March 2003
Basic : An Interview with John Travolta

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

Basic: An Interview with John Travolta

I always appreciated John Travolta. Heís one of my favorite actors of my generation. He brings his own persona to the screen. He loves his parts because they have some wit with them. Grease was one of the first movies I ever saw. Who could ever forget him in Saturday Night Fever and Urban Cowboy. He was on a roll back then. With the exception in Look Whoís Talking, he made some forgettable films until he made one hell of a comeback with Pulp Fiction. Subsequent films followed and some of them were huge hits. Phenomenon was a huge hit considering it came out the same time as Independence Day. A few years ago, Travolta played a character trying to solve a crime in The Generalís Daughter. It too was a hit. Now heís back in a similar role with his latest film, Basic, which also stars Samuel L. Jackson, his co-star in Pulp Fiction. In an interview with, John Travolta talks about his role in the film and why music inspires him.

WM: It seems that you look different in most of your roles. Are you keeping in shape to fit the characters you play?

JT: Iíve created a monster! It was tough because Iím not a big fan of all that hard stuff like dieting and getting in shape. I was willing to do it. In fairness to myself I started three years ago for Swordfish but also I wanted to keep in shape for the kids. I started to think maybe it might be better for me to behave a little bit so I could stick around longer for them. In a nutshell what I do if I eat something fattening I just recognize how many calories is in it and then I work out that extra calorie. If I added 600 calories then I would work out an extra half hour on the treadmill or something. I feel like there are two areas where you donít try to stop people, eating and sex. Drop it; just let it go because people donít like to be stopped in those areas. So whatís a positive? A positive is exercise so eat what you want but make up for it by exercise. Itís not fun but sometimes with sports itís fun. I actually enjoy a sport like racquetball or tennis or basketball because I played in high school. I just believe in making it up that way.

WM: Did you get buff for the character in "Basic"?

JT: I noticed that the character, an ex-ranger was using a lot of his physicalities to distract people and his kind of sexual comments and his innuendo and I thought, Ďfor a guy to be cocky about all that heíd better be able to show it in some way.í And then I met these rangers and they were so well built, even the guys my age who were instructors. And I thought, ĎGod I got my work cut out for me!í So I went back and did double time on my workouts and cut back a little bit, not much. I felt like by the time I show that tattoo on my bicep, I better have earned it so the memory of my time with the Rangers I had the body that I could wear a T-shirt and tight jeans and use it. I try to use my body whenever I can. Even in Michael when he I was over-weight and had a cigarette, thatís using your body to communicate an out-of-shape angel.

WM: Can you talk about training with the First Battalion?

JT: It was special permission to get through the Pentagon even to get on the base so I was in North Carolina for about three days and spent a lot of time with these guys that actually left the next day for the Middle East. It was kind of interesting because I was just pretending and they were really going, so that was kind of a moment for me. I take my hat off to them; these guys who work very hard and are very skilled. I was honored to just have a taste of it. Theyíre very confident guys too and I brought some of that back to the movie.

WM: Why do you like to play so many military roles?

JT: Military roles kind of found me because of Broken Arrow. I would never thought I was going to do a run of military parts but, although he was psychotic, he still had the discipline and the kind of illusion of a real military persona and I found that was effective. And then by the time I did Generalís Daughter who was a very down to earth and well intended guy that too worked. And this guy in Basic which is kind of an original present too, I felt like he was kind of like the icing on the cake because he got to use all of that good stuff in a particular fashion that was witty and well crafted and fun to watch.

WM: What's your opinion on corruption in the military?

JT: I think the brilliant thing is the military is a self-correcting organization and always has been. Thatís the beauty of it. Very few organizations are self-correcting. The reality of the organization are there are various areas that need to be corrected so Iím proud of the fact that this group of guys can go in and handle everything; plus get the bad seeds out of there. You do need to do that to be successful, to eliminate whatís not working for the group. So I thought I would hope to think that there are Section 8 (covert) guys out there working for us.

