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Interview : John Travolta

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Travolta is back. Yes, the disco dancing, Sandy wanting, Pistol carrying actor of many a hit, returns to cinemas this week with "Basic", action-packed new feature that re-unites him with "Pulp Fiction" co-star Samuel L.Jackson. PAUL FISCHER catches up with screen’s nicest guy to get the lowdown.

John Travolta knows how to effortlessly warm up a room. As he enters the New York hotel room in which he is about to hold court with a gathering media, one can sense he is in a good mood. “I have no reason to be in a good mood, do I?” he says jokingly, despite being up late the night before. “Connie [Nielsen] invited us all out to dinner, first a few drinks in her loft and then we saw the group from the movie, the producers and friends of hers, and then we had this very beautiful dinner at an Austrian restaurant in the Village before we went to her friend’s nightclub for 30 minutes. Then I came home, but that’s a lot for an old geezer like me,” Travolta says laughingly. Yet the 49-year old appears ageless, and even in his latest film, Basic, the veteran Hollywood star bares his taut chest. “I worked hard at it, don’t worry”, he says. “It was a lot of work to get this body to look like that.” In Basic, Travolta plays Tom Hardy, a DEA agent investigating the disappearance of a legendary Army ranger drill sergeant {Samuel L. Jackson} and several of his cadets during a training exercise gone severely awry. That of course is the simple précis of a film which is far more complicated and has more twists that appear on the surface. With all the scripts thrown in his direction these days, one wonders: why this one? “Well, besides thinking that it had a lot of originality to it, I did think that I could do a good job of portraying that character. I have to think that and actually believe that I can give it something different than someone else could.”

The actor says that Tom Hardy is different to anyone else he has played, despite the character’s inherent coolness, which the actor has often personified in the past. “I think this is a new character. I’ve never played someone that’s kind of smart, cool, yet not psychotic,” he says with a wry smile. “All my really cool characters that are smart always seem to be some calculating psycho of some sort. This guy is cool and smart and funny without any of the nuttiness, almost craftier than someone like Chili Palmer in Get Shorty, because he is manipulating on a multi-level concept at all times so I felt like wow, I get to be kind of a puppeteer and all these other good things, and if I get the body in good enough shape, I could use that as a tool to distract Connie Nielsen’s character. “

Travolta knows he has to be careful when discussing Basic, with all its endless surprises, twists and turns. “It’s only as hard to talk about it as one thinks it’s wise to reveal any details. I think the audiences get so excited at the surprises that it’s kind of fun to lead it that way, because how often do you get a movie where actually people are surprised? Most people can figure it out in the first five minutes, while this one really takes a lot of work to figure it out. I remember I did the movie and I was really happy watching it and thinking, oh how cool.”

As successful as Travolta has become, in a career spanning close to four decades, the happily married actor and father, continues to be driven by his work. He loves it. “I think working makes me feel better. I like feeling productive and creative and I’ve even taken on other avenues.” Such as his ongoing relationship with QANTAS “because I think it is important to do that. I also think it is even more important to be busy as you get older in order to distract the idea that you ARE so old. I’ve always imagined luxuriating when I was young and getting busy when I was old just to keep those negative thoughts out of there so I enjoy the process of all of this.”

He doesn’t necessarily enjoy revisiting his older films, except by accident. Though enamoured of the DVD revolution, the actor concedes that he hasn’t had the luxury of re-visiting his movies, “but I do get a kick if by accident when I see a film on television, and I’ll forget how good something is. One day I stumbled upon Primary Colors and said, oh God that was a good one or Get Shorty, and I’ll go, oh that scene was pretty good or Michael, stumbling down the stairs with the gut and think, wow that was so cool I got to do that.”

Of all the classic films Travolta has starred in, the most talked about still remains Grease, almost 30 years after the screen musical became a smash hit. “You can’t kill that movie; it’s a freak of nature. I’m amazed at how it has held up for 25 years. I saw Yankee Doodle Dandy when it was only 20 years old and I knew it was an old movie, for example, but nobody knows that Grease is an old movie,” he says laughingly.

Recently Travolta attended the lavish launch party for the film’s DVD release in Los Angeles and reluctantly returned to the stage performing with old friend and flame, Olivia Newton-John. Travolta recalls that he hadn’t performed live in 25 years, “so it’s kind of like gees, I got suddenly thrown into a voice I had 25 years ago, which was higher, but I did it, and I sang with her because Olivia really wanted me to, even though I didn’t feel like I needed to because the DVD was coming out whether I sang or not. But it’s hard to say no to Olivia, which is probably the reason we’re not together today,” Travolta adds smilingly. As to those widespread internet rumours that both have signed to do a Grease 3, Travolta doesn’t seem so keen on the idea and admits that he has definitely not signed on. “I haven’t seen anything on it. I just know that they’re working on something but I’m hoping there are some other musicals that will take this rare window of opportunity that we have with musicals,” he says referring to recent box office champs Moulin Rouge and Chicago. “There’s this window of opportunity, and if I could find one soon before that shuts down, then I could probably do it.” Musicals he would love to revisit include such diverse classics as Guys and Dolls or even An American in Paris, which he says remains one of favourite musicals, “but I think it’s too much of a classic to try to remake.” As to his all-time favourite musical, Yankee Doodle Dandy starring James Cagney is way on top of his list. “I knew Cagney from the time he was 80 to the time he was 85, and I spent a lot of time with him. As a matter of fact, last year in the New York Times I did an exposé with a writer on Yankee Doodle Dandy. I watched the movie with the writer and we had five pages in the New York Times of what the effect that movie had on us. I sat and I cried with this journalist, and then he would start to cry a little bit because it was contagious. That’s a movie that’s held up for me, emotionally, where he talked about the death of his dad, and this Irish thing that always gets to me, because I’m half Irish and it just twists my emotional button. It’s pretty amazing.”

Travolta remains a true Hollywood survivor, having outgrown an adolescent career that helped define an era, through to his Second Coming dancing once again to glory in Pulp Fiction. The actor admits that he has been lucky that amidst his failures, he does have a movie legacy about which he is proud. “I’ve been fortunate that so many of my films have stood the test of time.” It hasn’t been an easy road for Travolta, of course. There have been the classics that made him a star and the failures that nobody cared about. His worst moments came before Pulp Fiction, when he was so cold that Quentin Tarantino had to fight to cast him, putting his entire reputation on the line in the process. Travolta was paid some $140,000 for that film, in contrast to his usual millions. Yet looking back, Travolta is both philosophical and insightful. "You’re always available," he says of actors, even cold ones. "I always viewed it as if I was a generator that was not hooked up to the electricity. You’ve always got the ability to perform but, if the studio decides to pull the plug on that, then you’re just a workable generator at a distance."

These days, the generator that is John Travolta is back on, hopefully for years to come.

BASIC OPENS NATIONWIDE ON FRIDAY.

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About Caffeinated Clint

The writer/publicist/producer who wears the editor hat on Moviehole. Favorite films include "Say Anything...", "The Hunt for Red October", "Jerry Maguire", "Almost Famous", "Die Hard", "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo", "Young Guns", "American Psycho", "Back to the Future" and the "Star Wars" series.
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