John Travolta has just finished a long series of interviews in front of hot TV lights in a room at Dante & Luigi’s in South Philadelphia when he’s informed his next interview will be with the Inquirer.
“Finally,” he said, “A print interview!”
Travolta steers me toward a quiet table in an air-conditioned corner and asks me if I want something to drink.
Travolta, 64, a Hollywood survivor, has been around long enough to know how vulnerable newspaper journalists are to idle flattery, especially about newspapers. But I’m amazed he has the stamina to soldier on – he’s been on a nonstop blitz for a month to promote his new mob bio, Gotti.
It’s taken him as far as the Cannes Film Festival, where the movie premiered last month, part of a weeklong celebration of Travolta’s long and durable career – commemorated with screenings of Pulp Fiction, Grease, and a long session with Travolta fielding questions from aspiring filmmakers.
For Travolta and Gotti, it was just a stopover. Before this promotional marathon, he spent seven years wrangling the project, rounding up actors, scripts, directors, writers, and cash.
“You’ve heard of Cuckoo’s Nest taking 15 years and Forrest Gump taking 10? Well, we took seven,” said Travolta, who added that it’s getting harder and harder to make movies like the ones he mentioned. Hollywood’s fixation with fantasy, franchise, and Marvel movies is gobbling up screen space.
“I question whether any of those movies would be made today,” he said, including A Civil Action, which I had cited as my favorite Travolta film. “It’s very difficult to get anything done, anything that has to do with actual human behavior.”
As the multiplex becomes more rigid, he said, movies like Gotti start to get pushed toward the video or streaming markets – that’s where the film was headed until Travolta interceded, found more financing, and called on connections at Cannes to get a premiere, rescuing the picture from VOD.
“I said, no, not this one, that is not going to happen,” he said. “I knew we’d done a good job, and I knew I had to make sure the movie got into theaters.”
Why so determined?
“Because I knew how fascinating this was to the public,” Travolta said of the movie’s subject, the infamous “Teflon Don” John Gotti, a ruthless mob boss, but also a man — or so the the movie posits — loved and “adored” by his family.
Also, he said, Gotti has always been good copy, a source of intense interest and scrutiny. Travolta met early on with John Gotti Jr., upon whose book the movie based, and knew he was on to something even before the conversation started.
“We were in L.A., at an out-of-the-way restaurant, like this one, and outside are 300 photographers. And it was like that everywhere we went,” said Travolta, who said Gotti Sr. (who died in prison, sent away on murder and racketeering convictions) fascinates people the way Capone and Dillinger did.
“He took it to another level, though. The way he dressed, and he could be charming and funny. And this guy was loved, and I had to find out why,” said Travolta.
He wanted to explore how ruthlessness and love could exist in the same human being. And he found a route to the character through shared tragedy. The actor lost his autistic son, Jett, to seizures at age 16. Gotti’s son Frank was killed by a car at age 12.
“They lost their son, I lost my son,” he said, though he was struck by how emotionally walled off Gotti was during those moments from those closest to him. “He had to cry in private, when he thought no one would be listening. I cried openly, because I couldn’t not do that.”
Now, Travolta seems to be drawing energy from the fact that the entire saga is coming to a close, and that the emotionally draining project is finally over.
He said he enjoyed introducing Gotti at Cannes, where he also had fun headlining a 40th anniversary screening of Grease (written and directed by Radnor native Randal Kleiser), a movie that still fascinates people decades after its release.
Travolta is aware of the wacky internet theory that everything that happens in Grease is a dream in the head of a dying Sandy (Olivia Newton-John), and that the airborne vehicle containing Sandy and Danny at movie’s end is on its way to oblivion.
He laughs, because the movie itself has acquired eternal life.
“Anytime a movie ascends into the realm of the mythic … I love it. It means it’s reached a kind of legendary level,” he said. He gets a special kick out of movies that become an continuing source of fascination and speculation.
“With Pulp Fiction, for instance, it’s what’s in the briefcase? It’s the forever question.”
So what’s in the briefcase?
“I don’t know what to say, because it literally was a green light in my face. All Quentin told me was you have to be super-impressed with whatever it is you’re looking at. So that’s what I did.”
And though movies are harder than ever to make, he’s still making them. He’s finished a couple that will be released this year (whether they are on VOD or in theaters has yet to be determined). And he’s particularly excited about his latest job, The Poison Rose, which pairs him with daughter Ella Bleu.
“I’m so proud of her,” said Travolta, who has done two weeks of shooting with her. “And I wouldn’t have given Cate Blanchett the role she played on her first day of shooting, that’s how demanding it was. She had to cry and sob and get angry and use a gun and drink, and make all these transitions. It was so stunning.”
Ella is just 18, not much older than John was when he entered the business, which can be tough on people, especially young actors.
I asked him whether he had any reservations about exposing Ella to the process.
“No. I think we have golden lives as actors. We get to travel the world, rub elbows with every type of person from royalty to the working class,” he said. “We have this fantastic opportunity to be citizens of the globe, students of the world, and if we do our job with integrity, I think there can be no better life.”