John Travolta and Rob Lowe on Comedy, Favorite Roles and the Secret of Their Long Careers

When John Travolta sat down with Rob Lowe at Variety’s “Actors on Actors” studio, they bonded immediately. It wasn’t just about their impressively long careers, though they did swap tales about the pitfalls they’ve faced throughout. Or their ability to transition from television to film and back again. But Lowe stunned Travolta (and the audience) with his tale of being disappointed at missing out on the role of Christian Troy in “Nip/Tuck” — and confronting Ryan Murphy. When he finally met the producer, Lowe said Murphy told him, “Rob, don’t you know I wrote that part for you?” But the script never made its way to the actor, because, as Lowe recalled, Murphy was “not Ryan Murphy yet,” he said. “Isn’t that a great Hollywood story?”

John Travolta: What I find the most interesting, is that whether you are doing a dramatic character or a humorous character you always approach it with a sense of humor. So I want to know who in your family or who you were brought up with that influenced you with comedy? Because you’re clearly a genius with that.

Rob Lowe: Thank you, and I would say the same about you. I was influenced as a kid by watching early “Saturday Night Live.” I must have been about 11, 12 or 13 when it came out and I was obsessed with it. I think I know more about early “SNL” than probably the people who were actually on it.

Travolta: It’s your timing, I think, with your sense of humor. Because people have a sense of humor, but they don’t always have a sense of timing.

Lowe: You’re born with it or you’re not, I think.

Travolta: I agree with that. Was there any personal situation in your family that incited comedy as well or did you purely get it from outside sources?

“I think we are character actors trapped in leading man bodies.”
rob lowe

Lowe: I think you’re born with it. But my mom and dad are certainly really articulate.

Travolta: Were they funny?

Lowe: I would say they were non-professionally funny. I didn’t grow up in a house where comedy was really appreciated. It’s one of the things I think frankly I discovered in those sort of lonely teenage years, I found that I liked comedy.

Travolta: Well, you’re really good at it. Even in your portrayal in “Behind the Candelabra,” there’s humor in that, too. By the time you say, “Lee won’t like it,” when Matt wants to have a dimple, you’re warning him that it might be a problem.

Lowe: He wanted your dimple, clearly.

Travolta: And “The Grinder” even proves that because that character, my God! It’s so original, but I think it’s your take on it, too. Because only an actor would know what it’s like to want to stay in character. We all know that if you win at something, you get stuck in that win. And your character got stuck in the win of being a lawyer.

Lowe: Totally.

Travolta: So now, what’s he going to do when he goes back home to his hometown and he’s suddenly pretending he’s a lawyer? But in a psychotic, hilarious way. It’s so clever and original, but only somebody with your timing could do that.

Lowe: I want to shift to you, my good friend. Because there is no one like you. From the very beginning I have been a fan and your work speaks to the living of my life. I can remember my first love, our first date was “Grease.” I can remember the first time I watched a show that wasn’t on black-and-white television was “Welcome Back Kotter.” I can remember getting into European film through “Blow Out.” I can remember going out and buying cowboy boots after “Urban Cowboy.” And on and on and on. And then as I became an actor, watching you navigate the seasons that we’re all going to have if we are lucky enough and talented enough to survive, that’s been the greatest inspiration for me, above and beyond your work, your ability to do that.

Bryce Duffy for Variety

Travolta: I appreciate it because unbeknownst to many, my purpose in life is to inspire other people. If I inspire Rob Lowe to have the kind of career you’re having, so be it. Because that is what I intended to do, is to make people be excited about creating characters, music, dance, whatever they felt their passion was. I wanted to instill a bright light for them.

Lowe: Not only have you done it but acting to me, there are just certain tools that you need in the toolbox. And one of the ones that you have that I love and I try to steal whenever I can — and I love that you mentioned “Behind the Candelabra,” because that is one where I knowingly stole from the Travolta toolbox — is you have no fear of taking a big swing.

Travolta: As a matter of fact, if I don’t take a big swing or if I don’t do something that is brave, I almost am more frightened of that. The bigger the challenge and the more distant the character is from who I am, the more excited I get and the more at ease I get. So it’s almost a reversal of what people think. The truth for me is I’m being much more brave if you ask me to play myself because I don’t know who I am.

Lowe: I totally relate to that.

Travolta: Do you?

Lowe: It’s freeing to play “a character” in quotes. And I think one of the reasons that we’ve always been so simpatico, although we’ve never worked together over the years, is I think we are character actors trapped in leading man bodies.

Travolta: Completely! I have never overtly rejected the leading man concept, but I have always tried to twist leading men into characters, because I am more comfortable playing a character than I am playing a standard role. I mean, I don’t even know what or who to compare that to, meaning what a classic leading man might be.

Lowe: It’s funny because the guys who were my heroes in terms of leading men growing up ironically didn’t do that. Redford didn’t do it, Newman didn’t do it. They were leading men. Look at “Face/Off.” What you’re doing with that, when you’re doing Nic [Cage] and Nic’s doing you, it’s unbelievable!

Travolta: I actually asked Nic during the shooting, “Do you think this is going to work?” and he said, “Yeah, I do.” It was tricky but because John Woo was such a great director and was so clever in the way he shot things, we really did get away with being each other by watching each other’s dailies, by deciding collectively as partners what we would be. I remember giving him ideas of how I would do it and he would give me ideas of how he would do it. We would perform for each other, get hysterical over the choices and then go out and do them.

Lowe: That’s another thing, the joy. I have worked with a lot of actors that I don’t feel any joy from.

Travolta: That’s too bad.

