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February 2005
Be Cool: An Interview with John Travolta

Be Cool: An Interview with John Travolta

By Wilson Morales

One of the best movies John Travolta ever made was "Saturday Night Fever" in which he played an Italian from Brooklyn trying to get through life. In "Get Shorty", he played an Italian trying to get into the movie business. Almost 10 years later, at least on screen, that same character, Chilli Palmer, is back on the big screen trying his hand in another industry, the music business. In "Be Cool", Travolta reprises his role and spoke to blackfilm.com about playing that role and working with Vince Vaughn, Uma Thurman, and The Rock.

Would John Travolta be friends with Chili Palmer?

JT: Now, that's a very interesting question. I don't know if John Travolta would be friends with Chili Palmer because I don't know how much I have in common with him. But one thing I know is there's one side of Chili that reminds me of myself. And that is, if you remember the scene with the rock, where he does the audition, I think that I would respond like Chili responded, meaning not wanting to hurt his feelings but like point out the best parts and then correct him but not criticize him. I think I probably would do something like that. But would I do what Chili does with like confronting evil at the level he does? I don't know if I could. He's a cinematic character. He's willing to be fearless literally. So I don't know. I certainly like him. I love watching him. He's fun to watch, but he's purely cinematic. He's like James Bond. He's like Sean Connery in James Bond. And I loved James Bond. And I loved Sean Connery. So I think that maybe because I certainly -- But I don't know how much Sean Connery is like James Bond. So it's a very interesting question. I don't know where to go with it.

Whose idea was it for you to dance in the film?

JT: Well, it was my idea actually to dance in the film because I wanted to dance in the first one. I wanted to dance in "Get Shorty." And Barry Sonnenfeld didn't want to do that. And I was okay with that. I didn't dance in "Broken Arrow," so I figure it's okay if we don't dance. So I decided that I wanted to dance but only with a caveat of what would be the correct dance for the character. And, for me, the correct dance was something very cool, very low key, a samba, bossa nova, cha-cha, you know, Brazilian sound. And get Sergio Mendez, you know, something very cool and low key like James Bond. So I thought if they agree to that -- and at first they wouldn't agree to that. And I said, "Well, then I don't really want to dance." And then they found a song that the Black Eyed Peas wrote with Sergio Mendez. So suddenly my idea was very hip. It was like -- I just trust classic stuff. And it's always old is new again. But when the Black Eyed Peas did this, it turned it all around. And then they suddenly thought I was a genius for thinking of such a great idea. And then we got a choreographer. I just trust Uma and I to dance in character because, if you look at "Pulp Fiction," we were dancing higher than a kite and people that were hoping for death. And in this movie, we're dancing for life. Do you know what I mean? So two different ideas. That was novelty dancing. This was more traditional dancing. So I just trusted that she's a great actress and that we would dance in character.

The Rock referred to you as an iconic legend. Is that a mantle that sits comfortably with you and if so, what do you do to put people at ease when they think of you as an iconic legend?

JT: Well, I guess I have enough pull on the set to change the atmosphere if need be. If it's not comfortable for someone, I have the pull to make it comfortable. And I ascertain rather quickly what would be comfortable for them and help them out on that because then they'd be self conscious or embarrassed to ask for they need. And I'm not. I just think that you have to get the actors in the right spirit to get their best performance. And I know that just from 30 years of doing movies. So I do whatever I can to promote their comfort. It could be food. It could be time they need to prepare. It could be whatever it is. But I'm pretty good at -- I'm probably like Chili in that way, where I'm pretty good at sizing up what the problem is for the person and then doing my best to solve the problem.

Why did it take so long for this movie to come out? Was it a monetary issue? How do you approach a character that's designed to be cool?

JT: The reason it took as long as it did was Elmore Leonard was quite inspired by the movie. He wrote the book, of course, "Get Shorty." And they adapted that. But because of the movie, he decided that he wanted to a sequel book called "Be Cool." So it took him several years to do that. And when that was done, then the bright idea of doing a movie from that happened. So it was really Elmore's timing on that. Because I don't think I would've ever wanted to do a sequel arbitrarily. You have to have a good reason to do one. And Dutch is a good enough reason for me. He's a smart and clever writer. And I caught on when he caught on.

How did you approach playing Chili, who's kind of a low-key, cool character?

