John Travolta is an enigma. To cineastes and pop culture enthusiasts, the 60-year-old actor is an intriguing mélange of iconic film performances, bizarre sexual allegations, and that whole Scientology thing. His latest legal entanglement concerns an alleged former pilot who claims the two engaged in a six-year affair and is threatening to unleash a tell-all. And the media silence on the part of the notoriously tight-lipped Travolta, who doesn’t grant too many interviews, only adds to the actor’s overall mystique. One thing that’s undeniable is the man’s resume, including film classics like Carrie, Saturday Night Fever, Blow Out, Pulp Fiction, the list goes on.
He’s in Toronto for The Forger, a drama that stars Travolta as a two-bit art forger who strikes a deal to get out of prison by working for his father (Christopher Plummer) so that he can be closer to his dying son (Tye Sheridan, Mud) who has been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. The film, directed by Philip Martin, made its premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.
The Daily Beast sat down with Travolta for a wide-ranging discussion about his greatest hits and public persona.
With The Forger, the aspect of the story I found most engaging was the relationship between your character and your onscreen son, played by Tye Sheridan. I couldn’t help but feel like, given your personal history with your son, you brought some of yourself into the character.
Everyone has their life that they’ve lived, and I can’t help it. I wear whatever I’ve lived. But I’m an actor that lives in the moment, too. When I looked at Tye, I was pretending that he was my son, and I looked for his organic reaction to me, and vice versa. You can glance at your personal experiences, and it can make you go to a deep level. When I did Saturday Night Fever, my girlfriend had just passed away and I wasn’t aware that I was wearing the grief of her. But in the scene where the girl kisses me on the cheek, I start to cry. Her tenderness made me cry. How much of that had to do with my personal life or not, I don’t know, but there’s always a mix of what you’re wearing as a human being and the literalness of the script.
I was just out in Venice talking to Sopranos creator David Chase, and we discussed how generous the late James Gandolfini was. I read a story about how he was very kind to you in the wake of your son’s passing.
He wouldn’t leave town after my son passed. He wanted to make sure I was okay, you know? That was the kind of heart he had. I did five movies with him—or six?—and my Dad sold tires to his Dad. He saw my picture in my Dad’s shop and said, “I want to do that.” I was his first inspiration to get into acting. He thought, “If this guy can do it, I can do it.
In a strange coincidence, there’s a rumor that Gandolfini was one of the actors who auditioned to play Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction.
Really? Oh, I didn’t know that! He certainly would have been right for it in a lot of ways.
Also, the story goes that Vincent Vega was the only role that Daniel Day-Lewis has every very actively pursued, but you won the part over him.
Yeah. I remember it was a big deal with Miramax, too, because Daniel Day was hotter than heck and I was colder than Alaska, so the idea that Quentin went for me over Daniel Day-Lewis was a very big deal. But I understand now, in retrospect, why he did. By using Uma, me, and Bruce, he balanced it with pop culture, and that wouldn’t have happened with Daniel Day or anyone else vying for that part. There was a history that the three of us had that balanced the darkness of that movie with a certain levity and humor—like a yin-yang effect. That was very calculated.
It’s the 20th anniversary of Pulp Fiction, and it’s not only one of the best films of the ‘90s, but when you watch it today it feels just as visceral and hard-hitting as it did back then. Do you have any favorite moments?
I watched it at Cannes this year, and it’s still got it. The scene that gave me the most pleasure was the scene with Uma in Jack Rabbit Slims—the whole conversation, intrigue, and then moving onto the dance floor. That was my favorite to film. Vincent’s getting to the bottom of why he’s so intimidated by the date, and then she says, “A foot massage? You think he’d kill someone for that?” She tells me it’s bullshit and that wasn’t why he was thrown out the window, so it brings a bit of relief to the character, and the spirit of the scene was very playful. She’s trying to size me up about why I’m so aloof, and the scene with the cherry where she’s looking at me thinking, “What’s this guy all about?”
Tony Rocky Horror.
