I’ve always liked John Travolta but after his talk at Cannes I think I might just love him. He was wise, intelligent, insightful, humble, funny and hugely encouraging of those in the audience who asked his advice about the world of acting. He also spoke in French several times and stayed at the end for selfies with fans. Oh and he also flew himself into Cannes because he’s a pilot and flies every day because it’s his passion and he loves it!
It’s impossible to capture the whole of his fascinating take on life and acting but here are some snippets from the talk.
Pulp Fiction: I had no clue as to the magnitude of the effect winning the Palme D’Or would have on what I saw as a small, art film. It just exploded. Our little movie changed film history and of course, my own history.
Quentin Tarantino: Like all the greats he’s a director who trusts the actors he’s chosen to play the roles he’s created.
Marlon Brando once said to me, never engage in a movie where the director doesn’t love you. It’s when the director loves what you can do that you will perform at your greatest level.
Saturday Night Fever: I thought it was a small slice of life movie. I had no idea it would become the cultural phenomenon it did. We worked hard on that movie, 19 hour days. I trained for the dance scenes from September until February. I wanted to make sure that people would believe I was the best dancer in Brooklyn.
Q – Do you walk still walk down the street to the sound of Staying Alive.
Global fame after the success of Saturday Night Fever: I’d had tv fame already so I was already comfortable with it. The gifts of great fame are more than worth any of the less enjoyable aspects.
Both Saturday Night Fever and Grease laid an important foundation for my career. One was a cultural phenomenon and Grease is a timeless, endless gift for each new generation. I get 4 year olds coming up to me to say how much they love it and for them it’s still fresh as if it was made yesterday.
Benicio Del Toro once came up to me, took me into a corner and admitted that as a teenager he saw Grease 14 times at the theatre. He said it’s why he became an actor. Can you imagine that? An actor of his calibre taking up the profession and becoming the kind of great actor he is after watching Grease!
Going through a career dive: I don’t believe in regret. Whenever there’s been a dip in my career I’ve just lived life to the fullest. That way when I did work again I had more in my personal library to put into my work. Live your life as art. Absorb everything and you have more to give your art when the time comes. No job is a guarantee, especially in this profession. The only real thing is your confidence. Have certainty in your own abilities.
Comebacks: Depends how you define a comeback. I’ve never actually been away! For some a comeback is success at the box office again like I had with Look who’s talking. For Tarantino it was the magnitude of a performance that matched Saturday Night Fever. So have I had 2 comebacks or 15? It’s a subjective term. Reinvention might be a better word. That’s what I like to do; to create characters with multiple layers.
Pulp Fiction was a comeback or reinvention that allowed me to write the ticket for who I wanted to work with after its success, what films I wanted to make. It has given me 24 years of choice. Despite my popular films, my personal real passion has always been for small art films.
I don’t need to agree with or like a character, I just need to be confident I can portray it. I never judge my character morally. I have to accept their moral code and work with that.
Taking Risks: If I don’t take risks I’m not comfortable. In Hairspray I wanted to play a woman. I wanted it to be convincing. I didn’t want to play a man playing a woman. The biggest compliment I got was from a seasoned journalist who said she’d looked for me in the film but hadn’t seen me. She didn’t know I was playing Edna. That was great for me!
In Face-Off Nicholas Cage and I had to become each other and Nic said he’d watched all my films but couldn’t find ME in the characters and that was a huge compliment too.
You can’t take acting too seriously. Brando was one of the most fun people to be around and look what he could produce on screen.
Television v Films: it’s the quality that matters not where the work is shown. When I did theatre I saw equally talented people on Broadway as I did in small local productions.
Male v female directors: it’s the vision the director has that I’m interested in. I don’t like to differentiate between the sexes. There’s too much of that. We’re all in the same boat, we should remember that and work with it. I keep men, women, all races equal. It’s what I learnt from my father. Division is dangerous.
Importance of soundtracks: Before Thriller by Michael Jackson the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was the biggest selling album of all time. I believe that the soundtrack is 40% of a movie. A great soundtrack elevates the visual. You can send an audience to the moon if you get the soundtrack right.
Lack of an Oscar: I have 2 nominations and they are equally good in my eyes. I have 3 Golden Globes and critics awards. If anything I feel over acknowledged. I’ve been appropriately acknowledged. It’s about doing good work for me, not chasing awards.
What art does for humanity: have you ever been moved to tears by a piece of music, a painting? That’s what art does for humanity. There are people who store grief for years and only finally let it go after experiencing a work of art that connects with them. People take up whole careers because they’re so moved by a film or rock concert. If we lose art, we lose our soul.