Cannes: On Tuesday night, as the rapper 50 Cent performed his 2005 hit, Just a Lil Bit, at the afterparty of the movie Gotti which premiered at Cannes earlier that day, John Travolta, the film’s star, jumped on to the stage — not so much to dance, but to pout to his inner Tony Monero, Danny Zuko or, perhaps, Vincent Vega, and groove.
As was his wont, the video went viral instantly.
USA Today called him the next day, asking him to explain himself and his moves. "The dance was just whatever I felt at the moment, it doesn’t really have a name to it. It’s just being cool, I guess,” Travolta was quoted as saying.
It wasn’t cool, however, when he arrived 15 minutes late for what was billed as a “Rendez-vous with John Travolta” by the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday. But over the next 90-odd minutes, he was generous with his time and in his responses.
Travolta narrated anecdotes from film sets, dished out advice to young, struggling actors in the audience, joked, laughed, said “Hello” with a smile when a phone went off in the audience, and answered all the questions put to him honestly, candidly. All except one.
In conversation with French journalist Didier Allouche, 64-year-old Travolta spoke, one by one, of all the iconic characters he has played over the years, of movies like Grease (1978) and Saturday Night Fever (1977) that made him “the most famous dancer actor in the world”, as well as “the Pulp Fiction explosion”.
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), he said, “Gave me 24 years of choice."
"The consequences was that I literally could write my ticket for the kinds of movies I wanted to do, the type of directors I wanted to work with," he said.
And while picking directors to work with, Travolta said he often goes by what Marlon Brando once told him.
“Five years before he passed, Marlon Brando told me, ‘You should never engage in a movie where the director isn’t crazy, isn’t in love with you. They have to love you deeply because that trust they have in you will allow you to perform at a new level. Whereas if they don’t have particular affection or love for you, you may get lost in translation…’"
That advice has worked for him, he says. “I have looked through the history of my performances and the best were those where the director was so enthralled with having you in their film.” And so, he takes directors’ trust, love very seriously.
Travolta trained and practiced dance almost every day for six months before shooting for SNF began because “I wanted to make sure that I did a well enough job for you to believe that he was the best dancer in Brooklyn.”
“And we did,” Allouche gushed and the audience applauded.
Travolta spoke of always trying to reinvent himself and taking risks, like when he picked Edna Turnblad in Hairspray(2007) where, he said, the key was to play “a heavy woman with no weight”.
“I just have to have confidence that I can play that… I don’t have to like a character or agree with a character in order to portray that,” he said. And he applies this rule even when he’s playing real-life character. "I never judge my characters morally. I can’t. I have to absorb the moral code they are looking at…"
Talking of playing mobster John Gotti and attorney Robert Shapiro in the TV series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, he said, “I had to buy into his view point and that’s the whole magic of being another person... Acting is believing, acting is becoming another person, and when you do that, you have no problem of judgment."
But the mystery of when an actor arrives at a character, he says, endures.
“You can do all this building up of the recipe of the character and then suddenly one thing, like in Pulp Fiction — I knew how I was going to play him, but it wasn’t until the goofy haircut, the one earring, and I kind of discovered that he would be slow in his moves that I arrived in his body and, BOOM, I was comfortable, confident playing him.”
It’s this confidence in the character he is playing, Tarantino says, that creates that special, unique connect with the audience.
Though Travolta has has several long dips in his career, he says he uses the “downtime” to live life to the fullest and absorb whatever he can so that when he gets back to acting, he has more in his "library of memories and tools and things”.
That’s why, perhaps, in response to a question about his below-par performances and ventures like Battlefield Earth, Travolta equated them to “drafts and sketches by Picasso that didn’t sell or weren’t as popular as others.”
In response to a question Travolta, who has worked with just two women directors in his career -- Shainee Gabel (A Love Song for Bobby Long, 2004), and Nora Ephron (Lucky Numbers, 2000) -- said that while the sets of women directors are more comfortable, informal, and there’s a natural, organic rapport that a man and woman have, “whether it’s maternal, or chemistry between men and women,” he doesn’t differentiate in abilities.
“There is a celebratory thing that a woman on a set has… they might be more willing to get excited over your your choices. With a man you may have to say, ‘So what did you think of that take? Which take did you like better? A woman director will go, 'OH! THREE. 3! 3! Take Three!'… But if it goes south, it can be just as testy too.”
And then added, “I don’t really make a lot of differences between the sexes. I don’t really like it… I find it kind of inhuman sometimes… Because I think we are all in the same boat together. I like them liking each other… And we are at a day and age where it is being tested every day…"
Allouche immediately jumped in to ask Travolta what he thought of the #MeToo movement.
“I honestly don’t know a ton about it because I try my best to keep people equal. Men, women, races, all that… Division is a dangerous thing... Protesting is used as a last resort… When you have no other way to go, you protest stuff. And sometimes it’s valid, like Vietnam War it was valid… Aids situation, it was valid… You protest until you get it done. But how do you measure, how do you differentiate the moment where it becomes invalid…? It’s an arc, almost, to say, let’s protest, but we have achieved these particular rights… Now let’s get smart about how we use that tool of protest... Go back to the humanity of being each other’s friends and caring at a deep level… Then we will make it,” he said.
As if to lighten the mood, a girl in the audience stood up to say that as she was born a year after Grease released, her parents had named her Sandyt, after Olivia Newton-John’s character.
Travolta looked straight at her and said softly into the mike, "Oh Sandyt! Oh Sandyt!"
The swooning in the room was audible.
John Travolta is the coolest movie star in the universe. And he seemed like a nice guy.
He has also, in the past, faced accusations of sexual assault by male masseuses that haven’t held up in court.
But as I too rushed with the rest to take a selfie with him, his response to #MeToo was making me a bit uneasy.
Is John Travolta sexist, I kept wondering as I looked at the terrible selfie I now have saved in my phone.
Probably. But, Just a Lil Bit....