You never hear horror stories about random fan encounters gone wrong involving John Travolta. Never.
The face he shows the public doesn’t have room for bad days or bad moods, even though everybody has them. And that’s by design.
“I make it a point of getting myself in the right frame of mind, prepared, whenever I know I’m going out somewhere I might be seen,” he says. He gets himself into a good mood, and makes sure he stays that way. At least as far as the public is concerned.
You joke that maybe he’s just learned what Vincent Vega, his famous “Pulp Fiction” character, was taught by Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) in the film — “Get your ‘game face’ on,” and Travolta laughs and points “Bingo.” But he’s known this pretty much from the start.
He remembers, he says, what it was like to meet his idols when he first came to Hollywood. James Cagney, Paul Newman, Paul McCartney, “all just as kind and generous as could be.” That’s the “game face” he wanted to present.
So even if the roles aren’t as juicy at 65, the hits fewer and farther in between, his general fan likability is still off the charts. The rare bad press he got back at his peak was generally over his love of perks while on location, great roles he turned down when he didn’t get them. Even Scientology, which hasn’t been the kindest label for the likes of Tom Cruise, is shrugged off when it comes to Travolta.
Travolta is talking about this whole fan relationship to the famous thing a lot. His new movie, co-written and directed by Limp Bizkit rocker Fred Durst, has him playing the ultimate “fanboy” — obsessive, annoying and “on the spectrum.”
For a guy whose famous villainous line in “Face/Off,” “Ain’t it Cool?” became the name of the first major fanboy website, “Ain’t It Cool News,” it’s a daring turn — and not just because of the hairstyle and choice of wardrobe. Taking fanboydom over the top can have consequences.
“Oh, those guys, they’ll know it’s just exaggerated, just a movie,” he says, laughing. “But Fred actually knew a guy like this, named ‘Moose.’ So there’s a that bit of reality we’re starting from, even if this guy is way over the top, but harmless until he’s humiliated and threatened and treated badly.”
Every entertainment journalist has her or his favorite story of catching a celebrity on a bad day, a Pierce Brosnan hissy fit here, a Spike Lee or Julia Roberts silent-treatment and glare there.
“The Fanatic” has Moose, a childishly obsessed LA fan and film buff, rebuffed when he catches his favorite action hero on a bad day. As Moose has just bought a costume vest Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa) wore in a vampire picture some years back, and NEEDs it autographed in the very worst way, he persists — finding his way to Dunbar’s home, and getting the tongue-lashing he deserves for “stalking” him this way.
That’s when things turn violent, with an accident here and a few twists there. “The Fanatic” opens Aug. 30.
Travolta could sympathize Moose from the other side of that interaction, because he once interrupted a star’s dinner before he himself was famous, and got put off. He liked the idea of showing the childlike appreciation the most “fanatical” fans get swept up in, liked dramatizing how important how they’re treated — even at their most intrusive. And he liked the idea of working with Durst, a filmmaker bringing his rock world sensibility to the picture.
“We’d been talking about doing something together for 15 years, and this looked ‘out there.’ Kind of risky. And I like working on these smaller projects. We did stuff on this shoot (in Birmingham, doubling for Hollywood and environs) you could never get away with on a big studio picture. Just to get it done.”
That’s where Travolta’s career is, mostly, these days. A lower tier stock car racing drama here (“Trading Paint,” with Shania Twain), a notorious underworld tale in New York (“Gotti”) or Miami (“Speed Kills”) there.
With the paradigm shifting in distribution, and streaming platforms taking some of the wind out of theatrical studios’ sails, Travolta can get these movies made and in front of audiences more easily than ever. He figures others may follow this path as their careers change direction past leading lady/leading man peaks.
“You’ve got to establish yourself in Hollywood or New York, first,” he says. “But once you’ve done that, you’ve got to have somebody (representation) who can show producers, ‘My guy can bring this much attention and (paying customers), so he’s good for a picture with this much budget.’ That way, you don’t have to live in Hollywood, deal with everything that goes on out there that wears you out.”
He’s lived in Florida, off and on, since the late ’80s, full-time since the early 2000s. “I just love it here. Always have.” There’s been room for him to indulge in his other passion — flying, most famously his own personal jets (a 707 among them, at one point). And he’s continued to make movies past his peak earning years — “Basic” and “The Poison Rose” — “My daughter got to act with me in that one!”– and “Speed Kills” all filmed in Florida.
I’ve interviewed him maybe half a dozen times over the years, watched him shoot a couple of those films, seen him interact with fans. He is all charm in public and in interviews. Even smiles through the question he habitually dodges.
The paydays aren’t as big, but “the freedom, the characters you get to play” make up for it, he says.
“I get an idea, ‘Always wanted to play a race car driver. I tell a writer, ‘Why don’t you write me something that’s a little bit ‘A Man and a Woman,’ with ‘Grand Prix’ in it. You know, those ’60s movies.”
Add Shania Twain, Michael Madsen, Toby Sebastian, Barry Corbin and Kevin Dunn, and “Trading Paint” is up and running.
“If you love diving into characters like I do, you want to keep doing it,” Travolta says. “I’ve always considered myself a character actor, even when I was a leading man. This feels like” a natural progression.
You just have to keep in mind what superfan Moose tells Hunter Dunbar in “The Fanatic — “Without people like me, you’re nothing.”
Travolta lights up a smile making that point.
“Never ever ever forget that!”