Hairspray - Q&A With John Travolta
Below we have a syndicated Q&A (not written/conducted by DVDTimes) with John Travolta for his new movie Hairspray which is currently playing in UK cinemas. You can read the DVDTimes review of the film here.
Hollywood superstar John Travolta has taken on arguably his most challenging movie role to date in the new screen musical Hairspray - playing a super-sized Baltimore matriarch once notoriously played by diva drag-queen Divine in 1988’s cult classic John Waters movie.
In his first film musical since 1983’s Staying Alive, Travolta steals all his scenes as Edna Turnblad, the loveable, roly-poly mother of Tracy, the movie’s equally rotund young heroine. Tottering around in a frumpy fat-suit that took five hours to apply each day, the 53 year old star surprisingly relished every aspect of the role - and didn’t even mind being felt up by cheeky crew members. "Every man and every woman was feeling my breasts and squeezing my ass," he recalls with an embarrassed giggle. "And I was, to be frank, a slut! I said, 'Go ahead and feel me!' I think I'd be shameless as a woman."
Based on the original movie and the critically-acclaimed, Tony Award-winning Broadway hit musical, Hairspray is directed by renowned choreographer Adam Shankman and features an all-star ensemble cast, which alongside Travolta features Michelle Pfeiffer as Velma Von Tussle, Christopher Walken as Wilbur Turnblad (playing, ostensibly, Travolta’s husband!), Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle, and High School Musical's Zac Efron as Link Larkin, while 18-year-old newcomer Nikki Blonsky stars as Tracy Turnblad, the big Baltimore girl with one big passion - dancing.
Were you a big fan of Divine and did you ever think you’d be filling his/her shoes?
I never in a million years thought I would be starring in Hairspray, ever. Because if you think about my past, it’s been 30 years of playing a macho leading man, so when I was offered it, I said, “Why? Why me? What have I done to deserve that you think I should do this?” After much convincing, over a year and two months, I was convinced they wanted to make a great movie.
Is this the most daring character you’ve ever played?
Probably. Maybe Pulp Fiction was daring. Both roles were challenging. One’s a heroin addict hit-man who has to blow up somebody’s face and wear it - that’s a challenge! Playing President Clinton (in Primary Colors) was risky and challenging. Some people thought Saturday Night Fever was risky, because no-one had danced in movies for years. I think the later ones are a little more risky for me.
What was your biggest hesitation over taking on the role of Edna?
My biggest hesitation was that I did not want to play a drag queen - and it was important that they allowed it not to be that. And once they agreed to that, it was my No. 1. I’m an actor, and there’s nothing in the screenplay that says the role is a man playing a woman; it’s always a woman. So I said, “You have to let me be honest to that - because if I’m playing this other thing, it’s wink-wink, it’s a joke, it’s vaudeville - and I don’t want to play that, that’s not fun for me.” No.2 - I really wanted that Baltimore accent. And No. 3, I really wanted to dance the way I thought she would dance. And when they let me have those three things, then the risk became lower for me.
Have your wife and children seen the movie, and what was their reaction to it?
My daughter loved Edna, and my wife loved Edna so much that she cried when she saw it. She found it moving and touching and sweet and funny. They were my two biggest fans, and that’s a nice thing.
Did you ask your wife for any tips about playing a woman?
I didn’t need to, because I grew up, in my childhood, with some of the greatest women performers, on stage and on screen, and even my family - my mother and my sisters. So I was very busy watching women as a child! I have a lot of memories of great women performers, and a great musical - so I had a library in my head, of style, and a way of playing this, once I committed and was convinced that I should do it.
How long did it take to put your body suit on, and Edna’s face?
It took five hours every day. They start with the prosthetic that goes under your eyes and to the side of your face. Later they built some cleavage - that was glue, painting, all sorts of things. The suit was prepared so that you actually get into it; the breasts and buttocks were pre-formed. The legs right down to the feet were also synthetic. Some people thought they were mine, and I said. “I’m a big boy - but not that big!”
Did you ever go outside the film set in public, in the fat suit?
I didn’t need to, because the crew was flirting with me so much. Every man and every woman wanted to feel those breasts and feel that ass - and I was, to be frank, a slut! I said, “Go ahead and feel me!” I didn’t care, and I think I would be shameless as a woman. I learnt a lot about women. They have a lot of power, man! Everybody knew I was underneath that outfit, but they'd forget. I had crew guys come up to me going, “Hey! How you doin’, Edna? Would you mind if I touched you there?” I had no back-off at all - it was worrying me!
What was the hardest thing about playing Edna?
The hardest thing for me was probably waiting to see if the department that created the prosthetics and the suit was convincing enough for me, and I kept on sending it back - “Bigger breasts, bigger ass, smaller waist, smoother skin!” - because I didn’t want you to see a man in there, at all. That was against the rules for me. I wanted you to be convinced and much more entertained by the idea that maybe I was doing it, but not to distract you from the character. So the most difficult thing was waiting to see if that illusion would be effective.
How did you make yourself feel sexy - and did you feel sexy?
I did feel sexy. It’s an embarrassing question! OK, the women I liked when I was growing up, as a little boy, were Anita Ekberg, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor, because they had these curvaceous figures, and they were erotic to me. One of my decisions was that I have to convince everyone that it really is a woman, and you can’t do that by looking like Grandma. So if you imagined Elizabeth Taylor or Sophia Loren gaining 300 lbs, that’s what I wanted to look like. So there’s still a remnant of sexuality and sensuality to it, and I’d have the ability to move in a rhythmic and curvaceous way. So if you give me breasts and you give me an ass and you give my movements, I can make it that way. But they were based on very specific memories of women that I liked. If you’re going to play a woman, you might as well play a woman that you liked, and someone sexy.
