"Mad City" and more!      takes.gif (506 bytes)


OCTOBER, 1997 - There are actors and there are movie stars and seldom do the two actually merge in one person. Actors want to be movie stars for the cachet of celebrity; movie stars want to be actors so people will take them seriously. Rarely is this pulled off, because the roles offered and chosen usually pull in opposite directions.
Dustin Hoffman? Actor. Jim Carrey? Movie star. Ed Harris? Actor. Bruce Willis? Movie star. Meryl Streep? Actor. Michelle Pfeiffer? Movie star. Sean Penn? Actor. Sean Connery? Movie star. Michael Keaton? Actor. Val Kilmer? Movie star. George Clooney? TV star.

Every generation has a few talented and lucky artists that can pull it off. Charlie Chaplin, Jimmy Stewart, Katherine Hepburn, Robert Mitchum, Henry and then Jane Fonda, Paul Newman. Maybe a couple every decade, sometimes less.

What it takes is a mix of glamour, talent, timing, and an eye for a good script and a great role. Tom Hanks has pulled it off. Harrison Ford almost did. Tom Cruise is getting close, but he might just be too damn pretty. And John Travolta has nailed it.

Gliding into a room at the hotel Nikko in Los Angeles to promote his new picture Mad City,
Travolta is the black-clad portrait of confidence and grace: tall, handsome, and much sleeker looking than in the new film. I've promised myself that I'm going to play hardball, not be charmed by this guy who everybody tells me is a sweetheart, and ask him some tough questions about Scientology and sexuality. Then he turns on this big, broad white smile and flashes eyes that twinkle with joy and intelligence and I immediately turn into a moronic ass kisser.

"All I can say is that it's been a thrilling past few years,"
Travolta says graciously after I tell him how great he is. Struggling to regain journalistic integrity, I mention that there are rumors that he's become so powerful in Hollywood that the producers of Mad City completely changed the script's location so that Travolta wouldn't have to leave L.A. during the shoot, pissing off a slew of people.

"Actually that's the first I've heard about it, but whether I did it or not that's how I felt,"
Travolta says easily. "I don't know if I ever expressed that. But I didn't want to leave my son anymore. I had just gotten back from Paris, and it was like, 'I just don't want to be away from the family.' I don't know if I expressed that or not [to the filmmakers], but it's how I felt. So it's as good as if I had."

This is surely a lie, or at least a tweaking of the truth, but I just let it go. He seems so sincere. He's looking at me like he really cares. We're bonding. I fold like a low-card holding coward at high stakes poker game.

In Mad City,
Travolta plays Sam, a not-bright but seemingly decent fellow who loses his job and then his composure and then his mind, taking hostages at the museum where he was employed. It's the least glamorous and most daring role Travolta has played in a long while, one that challenges audiences. And too often, a challenged audience is intimidated and stays away.

Not surprisingly,
Travolta disagrees. "If it's a good movie, they'll come see it. It's not about whether somebody will follow you because you're a specific actor, it's about quality of product and it should always be about that for anybody. You have to deliver the goods, and if you deliver the goods they'll watch. Nothing else matters: You won't get overexposed, you don't get sick of the work, you can switch characters and be different people. It doesn't matter as long as it's good."

Travolta has never played a loser to this degree before. Sam isn't an evil man, but he's a desperate failure, and though Travolta effectively captures his humanity and builds sympathy for the guy, you've got to wonder what he saw in the role besides an actor's showcase.

"I've never played a guy who unravels to this degree,"
Travolta says, explaining the part's appeal. "This is the most tragic character that I've ever played. That's why I liked it. And I liked Sam. I found some humorous ways to portray him, but he truly is the most tragic character. I mean, Vincent Vega [of Pulp Fiction] was kind of tragic, but in a knowing sort of way. This guy is unwittingly tragic. Poignant."

I want to move on, but
Travolta wants to talk more about his role and I of course let him. "There's great satisfaction in finding the human being in a role like this. He's a very unusual mix of a guy. He's idiosyncratic. He's very naive, very mad at the moment he takes action, but he's also really sweet. It was a struggle to figure him out and when I finally did, I was able to make him more bizarre and eccentric than your standard blue collar guy. That's what solved the character for me."

Making $20 million a picture (though he took less for Mad City) can't make it too easy to connect with a character who's making eight bucks an hour, though. Even for a guy who's had some hard times as an actor. "I feel embarrassed to compare the kind of desperation you have as a film actor to that of a guy who works at, you know, a real job,"
Travolta says. "I mean like, how bad can it be? Oh my god, only $2 million a film! The horror!

"My father was making $100 a week when I was a kid, and trying to bring up six kids and not know if he'll be able to feed us next week is something to tap into. Not whether or not my Rolls Royce will washed or not on time. It's like apples and oranges. In the overall scheme of things, there was never a time in my life when I felt like I was going to have to hold up Michael Eisner. "Please Michael! I don't want to do another sequel to Look Who's Talking!

