John Gotti might’ve been the consummate wise guy, but for John Travolta, Kelly Preston, and director Kevin Connolly, exploring his life on the big screen was more about depicting the love and loyalty at the heart of the crime boss’ complex family dynamic.
Speaking ahead of the world premiere of “Gotti” on May 15, when Travolta will also receive Variety’s first Cinema Icon Award at the Hotel du Cap, the trio talked about finding a fresh take for the most famous mobster in modern memory: the swaggering, larger-than-life Dapper Don whose “side of the story has never really been told,” according to Connolly.
The director, who describes himself as a “huge fan” of the genre, said he was mindful of the precedent set by iconic mob films and TV series like “Goodfellas” and “The Sopranos.” “It’s been done so well, so many times, by so many people, so I wanted to take a different approach,” he said.
“[Gotti] was a composite that was very intriguing. He had a lot of style, but he was down to earth,” said Travolta. “He was thoughtful, considerate, but tough as nails, and would do what he had to do.”
Beyond the usual genre tropes of neckless goons and body counts, much of “Gotti” revolves around the passionate, tumultuous relationship between the flamboyant head of the Gambino crime family and his wife Victoria, played by Preston. Casting the real-life couple as co-stars wasn’t the most obvious choice. “We’re not volatile at all,” said the actress. “We’re very easy-going.”
The duo worked through that challenge by finding parallels between the Gottis’ relationship and their own marriage of 27 years. “You want to bring the longevity, the closeness, the familiarity, and that [comfort] that you just know each other so well,” said Preston. She added, “They loved their family. They both loved their kids.”
The chemistry worked on set. “They were conscious of not wanting to be husband and wife playing husband and wife,” said Connolly. “They worked very hard to not have it feel that way. It was John Gotti and Victoria Gotti. It wasn’t John Travolta and Kelly Preston.”
The cast got an assist from the real-life Gotti clan, who added authenticity in everything from the script’s vernacular to the actors’ wardrobe, which included actual clothing pulled from the Dapper Don’s closet. “They were hilarious, adorable, articulate,” said Travolta, who also described the late mob boss’ son, John, Jr., as “a revelation.”
“He stood up to his father, because he didn’t want that life, and he wanted to protect his family,” he added. “I admire him [because] it took a lot of guts.”
Over plates of pasta in the same home where the late crime boss once lived, the actors were able to learn the rhythms of the Gotti household firsthand. “We sat there for hours, just talking and eating [with] family coming in and out,” said Preston.
“[Victoria’s] an incredible woman. She’s just smart as a whip, and she’s tough, and she’s very straight-forward,” she said. “She let me ask her anything. I would email her in the middle of the night.”
Tuesday’s world premiere has been a long time coming for “Gotti,” which is produced by Emmett/Furla/Oasis Films, with Highland Film Group and Fiore Films. Last year, the producers bought the film back from Lionsgate, which had planned a day-and-date release for theatrical, VOD and streaming, in the hopes of landing a wide theatrical opening. “Gotti” will be released June 15 by MoviePass, in conjunction with Vertical Entertainment.
“Much has been said about the time this movie’s taken…but the truth is, that’s very common,” said Connolly. “Movies are hard to make. Especially now, the climate has changed so much.”
He added, “It’s trickier than it was years ago.”