Odds are you don’t need to be told who John Travolta is, but you may need reminding every few years just why the man is such an icon as both an actor and personality. Depending on your age, you may know him best from different works. For the oldest of the old-school fans, he entered our lives on TV in Welcome Back, Kotter or in such films as Carrie, Saturday Night Fever, and Grease. If your film knowledge doesn’t go back any further than the 1980s, perhaps you know him from Urban Cowboy, Blow Out, or Look Who’s Talking. But Travolta has been working steadily and been fairly beloved thanks to a string of hits in the 1990s that began with Pulp Fiction and continued through Get Shorty, Broken Arrow, Face/Off, and Primary Colors.
His output in the 2000s has been spotty, but every so often he gives us a Swordfish or Hairspray or In A Valley of Violence or his Emmy-nominated portrayal of Robert Shapiro in the first iteration of American Crime Story—The People vs. O.J. Simpson. But there’s also Gotti, which was one of the worst-rated films of 2018 and deservedly so. The one thing that every single one of these roles has in common is that Travolta has never half-assed his way through any of them
Rarely has that been more clear than his performance in his latest work, The Fanatic, directed and co-written by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst (The Longshots), where an almost unrecognizable Travolta plays an autograph collector, movie lover, and obsessive fan named Moose, who gets cheated out of meeting his favorite action star (Devon Sawa) and proceeds to hunt him down simply to express his admiration for the actor, who in turn is freaked out that his stranger has found out where he lives. The film takes a dark turn that reminds us of Of Mice and Men, in which Moose’s feelings and panic escalate an already treacherous situation. Whatever you think of the film, you will not be able to take your eyes off of the character that Travolta has created, and that’s because he’s all in—there’s no holding back.
/Film spoke to Travolta recently in Chicago to discuss whether he’s ever had encounters with intense fandom, getting into the headspace of the man and mullet named Moose, and what he thinks of his Pulp Fiction director Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. The Fanatic opens in select theaters on August 30.
This film’s horror elements feel personal, and you and Fred are producers on The Fanatic, and I know he wrote this with you in mind. Who between you has that fear of fans going too far?
John: Fred is probably your man. I’ve never had any issues with fans; I’ve always had this earnest feeling toward them and vice versa. I’ve never had any problems; I’ve had some maybe cross the line but nothing that was ill-intended. But I think Fred got more of that, and he loosely based this character on someone and maybe a few others that collectively made him up, he took it to the Nth degree. And there have been stories of extreme behavior over the years, so yes, more Fred than me, but I’m aware of both sides because I’ve lived both sides. I’m a fan, honestly. I can love up an artist as much as anybody can. Without that, I don’t think I could be here performing. As a kid, I had to love Jimmy Cagney, Paul McCartney, Barbra Streisand, and all the people who were interesting to me as performers when I was a child. Without that feeling of utter admiration, you can’t be a performer; you have to be fan of something or someone.
I certainly understand being a film actor and not wanting anyone to cross over a line, but I’ve always negotiated that very well, meaning I’ve never gone out when I’m not in the right mood or if I know I’ll be interrupted. That might mean issues with PR, but I tend to avoid it. Others might buy into it or let it affect them adversely, and they fight back. But as you see in this film, the film star is a good person but he’s a bad celebrity. He doesn’t know how to behave. And the fan, he’s a man-child, slightly on the spectrum—this star isn’t even clocking any of that. He’s just upset about his ex-wife and career and worrying about his kid, and it blinds him to what’s in front of him. So this guy is genuinely a lovebug; he’s not a professional fan—he won’t sell those things he’s getting signed.
You definitely get a sense that the collection he talks about is his and is not for sale.
John: It’s his, for sure. But so many stars are used to professional fans, therefore, he blocking the truth of this young man…well, he’s an older man, and that’s the tragedy of it. If he’d only seen who’s in front of him, but it’s hard to differentiate, you know?
It’s funny that you slipped and called him a young man, because he is like an excitable teenager.
John: Oh, he is unabashedly. And I identify with him in a lot of ways. I could be presumptuous, but I think we all can be like that in some ways, to some degree, identify with Moose, while very few of us can identify with the film actor, because we don’t know that crossover.
As much as this might be a cautionary tale about rabid fandom, do you think it’s also a cautionary tale to celebrities to say “Be cool to these people, and they’ll probably be cool with you”?
John: Yes. I can put my stamp on that message because that’s how I’ve always been, and I’ve never had issues. That old saying “What you resist, you become” really applies. If you just understand their viewpoint and allow room for slips in manners, it won’t affect you. But if you do that whole car racing away and another car following thing, it’ll end up in some sort of tragedy.
You’ve always had a fairly devoted fan base going back to the 1970s, and for different periods in your career, have you noticed a shift from simple autograph seekers to social media followers who track you or apps that tell people where celebrities live?
John: Yes, there’s more availability of tools to suss out situations. However, I’ve actually enjoyed the last year on social media, because I feel like I can be the first one there and define anything that I want to say and let people into my life in the way I’d like to. It’s been wonderful for me, and I’ve gotten a lot from it. But as far as geographical apps, they do allow that.
