John Travolta Interview – HAIRSPRAY

     July 15, 2007

Opening up this Friday is the new version of “Hairspray,” and to help promote the movie New Line held a press day a few weeks ago where almost everyone involved participated in roundtable interviews. About a week ago I posted a bunch of them and tonight I’ll be posting the rest.

So up now is the interview with John Travolta and he talks about playing Edna Turnblad and all the challenges that went with it. Of course we also covered what he’s working on next and a ton of other stuff. If you’re a fan of John you’ll dig the interview.

And to get you to speed… here’s the synopsis of “Hairspray”:

Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with big hair and an even bigger heart, has only one passion – dancing. Her dream is to appear on “The Corny Collins Show,” Baltimore’s hippest dance party on TV. Tracy (Nikki Blonsky) seems a natural fit for the show except for one not-so-little problem – she doesn’t fit in. Her plus-sized figure has always set her apart from the cool crowd, which she is reminded of by her loving but overly protective plus-sized mother, Edna (John Travolta). That doesn’t stop Tracy because if there is one thing that this girl knows, it’s that she was born to dance. As her father Wilbur (Christopher Walken) tells her, “Go for it! You’ve got to think big to be big.”

After wowing Corny Collins (James Marsden) at her high school dance, Tracy wins a spot on his show and becomes an instant on-air sensation, much to the chagrin of the show’s reigning princess, Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow), and her scheming mother, Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer), who runs television station WYZT. Even worse for Amber is the fact that it’s not just the audience who loves the new girl in town; Amber’s sweetheart, Link Larkin (Zac Efron), seems to be smitten with Tracy’s charms as well. This dance party gets personal as a bitter feud erupts between the girls as they compete for the coveted “Miss Teenage Hairspray” crown.

At school, however, a short stint in detention and raised-eyebrows caused by the budding relationship between her best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) and Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) opens Tracy’s eyes to a bigger issue than the latest dance craze or the coolest hairdo – racial inequality. Throwing caution to the wind, she leads a march with Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) to fight for integration and winds up with an arrest warrant instead. Tracy is on the lam now and goes underground – literally – to her best friend Penny’s basement.

Has Tracy’s luck finally run out? Will she miss the final dance-off against Amber and forfeit the title of “Miss Hairspray,” or will she sing and dance her way out of trouble again?

When big hair meets big dreams anything can happen – and does – in this high-energy comedy that proves you don’t have to fit in to win.

As always, you can download the audio of the roundtable interview by clicking here. It’s an MP3 and easily placed on a portable player.

Finally, I recently posted some movie clips from “Hairspray” and also some behind the scenes videos. You can click on either link to watch them.

“Hairspray” opens on July 20th.

Question: The first question we have to ask you is, Michelle Pfeiffer just told us that the movie she had done before Hairspray she was 5,000 years old, and the producers told her not to talk to you what that prosthetic make up was like. Were you aware that they were…

John Travolta: I had already spoken to – I knew from Robin, but before Robin I knew from Martin Lawrence and two other people that had it and they said it was hell on wheels. The only thing, I was encouraged that the evolution had happened and it was much easier. I’m not so sure that’s true.

What about dancing in those high heels?

That was tough, and we did change the heel to more of a dance shoe, like a Capezio dance shoe. They kept on bringing these skinny high heels, I said, ‘Look, my mother wore those. I understand those. However, when I was growing up and I saw girls in the chorus they had a thicker heel on; it was like a dance shoe.’ And I kept on telling them to find these shoes, because I knew they existed, and finally they brought out a shoe, and I said, ‘Okay, that’s the shoe, make it in many colors.’

What was your first reaction when you saw yourself in full make up and you got out there and you had to face the music?

Well, I’ll tell you what, I had seen it on a screen test, which I was very excited about, because when I came out I didn’t recognize me at all, I didn’t see me in it, and I tested it on other people and said, ‘Now look, take a look at that, there’s this broad that we’re looking at to see if she’s going to be good for the movie,’ and I let them watch for five minutes, about 15 minutes of film, and I said, ‘What do you think of her?’ They said, ‘She’s fun, she’s lovely, she’s kind of cute,’ I said, ‘Good, that’s me.’ ‘No.’ It was that kind of thing, so I knew we had a –

You’ve got these great eyes that come through (Travolta laughs) Do you think she was attractive?