JT: Well, he's kind of an American version of James Bond in a way -- street James Bond. But cool is an interpretive thing. But I think in the case of Chili being cool is that he's fearless. And he's smart, smart enough to handle any given situation and perceptive enough to handle a more sensitive situation. So he's cool in that he's got it made. But of course he's just structured that way. We put him in these situations where he can be the ultimate non-responder or the ultimate clever mover. So when we have a set up like that, as long as you're convinced of how to portray it, it's quite fun. And it's funny you say that because Dustin Hoffman and Sean Connery are completely fascinated with this character. And Dustin in particular was like, "Well, what's the secret? What do you do?" And my answer to that was, "Don't forget Chili loves movies. And he loves iconic figures in movies." So in other words, he's a complete romantic about music, about movies, about the arts. So even though he's this tough maybe hit man type guy, he's also fascinated with the arts. So you've got a guy who might have illusions of what Carey Grant might do in a situation or what James Bond might do. So he's set up to be the ultimate cinematic character within a cinematic concept.

Was there a particular saying Chili would think of?

JT: If you read the details in the book, he's -- In the first one, he's in a movie theater, which had been in the book. He's captivated by - What was the name of the film? "Touch of Evil." And the writer put back his childlike thing with that. So those are keys to like, if he would respond to that, then maybe he might even use those characters in his mind of how they would react to whatever his favorite thing is. So it's quite a library of sorts this guy has to do these things. I hope I'm not taking too much of the mystery out of --.

There's an extra twinkle in your eye in this film. What put it there?

JT: Again, I respond to the situations that -- We had a hell of a cinematographer, I gotta [ he laughs] tell you. Why I could look better in this film than I did in the first one I have no idea. He lit my eyes, actually. I've been taking a literal thing, but I actually asked for eye lighting. And he did it. That's the first time that ever happened. It was like I don't think people know I have blue eyes. Could we look at them? Could we see them? And as you can see, it's important that -- As in "Bobby Long," for instance, it was important not to look good. It was equally as important to look great in this because he's a cinematic character and he should look that way. You want it to be bigger than life. So I did ask for that. So the twinkle in the eye may be literally a light. But moreover than that, there is a -- The music industry has this bigger than life thing. And I think Chili felt more comfortable dealing with overt gangsters versus the movie industry is kind of like, "Who are gangsters? Who am I dealing with? Who's really a threat? Who's not?" It was clear who he had to deal with, so I think Chili was more relaxed in dealing with knowing exactly who Raji was or who Cedric's character -- I mean, he just knew them. And he didn't worry about it. He had less tactical thinking on his mind.

Did you fly here (in LA) for the interview? Can you address the fact that Chili seems to have less of a role in this film than in the last one?

JT: I did fly to this junket. And number two; I think there were more characters in this piece. And each character got to shine independently compared to the first one. There's probably twice as many characters. And that was based on the book.

Was this film easier to do than the first one?

JT: And I guess I was more comfortable because it was familiar territory, too. Even though this is slightly exaggerated adding a hip-hop over tone to it, it was to some degree like that. You know, you'd go to meetings with people with sunglasses on. And you didn't know where their eyes were looking. And you didn't know what deals they were making behind your back. And it was pretty interesting stuff in those days. And I'm sure it still is, although the record industry is a little different today in its overall thing. But I'm sure that it's a cutthroat business like it was, seemingly more than the movie industry is.

Did you get screwed out of royalties?

JT: Oh, yeah. Interestingly enough not on the movies, though. Probably the few albums I did outside of that movie, but "Grease" and "Saturday Night Fever," it was very above board. But again you're dealing with music marrying into a movie, where the records had to be much more available for inspection. And in movies as big as those were it's hard to hide numbers. They're all over the place. So it was easier to get in that. Whereas a modest success, it's a little easier to hide numbers.

Like "Let Her In."

JT: Yeah, like that. But of course the good news about that is that allowed me to do something like "Grease," which I wouldn't have if I hadn't done that song Œcause that's what stirred them on saying, "Oh, he can sing, too. Let's pull him into this."

Can you talk about wrestling with the Rock on screen?

