Swordfish : Interview With John Travolta

Back in the States, there is an airplane hangar that is well stuffed with jets owned by John Travolta. He flies them himself, thoroughly enjoys it.

The reason why we're meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel down at London's Canary Wharf is purely aviation centred - the hotel happens to be near the City Airport, which allows the star to fly in and out. He can't land his plane at either Heathrow or Gatwick, and Stanstead, London's other airport, is just too far away. So, Docklands it is.

On a blazingly hot day (the hottest of the year so far, when the temperatures outside are nudging 90F) John Travolta enters the room. Well, John Travolta and entourage - one of whom looks like a black Hulk Hogan. He's dressed in a black blazer, dark navy shirt (white buttons) and black slacks. Black shoes reflect the light from the chandeliers. His hair is a few inches above shoulder-length.

Like his clothes, it is blue-black, and has a healthy sheen to it. But Travolta himself looks as if he's aged considerably in the past few years. The face is just a little but puffy. He's relaxed, but a bit pensive. When I put my questions, he leans forward a tad, and frequently presses the tips of his fingers together, as if in prayer or spiritual contemplation. But this is a man who also clearly has a wit and a sense of humour. It is an older, more thoughtful John T. Not that he was ever a wise-cracker. On a previous meeting, maybe a decade back, he kept on calling me 'Sir'. Tres polite.

He was born in 1954, the youngest of six children ("yeah, I was spoilt, that's for sure! It was very pampered, and they would let me do almost anything") to an auto tyre salesman and former semi-professional football player Salvatore Travolta and high school drama teacher Helen.

Dad came from Italy, Mom had Irish heritage - a heady mix for their children. He was a late-in-life baby, and that, according to his devout Roman Catholic parents, made him something of a "miracle". Encouraged to show their artistic and creative individuality, the Travolta siblings were encouraged to put on shows in the basement of their New Jersey home - Salvatore even constructed a stage and theatre facilities for them all.

Hardly surprising that John, at the age of 12, joined theatre workshops in his home town of Englewood, discovered that he loved musicals, and even took tap dancing lessons from Fred Kelly, the movie star Gene's brother. He maintains that his interest in dancing was fuelled by the fact that the school which he attended was fifty per cent black.

With his parents permission, he dropped out of school at 16, and started to work his way up the ladder. There was some off-Broadway activity, a tour (of Grease) and then a debut on the Great White Way in 1973, in the musical Over Here!, which starred the legendary veterans The Andrews Sisters.

A bit part in the schlock horror film The Devil's Rain did little for him, but Welcome Back, Kotter, on TV, certainly did. As Vinnie Barbarino (for four years) he soon became every teenage girl's dream crush. He made some records - they sold well on the back of the four-years run of the TV show. And then, BOIIIIIING! Travolta hit a series of good parts - in Carrie, in the TV weepie Boy In A Plastic Bubble, and then. .. .. .. .. .. Saturday Night Fever (1977).

Before you could say "Staying Alive", the world was a sea of white polyester suits. Since then, it has been a roller-coaster career which has seen its fair share of hits and flops. But Travolta (married for ten years now and in a happy relationship with actress Kelly Preston, and they have two children, Jett, 9, and Ella Bleu, just one) has always kept sanguine and smiling - and solvent.

He has a lavish lifestyle - a twenty bedroomed Maine waterfront mansion, another chateaux in Florida, apartments in Carmel, Santa Barbara and Hollywood, and a string of luxury cars. And all those jets. Well, three at the last count. Where does the money come from? Well, he cannily has a large percentage of the best-selling Saturday Night Fever and grease soundtracks, and a lot of his movies have made a great deal of money - more than balancing those that definitely didn't.

When you run through some of the dire movies that he's made (Battlefield Earth (2000), General's daughter, the (1999) Moment by Moment (1978), Experts, the (1989)) he counters with others like (Civil Action, A (1998) Thin Red Line, the (1998) Get Shorty (1995) and, of course, Pulp Fiction (1994).

He leans forward and observes with a wicked grin: "the more they all talk about my 'comebacks', and me losing and then putting on weight, the more I like it - I've been around for FAR too long to let any of that worry me! I have always thought that as long as I did the right things and had the right attentions, everything would eventually fall into place".

He says: "You know, I was never aware of being. .. .. down. I was never cognisant of the fact that I cooled off a bit. The only time I thought about it was when I was hired by Quentin Tarantino for Pulp Fiction (1994), and I realised that I was down to my last half dozen planes. .. .. .only kidding".

Some of his career choices have been interesting, to say the least. He turned down Days of Heaven (1979). And Officer and a Gentleman, an (1982). And American Gigalo (1980). So Richard Gere regularly sends him thanks and paycheques? He doesn't even respond to that light-hearted enquiry. But he then admits that, out of maybe three dozen films in the last quarter of a century, he has made just four that give him "personal satisfaction".

