INTERVIEW: John Travolta on fighting, flying, and rumors of a ‘Grease 3’

I feel vulnerable, exposed. Blinking, I turn for a moment. My eyes come back around, meeting the same unflinching gaze. It’s friendly, but with an intense, undeniable focus. Maybe it’s the residual hairspray, the memory of “good times” and poodle skirts. Perhaps he’s simply adhering to some secret doctrine of scientology that says you have to look people in the eye.

Either way, John Travolta has a certain childlike zeal in his gaze. His enthusiasm and sincerity in casual conversation are undeniable. As a hired movie thug he might be quite the bad ass, but in person he grips you with his eyes and holds you with casual, unassuming banter. He might be a film legend but he’s also a really nice guy.

Travolta first broke out in the late ’70s playing Grease’s slicked back Danny Zuko. In the last 20 years he’s played a variety of roles, maintaining a prominent place in Hollywood’s elite circle. Most recently Travolta received national acclaim for another slicked back role, this time as a gangster in Pulp Fiction. Travolta is a career actor of an old school. He may have his ups and downs in the box office but one thing can be said for the man – he’s always working.

Basic, Travolta’s most recent project, gives the actor a chance to revive his tough guy persona, while again allowing him to pose a bit for the ladies. Travolta plays an ex-ranger (of the special ops variety) brought into the interrogation room to debrief a very special prisoner. Travolta slowly maneuvers through a web of lies and deceit, seeking to understand the complexities of a military conspiracy.

The real Travolta might not be a military man, but he is a real pilot. The now bulky (he spent time at ranger school prepping for Basic) Travolta loves to fly, loves to act and, like his character in Michael, he has a proclivity for vocal imitation. Let’s just say the voice of Jimmy Stewart has never been fused so smoothly with the rhythms of Eminem.

Hatchet: So I heard you’ve been flying into all the cities for interviews, but you didn’t get to last night?

John Travolta: What happened was they predicted too much snow. I was in Philadelphia and I was all ready to leave with the airplane. So we took the train.

H: Have you ever flown in something like that?

JT: Honestly, when I got here I thought, “I’ve flown in worse than this. What’s the deal?”

H: Is that the Boeing 707 that you’re flying? Why that plane?

JT: That’s the plane I grew up with. That was the queen of the sky when I was a kid. It doesn’t matter what comes out after that. It’s the thing that you love early. I remember there was a car. This happened to Steven Spielberg as well. When we first got to Hollywood there was a car that represented success to us. It didn’t matter what cars came out after that. That was the car. Even though we had the money, we only wanted the car that set the standard.

H: Are you as conspiracy theorist? Do you think (things in your movie) really happen?

JT: Worse happens, I’m guessing. I hope that there are section eight types out there to protect us. Especially after September 11. Honestly, after all these years of being around, and knowing mankind, I think man is basically good. I also think that they can get very complicated. Nothing would surprise me.

H: With the war on terrorism, how are you handling it?

JT: I’ve always had the luxury of having security around me even at my home. So I haven’t had the immediate concern that others might have. I’ve always felt protected.

H: You’ve played a lot of tough guys. With your character in Pulp Fiction or in this movie, how do you get in a position where you can get in front of a guy and just grill him?

JT: I let the material lead the way. It does all the work for you. It’s all well written, the stuff that I’ve gotten to do in the last eight years. It’s kind of like a musical cue. If the words are written well you can ride them to the next emotion whether its being bad guy or just being a bad ass.

H: Is it tough to be a bad ass when you’re next to Samuel L. Jackson?

JT: No, we both understand our versions of bad ass. Sam and I don’t try anything. We’ve just got this organic thing that’s very hard to explain. You just kind of kick back and exist together. It’s hang time. You can’t make it happen. We don’t look like we’re acting together.

H: Do you ever play golf with (Samuel L.)? I know he’s a huge golf nut.

JT: I promised him I would not play until I get better. He’s excellent and I’m like barely good. Golf is a strange sport. You have to find a zone that I just haven’t found yet.

H: What convinced you to do Basic?

JT: I was seduced into it in a very appealing way. And I get to get buff again. I’m getting older and there’re not many chances to have a role that says “ex-ranger in great shape.” So I worked hard and I went to ranger school and I worked out double time. And (my character) uses his sexuality. I haven’t done that in years, a character that actually tries to seduce with that.

H: Is it true that you’ve been looking at and considering doing a Grease 3?

JT: I don’t know about that. They’ll write it maybe and present it now that musicals are now more in fashion.

H: I’ve seen things that have said it’s rumored. I’ve seen things that have you already signed on.

JT: No, I haven’t signed on. I think it’ll take a lot of grease (he laughs).

H: Is that something you feel like you’re way past at this point?

JT: No, I don’t feel like I’m past anything. I just want to see what the goods are. I’m not gonna underestimate the possibilities. I just think there was a niche in time for it. They’d have to come up with a really great gimmick.

H: What it was saying was something like a Rydell High 20-year reunion.

JT: It’s a possibility, but it would have to be really genius. That was a monumental moment in history, that movie. And it still continues to communicate. Five-year-olds think it happened yesterday. It was made 26 years ago and yet no one treats that movie like its old. I was at this Japanese restaurant the other day and I was with my son and my daughter. I was kind of scrubby and I had a hat on. I was just like anybody. And these 100 15- or 17-year-old girls, that were cheerleaders who had just won their competition for the whole country or something, get wind of my being there. Shaking, crying, screaming. And I’m like “I’m just this old guy.” They treated me no differently then the day after I filmed Grease.

H: If not Grease 3, would you do any other musical?

JT: Yes, I was offered Chicago three times and I turned it down because I was not seduced by it. No one came and said “here’s my vision, this is what I want to do.” The lack of seduction made me think maybe there was a lack of vision. If I had it to do over again, I would have said, “let me meet with the director and see what he has in his mind.” There’s lots of musicals that now they’re entertaining again. I’ve waited 25 years. My biggest movie that I’ve ever done was a musical.

H: How about a comedy?

JT: There’s a remake of Harvey. I could do that. (He begins to sing: imitating Jimmy Stewart’s voice to the tune of an Eminem song) I’ve created a monster, but nobody wants to see John Travolta no more.

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