John Travolta is back on screen in his first film since losing his son, and more than three decades since he revived disco in Saturday Night Fever. SUSAN GRIFFIN has a rare meeting with the comeback kid
NEXT year will mark a remarkable 35 years since John Travolta dominated the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with the songs from Grease.
Today, the face may be fuller, the hair suspiciously dark but he still exudes the cheeky charm he did all those years ago as T-Bird leader Danny Zuko.
Despite the ongoing tabloid intrusion into his private life, Travolta, who’s now 58, seems remarkably relaxed as he talks about his new movie Savages.
It’s his first project following the death of his 16-year-old son Jett three years ago. Travolta also has a daughter Ella, 11, and a son Benjamin, who’s two in November, with his actress wife Kelly Preston.
On the verge of retirement, it took the support of his church (he’s famously a Scientologist), family and fans to decide it was “OK to come back to work”.
Plus there was the added incentive of being asked by legendary three-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone, the director behind Midnight Express, Platoon and Born On The Fourth Of July.
“Great directors like Oliver don’t do a movie every year so you only get so many shots,” says Travolta.
Based on Dan Winslow’s audacious 2010 novel, Savages is a ferocious thriller set in the brutal world of drug trafficking.
On the one side there’s Chon, Ben and their lover O, played by Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Blake Lively respectively, who head-up an independent yet lucrative marijuana business.
On the other is the Mexican Baja Cartel, headed by the merciless Elena (Salma Hayek) and her sadistic enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro) who demands a partnership with Ben and Chon.
Travolta’s character Dennis, a dirty DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) agent, exists somewhere in the middle
“John was my first choice for Dennis,” admits Stone.
“He projects a good-natured ambivalence and Dennis is an elusive lizard who turns into a pretty big weasel and a dangerous one.
“You never see it coming, ‘cos it’s John and he’s charming and smiling.”
It was as much the story, as the role, that attracted Travolta.
“It’s quintessential Oliver Stone. It has political messages, it has moral messages,” he says.
With two young daughters and a terminally ill wife, Dennis’ complications inform the morally questionable choices he makes.
Travolta says he didn’t have to like the character, only understand his motivation.
“He’s fighting for his life at every turn, whether with the young people or the Cartel or the government office or at home. To a bigger or lesser degree he’s dancing on the edge of a cliff.
“Once I understood the magnitude of the chameleon likeability he had to have, it was easy.”
He thanks Stone for introducing him to a recently retired DEA agent called Eddie Follis.
“I grilled him,” admits Travolta.
“Eddie is a version of Dennis and I wanted to know what it was like to get to know someone that you’re going to have to betray.
“He said it was tough, because he grew attached to the people he was getting to know, with the knowledge they would never realise that he did them in, the covertness is so severe and acute. That was fascinating.”
By the time the cameras rolled, Travolta felt like he could deliver the performance the formidable Stone expected.
“That’s what great directors do, they hire you because they expect something from you,” says Travolta.
“The great thing is, Oliver knows you’ll deliver and expects you to deliver and if you don’t, he’ll challenge you on it but that’s OK because you want to do your best.”
The youngest of six siblings growing up in New Jersey, Travolta describes himself a “tenacious and bratty child”.
His “very theatrical” mother was a drama teacher and director.
“The kind of mother who’d put us to bed with scripts and plays rather than fairy tales,” he recalls, laughing.
He took tap and jazz dancing lessons from Gene Kelly’s brother and was given his first proper acting job at age 12.
The moment he left school, he successfully auditioned for commercials, summer plays and off-Broadway shows before being cast in the stage show of Grease, and then became a star as the swaggering Vinnie Barbarino in the 1975 TV series Welcome Back, Kotter.
“I played him dim-witted because I thought that would be funnier,” says Travolta. “But everyone thought I was like him for a couple of years.”
A couple of heavy-weight producers spotted him and thought he’d be perfect for two films they had planned - Saturday Night Fever and Grease.
Travolta insists he didn’t think the disco-based Saturday Night Fever would be a success.
“Disco dancing was on its way out and the clothing I wore, polyester this and that, was finished when we did the movie.
“I thought I was doing an art film, a slice of life about a small group of people obsessed with disco. I thought I had an interesting character but I didn’t think it’d be a commercial hit.”
The film, defined by the Bee Gees iconic soundtrack and that white suit, was a box office phenomenon and earned Travolta his first Oscar nomination.
He learned the dance moves over nine months, but wouldn’t consider himself a natural groover, rather an “actor who could pretend very well”.
Although exhausted when filming wrapped, he was only allowed a few days rest before he began rehearsals for Grease - another huge success.
The Eighties weren’t so kind to Travolta, and he reportedly turned down American Gigolo and An Officer And A Gentleman (both roles went to Richard Gere) in favour of box office flops - bar Look Who’s Talking in 1989.
It would take Quentin Tarantino to resurrect his career, with 1994’s Pulp Fiction, in which Travolta was cast as the violent, pony-tailed heroin addict Vincent Vega.
“Tarantino asked to meet me and said, ‘I’m so disappointed with what you’ve done with your career. I want to fix all that’,” recalls Travolta.
“He had to fight with the studio but he only wanted me and I was so deeply touched.”
Travolta inspired another iconic dance move in the film, this time with Uma Thurman, and earned a second Oscar nomination.
He was also back on the top of casting agents’ wish lists, and films such as Get Shorty opposite Danny De Vito, Face/Off with Nicolas Cage, and Swordfish starring Hugh Jackman followed.
Through the career ups and downs, Travolta has remained one of the world’s most famous faces. And as he approaches 60, there’s no sign of him slowing down, with another two films due for release next year - Killing Season and Gotti: In The Shadow Of My Father.
“The necessity to do well is high at this level,” he says.
“When the industry knows there’s a great script and there’s a big studio supporting it and the actors are all worth their keep, there is a pressure.
“You want to live up to a standard.”
:: Savages is in cinemas now