John Travolta’s decision to soft-shoe into the memorably oversized role of Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray” required 14 months of convincing by producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan. Travolta finally said yes just a minute before his midnight deadline to accept expired.
“John is the greatest movie musical star of this generation, but he was reticent for a long time because he was concerned about a return to the genre that made him a star,” Meron says.
Those qualms had earlier led Travolta to turn down Meron and Zadan’s repeated entreaties to play Billy Flynn — a part Richard Gere eventually snagged — in “Chicago.” But after seeing that Oscar-winning musical, he realized what a mistake he’d made.
“Honestly, ‘Chicago’ was the first musical film project that tempted me to return to the genre, and now I have regrets that I didn’t do it,” Travolta admits. “So Craig and Neil told me that I was not getting away this time.”
Once onboard, Travolta dove completely into the idea of playing a real woman, instead of the high-camp, man-in-drag persona that Divine had created in John Waters’ original pic and that Harvey Fierstein popularized in the Broadway musical.
Travolta turned Edna into his own by shaping her into a pleasant, even sexy, plus-sized woman, inspired by the idea of a ballooned Delta Burke channeling Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren.
“Instead of playing the old joke of being a man in a woman’s fat suit, I decided to play a new joke and create and become a blue-collar woman from Baltimore,” Travolta explains.
Travolta not only got the producers and director Adam Shankman to sign off on his vision of Edna, he convinced them to offer the part of Mr. Turnblad to Christopher Walken, another well-respected actor with a Broadway pedigree. And the two were able to hoof it like old-schoolers in their big love-song duet.
Thirty years after earning his first Academy Award nomination for shaking his hips in 1977’s “Saturday Night Fever” — he earned another nom for his career-renaissance role in “Pulp Fiction” — Travolta could do it all again, but this time with the considerably larger hips of Mama Edna.
Next: Travolta has two Disney films coming out in 2008: the buddy comedy “Old Dogs” opposite Robin Williams and the animated adventure “Bolt,” in which he voices a dog in the title role. Other projects in development include playing the sinister J.R. Ewing in the bigscreen remake of “Dallas” and starring in Tony Scott’s remake of “The Taking of Pelham 123.”