John Travolta gives me the headline towards the end of our meeting.
‘I would love to play James Bond,’ he says. And there it is! The big news, the top line.
One of Hollywood’s most famous heavyweights – Danny in Grease, Vincent in Pulp Fiction, Edna in Hairspray – throws his wig into the ring to replace Daniel Craig. JT wants to be JB. Double oh – surely no one saw that coming?
He might be 61. He might be American. He might be famous for wearing a white suit (in Saturday Night Fever) that would have Sean Connery spitting into his on-the-rocks nightcap. But why not? Travolta could pull off a super spy, couldn’t he? He knows his way around a gun and has a good put-down or two. He could have all of Hollywood shaken and stirred.
And then... there’s sort of a pause. Then there’s a but.
‘I would love to play James Bond... but my understanding of it being a British origin thing means my answer to him is Get Shorty,’ he says. ‘I always felt Chili Palmer was an American version but more... realistic.’
‘I will say,’ he adds, ‘I do feel I should play a bad guy in a Bond picture.’
That’s almost as good a headline, isn’t it?
We’re sitting, John and me, in a hotel room in Reno, Nevada, surrounded by fruit platters and PR types. He’s in town to attend an aviation show and tying in a mini media whirlwind. In fact, he’s doing seven face-to-face interviews this afternoon.
That’s why there’s a French woman in the corner holding her phone up as a stopwatch. I have just 10 minutes with the big man, it turns out.
John is unique-looking in real life. He’s tall and broad and still has that famous dimple decorating his Superman chin, but there’s been surgery, and it’s not necessarily been kind. His face gives the impression of a Toby jug moulded to look like how John Travolta used to. He looks like an A-lister struggling to cope with growing old.
Which is strange because that’s not how he comes across. In conversation, he’s enthusiastic, expressive and anecdotal. When I say I’ve travelled from Dubai, he springs up in his seat.
‘I love that place,’ he cries. ‘The architecture is amazing. Any city like that, devoted to architecture, wins me over straightaway. Chicago, Hong Kong. [They] astound me.’
As a famously fully trained jumbo jet pilot with a private runway in the backyard of his Florida home, he says he’s flown twice into Dubai International.
‘It’s an extraordinary airport,’ he says. ‘A piece of art really. It’s like a vision of the future made real. It’s busy but I like flying in there.’
There’s a minor pause. ‘It’s good you’re from Dubai,’ he confirms.
And that’s how we begin. We’re already a minute in.
To be fair, before I flew 16 hours from Dubai for this meeting, I’d already been told time with John would be tight. There were no bones about that. He’s in demand, they said.
Part of me felt it wasn’t worth the air miles.
Let’s be honest, what can John Travolta possibly say in 600 seconds that merits a 12,500km journey? What can I even begin to ask that might remotely give an insight into his life or an essence of who he is? More pertinently, what’s to say John Travolta isn’t going to spend 10 minutes talking about his Breitling watch (he’s doing the interview as brand ambassador), promoting his latest projects (he’s the voice of Gummy Bear for an upcoming movie) and then bam – thanks for coming, good night, next!
Why even bother boarding that plane?
But I guess the answer is simple: because it’s John Travolta. Actual, real-life chills-multiplying, royal-with-cheese, watch-the-hair, would-you-mind-not-shooting-at-the-thermonuclear-weapons John Travolta.
The two-time Oscar-nominee, twice Golden Globe-winning, twice MTV Awards-conquering John Travolta. Not just an actor – not just your average American actor like Channing Tatum or Garrett Hedlund – but a bona fide, four-decade-in-the-making, all-singing-all-dancing (literally) Hollywood immortal who hasn’t been able to go out in public without being recognised since 1978, when Grease went massive and stayed that way forever; an icon widely considered among the most versatile showbiz talents of all time; a worthy successor to the likes of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, who, incidentally, were both personal friends.
Who wants to be Bond one day. Sort of.
John’s incredible story started in Englewood, a tough neighbourhood on the outskirts of New York. Less than gifted academically, he took up acting and dancing as a teenage distraction. He starred in a couple of minor films and TV shows before the stratosphere came calling.
Over a period of 18 months, he was cast in what he thought would be two relatively small-scale, retro films. Both went on to become defining movies of the 20th century.
Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease are cinematic classics. The former, about a disco dancer, is archived in the Library of Congress because of its cultural and historical significance. The latter, a high-school flick, became the highest-grossing musical of all time in the US.
It meant that by the age of 24, John was the biggest Hollywood star on the planet. For a brief while, he owned the most famous face in the country.
He shrugs when I suggest this. ‘That’s probably a fact,’ he nods. He would receive thousands of letters from fans every single day. When critics were cruel about his next few films, he had a ready reply. ‘It’s hard to make a cultural phenomenon every time,’ he told one.
His next great film was 1994’s Pulp Fiction, from which people still quote at him today. ‘It’s that kind of writing,’ he’s said previously. Since then, there’s been the good (Face/Off), the bad (Swordfish) and the ugly (Battlefield Earth in 2000).