"But I've also been really conscious that there are these people who live on the fringe of just barely making it or not making it in our society. I was really trying to capture something that is very evident and tragic and possible in our society. It makes you think about how close is almost anyone to all that in these circumstances."

Enough already. Let's get back to glamour.
Travolta's next role is Jack Stanton, the thinly-veiled Bill Clinton character in the notorious political roman a clef Primary Colors. How does he go from playing a low IQ character to the President of the U.S.?

Throwing his hand toward the ceiling in an magnified Shakespearean gesture and leaning his head back regally, he articulately phrases, "Acting!" with an exaggerated pretension. Then he laughs pretty hard. "That picture wrapped about two months ago."

Prodded on the yet-unreleased picture,
Travolta admits that he was interested in the Clinton-clone role but, "…with Tom Hanks first being talked about in the part, I immediately moved my attention elsewhere, because Tom is also one of those guys who can do whatever he wants. But it also made me take even greater notice, because if Tom was entertaining the idea of doing it, it must be a very interesting piece of material. But then when Tom moved on for whatever reason, [director] Mike Nichols came to me and when he started to get his cast together – Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton – it really started to turn into this prestige package. It wasn't going to be just this hit novel he turns into a commercial movie. He wants to make a statement."

Travolta says he's getting great pleasure from jumping to extremes in the parts he takes. "Overall, I go for roles that are intriguing to me, challenging, something I know I can be effective in. But I also really like mixing it up, so I can do a Face/Off or a Broken Arrow, where I can play psychotic moves. I like doing a different character every time, like the way Dustin Hoffman does. That's the fun of acting: changing it up."

In director John Woo's Face/Off,
Travolta got to change it up more than ever, giving dual great performances as he and Nicholas Cage swapped faces and acting styles. The bravura acting from both is unlikely to be topped this year, but is this the type of film that people take seriously in Hollywood? Are he and Cage likely to be recognized by their peers in what could be unfairly dismissed as just an action film?

"Well, the critics took it seriously, and that helps,"
Travolta says. "But because it's the action genre, that makes it the dark horse at awards time. Every couple years there's a great action picture and the question is always: Will the action picture get nominated for this and that or not? Usually it's not. But if there is one this year that gets recognized, it'll be Face/Off."

Now that
Travolta's got almost anything a man could want – great family, insane wealth, the choice of roles – what else is there? Does he actively think about pursuing that Oscar? Does it enter his consciousness when he's picking parts? Does it bug him when he gets overlooked for roles like Get Shorty?

"Well, if I hadn't ever been nominated before, it would be more easy to be upset. But since I've won a couple acting awards from my peers, and I've been nominated for an Academy Award a couple of times, it's not like I take it personally when I don't get nominated. I feel like it's always possible, but it can't be why you do it. You just have to do your best work and that's just a byproduct. That's something you get if everything falls politically and artistically in place. It's not something I look at as 'Oh, this is the Oscar script.' They're kind of accidents really. You run into a good role and you do a stellar job and sometimes you get nominated and sometimes you don't."

What else surprises him? Is he ever caught off guard by the popularity of films like Face/Off or Michael? And now, since
Travolta has completely seduced me, he graciously starts giving something back.

"That's a good question, and I'll try to answer it honestly like this: By the time you are considering whether a film will do well or not, the demographics, the whole machine behind these movies, are so clearly delineated that you know exactly what the movie is going to do at the box office. It's frightening. You know by the demographics. This percentile, this demographic, this definite interest. The studios have it down so that every point is worth a million dollars on this survey research that they do, so before a movie like, say, Michael premieres, it has 18 points, so it's going to open to about 18 million dollars. And this is about two or three weeks before the movie opens. On the other hand, if something isn't going to do well, they know that too. In the old days they didn't do that, and they all waited around with bated breath. There are still some surprises, but not many."

This is a surprising frankness for anybody in the movie business. Then
Travolta drops an even bigger bombshell. "You said you really liked John Woo, so you might find this interesting: Right now we're in negotiations to make Phantom of the Opera together in 1999. Nothing's signed yet, but…."

Travolta's given me a scoop, and his handlers immediately jump into the fray to stop this from becoming Look Who's Talking Too Much. He gets up, shaking my hand, and I say something really unprofessional and mushy and damned if the guy doesn't throw his arm around my shoulder and embrace me, saying, with a sotto voiced sincerity, "Let's go fishing together!" Which makes absolutely no sense other than it's pretty funny. Then with a wave and a big smile, he's whisked away to effortlessly beguile the next would-be unbiased journalist. Or maybe just the next writer with a stronger will than mine.