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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

John Travolta is in very good spirits. After a long, hard day's shoot, he's now back in his private trailer, relaxing and getting ready to sit down for dinner.

"Please," he says, showing his guest to the table. "Make yourself at home. What would you like to drink with dinner? Water? Coke? A glass of wine?"

Peter Evangelatos, the actor's private chef, emerges from the kitchen with a bite of supper: four whole lobsters, fresh from Maine, steamed filets of sea bass, direct from Chile, and a plate of light, savory vegetable ravioli, homemade of course. Should Travolta and his guest choose to be indulgent tonight, an array of obscenely rich chocolate desserts stands at the ready.

"Have a lobster," Travolta says, holding out the platter. "They're very fresh. And Peter steams them just the way they do in Maine. Very simple."

In person, Travolta has a fascinating presence. He's a big guy, standing 6-foot-1, with a thick, powerful trunk. But his voice is soft, his manner is gentle, and the more you get to know him, the more Travolta seems like a big, huggable teddy bear, with a warm, open heart and a delightful touch of whimsy. And without an evil cell in his entire body. Even at the age of 44, there is still a wonderful boyish sweetness about Travolta, as if by some miracle the greed, the manipulations and the pervasive tawdriness of Hollywood life have never touched the inner man.

Travolta, though, is no Peter Pan. In his early years, in the hit TV series "Welcome Back, Kotter," and in the movies that turned him into a teen idol and a Hollywood sensation--Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Urban Cowboy--Travolta had a coltish swagger and charm. But he also had a timorous sensitivity, a look in his eyes of wounded youth and vulnerability. Those are gone now. Travolta, in his maturity as a man, radiates a quiet confidence and inner strength. And he's not just an actor now; he's a businessman who, for a major movie like Primary Colors, commands a reported fee of $18 million and a cut of the profits. Travolta runs his own production company, JTP Films Inc., and he has four houses, four jets, two pilots and a staff of 24. Peter Evangelatos and many of the others who work for Travolta refer to him simply as "The Boss," and they say it with respect.

This degree of wealth and power makes the man now sitting at the table, enjoying his lobster, all the more intriguing. No matter how great his current success, Travolta's manner tonight is modest and shy, almost self-effacing. He seems to enjoy the toys and the trappings of success, but they are not what drive him or fulfill him. At his core, Travolta is an artist, and his real needs and real satisfactions are elsewhere. These are rooted in only one place: The Work.

And Travolta's work is now in full flower. Since his stunning resurgence in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, Travolta has been on an incredible roll: Get Shorty. Broken Arrow. Michael. Phenomenon. Face/Off. Mad City. Primary Colors. And now, A Civil Action. Over the past four years, he's made 12 movies, with barely a pause for a breath. Tonight, here on the lot of Paramount Studios, he's in the closing stages of shooting yet another major film, a military crime thriller called The General's Daughter; after dinner, he'll go back to the set. After this, he has several more big projects ready to roll, starting with Shipping News.

Travolta's private life has also flowered. Seven years ago, at the age of 37, he married the beautiful and talented actress Kelly Preston (Jerry McGuire and Holy Man), and the couple now has an adorable five-year-old son named Jett. Travolta says the marriage is very strong, and you needn't ask how he feels about Jett. In the course of dinner tonight, Jett appears with his nanny and spontaneously crawls up into Daddy's lap, to give him a huge hug around the neck. Travolta's eyes mist and you can see him almost melt with joy.

As Evangelatos freshens drinks and serves another round of lobster, the time has come to get down to serious business. What are the roots of his acting talent? What are the secrets behind his resurgence? What has he learned through all the good times and bad? First, though, there is another matter to discuss, and when you bring up the word "cigar," John Travolta smiles, settles back, and a rush of warm boyhood memories start playing across his face.

"My mother was an actress, she did community theater," he begins. "My father and his brother ran Travolta Tire Exchange, which was a Firestone outlet in Westwood, New Jersey." His mother, Helen, was of Irish descent; his father, Salvatore, had Italian roots. Together, in a big, boisterous household in the suburbs of New Jersey, they raised six children. John was the youngest. And he still remembers the rich, mysterious smells of his boyhood home.

