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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 5)

"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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