Cannes, 1978. That’s when John Travolta realized his life had changed. The month before, the New Jersey sitcom kid’s first starring film role in “Saturday Night Fever” had disco-danced him all the way to the Oscars. He lost, but here he was walking into the Hotel du Cap with his parents, past the topiaries, across the white marble floors, and “Bam!” says Travolta, still astonished by the memory, “I was on the cover of Time magazine.”
“Travolta Fever” it screamed. In the photo, he was wearing a white suit and dancing. Of course he was. It was the way America pictured him. But for the first time, 24-year-old Travolta realized he’d gone global. “It was surreal,” he says from his home in Los Angeles. “I was clocking for the first time the magnitude of what was happening to me. And little did I know that ‘Grease’” — the movie he was in Cannes to promote — ” would follow and even be even bigger.”
So of course, he’s celebrating the 40-year anniversary of that breakthrough moment in Cannes, where Travolta will receive Variety’s inaugural Cinema Icon Award at the Hotel du Cap and premiere his latest film, “Gotti,” on May 15. On May 16, he’ll host a Cinema Masterclass at the Buñuel Theatre in the Palais and a screening of “Grease” on the beach.
Picture Danny and Sandy embracing in the surf as audiences bury their toes in the sand. Does he think people will sing? “Are you kidding?!” laughs Travolta. “Of course! It’ll turn into a sing-a-long, it’ll turn into a dance-a-long — it’ll be wild!
“When I’ve sung a song that’s effective, or danced and people like it, I like the admiration,” admits Travolta, “but I’d rather they get up and sing with me or dance with me.”
He hopes his masterclass will inspire practical, tangible, usable advice for the upcoming talents who tell him his movies made them want to act. “I’m willing to share anything I do know,” says Travolta. “Everyone has a degree of ability.”
An early tip: Memorize your lines before you audition. Some schools insist that starting rough makes an actor more impressive on set. “There’s no time for that!” says Travolta. Producers deserve to pass on someone clutching their script. “All the people that memorized it and have the fortitude to create something for you? They’re showing you right there that they can do it.”
Travolta’s speaking like a producer, which increasingly, he is. After two early experiments with “She’s So Lovely” (which also played Cannes) and “Battlefield Earth” (which didn’t), he didn’t produce anything for 15 years. Since 2015’s “Criminal Activities,” Travolta’s taken a more hands-on approach, producing 10 episodes of the Emmy-winning FX series “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson” and his long-gestating passion project, “Gotti.”
“The only reason I’m more interested in producing is because I’m finding that unless I take responsibility for what I’ve done, it may not get done in a way that I want,” says Travolta.
In today’s rocky film landscape, the path to financial success changes every 18 months as Netflix, Apple and MoviePass shake up the terrain. Yet, people are too nervous to tear up their old maps. He’s frustrated by what he calls the “automaticity” or “robotism” in the industry, where studios feel pressured to spend $25 million marketing a movie when only $5 million of that might reach the target audience, a waste he likens to “throwing a bunch of dimes at a telephone booth, hoping one gets in.”
“Why they’re comfortable with that is astonishing to me,” says Travolta. “We didn’t get into the business for a 9-to-5 kind of automatic life. We did it because of the creativity. So why would you accept such a boxed-in form?”
He’s no longer content just showing up on set and “allowing the fates to have the outcome.” When he looks at the future, he sees independent producers and studios learning to break that formula and find innovative — and, presumably, cheaper — ways to promote and distribute their films. And he’ll be right there with them, his producer hat planted, albeit reluctantly, on his still-lustrous head. “It’s a lot of work and I don’t love it,” says Travolta, “but I like the results enough.”
He’s not sure if a movie such as 1980’s “Urban Cowboy” would even get greenlit today. At the time, it was a confident choice, a character-driven work of social criticism based on a popular piece of magazine journalism, similar to “Saturday Night Fever” three years before. “A triple-A director, a famous article, a famous journalist writing that script with that famous director,” says Travolta. “Maybe if someone at that level were involved. But by nature, human dramas are not in the same need and want as they used to be.”
Maybe movies like “Gotti” will help prove that audiences are still hungry for serious movies. Travolta can’t wait to debut it at the Palais. “A monumental experience,” he beams. “The excitement of the red carpet, the crowd, and then watching the movie for the first time on a giant screen, the biggest screen I’ve ever seen.”
He’ll never forget the Cannes premiere of “Pulp Fiction.” Afterward, he might sneak into a quiet pizzeria. “To just sit in the back of a restaurant and have pizza and red wine and enjoy the rest of the evening,” he sighs. “A perfect night.”
Travolta sounds energized. He’s been a Hollywood giant for 40 years, and he’s still excited for the next challenge, the next role he can’t resist, the next industry insight he can learn. After the delight of playing Robert Shapiro in “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” which scored him Emmy and Golden Globe noms, he’s keeping an eye open for other invigorating TV opportunities.
“But those not as common as finding a good movie to do.”
He’s yet to cross off his bucket list dream of playing a James Bond villain. “That would be fun — I grew up with Bond!”
“Any time a story is fascinating and it gives me something to play that’s a real interesting character, I get floored,” says Travolta.
A couple weeks ago, he wrapped a part that “completely and utterly compelled me” in Fred Durst’s “Moose,” a warped update on “Misery” in which Travolta plays a socially awkward fan with a Moe Howard haircut who traps his obsession, a jerkish actor played by Devon Sawa. Moose, his character, just wants to prove his devotion to the thesp. “But he’s slightly special needs and the movie star doesn’t understand that and tends to mistreat him,” says Travolta.
When Durst showed him the script, Travolta flung himself into action to raise the financing. “It was so beautifully written and such an extreme character that I just couldn’t wait to do it.”
Travolta continually refers to the process of creating a character as “baking a cake.” He assembles the separate, raw ingredients — the body language, the voice, the empathy, and, of course, the completely memorized script — and arrives on-set ready to be transformed into a solid object under the heat of the lights.
“I don’t feel like I particularly resemble even the guy in ‘Saturday Night Fever’ or ‘Welcome Back Kotter,’” says Travolta. “Physically I do, but not my behavior, my cadence, anything like that.”
Since then, the more famous he’s become, the more he’s aware of the need to fold, or dissolve, his Travolta-ness into the part. He wants people to forget that he’s John Travolta — or at least, he wants audience to “get a kick out of the idea that you’re watching me be someone else,” and finally get past that and believe in the character itself.
“That’s my job as an actor to do that, to make you comfortable watching that character — or uncomfortable,” he adds, given his affection for bad guys, creeps, delusional losers and anti-heroes like Moose, who are capable of combining all three while still tugging on the audience’s sympathy.
That’s the challenge of being an icon. “Remove the egocentric aspects, all icon really means is familiar,” notes Travolta. Marilyn Monroe in her white dress is an icon. John Travolta in his white suit is an icon. “Maybe Marilyn would rather have her image be from ‘Bus Stop,’” he shrugs.
Four decades after that fateful Time magazine cover, he’s still adjusting to the title — maybe a human being never really can — but accepting Variety’s Icon Award at the hotel where the idea first made him go dizzy is a full circle spin worthy of Tony Manero and every Travolta character that followed in his platform footsteps.
What: John Travolta receives Variety’s Cinema Icon Award.
When: May 15
Where: Hotel du Cap, Cannes