I said she just has to be pleasant to look at. I said I want a Delta Burke gone-to-flesh, her body’s like Elizabeth Taylor gone-to-flesh, meaning I wanted the obvious to be appealing, because film is different than stage, you can dress a guy on stage and you can do that joke where they’re like a refrigerator, but I don’t think that works as well at this level. I think you had to be watch-able. So it was only my own criteria that I injected.

You and Chris dancing was so lovely

You know we’re old Broadway hoofers. He was my first choice, and I said, ‘We’ve got to get Chris, because he knows the language.’ So we knew that, we got that down, we could discuss all that, and basically concentrate on the characterization, it was shorthand, you know.

There’s this wonderful sense when you talk about it, and you did the same thing on Oprah, that there’s this pride in being an old hoofer. Is it like a medal on the actor’s chest? If you’ve been there on Broadway and you’ve done the song and dance –

It’s what was for Cagney, when Cagney used to say, ‘I was in vaudeville,’ is today’s ‘I was on Broadway.’ It is, it’s a right of passage of some sort. Now, I’m not saying I’m going back. It’s a tough right of passage. I did thirteen years of it. Summer theatre, off-Broadway, Broadway, and whoa, enough is enough, it’s a lot of work, eight shows a week for a year or two at a time. But yes, I think it’s a certain right of passage.

Can you talk a little about the accent?

Oh that, these are the things that I fought for and I won. Her curves, because they were determined to make her look like a refrigerator, I said, ‘Uh Uh, it’s not going to work, I won’t do it.’ I said, ‘I want her to look like a woman.’ I said, ‘Imagine Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Anita Ekbert gone-to-flesh. That’s what I want.’ And I won that, kept sending the fat-suit back, and back and back. And then the face we corrected lots of time. I said, ‘Okay, now, the accent, I can’t do New York, because she’s from Baltimore.’ I said, ‘But if you let me do the Baltimore accent, it has a feminine quality to it, it’s nasal, (does exaggerated accent) ‘Listen hon, everyone’s going to go downtown,’ it’s naturally effete, for men and women. So when I won that war, that argument, I knew that I was home free. But the accent was very important to me, because I think they were expecting me to do more of a New York thing and I knew that would make it more masculine and more identifiable to John Travolta, and I didn’t want that.

Can you talk a little about working with Nikki because this is her first film?

She’s a phenomenon; I knew it from the screen test. I showed people, I said, ‘Look at this girl’s like Barbra Streisand being born.’ This is otherworldly. I came from a theatre family, so by the time I was seventeen or eighteen you expected a performance from me, she came from Coldstone and high school shows, this is not what you expect, that level of sophistication and knowledge and confidence. I was bowled over by it and I said, ‘Okay, we’re home free now.’

Wild Hogs was expected to do well, but no one thought it was going to be as huge a hit as it was. Were you personally surprised and are there any plans for a sequel?

Two things, a) I was pleasantly surprised, but not that surprised and I’ll tell you why. The reason I did that movie is I said, ‘I want to see that movie if I’m in it or not. I want to see four guys on the road on motorcycles in a comedy, because I’ve never seen it before.’ And the whole idea appealed to me, and the script was funny, I thought the choices of actors made it funnier, so it did and it didn’t. Now, I think it surprised a lot of people, including the studio because they expected maybe at best a $20 million weekend, and it ended up close to a $40 million weekend, and I think that was astonishing and it kept going, because now we’re at $250 million or something, it’s a phenomenal success. But I loved that – once in a blue moon you get an instinct about something, I’ll give you the movies I had it on, and not to say that I haven’t had a lot of other hits, but I had it on Grease, I had it on Wild Hogs, I had it on Phenomenon, I had it on – there’s another one that I had a surefire feeling about, what was it? Face/Off. And I’ve been fortunate to have had about 30 successful movies, but there’s sometimes where you just know something. Wild Hogs I said, ‘It’s just going to hit, I just think there’s a heartbeat of America that loves motorcycles, and that’s been going on for sixty years, since Marlon Brando it has been going on, but it’s been this hidden thing and yes there’s the real motorcycle guys, there’s these weekend warriors, and I like them, meaning I feel like I’m a motorcycle driver and I just felt like there’s a heartbeat that had not been tapped yet in a comedy.

What about a sequel?

Yes, they want to do a sequel.

