John Travolta continues to enjoy a strong resurgence these days, and he’s having a ball doing it. Whether he’s the villain of latest comic book film The Punisher, or reprising his wonderful role of Chili Palmer in Be Cool, Travolta loves being an actor, and loves talking to the press. Paul Fischer reports.
Question: Was it important that this villain be more serious than some of your more comic villains like in “Broken Arrow”?
Answer: I think the key here is the more serious he was, the funnier he became. I wasn’t sure I was going to play this until the last minute because I had to see what Thomas Jane was doing and the rest of the cast. When I found out they were playing it dead serious, and that was pretty funny, I thought, ‘Okay. I’m gonna play it subtle and serious and it will be funny’. It’s funny because most comic strip movies think they have to do the other and the more we played it like we were in a Scorsese movie, the funnier it became.
Question: You do believe that your character is out to avenge his son and you can identify with him at first.
Answer: You can?
Question: His wife was the bad guy.
Answer: Yes. This is a very interesting point. I think that the brilliance of the movie is that the two have the same button pushed in the opening and you go ‘oh my God, I understand this but where’s the dilemma? Who is going to be the real enemy here?’ I do agree that the wife takes it- – He’s just happy with tit for tat, get the guy who killed my son, end. She’s the one who just can’t stand the idea that it’s not going to be everything to make her feel better. Of course, when you get to know her character more, you realize everything is very lustful in her life so it carries through.
Question: The casting of you and Laura was great.
Answer: I did too. I liked that. That’s Jonathan’s fully, his idea. He just wanted a very sexy relationship. He wanted my character to be obsessed with her. My character is obsessed with her differently than the Punisher is obsessed with his family. His is kind of a healthy obsession with his family and mine’s kind of a possession obsession, you know. But they do push the same buttons in each family but from different levels. One is the high road and one the low road.
Question: Your character doesn’t come from the comic books?
Answer: No. This is a new character and I had to ask a lot of questions about him because there wasn’t anything to base him on. I had to come up with an original. I thought, ‘well, if I play it over the top, how do I do it?’ And I kind of had this idea of kind of a Spidery villain that was really funny and almost grotesque in a way. Then it was whittled away. The way I was playing it was not where we were going with it. I’m just showing up for a very serious performance here.
Question: So, how are you dealing with being 50?
Answer: Slowly I turn, step by step.
Question: You had a big party.
Answer: Well, us baby boomers, unfortunately have this eternal- – really, I’ve known from the time I was a kid. We’re the largest group of people on the planet and we will not let it go! It’s like ‘older? Middle-aged? No!’ It’s really amazing.
Question: What was the party like?
Answer: It was amazing. Where do I start? It was a true surprise. I did ask my wife a year ago, I wanted a big party but then I decided quickly that the logistics would be way too much so I decided that I would not want the big party. So she fooled me for a year with lies and deception. My God, the dunce cap got bigger and bigger. ‘I wonder why all these corporate planes are here? It’s more than I’ve ever seen. It must be that golf tournament’. There were three hundred people waiting in the lobby and I’m thinking it’s employees and I said ‘see, look There are no free rides. Those two free rooms and the jet ride down here, we didn’t need it and now we’re gonna sign autographs and take pictures with all these employees the whole weekend’. And then I see Barbra Streisand and Oprah walk toward me. ‘What are they doing here?’ I think somewhere I perceived that something big was going to go on but she kept fooling me with saying ‘oh, you’re going to be so disappointed it you think anything big is happening because I got a couple of people for you. I tried’.
Question: How much different do you feel than the guy from “Saturday Night Fever” has changed ?
Answer: I love you (to Todd). Well, my hair’s not as big. He looks like my son in the movie. You wanna know a piece of trivia? That boy that plays my son in the movie.. he plays both parts, by the way, he was in the Broadway production of “Saturday Night Fever” so they hired him. He’s a great dancer and singer. That’s why he was immediately thought of.
