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.
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"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.