About Features Reviews Community Screenings Archives Home
July 2007
HAIRSPRAY: An Interview with John Travolta

HAIRSPRAY: An Interview with John Travolta
By Ife Thomas

July 16, 2007

It’s been 25 years since John Travolta broke hearts and made history as the iconic Danny Zuko in the cinema classic Grease. His return to the musical genre in New Line Cinema’s ambitious remake of Hairspray has him playing a woman--not exactly what you’d expect from the greatest musical film star of his generation. Recently, on a sunny afternoon at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles, Travolta talked candidly about his new leading role, why it took over a year to say yes to it, and what the 30-pound fat suit felt like to dance in.

John Travolta: Whoo baby, who are you?! (laughter)

BF: Hi, it’s nice to meet you John! (laughs) Umm, can we talk about the movie now?

JT: It’s nice to meet you too! Yes…

BF: So, it took you a year to say yes to this role. What finally convinced you to do it?

JT: I wasn’t sure until the end when I realized several things…They were hiring at an A+ (level) and it’s a minority genre. You have to be excellent in every department to pull off a musical. I had been offered four musicals and the only one out of the four that was workable was Chicago. Then I said, it’s so rarely done, the musical, that if it’s not done well it’s just not fun, and I had the biggest musical in history--Grease. Why would you ruin that? It’s like doing Gone With Wind or Titanic and having a niche at the top of your game and then doing something that’s not. So I thought, if I change the game where I’m playing something completely different, it’s not competitive almost, but how do you do that?

So, I wanted to know how well it could be done, and what room I had for interpretation. Because at first I wasn’t convinced that they would allow me to play it like I wanted to: I wanted to play as a woman not as a man as a woman. To guarantee that, I said want her curvaceous, with large breasts and a little waist like…Sophia Loren gone to flesh or Elizabeth Taylor. Those women of the 50s and 60s that we knew who were really fabulous in their hourglass shape, that would help. And then making her pleasant to look at in the prosthetic, not grotesque, but pleasant, and fun to look at you see? Then I said, I need the Baltimore accent. A New York accent is too masculine. A Baltimore accent is higher and it has a hook to it, and I could work with it and make it be viable, you know what I mean?

BF: So you had to sing and dance, high heel shoes with a prosthetic, and keep in mind the accent and the femininity that was a part of the portraying the character. Which was the biggest challenge?

JT: Well, really owning it to the degree to where you felt you couldn’t make a mistake in it. But, that’s how I arrive at any character. You build the character and then there’s a moment where you know you’ve arrived. When you knew you could do all of those things comfortably, then you know you’ve arrived, and I had to feel that.

BF: Was it easy for you to forget that you were a man playing a woman?

JT: Yes, it was because I love women, and I love watching their vulnerabilities and their emotion, and it’s my job to understand another viewpoint. Listen, I did Pulp Fiction and Primary Colors, and I had to become these other people, and you have to understand them and love what they’re about to do it. And the coyness…once Christopher Walken decided, (mimicking) ‘I’m crazy about her! We have wild sex in bed! I’m gonna love her!’(laughter) Once he decided that, I knew I was home free because then I could be coy, and flirtatious, and all of those things that a person who is in love with you with that energy gives you.

BF: Did you have flashbacks to Grease at all on the set?

JT: Well, I saw all these young kids moving with not dissimilar moves to Grease, and it was wonderful to watch them be so good, energetic, accurate and talented. There were a lot of flashbacks to Grease.

BF: How was the fat suit to dance in?

JT: I first learned the dances as myself, then I added on part of a fat suit, and the second part. Then the high heels, then the wardrobe to find out what the limitations were. Can I raise my arms? Can I kick? What are the limitations? Then we had to go back to the wardrobe department and say look, you have to make this a wider spectrum because I do this step…but, it all had to be modified based on choreography and comfort…all that stuff had to be thought out.

BF: Do you think today’s audiences are ready to embrace the movie musical?

JT: Based on the test screenings of this movie, they’re clearly ready to embrace it. Because I think that any genre, whether it’s a western, sci-fi or a musical, if you do it well everybody loves them. You have to do it well and really go through the top on it and pull it off. If you don’t, and somewhere in the middle someone hesitated and they weren’t used to it then I think people have a hard time, because the people doing it didn’t buy it.

BF: Would you do another musical? Is there a classic one you’d like to do?

JT: I’ve never not wanted to not do one. That’s the thing I always want to clarify is that though I was asked to do four over the years, and said no to three, four were the only amount ever offered to me. That was almost the only amount that were done. So 30 years, four musicals, maybe six were done total…I get a comedy or drama offered to me every couple months.

I always thought it would be fun to another shot at Pal Joey or one that wasn’t a stage show, An American In Paris--that was one of my favorites. Those would be fun to re-visit, but, again, I think it’s gonna be a new take on it if enough people are still familiar with the art of it. I do feel like a dinosaur a little bit in that there are so few of us. I think (producers) Craig and Neal and I are roughly the same age, and we are all some of the last generation that really grasp the kind of understanding about musical to film.

BF: Your career has been famously up and down…do you feel confident that you’ll keep working at this point?

JT: Wildhogs was the second biggest movie in my career after Grease. At 53, if people are still interested in seeing you a movie then they’re dictating whether I’m here or not. It’s the same with Hairspray or any other movie I do. It depends on the quality of the movie and the impact that it has, but, really it’s the audiences and the studio’s willingness to collaborate, and if they pull it off then you’re of value. It’s almost like the stock market. I can only control it to such a degree and then others have to contribute to it. The last four movies I’ve done have been very successful: Ladder 49, Be Cool, Wildhogs and hopefully Hairspray.

BF: Will you do a sequel to Wildhogs?

JT: They’ve asked, but we’ll see. I have to do Dallas still…

BF: You’ve signed onto do a film version of the 80s tv show Dallas. Is it a remake or a spoof?

JT: It’s a tricky piece, you’ve gotta get it right. We’re leaning more towards comedy because comedy is king right now, so it’s spoofing it in a way that would work versus camp.

BF: Some of the moments in HAIRSPRAY felt a little stereotypical because musical characters tend to be archetypes, so they could go either way. How did you not make her too over the top and big?

JT: I think how I balanced that was by having a real character. She was vulnerable, she was in love with her husband, she was mad for her daughter, and if you play those moments real, and keep enough of those in, those balance everything and they become real moments. That’s how you do it, in my opinion. And that’s the art of the musical; you have to balance the surreal with realness.



Terms of Use | Privacy Policy