John Travolta has had as many misses as he has hits, but the superstar remains philosophical about the various phases in his extraordinary career. He’s back being bad in the techno thriller Swordfish, and Paul Fischer spoke to the actor about Hollywood, success and the joys of being bad on screen.
The opening sequence of the new action flick Swordfish features star John Travolta talking to camera about the highs and lows of Hollywood and its need to conjure up happy endings. It’s a brilliant introduction to Travolta’s Gabriel Shear, one which cynically explores that character’s sardonic view of American cinema, and can easily reflect Travolta’s own career. It can be argued that it takes balls to bear yourself the way the actor does in those short opening minutes. The actor laughs at the suggestion. “That’s me, John ‘Balls’ Travolta”. However, that opening monologue also rings true when considering the critical jibes that Travolta has had to endure throughout his career. Without mentioning the likes of Battlefield Earth and Lucky Numbers of late, the actor remains philosophical and admittedly thick-skinned regarding his critics. “I don’t think I’ve EVER been in a movie that has had a 100% reaction. You name it and I can quote you some counterpoints to it. Whether you get Oscar nominations or not, there are still those who disagree. Most films are a mixed bag so you have to accept that, and the severe attacks you just have to take with a grain of salt, because otherwise you just wouldn’t survive; you have to put it in SOME perspective”.
But despite the bric-a-bracs, Travolta is a true Hollywood survivor. Asked what are some of the toughest lessons he has had to learn in Hollywood, Travolta pauses slightly. “I think I learned it 20 years ago when I did Saturday Night Fever and Grease, and was touted the biggest star in the world; then I did a movie called Moment by Moment, and you’d have thought I’d have sunk the Titanic. I was SO mistreated as a result of that film that I can never again take any of it seriously. So I guess 23 years ago I learned that you’ve gotta be tough and expect the worst, but nothing COULD be worse than that”. Travolta adds that he would have preferred to have been more prepared for failure on that level, “so since then, I was able to build the right protection mechanism around me”
It’s hard to imagine, as one sits next to this larger-than-life mainstay of Hollywood cinema, that Travolta is 47. Impeccably attired in black, Travolta retains a youthful energy and genuine charm. At this time of his life, he continues to thrive on growing old graciously. “The biggest gift was turning forty”, the actor says slowly. “The best roles come after that”. It was of course Pulp Fiction that brought us a regenerated Travolta, and it remains a turning point in the actor’s career. “Since that film, the roles that I’ve been offered have been interesting, much like the work of actors like Dustin Hoffman and Paul Newman, who enjoyed great roles in the second chapters of their careers”. Of course, Travolta has had a FEW chapters in his 20-year plus career, he concedes laughingly, “but as Janis Joplin once said: It’s all the same day really”.
Yet, as this ‘same day’ continues, Travolta manages to slip effortlessly into the worlds of hero and villain, and does so with consistent relish. “I’ve never been concerned with my screen image. I put more stock into my performance than into the preserving the illusion that I am my characters,” says Travolta. “I never wanted to be a commodity. I only ever wanted to be an actor, and as an actor you can only be as good as the part you’re given to play”.
In his latest film, the high-tech thriller Swordfish, Travolta plays Gabriel Shear, a renegade CIA agent who plots to steal billions in illegal US government funds. Sheer doesn’t see himself as a villain but as a patriot, and it was this grey element that appealed to Travolta this time round. “I think this character thinks he’s a good guy who has to do bad things. I think he believes in the greater good of the country but he lives in his own kind of universe”.
The role is another turning point for the actor who first achieved success in the 1975 TV sitcom, Welcome Back Kotter, before the likes of Grease and Saturday Night Fever took the world by storm. The New Jersey-born Travolta says that he was “probably inspired to act from my mum and sisters, and somewhere in there was a Jimmy Cagney and other people that I liked watching growing up”. He was a mere seven years old, he recalls, when he decided to become an actor, and insists that he is even more passionate about the profession now than he ever was, “because I have so much more confidence in my own abilities”.
Over 20 years since Travolta burst onto our screens, much has changed, the film industry included, he insists. “One of the striking things is that films are no longer tax write-offs, so you can’t make the kinds of movies you could have done earlier. But at the same time, it’s a bigger industry”. Travolta is attracted to roles and films, the same as he once was, as long as the writing remains strong. “I’ve always felt that the writer is the key to all of us actors. They’re secretly writing something, be it an article that turns into a script for a movie, or a book, they hold the key to all these creative parts that I would NEVER find. So what attracts me to a project is usually yet to be seen; some writer’s out there somewhere, creating something I could never even think of that I’m going to get to play three years ago. That’s how I like to view it”.
John Travolta may have once lost the battlefield, but continues to win the war in his own inimitable and charming way.