Hairspray - John Travolta interview
Compiled by Jack Foley
JOHN Travolta talks about stepping into the platform heels of Divine for Hairspray and why he decided the time was right to return to song and dance after an absence of 30 years.
He also talks about the joys of getting in touch with his feminine side, waltzing with Christopher Walken and why he’s still keen to do a movie version of Dallas...
Were you a big fan of Divine and did you ever think you’d be filling his/her shoes?
John Travolta: I never in a million years thought I would be starring in Hairspray, ever. Because if you think about my past, it’s been 30 years of playing a macho leading man, so when I was offered it, I said: “Why? Why me? What have I done to deserve that you think I should do this?” After much convincing, over a year and two months, I was convinced they wanted to make a great movie.
Is this the most daring character you’ve ever played?
John Travolta: Probably. Maybe Pulp Fiction was daring. Both roles were challenging. One’s a heroin addict hitman who has to blow up somebody’s face and wear it – that’s a challenge! Playing President Clinton (in Primary Colors) was risky and challenging. Some people thought Saturday Night Fever was risky, because no one had danced in movies for years. I think the later ones are a little more risky for me.
What was your biggest hesitation over taking on the role of Edna?
John Travolta: My biggest hesitation was that I did not want to play a drag queen – and it was important that they allowed it not to be that. And once they agreed to that, it was my No. Firstly, I’m an actor, and there’s nothing in the screenplay that says the role is a man playing a woman; it’s always a woman. So I said: “You have to let me be honest to that – because if I’m playing this other thing, it’s wink-wink, it’s a joke, it’s vaudeville – and I don’t want to play that, that’s not fun for me.” Secondly, I really wanted that Baltimore accent. And thirdly, I really wanted to dance the way I thought she would dance. And when they let me have those three things, then the risk became lower for me.
Have your wife and children seen the movie, and what was their reaction to it?
John Travolta: My daughter loved Edna, and my wife loved Edna so much that she cried when she saw it. She found it moving and touching and sweet and funny. They were my two biggest fans, and that’s a nice thing.
Did you ask your wife for any tips about playing a woman?
John Travolta: I didn’t need to, because I grew up, in my childhood, with some of the greatest women performers, on stage and on screen, and even my family – my mother and my sisters. So I was very busy watching women, as a child! I have a lot of memories of great women performers, and a great musical – so I had a library in my head, of style, and a way of playing this, once I committed and was convinced that I should do it.
How long did it take to put your body suit on, and Edna’s face?
John Travolta: It took five hours every day. They start with the prosthetic that goes under your eyes and to the side of your face. Later they built some cleavage – that was glue, painting, all sorts of things. The suit was prepared so that you actually get into it; the breasts and buttocks were pre-formed. The legs right down to the feet were also synthetic. Some people thought they were mine, and I said: “I’m a big boy – but not that big!”
Did you ever go outside the film set in public, in the fat suit?
John Travolta: I didn’t need to, because the crew was flirting with me so much. Every man and every woman wanted to feel those breasts and feel that ass – and I was, to be frank, a slut! I said: “Go ahead and feel me!” I didn’t care, and I think I would be shameless as a woman. I learnt a lot about women. They have a lot of power, man! Everybody knew I was underneath that outfit, but they’d forget. I had crew guys come up to me going: “Hey! How you doin’, Edna? Would you mind if I touched you there?” I had no back-off at all – it was worrying me!
How did you make yourself feel sexy – and did you feel sexy?
John Travolta: I did feel sexy. It’s an embarrassing question! OK, the women I liked when I was growing up, as a little boy, were Anita Ekberg, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, because they had these curvaceous figures, and they were erotic to me. One of my decisions was that I have to convince everyone that it really is a woman, and you can’t do that by looking like Grandma. Even if I’m very overweight, it has to be reminiscent of, in the day, in her earlier years, she was all that.
So if you imagined Elizabeth Taylor or Sophia Loren gaining 300 lbs, that’s what I wanted to look like. So there’s still a remnance of sexuality and sensuality to it, and I’d have the ability to move in a rhythmic and curvaceous way. So if you give me breasts and you give me an ass and you give my movements, I can make it that way. But they were based on very specific memories of women, that I liked. If you’re going to play a woman, you might as well play a woman that you liked, and someone sexy.
