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John Travolta Interview

John Travolta is to the movies what Richard Nixon is to politics what Lazarus is to religion. In other words, he is - if not the original - one of the great comeback stories of all time. (Okay, of the 1990s. What would Hollywood be without hyperbole?) Back in the late 1970s, Travolta had the one-two punch of "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease." He could do no wrong until he did. In "Moment by Moment," costarring Lilly Tomlin, the movies' golden boy turned to dross overnight as a Beverly Hills hustler named Strip. Yes, Strip. "Urban Cowboy" (1980) was Travolta's first comeback, which quickly led to a megaslump of movies so bad they were almost good: "Perfect," "Two of a Kind," and "Staying Alive," in which director Sylvester Stallone turned Travolta into a buff, lean version of himself. (The "Rolling Stone" cover story on the movie said it all: "John Travolta/Sex and the Single Star.") Travolta had to wait until 1989 for his second major return to bankability: "Look Who's Talking?" (The "Premiere" cover story on the movie said it all: "John Travolta/Look Who's Back?") But "Talking," despite its huge profits, was never a success d'estime. For that Travolta had to wait until last year's "Pulp Fiction," in which director Quentin Tarantino reinvented the essentially sweet- hearted star, transmogrifying him into a goofball hit man. Bingo. The third time is definitely a charm what with Travolta starring in no less than three new movies: "White Man's Burden," "Get Shorty," and "Broken Arrow." Is this time forever? The star himself says definitely not.

Q: "Pulp Fiction" really turned your career around. How did that opportunity come about?

JT: Quentin Tarantino introduced me to the script. He said, "I won't tell you anything about it, but I'd like you to read it. You should do it." He cornered me at this photo shoot for "Vanity Fair." He said, "You won't get paid anything for this. But you shouldn't be denied good material just because there isn't a budget."

Q: Was that a good lesson to learn?

JT: It's a good lesson for anybody. Good material will always lead you to other good material. It cost me money to do "Pulp Fiction." I can't do that all the time.

Q: But c'mon. As a result of "Pulp Fiction," you're being paid millions for "Broken Arrow" and "Get Shorty."

JT: I'm making up for going in the till over the past two years. [Laughs] Plus the New Year's bills. It's retroactive. I'll catch up in a year or so. But it's good for your career.

Q: And good for your state of mind?

JT: Yes. I can't sleep well if I don't feel I'm exchanging an abundance with the public. I have to feel like I'm doing a better than average job. Otherwise, it doesn't make me happy. You just don't always have the opportunity to do a great job, because the material isn't as good as it could be.

Q: Of all the characters you've played on the screen, which is the one you identified with most?

JT: The character I've played who's most like me is the guy in "Look Who's Talking" That's who I am. Not all of me, but a lot of me. All the other guys are characters.

Q: But no one would take that film seriously as an insight into you.

JT: No one would look through your credits and think, Yeah, 'Look Who's Talking?' That's the real John Travolta. That's true. I find it amusing because I'm a very affectionate, emotional, and conscience person. I don't know if you get that from "Looking Who's Talking".

Q: I get that from talking to you, but I don't see it in "Look Who's Talking"

JT: It reminds me the most of my personality because I'm not doing any character work in that film. When I was doing it, I thought, Is anyone going to find this interesting? I've never been myself before." I'm not doing anything. Much to my surprise... And one hundred million dollars later...

Q: Four hundred and fifty million dollars later.

JT: Excuse me, I wasn't thinking globally.

Q: Do you think you've changed radically since your first days in Hollywood?

JT: Not that much different, but I've enriched my life with experiences in the last twenty years. I think I'm a bigger human being than I was. But I always had potential.

Q: How has that changed you as an actor?

JT: I'm the same actor except that I now have twenty years of living and rubbing elbows with many people who've enriched my life. It's possibly made me a better actor.

Q: You survived some real career slumps. Was there any benefit to having had those down times in your career?

JT: Yeah, because I chose them. I would do a movie...no one is more responsible for the down times than I am, because whenever I got hot I'd check out. I'd go, "Oh, time to go to Paris or the Caribbean or on a safari in Africa." And by the time I got back, the heat was over.

Q: I had this image of you sitting in Burbank being glum.

JT: Well, that's weird. That's not the way it was. It was very different for me. If it helps someone to think of it that way, fine.

Q: Is the word "comeback" a misnomer?

JT: It depends on how you view a comeback. To me, a comeback only means that you were in a hit movie. Recently, it's meant that you've come back as an actor. But before that it was only meant that you had comeback in a hit movie. It's had a mixed meaning, that word. Also, when people say comeback, you feel you have to respond. You find yourself explaining over and over again what you were doing before the comeback, which was working and making movies. You keep saying, "You must not have seen that one." The "Look Who's Talking?" movies were somehow ignored, from a more serious perspective. But how can you ignore something that gave a lot of people so much joy? How can you ignore [my performance in] Harold Pinter's "The Dumb Waiter" (1989) when it was Pinter's favorite performance. All the sudden you have to invalidate this so-called down time as if nothing happened when I was actually doing something which people were not only getting joy from but a great artist was validated by. It's frustating and exhausting.

Q: Do you think you'll ever have to endure another down time?

JT: Sure, it could be next year. The only thing is, everyone will know that I've been working. That's the only difference. But you may very well forget that I've done these three films: "White Man's Burden," "Get Shorty," and "Broken Arrow." If for some reason those movies don't do well, you may forget them. And you'll say, "You know, after `Pulp Fiction' you had a long down time, didn't you?" And I've never been more tired in my life!

Q: Speaking of tired, you once said you wanted a big family. You have one son. Where are the other kids?

JT: We expected to have another child by now. But my wife, Kelly [Preston], wants to do a few more movies. She's done smaller parts in films. But she'd like to do some leads before we get a second child. I understand that. It's her body. And regardless of the urge to have a family quicker, she has to be the judge of that.

Q: How many kids would you like to have?

JT: We'd like three of four kids. A big family in my day was thirteen. I lived in a neighborhood--I was the sixth of six - but on my block there were families of up to sixteen. That's Catholicism there.

Q: A lot of long-term Hollywood marriages have ended in divorce recently. Is that why you don't live in the industry town?

JT: I don't know if that would be exactly one of the reasons.

Q: Where's home for you now?

JT: Florida and Maine. I just enjoy my life more in a more regular setting, places that aren't caught up with a mixture of urges and attentions that I can't quite figure out. I'm very perceptive so I get caught up in the whirl of it all. So I like a more calm atmosphere.

Q: Today, people make fun of the disco era. But with "Saturday Night Fever" you were the great disco icon. Was that good or bad for your career?

JT: I have to think it was good for my career, because I was a very impatient child, a very impatient teenager, and I was a very impatient adult. I needed that kind of guarantee of a career accomplishment early on. I wanted to know that it was a valid thing, my being in this business. I was the kind of guy who said, "If I hit 25 and I'm not making a mark in this business, tell me to do something else." That's how I felt. I don't like to waste time. Am I gifted enough? Can I contribute? Is this is a valid thing? Because if it isn't, I'll go play with airplanes or something else. I needed that level of success to say, "John, stick around."