How did you land on the look of Moose and the physical ticks he has? I was exhausted watching you her because you never stop moving. He’s in constant motion.
John: It’s very important to me how a character looks because it’s a visual medium, so I like to decide before how he’ll move, behave, what the attributes are. The look was basically me saying “Hey, Fred. This is brilliantly written. What are we going to do about how he appears?” And he said “How do you feel about Hawaiian shirts?” I said, “That’s classic. Maybe also with bad shorts and sneakers. But what about the socks?” That tells everything, but what’s most important is how he looks in the hair and face, as far as illusion. And he said, “How do you feel about a mullet? There are a lot of different kinds of mullets.” I said, “Really?” So I looked up a myriad of about 100 of them, and then “Boom,” there was the guy—he had this hair cut with rimless glasses, and I knew I’d found him. So I texted it to Fred, and he said “Bingo, we’ve got him.” So we put all of that together that way.
As far as the mannerisms, I had to put him slightly on the spectrum because he couldn’t get away with the things that he does and not be cognizant of certain misbehaviors and not really clocking things. So in doing so, I became more familiar with ticks and movements that would justify that he’s a different guy from the next fan. And I had to because he wrote this guy going over the line, but I don’t want to make him psychotically over the line. I wanted to make him naively over the line, and in order to do that I had to make him a man-child/spectrum to some degree.
Every time he does cross the line, he immediately retreats and regrets it, which is a very distinct difference than other movies about out-of-control fans.
John: That’s right. I’m glad you noticed that. That’s exactly what I wanted. He doesn’t want to hurt this movie star at all. He just wants him to slow down and appreciate how much he loves him, missing the reflection, which is that he though when this guy sees how much memorabilia he has and how much he loves him, they’re going to be best friends. “Look at what I bought and how much it cost.” Of course, the movie star thinks he’s going to resell that. It’s tragic in his naiveté about it and the movie star’s.
This is a bold character for you to take on. Is fear often a motivating factor for you in selecting roles? Do you look at something and say “I’ve never done that before” or even “I’m not sure I can do that, therefore I must”?
John: To some degree, yes. And I know you’ll understand this, for sure. But really the successful action for me has always been going outside what you would expect from me. That’s where my comfort zone is; I’m almost less comfortable playing something closer to myself, only because I get a little bored with that. So if I see and Edna Turnblad [from Hairspray] or Robert Shapiro or Vincent Vega [from Pulp Fiction], I feel like I have something to do. I guess I need to have something to do as an actor. I don’t want to just show up and be whatever that mean; I want to show up and perform for you. And in order to do that, I need to have things to do. It gives me joy. The more I can disappear, the more joy I get personally. I don’t go to myself for stability; I go to characters for stability. But growing up in a theatrical family, I don’t know if that’s that unusual. Mom was reading us plays to go to bed, and performance was a normal thing—how well you could imitate someone or how well you could do a character or how well you could make us believe you. My mother had a book that said “Acting is believing,” and building a character was part of our orientation to show business, not so much “Go out there because you’re so cute or special.” None of that worked for us. It was “How good are you at it?” That’s what mattered to our family.
There was a recent part you did that I thought was really fantastic and, again, totally out of what I consider your wheelhouse—In the Valley of Violence. Was that your first Western?
John: [laughs] Yes.
Was that a bucket list thing for you as an actor?
John: It kind of was. I think you have to do at least one Western, and it’s harder to do genre pieces today. Urban Cowboy was sort of a modern Western, but an old-fashioned one was what I really wanted to try, and I so preferred what I was given to do in that—this legless, crotchity old marshall—it was so much more fun. There’s a role where I could be someone else and be someone else. And maybe I view myself more as a character actor than I do a leading man, for whatever reason. Maybe I’m more comfortable with that.
In The Fanatic, you make references to Jamie Lee Curtis and Reservoir Dogs, both of which involve people you have worked with before. Did you deliberately do that with people you knew?
John: The truth is, the history of Jaime Lee does include me [in the film Perfect], but she became more famous for horror film, which are Moose’s favorite movies. Reservoir Dogs had horror in it, even though it’s a drama-thriller. But it was really quite horrible and effective with the torture on screen. So I felt it went under the character’s list of horror pictures that he would be attracted to, especially Jaime Lee. If only he could get her autograph.
Have you Quentin’s new movie?
John: I loved it. I loved it so much.
You were culturally aware in the year that that takes place. I wonder how much of it rang true for you?
John: One-hundred percent. There’s only one thing that didn’t ring true for me in the whole movie, and that was that the 747 wasn’t out yet in early 1969. It only test flew in February in 1969. But other than that, I thought it was pitch perfect. I adored that movie because I love movies that as What If. It makes it so much more interesting, because we all know what happened in the same way we know what happened in World War II. But we never do movies about “What should we have done? What do we wish happened?” And that was so satisfying to me, to see a film about that. There’s a little bit of repair therapy to it, I guess.
Of course you would pick up on the plane thing. Thank you so much, John.
John: This was awesome. Thank you.
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