The movie celebrates bigger women and different people. How does that lie in Hollywood, where everyone’s goal is to be as skinny as a rake?
John Travolta: I think it’s a respite, a relief for some all, over the country. America isn’t as lucky as you guys (Europeans), who for the most part have this quality of food that keeps you slim. We’re over-eaters in the United States by nature, with fast food and all this kind of thing. So it’s probably giving a bit of a rest for those people that have extra kilos.
How did Christopher Walken compare with your previous dancing partners?
John Travolta: Actually, Christopher Walken was probably the most experienced dancing partner I’ve had in movies, because he has the same background as I do. He’s from theatre, Broadway and off-Broadway, and we both shared that. So, I had the most confidence with Chris than I’d have with any partner.
Did you miss musicals the whole time they were gone?
John Travolta: Yes, I waited 30 years to do a musical. Not because I didn’t want to do one, it’s because I couldn’t find one to do. I was offered four, and I said no to them all. One was A Chorus Line, one was Chicago, one was Phantom of the Opera, and two didn’t work, but one did – but I didn’t know if it would or not. This is the first time I actually took the time to talk to every department. I took responsibility to some degree for what the future would bring with this particular movie. It took a year and two months to make the decision, but I had a lot of time to quality check each thing. So yes, I missed it, I wish they would do more – but two in 30 years is not a lot.
How do you react to the recent allegations from the gay rights movement? [That he shouldn’t be taking this role, as a follower of Scientology]
John Travolta: I heard about that and the truth is, it was one person, not a movement. And John Waters came and blew that right out of the water. He said: “I wrote it, there’s nothing gay in this movie.” And he’s a gay man and he had no idea what this guy was talking about. Everyone who was working on this movie will agree, it’s almost like the opposite of what this particular man on this minor publication was saying. And also I’m not playing a gay man, I’m playing a woman.
After the fun you’ve obviously had making Hairspray, do you have any regrets not coming back to musicals earlier – and perhaps not taking up the role in Chicago that was offered to you?
John Travolta: I’ve always slightly regretted not taking up Chicago. However, when it was presented to me, no one was explaining the difference between the stage show and the movie. To me, the stage show was wicked – it was women who didn’t like men, and I like women who like men, so I wasn’t sure if it would work. But then they had this idea of making the women more vulnerable, and the men more abusive, and that was the reason why the women were being wicked. So I thought: “ I’m not interested, in the way I know of it. But next time a musical is presented to me, I’ll hear it out.” And that’s what happened with Hairspray. I took a year and heard every meeting.
Is Dallas the movie happening?
John Travolta: Yes, it is but not until next year. And I can’t wait to play JR Ewing. They’ve already paid me for it, I’m obligated to this, but only with a limit – they’ve had five scripts, none of them have worked. There’s one attempt happening as we speak, and in a few weeks we’ll see. It’s a long shot, but I hope it’s possible. I’m willing to tolerate any experiments or anything they want to do to get it done, because I think it would be a great fun movie to do.
Are you doing a movie with your daughter?
John Travolta: Yes, it’s called Old Dogs, and it’s a comedy about two men who are sports agents. Robin Williams plays one of them who has to learn how to be a father, and I’m the one who teaches the other one how to be father, but I don’t know how to be a father either. My wife, Kelly [Preston] is in it, and of course so is my daughter, Ella.
- Buy the 2-disc DVD (HMV)
- Buy the 1-disc DVD (HMV)
- Buy the 2-disc DVD (Amazon)
- Buy the 1-disc DVD (Amazon)
- Buy in on Blu-ray (Amazon)
- Read our review
- John Travolta interview
- Adam Shankman interview
- Nikki Blonsky and Amanda Bynes interview
- Zac Efron and Elijah Kelley interview
- Neil Meron and Craig Zadan interview
- Hairspray photo gallery
- Hairspray soundtrack reviewed
- See Hairspray in the West End
- Buy the soundtrack (Amazon)
- Buy the soundtrack (HMV)