The movie celebrates bigger women and different people. How does that lie in Hollywood, where everyone’s goal is to be as skinny as a rake?
I think it’s a respite, a relief for some all over the country. America isn’t as lucky as you Europeans, who for the most part have this quality of food that keeps you slim. We’re over-eaters in the United States by nature, with fast food and all this kind of thing. So it’s probably giving a bit of a rest for those people that have extra kilos.
Do you think celebrities are too thin these days?
Well, now you’re asking a very personal question. I like well-built women - my personal taste leans toward that. I married a voluptuous woman. I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and voluptuous was what I’m familiar with. So yes, it can get out of hand today.
Did you know the original movie and did you talk to John Waters?
I did speak with John Waters about it. He created that movie on a shoestring, and for the money he had, he did a brilliant job. I was very curious about, in his mind, what my limits were in performing, and what the arena was for this performance. For instance, I very desperately wanted to use the Baltimore accent, which is a very specific type of accent - it’s funny, it’s high in vocal placement, which allowed me to be more feminine, but at the same time be funny. I had his blessing with that, because no-one had made that choice. Most of them were either New York accents or non-specific accents. It helped me to have this particular sound.
How did the dancing in Hairspray compare with the dancing in Saturday Night Fever and Grease?
I guess because it’s a similar era, there were some similarities in the choreography of Grease, but on the other hand it was more of a Broadway musical approach, so there’s a subtle difference between the two.
How did Christopher Walken compare with your previous dancing partners?
Actually, Christopher Walken was probably the most experienced dancing partner I’ve had in movies, because he has the same background as I do. He’s from theatre, Broadway and off-Broadway, and we both shared that. So I had the most confidence with Chris than I’d have with any partner.
Did you miss musicals the whole time they were gone?
Yes, I waited 30 years to do a musical. Not because I didn’t want to do one, it’s because I couldn’t find one to do. I was offered four, and I said no to them all. One was A Chorus Line, one was Chicago, one was Phantom of the Opera, and two didn’t work, but one did, but I didn’t know if it would or not. This is the first time I actually took the time to talk to every department. I took responsibility to some degree for what the future would bring with this particular movie. It took a year and two months to make the decision, but I had a lot of time to quality check each thing. So yes, I missed it, I wish they would do more - but two in 30 years is not a lot.
Why is it that a man always plays this role?
I’m not sure! I think it’s arbitrary, really, but all I’m responding to is that it’s been a tradition, almost like in Greek theatre, or kabuki, Chinese theatre, or Shakespeare - that’s all I can figure out from it. Because when I was offered the role, I said, “Hire Delta Burke! Hire a woman! Why do you need me? What convinces you that I am the one for this!” But their answer was, it’s tradition. It’s part of the gimmick of that movie and that role, for a man to play it. I thought, “You know, maybe they’re onto something,” because theatre started that way, with men playing all the roles. So maybe there’s something historical to this method.
How did you find it working with Adam Shankman, who comes from the world of choreography?
He had designed the choreography even before I arrived, and all I did was modify it for my movement. I’d say, “Instead of this step, can I do this step?,” or “I’m in high heels, and this is more like a step that would work without heels and a dress.” The last number was my personal homage to Tina Turner. In the play, it’s cute; Mama or Grandma comes out and isn’t it cute that she’s doing that? I said, “No, no, I’m already playing it this other way, how do we blow it out the top?” I said. “Tina Turner! Let’s really send it through the roof!” So those were negotiations between me and the director. And I loved shimmy-ing like Tina!
After the fun you’ve obviously had making Hairspray, do you have any regrets not coming back to musicals earlier - and perhaps not taking up the role in Chicago that was offered to you?
I’ve always slightly regretted not taking up Chicago. However, when it was presented to me, no-one was explaining the difference between the stage show and the movie. To me, the stage show was wicked - it was women who didn’t like men, and I like women who like men, so I wasn’t sure if it would work. But then they had this idea of making the women more vulnerable, and the men more abusive, and that was the reason why the women were being wicked. So I thought, “I’m not interested, in the way I know of it. But next time a musical is presented to me, I’ll hear it out.” And that’s what happened with Hairspray. I took a year and heard every meeting.
Can you relate to the (political) situation in Hairspray with when you were growing up?
A little bit. We were a theatrical family, so we were liberal by nature. Theatre was always ahead of your average flow. We were avant-garde, we were thought of not as beatniks, but a variation of a theme, where we were freer thinkers than most families. But of course I observed certain situations. Also, we grew up with Fellini and Bergman - these films were the films that my family were attracted to.
Is Dallas the movie happening?
Yes, it is, but not until next year. And I can’t wait to play J.R.Ewing. They’ve already paid me for it, I’m obligated to this, but only with a limit - they’ve had five scripts, none of them have worked. There’s one attempt happening as we speak, and in a few weeks we’ll see. It’s a long shot, but I hope it’s possible. I’m willing to tolerate any experiments or anything they want to do to get it done, because I think it would be a great fun movie to do.
And you’re doing a movie with your daughter?
Yes, it’s called Old Dogs, and it’s a comedy about two men who are sports agents. Robin Williams plays one of them who has to learn how to be a father, and I’m the one who teaches the other one how to be a father, but I don’t know how to be a father either. My wife Kelly is in it, and of course so is my daughter Ella.