"Cigarettes made everything festive," he recalls. "My mom smoked and my sister smoked. So smoking meant show business and travel. My father smoked cigars his whole life. And cigars meant... safe. Dad was home. Security. Safety. And I can't smell a cigar without thinking of the kind of secure feeling I'd get around Dad. Baseball games on Sunday. Just that ambience of him watching in the living room. Him reading the paper. He used to get every paper. The New York Times. The Daily News. A local New Jersey paper. They'd be all over the living room. His joy was the paper, the games and his cigars. Of course, he smoked, like, White Owls, but it didn't matter. The smell to me was what counted."

Today, both parents have passed away, and on big family occasions John takes on the role of head of the Travolta clan. He's also taken on his father's love of cigars. In his work habits, Travolta is strict and disciplined. He drinks fine wine, but does so sparingly, only a few times a month. Cigars are one of his few indulgences. "I smoke about five cigars a week, but I wouldn't call myself a connoisseur. I like Davidoffs, Dunhills and Montecristos. I like to smoke at the end of the day, usually out on the terrace with a cup of espresso. Kelly will often join me; she enjoys a small cigar."

Travolta's mother was an experienced drama coach, and she groomed John's older sisters, Ellen and Margaret, for careers in acting. That often left John crying for attention. "I was insatiable in wanting to be a performer. Daily, I would perform for Mom and Dad. They'd have a bottle of wine, they'd sit there, Dad would have a cigar, Mom would have a cigarette, and I'd entertain them for a couple of hours. And they'd watch and Dad would say, 'Boy, Helen, he's really somethin' now, isn't he?' And Helen would say, 'Gee, look at that.' I was fed all this support and I went right toward it. When Ellen came home from a show, the first thing she had to do was come right to the basement and watch me do something that I had prepared for her. Every day of my life was performing."

Travolta cultivated another passion that inspired dreams of romance and glory: aviation. The family home was near the flight paths in and out of New York's LaGuardia Airport, and at night he would lie in bed and let his imagination take flight. "I used to lay awake at night because I wasn't a good sleeper and I would hear the rumble of propellers overhead and things like that. With the jet age, there came a transition. But when I was anywhere from five to nine, the big, heavy propeller airliners were lumbering overhead. I'd sit there and think, 'Where are those people going? If the little light over the seat was on, were they reading a book? Are they sleeping? Is it the kind of plane you can sleep on? What time will they get there?' So I'd be right up there with them. In school, too. I'd be sitting in class and I'd look out the window and see this plane lumbering up and I'd think, 'Wow, that's west. Is the plane going to Chicago or Kansas or Las Vegas?' Somewhere out there..."

By the time John was a little older, his sister Ellen was making her way as an actress. As he watched her, and occasionally accompanied her on trips to exotic places like Chicago, his passions for acting and aviation became permanently intertwined. "It's funny, because my sister Ellen always thought that my primary love in life was aviation. But she wasn't around, she was already gone. Only my mother and my father and my other brothers and sisters knew how precocious--and sometimes obnoxious--and how absolutely theatrical I was.

"I wanted to be a child professional actor. At five or six, I wanted to be in the national company of Gypsy, but my sister and my mother wouldn't let me even go up for that kind of thing. I went up for the 'Garry Moore Show' when I was a kid, with the hope and the desire to be a part of this as a child. Then when I was 12, I finally got in my first play, Who'll Save the Ploughboy?. That was exciting; it was an Actor's Studio group in town. And then I started to do summer theater, and it built and built."

School, by contrast, was deadly dull; by the age of 16, Travolta wanted out. "I was making a living in acting. And I went to my dad and said, 'Look, this is what I want to do. And I'm certainly not going to get the kind of grades to pursue a professional life of any sort outside acting. So this is my opportunity. I have an agent and, really, this is the time to let me go.' My mother was all for it. My father said, 'Look, I'll give you a year. But if you don't pull this off, you're going back to school. I said, 'OK, give me a year. And I just made dead sure I got my Actor's Equity card that year. I got my SAG [Screen Actors Guild] card, I was in four commercials. I starred in summer stock and I got leads. I had a little part in a soap opera. I just made sure that that year was chock-full and that I made a good salary."

As always, acting and flying went hand-in-hand. "I started flying when I was 16. Though I was working as an actor, I was also working at a grocery store, and my whole paycheck that year went to my air lessons. Then, finally, I worked full-time as an actor, and what I made as an actor I put toward my air lessons. I got my solo at 19, got my license at 23, got my instruments and jet license at 26. So now I've been flying jets for 18 years."