JT: I didn't particularly enjoy doing that. That's not my thing. I'm in character, so it's like Chili has to set who's boss right up. He actually -- Because he immediately perceives that this guy that the Rock plays is gonna be easy to deal with. But he knows that Raji is gonna be a little more difficult. So it's almost a show for Raji more than it is to put the Rock in his -- his character in his place. It's more like, "Okay, look what I did with him," knowing that Raji is probably a coward underneath all of it, that it'll put both of them in their place. But the Rock had to suffer the consequence for the show.

Are you going to have a rematch?

JT: No, I got him twice in this movie. But it's funny. The thing I love about the character of Chili is that he knows it would be easier to hit Elliot in the head with a bat or knock him down than insult his singing. You see what I mean? It's a bigger hurt to criticize him than it would be to physically hurt him. And Chili just knows that. So that's one of my favorite things about the character is that he would know the difference, that physical pain would mean nothing to these guys, Elliot in particular, but an insult would. I like that a lot.

What kind of contemporary music do you listen to?

JT: Well, lately because I'm so in love with the Brazilian sound, the Black Eyed Peas is actually -- and that album that these songs were taken from is actually my most recent favorite.

How was working with Vince Vaughn?

JT: Vince hits my funny bone. We laugh as hard off screen as he makes you laugh onscreen. He goes to a zone. And he's a lot like Robin Williams in that way. He has humor in his soul. He cannot not be funny. And he can look at me and I'm gone. And vice versa. I can make him laugh pretty well, too. On "Domestic Disturbance," we gave old Harold a terrible time. Harold is gettin on in his years. And not that he's a curmudgeon, but he's stern in what he wants. And Vince and I would go off on a tangent. He would always blame Vince because he was the younger guy. And I, of course, wouldn't bail Vince out. And then we'd laugh harder because he was stuck with the blame of all of our behavior. But Vince is a fabulous talent and person. I love him, yeah.

There are a few differences between the book and the film. One of them is that Vince gets hung out of a window instead of you. Did you have any personal say in that?

JT: No, I didn't. That was part of the scenario.

Since the novel was written in 1999, what did it take for you to play Chilli Palmer again?

JT: The screenplay. Even though the book I liked, it does have to be -- You have to see it in its form because so often a screenplay adapted cannot capture the book. The first one of "Get Shorty" didn't. And I turned it down. And then Quentin stepped in and said, "No, no, no, you don't turn this down. This is one you say yes to. And what do you want to have changed?" And I said, "I just want it to be more like the book." And he said, "Well, what part of the book?" And I went through it. And I had answers. And he said, "Well, why don't you just ask him to put that in the screenplay?" So this, interestingly enough, was in better shape right away as a movie. And it had -- I think it had Dutch all over it. So I was pretty excited about it. And also don't forget you do want room between playing a character again. And I've played 17 characters between then and now. So I loved the break from it. It's much more fun to go back to something that you've had a space of time as opposed to doing it the following year, two years later. It feels more bright and refreshed.

Behind this image of articulate and intelligence, there's a mischievous child in that body of yours. What kind of kid were you growing up?

JT: There is a mischievous child in me. And it does get in me in trouble on the set. I used to get in more trouble, but age seems to give you some ethics presence, so you get away with it a little more. Well, you know, the 60's were filled with sugar highs and crashes, as well. So I was probably a classic child of the 60's. And I was just kind of rambunctious and creative, though. I would channel that energy into performing a lot. But if I wasn't able to perform, watch out. But I am filled with the spirit of play. That makes me happy. I almost can't work on a set if I'm not having some fun. And the best verification of that or validation of that was when I met Marlon Brando. And much to my surprise, he was identical in his spirit of play. He mostly just wanted to have fun and fool around, play games and play question answers. And he was filled with fun. And I thought, "Oh, okay, maybe I'm not so far off the idea here."

Did you think about the risks in making light of a situation that may not be funny in reality?

JT: Well, I don't know. In the first one, the biggest laugh of the "Get Shorty" was I'm on the phone. And I'm talking to my old buddy in New York. And he said, "What does a producer do?" And I think I say something like, "I don't think they have to do very much." And that could've insulted every hard working, 24 hour seven producer Œcause they do a ton. And they are fully responsible for production. But at first glance, it looks like they don't do very much, but they do a lot. So I think these kinds of movies in general make fun of an industry that has clichés and obvious outpoints.

What's next for you?

JT: Next is a movie called "Lonely Hearts" with James Gandolfini. It's a drama about two detectives.

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