And they are? Without hesitation he counts them off on the fingers of his right hand, "Grease (1978), Phenomenon (1996), and Look Who's Talking (1989), and of course Saturday Night Fever (1977)".

Interesting that neither Pulp Fiction (1994) nor his latest blockbuster Swordfish (2001), in which he shares the lead with the much younger Aussie flavour of the moment, Hugh Jackman, are on the list.

Him and Kelly, then, I wonder, ten years marriage is a long time in your business. He nods his head at that. "I think that the secret - if there IS a secret, mind you, is that we communicate together, and we use that to solve out problems. And there is, naturally, also the motivation of not wanting to be single - that solves a whole lot of problems!". Both he and Kelly have their "religion" to fall back on - they are both still avid followers of the cult of Scientology.

He still has mammoth clout in the industry. Enough to be able to green light a film. When Dominic Sena sent him the script for Swordfish (2001), he says: "I loved the first ten pages, I was totally hooked - but then I thought 'where do we go from here?'. So I met with Dominic (and producer Joel Silver) to discuss his vision, and I found him descriptive and articulate. I got excited - but there had to be rewrites".

Rewrites, in fact, to make his character, Gabriel Shear, more enigmatic "less black and white, more grey - a man who believes that bad things have to be done for the greater good of all. Very ambiguous, in fact. You have to sacrifice a few to the many Which made it into a sexy action picture with interesting pivotal people - all the edges are blurred. Who's the goodie, who is the baddie?".

He says: "It's an interesting film and an innovative one, which is based in reality (all the computer-based gizmos and shortcuts and hacking ARE entirely possible) but then it rises above it".

Shear masterminds a huge computer and Internet scam to divert billions of dollars of Federal funds - so how is Travolta with today's technology? The man who sits in his own cockpits holds up his hands in mock horror. "I am not computer literate at all" he admits. "E-mail has passed me by. But then, I have no reason to use it - yet. When I find out what's on the Internet, and when I'm convinced of its usefulness, well, then. .. .. .. .. .maybe someone will persuade me?".

They do not, these days "make enough musical movies" he reflects. "Studios don't want to take a chance - even though, if they thought about it, in today's terms, Grease (1978) took over a billion and a half dollars. They'd rather back the movie version of the phone book than they would a musical. I'd say to them 'Hey, develop something - here are Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and John Travolta ready to sing and dance for you', and I wonder what they'd do then?".

His character, at the very beginning of the film, has a speech which starts: "The trouble with Hollywood is. .. .. .. ". So, come on, John, what IS the trouble with Hollywood? "The catering", he says without blinking an eye. Then he grins: "Well, it may be a problem on other people's sets, but not in my movies".

What he neglects to add after that remark is that he has his own personal chef and catering staff who pander to his every culinary desire or whim. But seriously, the trouble is? "The fact that so many promises are made, but people very rarely deliver on what they say they're going to deliver. Promises are easily and too often broken. And, to be even more serious, there are not enough black leading men, and especially not enough black leading ladies".

It's significant that the female lead and love interest in Swordfish is Halle Berry, one of the few black box office women attractions. When Halle and Hugh had to perform a steamy love scene together - she was clad only in skimpy lingerie, Travolta had to enter through a door and say the short line "This is friendly. .. .. .. .. .. ".

What actually happened that he entered and ad-libbed: "Oh MY GOD, just look at that body! Can we applaud that, please?". Which had the double beneficial effect of breaking the ice for everyone on the set, and also reducing his co-stars to fits of giggles.

"Hey, I just made a beeline to the set to make sure that she was OK", he says, his eyes twinkling.

So do Hollywood superstars get everything that they really desire, then? What about that wonderful car he gets to drive in a stunning car chase sequence? It's A TVR Tuscan - custom-built to order in Blackpool, of all places, and one of the few success stories of British car engineering in recent years. It costs about 50,000, and the waiting list is a long one. Did he get to keep the vehicle? "Nah" says John, smiling again. "Nah, I wasn't even made the offer - but I'd be more than happy to endorse the product if they want someone to say how wonderful it is. .. .. .and it truly, truly is".

He probably didn't realise it, but the TVR cannot be legally driven on the streets of the USA - it hasn't been crash-tested over there, and neither does it have regulation airbags. Travolta could drive it in the film, because technically the set was closed, and therefore the roads became "private".

The manufacturers, when I call them later, "say that they're working on both problems, and they thank Mr. Travolta for his kind words and the offer of his endorsement." No offer of a free model, though. Ah, the power of movies - since the trailers went out, and the movie was released in the USA, they have been "inundated" with enquiries from the States. So where would he put the new car, if he acquired it? John Travolta leans forward again, and laughs: "in the hanger, I guess - with the jets and the rest of the fleet. .. .. .. .. .. ". And he's probably not kidding, either

Author : FeatsPress