Question: You are doing “Be Cool” right now. What is generally your take on sequels?
Answer: I don’t particularly care for sequels however, Elmore Leonard wrote the book “Be Cool” and then when you start to make a whole new unit and that much time and effort to make something that good, I think it takes on a whole other life. It’s a wonderful script and a great cast. And, you don’t get these people to do sequels. You don’t get Uma and Harvey Keitel and Vince Vaughn to do these kinds of things so you know that it has to be high end script. And it’s based on Elmore’s very good sequel book. The opening line of the movie is ‘Sequels’. Chili Palmer is fed up with them. The sequel that he did in the movie “Get Shorty” didn’t work so he’d fed up with sequels. So it’s very hip.
Question: What’s happened to Renee and Gene’s characters?
Answer: They aren’t referred to because he’s moving out of the movie industry and he’s looking for a new horizon. He stumbles upon the music industry which is far funnier than the movie industry.
Question: What did you learn from “Staying Alive” and the “Look Who’s Talking” sequels?
Answer: It’s not that you learn anything. Usually it’s just a studio’s efforts to cash in on the success of the first thing and again, the difference is that Elmore Leonard really put his- – he loves- – It’s his favorite, “Get Shorty” so he wanted to make that continue so he thought the best way to do it is to write another book about Chili Palmer. And that I preferred, that someone else made the first step as opposed to a studio. And eight years or nine have gone by so a lot has evolved and mostly, Elmore Leonard doing his homework. That’s the only way it’s fun to do one of these things. Otherwise, I don’t particularly care about it.
Question: What do you think about all the studios making comic book movies?
Answer: Well, certainly Marvel comics has an audience out there. They really want to see these stories come to life. I think that you need a basis for stories and a library of material to entertain and the kids want it so I think it’s a good idea.
Question: Had your son Jett read The Punisher?
Answer: Jett’s friends are older and they all had read The Punisher. So that’s how I knew about it.
Question: How about you as a kid?
Answer: I wasn’t a comic book person. I was lip syncing to records and things.
Question: Stunts? Was that you getting drug past the cars?
Answer: Part of it was. I was on a roller type thing.
Question: It was nice to see Clearwater in there.
Answer: I think they did a nice job of photographing it.
Question: One of the few times you could come home to work.
Answer: Which was so nice. I wish I could always have it that way. This was a lucky break. “Basic” was shot in Jacksonville and I got to do the same thing there. It was just a lucky coincidence but I did love that. Flying in to work.
Question: Where you a fan of ’70’s action films? Tom Jane said he saw a correlation between this and action films of the ’70’s.
Answer: He sure did. He really took it further. I think he did, in this film, what Clint Eastwood and Bronson and McQueen really wanted to do. He just played it to the best of his acting ability and it’s the culmination of all those films that he ended up with that performance I think. I was more of an art film guy. Even all the films I do don’t represent- – “She’s So Lovely” probably represents the closest thing to the kind of films I liked growing up. Other than your “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and or something like that which I just thought you can’t deny. I liked “La Strada” and “A Man and a Woman” and “Going Places”. That was our era too. The early ’60’s and late ’50’s were filled with European directors. I came from a Beatnik house so that’s what you appreciate and you’re playing jazz. My sensibilities about what I like are- – I liked “Boys Don’t Cry”. You can’t ask me about mainstream films. I’m more of another kind of, you know.
Question: What is the fascination for you for these tough crime lord guys, the “Swordfish” guy and this one? Are they just really fun to play?
Answer: Oh definitely. The lateral movement you have on this is tremendous. It frees you up completely. Not at first, because it has to kind of controlled. But by the time he starts getting paranoid, then the fun begins. Because, since Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, honestly, nobody has been able to walk down staircases like I get to in this movie. Let’s face it. In the first one, I come down to kill my best friend; it’s down a staircase talking about some historic character and the second one is throwing all her luggage…boom! And then that big staircase and I’m saying all these mean things. It’s a blast.
