Jul 27,2007 00:00
In the days of "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease," John Travolta's dancing was the epitome of cool. Then after Quentin Tarantino threw Travolta a life preserver by casting him in "Pulp Fiction" and giving him his first big dance number since "Staying Alive," his on-screen boogies evolved into their own minievents.
The 53-year-old superstar is a riot in drag, playing the 300-pound mother of Tracy Turnblad, a girl in 1962 Baltimore who dreams of dancing on the "Corny Collins Show." She gets her shot at local stardom in "Hairspray," which was first a marginally successful movie from director John Waters before it became a big, brassy Broadway musical that won a bunch of Tony awards.
Travolta, who is on yet another hot streak after a few years of back-to-back disappointments, recently co-starred in the blockbuster comedy "Wild Hogs." He will reunite with that film's director for another comedy next year, "Old Dogs," co-starring with his wife, Kelly Preston, and Robin Williams.
Q: Is it important that audiences view your character in "Hairspray" as a real woman and not just as a man in drag?
A: Yeah, the idea was that it had to be woman. And that meant that I had big breasts, a big butt and a little waist - the full prosthetic. You had to visually believe that I was a woman. If I could do that, then I could do the acting part. I can move and dance and round out a movement to be more feminine than masculine. With the help of the visual, I could add my dance movements and those other layers.
Q: Did playing this part alter your ideas about women?
A: I don't know how they do it. Of course, this is in 1962 and back in those days there were more accoutrements, more bras, especially for the overweight. I do remember my mother wearing stockings, a girdle, bra and high heels. And that was enough to exhaust her. I wondered why it all exhausted her and now, cut to 40 years later, I know exactly why she was exhausted. I tried it and it'll take your breath away, dealing with all that.
Q: So was your performance inspired by your mother?
A: You know, I have a library of great memories from growing up with a lot of great women. But I also have memories of women from theater and film. I like watching women, and as an actor I try to observe as much as I can. But I never thought I'd ever have to use it. So you watch your mother, her friends, and ladies onstage and screen, and you build up a knowledge of behavior. It was mixture of things.
Q: You have not danced on-screen in a long time. After so many years, was it any different this time?
A: It was exhausting because I had on a fat suit. But on the other hand, it was exhilarating because it got me in shape again and I lost some weight. It was fun. I wanted to do a musical for the last 30 years. I was offered "A Chorus Line," "Phantom" and "Chicago," but I just couldn't see it. The producers of "Hairspray" gave me a year and two months to think about it. They convinced me that all departments were A-plus. Musicals are like Westerns and other genres. There's no guarantee, so you need to have all your ducks lined up.
Q: Why do you think they wanted to cast you?
A: I don't know. After 30 years of being a leading man, and a macho leading man at that, I wondered, "Why me?" What was it about my performances in "Face Off" and "Broken Arrow" that made them think I'd look good as a 300-pound woman? I'm dead serious. But they thought I could pull it off.
Q: You also danced with Christopher Walken, who plays your husband. Was it hard to re-educate your brain about being led on a dance floor?
A: It was a trick to undo that. There was a distinct rethinking. But I fell into it pretty easily because, years ago, I wanted to be a dance instructor and you had to practice both sides in order to learn how to teach. So I just fell back to that.
Q: Most people do not realize the depth of your theater experience. Would you ever return to the stage?
A: Honestly, I did stage from the time I was 12 until I was 26 years old. I know it's sacrilegious to say, but I did my years onstage. It's a lot of work. Movies are hard, but then they're over. If you commit to a year's run for a Broadway show, man, you'd rather be digging ditches by the time it's over.© Copley News Service