WM: What's your most prominent memory of Saturday Night Fever?

JT: I think the day I did the bridge scene where she asks about my future and I kind of inadvertently started to cry. And the solo scene of dancing that was such a kind of freak of nature that day. We put the cameras in the right place and I let loose and I had a whole prepared dance but I think that no one expected that, the people in the club watching (the extras and the other cast members) had never seen it so that was kind of a wild thing.

WM: I heard that you would sing and dance on the set to break boredom between takes. Is that true?

JT: Brian Van Holt in Basic asked me to show him a step and I was very touched by that because I thought that was very brave of him to ask me to do it. So I showed him one of those locking steps where I move my arms and he was so excited. And then Connie (Nielsen) likes standards so I would sing some famous standard for her. Actually I and Harry Connick, Jr. serenaded her with Spring is Here. Thatís just trying to inject life into a day that could get dull if you let it so I believe in those kinds of fun things to do while youíre waiting to do your scenes.

WM: Rumor has it that you want to do a musical. Is there any truth to that?

JT: Yes I would like to do a musical. I think thereís a short window of opportunity. I donít think it will last very long because Hollywood has a tendency to give up on westerns and musicals quickly. I think Iíll take this short year and choose a musical to do. I think that would be wise after Iíve been waiting 25 years to do another one. I know theyíve been talking about Into The Woods, Pal Joey, Guys and Dolls. It would be fun to have an original one. They talked about Grease 3. I have no idea what that would be like. Little kids think Grease was made yesterday so why bother with a sequel. My publicistís niece called and said, ĎThereís a movie called Grease and itís on DVD and Iíd like you to buy it for me.í She thought it was made last year. Maybe you leave that alone and do something different.

WM: What is it about music that inspires you?

JT: Even in the film Basic where those girls in the carnival are dancing to the samba. Itís hard to explain. It wasnít asked of me, I just had to dance with them. I just felt that rhythm. I just have to do it. It provides inspiration, joy, just like singing does. Itís another way of expressing yourself so when I hear it or sing it, Iím happier. Yankee Doodle Dandy with Jimmy Cagney. The acting, the singing, the dancing, his charisma, his joy of performing. I think that Iíve inherited that joy of performing. You canít kill it in him. I just am a ham from the time I was 12 or 8 even. So was he. I like it when youíve done all your homework and you come to the moment where itís all coming together. They say, Ďactioní and itís like, Ďgentlemen start your engines!í Thatís what itís like. Click and youíre off and running, the joy of that; because before that itís been an interesting adventure but the joy of creating happens between action and cut. A journalist who went to high school with my Dad recently gave me his high school yearbook and the caption under his picture said, ĎI crave action!í

WM: Besides music did growing up in New Jersey help you in your career?

JT: I think itís being inspired by something at a distance. Itís ĎThe Great White Hope,í ĎThe Broadway,í The New York, Manhattan, the arts; all these things are so inspiring but theyíre more inspiring when you get a little objectivity to them. On a good day Iíd get into Manhattan in 20 minutes and Iíd get to sleep in the country, and that reach and withdrawal with something as exciting and inspiring as the arts that were happening in Manhattan was a beautiful balance. I think it wasnít intimidation, it was inspiration. You got your cake and you ate it too. You got to be on the circumference of the greatest city in the world with the greatest arts programs and the greatest shows and film, the museums; itís an extraordinary thing to be near. But being near it was better than being in it.

WM: Has your love for flying changed after 9/11?

JT: The subjective enjoyment and pleasure of flying can never change for me. Itís always there. The only sad thing is the level itís hurt the airline industry. That bothers me because Iíve always looked at it as a heartbeat for the planet. Iíve always known that even as a kid how important the airlines were to our survival and that saddened me. Iíve joined a very successful airline, Quantas in order to take some level of responsibility for it. I want to inspire air travel again and flew around the world last year as a 707 pilot and I even learned how to fly a 747 in order to take responsibility for whatís happened. My joy hasnít gone, I just feel bad for the scene.