Lowe: But I get that you laughed your ass off. Whenever I watch something that moves me, I imagine that when they yell, “Cut!” those actors fall around the set.

Travolta: Absolutely. The O.J. series, there were times where the Shapiro character was so unusual to me and my sensibilities that when my take was over I would have to laugh and so would the actors around me.

Lowe: That’s the most fun. When I do “The Grinder,” which opens up with a version of “The Grinder” TV show, it’s like being stuck on a horrendous hit primetime drama. And it makes you laugh out loud because it feel so real. It feels like that show could be a show that could be on TV.

Travolta: You and I both know how painful it is for some people to be on a drama for 10 years where they’re working 18 hours a day and to be in that zone, what you created was the reality of that.

“I’m being much more brave if you ask me to play myself because I don’t know who I am.”
john travolta

Lowe: And the storytelling of “and that’s when I realized that the president was an alien!” Those poor actors that have to do it — my heart goes out them. But your Shapiro, that’s my favorite show. It’s everything to me, it ticks so many boxes. It ticks the great actors who you love to see and want to see. You are doing an extraordinarily brave, again a big swing, which you have a knack for. You have a knack for standing out in anything you’re in, in a way that is unique to you. One of the things I also like about you is you come from television, went into movies and now you’re in television. You follow the work wherever it’s good. What brought you back to television right now?

Travolta: There’s nothing new to the idea that television is taking over in a certain area that movies recently left off. And I personally believe that has to do with there’s more freedom interestingly enough in television than in movies right now. You can do more, and writers and directors are much more attracted to freedoms than they are to barriers. Television offers us freedom. So, whether it’s “Mad Men” or “Oz,” we’re taking bold and brave steps to the television-viewing audience. It’s been an evolution and almost a crescendo of these great pieces of material that are on television. I was enlightened by the magnitude that [executive producers] Ryan Murphy, Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson were on the frontlines of that. I was scared of it, to be honest, because I never wanted to be part of a guilty joy. That would not be my style at all. I wanted to make sure that there were other messages that we were doing here. When I saw what they call “the bible,” the complete concept of the show, I realized they were very serious about communicating the truth of what went on, which often can be cathartic for people to experience. “Oh, that’s what really happened.” Now I feel a little more understanding of the situation that the family was in, the legal system, the judicial system.

Lowe: The context for what it was, because it was such a big moment, culturally for everybody.

Travolta: Yes, things had to be defined for us. We had to be enlightened about what really happened. The Fuhrman tapes alone were, “Really, I mean, my God!”

Lowe: Because you can’t imagine they happened. Looking back you actually go, “Wait, that didn’t really happen, did it?” And of course it did. Ryan Murphy is a genius. An absolute genius.

Travolta: Absolutely, and he’s so clever. All the great directors, Robert Altman and Mike Nichols, are the ones that always keep a throughline through a piece where let’s say with Marcia Clark and Chris Darden, at the same time you are communicating a race problem you are also viewing race harmony with their having a love for each other. The way it was directed is genius because it covers every stone. And I think that’s what so satisfying about it.

Lowe: Quick Hollywood aside, and I’m sure you have a thousand of these stories. Ryan Murphy’s show, “Nip/Tuck,” I would watch it with my wife and go, “Why can’t I find a part like that? I should be playing Dr. Christian Troy. Christian Troy is me.” Then “The West Wing” ended and I asked to meet Ryan Murphy. I went on for 15 minutes about Christian Troy and “Nip/Tuck” and how it spoke to me and that’s the kind of role I want. And he’s growing paler and paler and paler as I’m talking and he goes, “Rob, don’t you know that I wrote that part for you?” And it was never sent to me. And I said, “How could this be?” and he said, “Well it’s simple, I was the fifth writer on whatever middling show, I wasn’t Ryan Murphy yet.” Isn’t that a great Hollywood story?

Travolta: That’s wild!

Lowe: I am so envious that you got your moment with Ryan. I like to talk to young actors and we talk about longevity. I am in my fourth decade of doing this. My first movie came out 33 years ago, “The Outsiders,” and I never would have thought I would still be doing what I’m doing and the way I’m doing it. You’re very much the same way.  What do you think actors need to do to stay relevant in a business where it’s very rare?

Travolta: I remember years ago asking Warren Beatty, I was just maybe six years into the fame, and I said, “Warren, what’s your trick?” and he said, “Always do good movies.” Someone could contradict that and say, “Well, how do you know it’s a good movie?” You only know it’s a good movie to you when you make the decision, because everybody has that feeling and wants to make a good product. What you can guarantee is your integrity at the moment you decide to do something. For instance, the Shapiro character, there is no difference in the way I prepped for that character as I did the character with [Robert] De Niro where I played the Serbian soldier [in 2013’s “Killing Season”]. I did the same prep I always do. I built my character the same way I would do “Pulp Fiction,” the same way I would do “Saturday Night Fever.” I prepped my layers and baked my cake the way I bake my cake. And that can be from the outside in or the inside out. Or often a mix of both. So, if you have an excitement and an integrity about how you perform, you will always, at minimum stay afloat on some level. It’s when you start chipping away at things that you don’t want to do or things that you didn’t fight — I won’t even go into the fights I’ve had for the most pristine moments in my career. If I told you you’d say, “Really? That person made you fight for that?”

Lowe: I think this is really important. I’ve been in recovery for over 25 years now, and one of my favorite phrases in recovery is “Never compare your insides to someone’s outsides.” So the notion that John Travolta would have to fight for anything seems absurd on the outside and yet it’s the truth. I think it’s important for actors, particularly young actors, to know that it never ends. It never ends.

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  1. Bill B. says:

    I haven’t a clue why Travolta still has a career.

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