Film: Professor Travolta

Basic star discusses the physics and chemistry of moviemaking

Mar 26, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Woodrow J. Hinton

John Travolta describes his on-screen chemistry with Basic co-star Connie Nielsen like some high school science teacher.

Meet John Travolta, high school science teacher. This isn't the next role for the Hollywood fixture. And it's not his newest pastime, supplanting his renowned love of flying. It's just that Travolta so often equates moviemaking magic to simple science theorems that he might as well be teaching an 11th-grade science class. Like a good teacher, Travolta arrives plainly dressed, clean-shaven and amazingly attentive for this early morning conversation in a New York City hotel room. Travolta wants to talk about his newest film, the military thriller Basic, but he lacks a clear, commanding voice.

"A bunch of us from the movie went out to eat late last night," Travolta says. "And whenever I stay up too late, my voice gets like this."

That's the first indication that Travolta isn't the "on the scene" movie star one expects him to be, club-hopping and hobnobbing with the other rich and famous until the wee small hours. He's more subdued, more no-nonsense, more — dare we say — boring?

"I'm just an old geezer," he says apologetically. "I was never able to do the party scene, even as a kid. I created two or three party scenes — with Saturday Night Fever, Urban Cowboy and Pulp Fiction — but I couldn't actually live it. I could start it. Just couldn't live it."

A quick glance at his filmography reminds you how Travolta has managed to be part of several iconic films, the kind of pop culture-defining projects that any actor would give his left arm to be in. For Travolta, he says it was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. It's also about being smart enough to say yes at the right times.

Saying yes to Basic, Travolta admits, was easy. The film offered him the chance to re-team with his Pulp Fiction co-star, Samuel L. Jackson. And although the two are given precious little screen time together in Basic, Travolta jumped at the chance to re-ignite the sparks the two created in director Quentin Tarantino's 1994 watershed film.

"I've wanted to work with Sam again since that movie," he says. "He was offered the part in Get Shorty, but that didn't work out. Bruce Willis got to work with him twice since Pulp Fiction. I'm like, hey, he's my guy!"

While talking about Pulp Fiction, Travolta goes into detail about his scientific theory on co-star chemistry. With nearly 30 years in the business and over 35 films to his credit, Travolta knows a thing or two about screen chemistry.

"To me, chemistry is watch-ability," he says. "Does it matter to see the next moment? In Pulp Fiction, Sam and I had a very laid back chemistry. So you're sucked in in a subtle way. With Connie Nielsen (his co-star in Basic), there's a sexual tension that you like watching."

He says that throughout his career he has been blessed to work with actors who clicked immediately with him. He effortlessly rattles off a list of actors with whom he had an "organic chemistry." Olivia Newton-John. Madeline Stowe. James Woods. Renee Russo. Uma Thurman.

But some great pairings were a revelation even to him.

"Debra Winger and I were a surprise (in Urban Cowboy)," he says. "I wouldn't have thought looking at her that we would have had great chemistry. We look like brother and sister, you know. That surprised me."

Other films are barely watchable. Travolta cites Moment by Moment, a film he did early in his career with Lilly Tomlin, wherein the chemistry just didn't work.

"I think adjustments are made to your energies," he says." It's not faking it. It's honing your energy with that person. I don't know if you'll get chemistry so much as you'll get simpatico. It gives the illusion that you want to watch."

Travolta says he savors the excitement of filmmaking more than ever in his career. It could begin to explain his non-stop efforts since Pulp Fiction. The flood of films, he says, is completely intentional. Only by knowing what it feels like to be passed over for jobs — something he knew very well from the late 1980s to the early '90s — can one appreciate being on the short A-list of movie stars.

But Travolta is also quick to point out that he wasn't a worse actor during the dark time. He had the same abilities, the same swagger as he has now. Movie studios, he says, just didn't trust him to open and sustain a film.

"Being cast in the right thing has so much to do with temperature at the moment," he says, redirecting the science lesson toward physics. "You're always available. I always viewed it as a generator that was not hooked up to the electricity. You always have the ability to perform. And people like that generator. But if the studio decides to pull the plug on it, then you're just a workable generator at a distance."

Travolta — a generator desperate to spin — finally got his chance with Pulp Fiction, thanks to the unbending faith of Tarantino. Travolta is nearly 10 years removed from the film, but he still seems genuinely touched by the maverick director's vote of confidence.

"It's embarrassing in a way, because then you feel like you have to do a good job because someone put his life on the line for you," he says. "I don't know anyone ever who would do that."

For that gesture, Travolta says he'll do anything Tarantino ever asks. In fact, Travolta acknowledges what Web sites and other Hollywood rumor mills have been speculating for years: Tarantino's next project will include Travolta.

"Quentin beats his own drum, so it's difficult to predict what you're going to do with him," he says. "And he luxuriates between films! But he tells me to keep working, and he'll pick me at his pacing. It's Uma's turn now with (this year's heavily anticipated) Kill Bill. Then supposedly it's me."©