrical. He's a little full of himself. And he's a little well-spoken and kind of deliberate with his words. And that gave me, suddenly, a way of using my hands." Instantly, Travolta's voice locks in and the character of the greedy lawyer comes alive. "Now, how much do you make here? $200? What do I owe you? $200 and what? $230? Oh, I see. OK, now look...' "

Travolta is performing, right here at the table, and it's a joy to behold. Give him the words of a script, a distinguishing gesture or two, and Travolta seems to catch fire, he takes on a glow.

The lobster is gone now, and so is the sea bass, the ravioli and most of those obscene chocolate desserts. Peter Evangelatos has washed the dishes and cleaned the tiny kitchen in Travolta's private trailer. Like most actors, Travolta leads a gypsy life. When he's on the road or, like tonight, enduring long days on the set, this is his home away from home, his retreat, his private sanctuary. Outside his door, just a few feet away, is the racket and clatter of Paramount Studios, a pillar of the great Hollywood machine, turning even now, late in the night, churning out movie fantasies at an industrial pace. Inside here, though, everything is calm and tranquil, an artist's cocoon.

John Travolta has been talking for more than four hours and he's not quite finished. He's made several trips back to the set, to step before the cameras again and again, but he's never lost his train of thought or his humor and good cheer. This is his life and this is his world, and Travolta is clearly enjoying both to the hilt. To him, this isn't work; it's fun.

Throughout the evening, Travolta has often mentioned "the spirit of play." To thrive and grow as an artist, and to be able to freely create in front of the camera, Travolta believes he must, first and foremost, remain open and receptive as a human being--stay as pure in heart as a child at play. To be like a child at play, an artist has to learn to let go, to shed all his fears, rigidities and inhibitions, so that he can burst free and spontaneously create--even if the result often looks to outsiders like silliness or buffoonery.

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