[Laughs] Yes, Tony Rocky Horror.
And then there’s the iconic dance sequence.
That was improvised quite a bit. I’d actually told Quentin about the dances I grew up with. The Twist is what he wanted, but I said, “There were other fun dances from that era! The Spin, The Batman, The Hitchhiker. You can expand this, and don’t have to include just The Twist.” And he said, “Okay.” So I said, “Why don’t you film it, and you call it out? We’ll start with The Twist, and then when you get bored with The Twist, throw out something else.” So he was behind the camera going, “The Swim! The Batman!” He’d mix-and-match. We shot it during the section of the day, and there weren’t that many takes.
Do you have a theory on what’s inside the briefcase?
[Laughs] No, I don’t. He just told me, “Be completely impressed… like something you’ve never seen before.” But I don’t have a theory.
Another movie of yours my friends and me were obsessed with growing up was Face/Off. You and Nic Cage are basically having a contest in that flick of who can go further.
I love Face/Off. And it’s true. Nic is very playful, and I’m very playful, so all I have to do is get someone who wants to play, and all he has to do is get someone who wants to play, and he finally found his match. We’d go, “Oh, if you do that then I’m going to do this,” and kept raising the stakes. It was a great time.
Right now, there’s this pending lawsuit from a man who claims to be your former pilot about a romantic relationship. What’s the deal with that?
This is every celebrity’s Achilles heel. It’s just about people wanting money. That’s all. It happens on many levels.
You are a high-profile figure, and as such, it seems like you get targeted a lot more than anyone else with these types of allegations.
Also, I don’t care that much about it. Other people may attack it back more than I do, but I let all the media stuff go a long time ago because I can’t control it. I think that’s why it persists, to some degree.
Do you find it offensive?
I found it most offensive with the loss of my son. I felt like that was the lowest I’d ever felt. Sex stuff is always going to be interesting to somebody, but you stay away from family. You really should. With that, I always felt like the media—not all of the media, but parts of it—went too low there.
They didn’t really give you any time to grieve and began speculating immediately.
Exactly. That’s the hardest part. The rest of the stuff I can deal with, but that one really made me question the whole thing.
You’ve been in several classic films. Do you have favorites?
I used to have favorites, but now I’ve had a hard time keeping track of what exactly they would be. I don’t know what it is. The latest thing that you’re working on is your favorite, and then you move on to the next thing.
My father was a big De Palma fan, so I grew up with Carrie and Blow Out. Blow Out, to me, is probably your most underrated film. It really is a classic.
Oh! You know in the day, it wasn’t underrated and quite hailed, but it was with a tiny company called Filmways Pictures, and they didn’t have the amount of money they needed to distribute it. If it had been at Paramount, it would have been bigger. It was one of Pauline Kael’s favorite movies. She loved it.
Do you have any career regrets? Maybe… Battlefield Earth?
No way, are you kidding? Why would I ever regret that? I had the power to do whatever I wanted, and I chose to do a book that I thought was worthy of making into a movie. It’s a beautiful film. It’s a good movie. Again, the media angle confused the movie with…
Yeah. They did that with Phenomenon, too, and Phenomenon is really the story of Jesus Christ. It’s not Scientology! So, I have no regrets at all. And if we had to do it over again, I would still do it. It was a moment where I could say, “I had all the power in the world and could do whatever I wanted.” Not a lot of people get that opportunity, and I did what I wanted to do.
How have you found it, as an actor, aging and getting older in the industry? How do you feel it’s going for you?
Well, I look at myself and I look at a man like that [motions to Christopher Plummer], and he’s 25 years my senior and he’s still going strong. I feel like as long as I’m healthy, I’m going to keep doing it. And I’m very discerning. I don’t just do movies because I need something to do. I genuinely love acting, and wait for the right scripts. I loved the script for The Forger, and it’s with a great actor [Plummer], and with The Killing Fields, it was with another great actor, Robert De Niro. This is how you want to spend the last days of your career—to play with the best in the business and do your thing.