Flying, he found, was a perfect complement to acting. "Where acting can be introverting, depending on the subject matter, I think flying is extroverting. It turns your attention out. You have to concentrate and you have to look at things, you have to observe. Sometimes with acting, even though it's fun, it's more cerebral. You're dealing with memories, thoughts, concepts. Flying is very A to B. Often I find that to be very therapeutic."

Travolta's first big splash as an actor came in 1975 as Vinnie Barbarino, in the popular high school sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter." The next year he starred in Carrie, a Brian De Palma thriller. Then, in 1977, lightning struck: Saturday Night Fever. As Tony Manero, a paint store clerk propelled by dreams of dance-floor glory, Travolta took America by storm. Overnight, disco tunes and dancing swept the nation. Saturday Night Fever became a landmark film, an emblem of both a decade and a generation. At the tender age of 23, John Travolta was flying incredibly high. He was a teen idol, a Hollywood sensation, and in some eyes he was even an icon of American popular culture. On a promotional tour in London, wild crowds almost crushed his limo.

For a few short years, Travolta tasted only glory. Grease, the now-classic high school musical starring Travolta and Olivia Newton-John was a huge hit in 1978. Then he donned cowboy duds and scored another success with Urban Cowboy. In 1981, in De Palma's Blow Out, Travolta earned high praise for his portrayal of an obsessive sound man who accidentally records a political assassination. At the box office, though, the film sputtered, and his career began sliding into the hard times of the 1980s, what Travolta now refers to as his "cool" period.

One of his first real lows came in 1978 with Moment by Moment, with Lily Tomlin. The critics savaged it; the film bombed. But Travolta learned a lesson that has served him well ever since. "The critics came down hard on that movie-- and on me. I started to take it personally and then I thought, 'If this is what's going to happen--where I can do no wrong, and then suddenly one movie can make me wrong, well...'

"I'll give you a parallel. When I was 18 years old, I went to Las Vegas for the first time. The first 10 minutes, I felt it was the most glorious place I had ever known in my life. I was so happy. My $10 turned into $20. Well, in the next 20 minutes, my $20 turned into $30--in debt. And I said, 'Wait a minute. If in 20 minutes' time, this was the best place in the world and then suddenly the worst place in the world, then there's something wrong with this place.' When Moment by Moment happened, when I was the most celebrated star to come into movies since Rudolf Valentino, when I could do six projects in a row and do no wrong, and then for one project to put that kind of cast on everything else, I said, 'There's something wrong with this. And because there's something wrong with this, I'm not going to ever take either side too seriously.'

"So I approach it like a business now. I say, 'OK, how are the reviews for the movie? OK, good. Did we get Siskel and Ebert? Good. Did we get The New Yorker? The New York Times? The L.A. Times? Good. OK, what quotes can we use from the articles? OK, use that one. And that one.' And it comes down to this: did we do a good enough product, in a majority of critics' eyes, to use what they say to promote the movie? I always like the reviews to be good. But if they're not, instead of taking them seriously, I just put them on the side and say, 'They're not usable.'" So here is one of Travolta's laws of how to survive Hollywood and its fickle finger of fate: good or bad, never take reviews to heart.

Faced with a series of disappointments in the 1980s, Travolta went into a period of deep introspection. He became a devout follower of Scientology, and he set out to broaden his horizons. "I traveled the world but I based myself in the United States. I was in Santa Barbara for 10 years, and I was in Florida for six years. Within all that time, I traveled." In 1993, with Sylvester Stallone at the director's helm, Travolta did Stayin' Alive, a sequel to Saturday Night Fever. The film lacked the fire and freshness of the original, but it did well at the box office. But not well enough to catapult Travolta back into Hollywood glory.

During these low years, Paris became a welcome anchor for Travolta, both as an artist and as a man. "All my favorite movies are French," he says now, moving on to a bit of sea bass. "A Man and a Woman and Going Places--in French, Les Valseuses--are my two favorite movies. My two favorite American movies? I don't know, they've changed over the years. But I think A Man and a Woman is the most romantic movie ever made. Just because it captured the real feelings of two people falling in love, and it had music that matched those feelings and images that matched those feelings. It was a marriage of all three. To me, every image of that movie looks like a work of art."

