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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.

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