Question: At what point does playing such grandiose characters become tiring and you want to retreat to doing films like “She’s So Lovely”?
Answer: But I do. This summer I have a film called “Love Song for Bobby Long” which is exactly my kind of film. Probably only five people will see it but it’s a wonderful art film with Scarlett Johansson. It’s a great little film.
Question: Is there are point at which you can’t play a scene chewing character?
Answer: No. I did “Ladder 49” where I play a captain of a fire department and he’s dead, blue collar real and fun to play. I change up as much as I can. This year, all these four films are as different as they can be. Punisher’s very different than Bobby Long. Bobby Long’s very different from Ladder 49 and the sequel to Get Shorty is different as well.
Question: Problems with Ladder 49 with fires?
Answer: Oh no. It’s a brilliant movie. It’s a really breathtaking film. It’s the best firefighter film that’s ever been made and I’m not even exaggerating. It’s a beautiful movie. It’s more along the lines of Apollo 13, that level of quality in the approach. It’s by far the best homage to the firefighters. It’s set in Baltimore and Joaquin Phoenix plays the young guy in it and I’m really his mentor in it. The main story is about him.
Question: Can you compare it to Backdraft at all?
Answer: It’s so much more based in reality. You feel it in this. It’s a beautiful story too. More importantly it doesn’t play on anything but a genuine reality of what these guys are about. I love it. It’s just beautiful.
Question: Would you want to be a musical? You were concerned about Chicago?
Answer: Nobody ever bothered to- – The reason this film was easy to say yes to was that Jonathan really explained what this movie was going to be about. He really took his time and told me the vision of it and why it would work. He understood it. No one ever sat with me with Chicago. I was offered it three times but no one sat and said ‘Okay, look. It’s going to be fantasy and it’s going to be very appealing girls’. In the play it was these cold hookers that hated men. You put Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta, these are glorious women. Them hating men, you don’t mind so much just like you don’t mind my being the bad guy in this movie as much as you would if you had someone playing it venomously. So, those are things you have to hear in order to be invited into doing a screenplay. If I based it on just the stage show, I don’t get it.
Question: Do you still want to do a film musical?
Answer: I’ve always wanted to do a musical.
Question: You’ve been in one of the most successful. When Grease was re-issued, is it true you tried to put on one of his old outfits and didn’t quite succeed.
Answer: I don’t know if I did or not. I don’t think I’d ever even tried. I was so skinny.
Question: Thoughts on conflicting release dates of this and Kill Bill?
Answer: Yeah. I would rather it had been separated.
Question: Can you call Quentin about it?
Answer: We were there first in all fairness to us. However, we didn’t know Kill Bill 2 would be ready and they didn’t know. Then, because we are kind of the same audience in some ways. I feel bad that there is that built-in competition. Probably what will happen is we’ll both do fine and we’ll share the audience or something.
Question: Do you still have hopes to do the second half of Battlefield Earth?
Answer: I don’t know. It did well but it would really depend on they wanted to do it. They have the rights to it. It would be up to them really to do it. Warner Bros. Doesn’t have the rights, it’s Elie Samaha. It would be up to him.
Question: What’s the worst punishment you’ve ever received?
Answer: Soap in the mouth for saying ‘shut up’! Didn’t work with me.
Question: Did Quentin tell you his new idea for Vega Brothers?
Answer: No. I heard it though a journalist that said Michael Madsen had mentioned something about it. But that’s up to Quentin. I don’t question him. I wouldn’t even ask him. He’ll tell me. He did it the first time. Someone said I had to vie to be in one of his films and I said ‘I didn’t the first time. Why would I have to that this time? He’ll let me know’.
Question: Do you an Uma have any side bets as to who is going to win the weekend?
Answer: I don’t even want to go there. Uma and I are so noncompetitive. It’s like ‘oh why did they do it to us?’ I love her. She loves me. Shucks, you know.