Going Places, released in France in 1973, was a raw, biting comedy that needled bourgeois society and launched the careers of two budding French talents, Gérard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere. Travolta was impressed. So, on his first trip to Paris, in 1978 during a promotion for Saturday Night Fever, he went looking for Depardieu.

"I had seen Going Places in 1974, and I just loved him ever since that movie. So by the time 1978 came around, four years later, I sought him out. I thought, 'I'm in Paris. This is probably where he lives. I've got to find him.' And I found him. He couldn't speak a word of English. And I just basically told him through a translator how crazy I was about him. And we struck up a friendship. He was blown away that someone from that far away would come seek him out. He learned a little English for me, and I learned a little French from him. And we had this very interesting relationship.

"Gérard was very much the kind of man that I responded to. He was affectionate. He was smart. He was artistic. And approachable. Whatever neurosis he may or may not have had was not affecting his relationships. He was spirited and funny and all those great things that I like in a person, but in particular I liked in him as a man. Because it's tough to be a man in the world, I think. I don't think men know how to do it. How do they remain all these things and be effective and all that stuff? I just think that innately Gérard has it, and he isn't afraid of any part of his personality. I really like that."

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.

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.

"I'm preoccupied with the silliness of life--and I admit it," Travolta says, sipping the last of a Diet Coke. "What I mean is, I'm more preoccupied with the spirit of play, no matter what I do. Whether it's acting, whether it's flying a plane, or in my interactions with people.

"Much to my grand surprise, when I first met Brando I felt that he was the same way. All he wants to do is have fun and fool around and be silly. Play games, that's all. He's always been like that--and I just love it. Because it confirmed my instinct. There's no rule that says that depth has to wear that depth all the time. Sometimes you get it not from wallowing, but from a spirit of play."

So this is the secret of how he works. Alone in his trailer, Travolta can keep his focus, nourish his gifts, and create a protected world for himself and his family. For diversion, he has his houses and his jets. And he and Preston will always have Paris. But the real flame, the one that makes him glow the brightest, he can only find here, in the act of creation.

"I've always wanted to be able to express myself in completely different characters, in the upper echelon of quality," Travolta says. "I didn't want to sacrifice quality in order to express a side of me or an ability that I have. To be able to do these kinds of characters in big pictures--I don't know if anyone's ever been able to do that. I don't know if any American actor has been allowed to freely explore the gamut as I have."

In 1992, on a trip to Maine with Preston and their infant son, Travolta had an inspiration. He wanted to write a story about a bright, sensitive young boy who loved airplanes and all the romance and dreams they symbolized. Through that little boy, Travolta wanted to express his own feelings about life and to share those feelings with the people he loved. The result was Propeller One-Way Night Coach, a delightful fable that was published in 1997 by Warner Books. The story, with drawings by Travolta, runs only 42 pages, but Travolta says it contains the essence of his philosophy of life:

Always focus on the positive. Never give in to negativity and darkness. Count your blessings, not your laments. Stay as warm and open and receptive as a child. Dare to go your own way, dare to be free. And in good times or bad, never be afraid to lead with your heart.

"In the little book, the kid really does that," says Travolta. "He looks sorrow right in the eye. He sees the front-page story of an airline crash and thinks, 'That must be awful. But I can't think about that now.' He doesn't ignore that, he acknowledges it, realizes it's awful, but in order to survive, he moves on to something that's going to get him through. I think I've done that my whole life. I've tried to make my life an ascent, as opposed to a descent. The character in the book is real, but he always looks on the bright side of life. He looks at the glass as half full.

"If we can't think of life as something potentially joyful, life isn't worth living. That's why when actors speak of wallowing in the darkness, I think there is enough darkness, there's enough tragedy. If you look around you, there's a war in Bosnia. There are people being murdered. There are enough crashes. There's man's inhumanity to man. There's abuses. It's all there, very evident. It's much more difficult to look at the brighter side of it. I would almost like to see people challenge young artists to look on the brighter side, rather than indulge in the evident. Because right there you've got all the darkness and sadness you'd ever want. At a moment's glance. So the real challenge in life is to look for ways to handle the upset--and to always look forward towards something to live for." *

Paul Chutkow is the author of Depardieu, a biography of the French actor Gérard Depardieu, and coauthor of Harvest of Joy, the autobiography of Robert Mondavi.

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