Do you want?

I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m not big on sequels, I’ve done them but I like doing little things that have their own timelessness to them, classic type things, and then you go onto something new.

Aren’t you doing something called Old Dogs? Isn’t that guys in midlife doing something wacky?

The difference is this is motorcycles and Old Dogs is about parenting. It’s like Robin Williams doesn’t know how to parent, and I’m teaching him how to be – and I have no clue about parenting and I’m teaching him how to be a father. So it’s a different setting.

Are you the one who hunts the cougars in the night?


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Can you talk a little about dancing with Christopher Walken – that’s such a wonderful scene.

We’re both light on our feet, and we both have a sense of that history that I spoke of, so once he committed to being passionate about his wife we were home. Once he said (Does great impression of Walken) ‘Oh, I got it. He’s crazy about her. They’re wild in the sack.’ And I said, ‘Yes, you got it.’ Then I could react flirtatiously, and I could react to that because it was energy coming at me. Where if he had played it distant or eccentric or something, instead he played it, he’s watching me dance and he’s smiling, and all that allowed me to be – and the idea that he prefers a size 60.

What was your favorite costume as Edna?

I liked the polka dot dress, because it reminded me of the images I have of those screen people in the fifties, Sophia or Anita Ekbert, that pattern was that. Most people think I would say that last number because it was awesome, like Tina Turner, but that polka dot dress seemed – I just think it defined something for me.

When did you put in that bit from Pulp Fiction?

You know, everybody thinks its Pulp Fiction, but it wasn’t. Everybody thinks it is so you’re welcomed to buy it, but it’s I got my eye on you (does motion with hand) Instead I did two fingers which made it give an illusion of that, where if I had done one (does it) I don’t know if it would have had the same impact. I didn’t mean to, but it came out like that.

What did Kelly say about your look? Did she have any comments?

Kelly was onto this movie before anybody. She cried when she saw Welcome to the Sixties. When we were coming out in those pink dresses she was bawling. I said, ‘Why, what’s going on there?’ She said, ‘I don’t know what it is, it’s just so happy, and mother/daughter,’ she just had a thing about it that touched her. My daughter got a kick out of Edna. As a matter of fact, when Edna was mid-dressed, the prosthetic creates a flap, so she didn’t like when I was mid-dressed, because we called her Flapper. I said, ‘Do you like Edna?’ She said, ‘I like Edna, but I don’t like Flapper.’ Flapper was minus the dress, minus that and just the prosthetic on the face.

Do you feel as a result of playing a woman you’re enlightened, do you feel you’ve experienced life on the other side?

I did, and I’ll tell you why. I was so flirted with and so groped I was convinced that I’d have been a slut. I would have said, ‘Go ahead, touch me, go ahead, I don’t care.’ It was like a pregnant woman and everyone suddenly feels the right to touch her stomach, and it’s like, no, you don’t really have the right to touch her stomach and her breasts, it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re pregnant.’ Who has that right, you know what I mean? But I got in that getup and everybody was feeling me and I didn’t mind it as it wasn’t me, but I thought, ‘Do they remember I’m under here?’ And then I’d take it off and there was a coolness about it, it was like, ‘Oh, him.’ I liked that other person.

Did you ever wear it out?

Nay, listen, it was so uncomfortable to be in enough on the set.

Career-wise do you have to think about, okay, I’m going to be playing this woman in this movie – where do I go from here? Did you think about that at all, maybe you’ve gone over the edge in terms of craziness?

No. I’m the first guy who’s really played an actual woman on screen, but I don’t think I’m the first guy who’s acted as a woman, there’s Robin and there’s Dustin and Tony Curtis, this has been a done thing. The only real difference is I’m actually playing a woman versus drag.

What’s next for you?

Let’s see, what’s next? Old Dogs, and then Dallas I think will be up next, because they kind of have to do that movie, they’ve got five drafts and scripts and I’m meeting tomorrow with the director, hopefully this director and this new writer will get it right, but they want to go after the New Year.

Any other casting at this point?

No. They really want to get – I’m the only one that they were completely sold on, and I signed, I’m already signed to do it, I can’t get can’t get out of it, unless the dates are so far off, then I can.

If you didn’t like the script you can get out?

Yes, those two things. But what I’m saying is that if there’s a script that’s good enough to do, then I would be bound to that.

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