But, in both content and quality, there has never been any lack of variety. How does he decide his roles? ‘Actually, I’ve always felt like I’ve been a muse for writers,’ he says.
‘If you had said to me years ago, “OK, these are the roles you will play: the president of the US, a lawyer, a gangster, a woman”, none of these would I have given to you as suggestions of what I would like to play. So, I’ve always felt like writers have given me the great gift of something to be. And they have done such a good job that I spend very little time worrying about roles.’
His upcoming projects are similarly diverse. Premiering in February will be his first TV work since he was a jobbing youngster. He will play Robert Shapiro, who was part of former footballer OJ Simpson’s legal team, in American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson. He follows in the footsteps of a clutch of other Hollywood stars such as Martin Sheen and Steve Buscemi returning to the small screen.
‘Well, TV is the future and the future is here,’ he says. ‘You think of Mad Men and other series like that... With American Crime Story, we’ve basically done a 10-hour movie. The quality of [producers] Ryan Murphy [Glee] and Nina Jacobson [The Hunger Games] doesn’t get better in Hollywood. This is the biggest production I have ever worked on. Bar none. It’s massive.’
Then there’s the long-gestating biopic on the late New York mobster John Gotti, which will go into production next year. JT was chosen for the part of Gotti Sr by the gangster’s son, Gotti Jr ‘John Gotti loved me,’ explains JT. ‘So does his son. He thinks I nail every role I play. So he came to me and said, ‘Who else to play my dad but you?’ That’s how we became friends, him reaching out.’
He has approached the role with a methodical zeal. ‘I want to know everything about my character,’ he says. ‘So I went from the time John Sr. woke to the time he went to bed. I went to the house he lived in, then through every detail.
‘He wakes up, showers, goes to the barber most mornings, meetings at the venues he’s involved with during the day, ends up in the evening at a table, having dinner. I interviewed the people who knew him, and I discovered things. Like even though he took a percentage of all the businesses he was involved in [extorting, generally], if that business dipped into the red, he’d bail them out. That helped me capture who this person is.’
In person, it’s surprising but Travolta actually has a quiet air of vulnerability about him. It comes across most when we talk about social media. He doesn’t use any platform, and refuses to sign up on Twitter.
‘Oh, I think you’re inviting the devil,’ he says. ‘You’re inviting the opinions of anyone who wants to get online. And there’s enough cynicism in the world that, really, you’re going to invite more?
‘I mean, you can invite a lot of beautiful things in too, but you have to tolerate the bad and that can be tough, and I’m not a big person for sarcasm and cynicism. And you get that anyway, someone like me. Just being famous, you get that. So I don’t need any more. Not in my own home.’
I ask if there’s anything he’d like to do if he wasn’t famous. ‘Go to crowded restaurants, he half sighs. Or a Broadway show and not worry about being noticed. Go to the movies on a Saturday night.’
It’s that vulnerability, actually, which means, when you have just 10 minutes, it feels wrong to dig too deep about the darker areas of his life.
He’s spoken about how the death of his 16-year-old son Jett from a seizure in 2009 almost destroyed him. ‘The truth is,’ he said during an on-stage interview at London’s Theatre Royal last year, ‘I didn’t know if I was going to make it. Life was no longer interesting to me.’
Scientology helped him, he says. And he still defends the controversial religion.
‘People really need to take time and read a book,’ he previously told Good Morning America. ‘That’s my advice. If you really read [about] it, you’ll understand it, but unless you do, you’ll speculate. And I think that’s a mistake.’ John has two other children, daughter Ella Bleu, 15, and four-year-old son Benjamin, both with wife of 24 years, Kelly Preston.
‘I love kids and I always wanted to be a father,’ he says. ‘It’s the greatest role.’
Time’s running out. I ask which, of all the characters he’s played, is most like him.
He struggles a little before suggesting James in Look Who’s Talking because ‘I love kids’.
Then, he adds: ‘Playing myself is not something I gravitate towards. I don’t feel like I’m a guy who has ever been identified for my personality. I feel like it’s always been identified as a character performance.’
I ask which of his films he’d most like to do a sequel for.
‘I think Wild Hogs,’ he says, ‘because it’s fun, it entertained people on a certain level. The more dramatic things, I feel, should be left alone. Don’t flog them.’
And then time really is running short. He’s telling me an anecdote about how, last night, he was at an Andrea Bocelli (the visually impaired iconic Italian musician and singer) concert in Los Angeles and he started crying because the song Maria was so beautiful. He’s telling me this when the French lady runs over.
Either John Travolta has been enjoying the questions or (seems more likely) she got distracted but we’re six minutes over. The big man is standing up, shaking my hand. He’s saying, in a context I don’t understand at the time and still can’t figure out now, ‘You know, it’s how Shakespeare says, to be or not to be.’ What? I don’t know.
And then I’m being escorted out the door, into the hotel corridor, out into Reno’s dusty streets. Sixteen minutes on my tape. A 16-hour journey home ahead.