John Travolta's career has been written off many times but the star keeps bouncing back, writes Gaynor Flynn.
When John Travolta strides across the lobby of the upmarket Hotel Le Meurice in Paris, everyone stops to watch. Even if he weren't a major Hollywood star, the actor would turn heads. At 56 he's still looks striking. And at 188 centimetres and flanked by several beefed-up bodyguards, he's doubly hard to ignore.
Travolta is in the city to promote his latest film From Paris With Love but being back in the French capital is proving a bittersweet experience. When he shot the film his family were with him and every day after work – he has it written into his contract that he's to be done by 6pm – they'd explore Paris together.
One of his fondest memories is when he and wife Kelly Preston (of Jerry Maguire fame) took his children Jett, then 16, and Ella Bleu, then eight, out for pizza and cocoa in the early hours of the morning. Experiencing the City of Light by night was "magical", he recalls.
That was the last time Jett was in Paris. He died in January last year from a seizure while the family were holidaying in the Bahamas. The death of a child is every parent's worst nightmare, more so for the Travoltas. As Scientologists they came under fire for not doing enough to save their son. Critics of the controversial religion (known as CoS in online lingo) argued that Jett, who suffered from Kawasaki syndrome and autism, might be here today if Scientology recognised autism as an illness rather than a psychosomatic ailment, meaning the teenager might have been treated with medication rather than vitamins and spiritual healing. In Scientology, all mental illness is treated the same way.
Then it emerged, in the days following the tragedy, that a paramedic at the scene tried to extort $25million from the famous couple. The media had a field day.
Thirteen months later, Travolta is trying to get on with life. He has decided to come to Paris to support the film but he's finding it much harder than he imagined. He doesn't want to talk about Jett today or, rather, he can't. It's too raw.
In a recent interview with Cinema Source, he said: "It's been a rough year but we've been working very hard every day at healing and we still are. We've worked with our church and we've worked with each other and our friends and our family and it's been a tough one and it's going to be but at least we have help and it's working."
Hitting the publicity trail no doubt provides a distraction, although he seems genuinely proud of the film.
"I was really excited that someone thought at my age I could do this," he says. He means the action sequences.
In the film, directed by Pierre Morel (Taken) and produced by Luc Besson (Nikita), Travolta plays Charlie Wax, one of the FBI's best and most unorthodox operatives. He's sent to Paris to knock out an Asian drugs cartel and quash a terrorist cell. Wax finds himself teamed up with a naive young man called James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers from The Tudors), an aide to the US ambassador in France. Reece fancies himself as the next 007 but soon finds himself well in over his head when Wax takes him on a white-knuckle ride through the Parisian underworld.
Travolta has made a career of traversing genres and deconstructing archetypes and what appealed most about this role was that he got to reinvent himself once again.
"It's pretty extreme," he smiles, and he's not just referring to the bald head and goatee he sports in the film. "I don't think anybody has seen me in this way and even though I've done two John Woo movies (Face/Off, Broken Arrow), I've never done this much action before. And I thought, 'Well, why not?' I have a dance background. I have an athletic background. I can do those things. And I did probably 95per cent of my stunts and I thought for a guy my age, wow."
Travolta is used to having to reinvent himself. Every time he turns around, there's someone ready to write him off. All actors experience peaks and valleys but few have weathered the stupendous highs and cataclysmic lows that Travolta has. He's been ridiculed and called a has-been more times than he can count. He's also enjoyed more revivals than a Broadway theatre.
Everyone knows the story of how Quentin Tarantino breathed life back into a career that was so dead all it needed was someone to perform the last rites. The studio didn't want Travolta in Pulp Fiction (1994). Why not cast someone people wanted to pay to see, they argued? Tarantino refused to budge.
"When Quentin chose me for that, I was not interesting to anybody at that time," Travolta says. "So it was his tenacity that said, 'I won't even do this movie if John doesn't do it.' When I heard that, I was like a little kid. 'Really?' I said. It was like when I danced with Princess Diana. I was like, 'She wants me to dance with her? Why me?' I had already thought I'd lost the allure. I was so surprised by the interest."
He's not being disingenuous. There's something very child-like about Travolta. That's not to say that he's immature or naive but rather the actor possesses an innate sweetness that three decades in the business have not conspired to erode.
He earned his first Oscar nomination for Saturday Night Fever and his second for Pulp Fiction. Both were "risky" projects, he says. The first because at the time Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Deer Hunter were smashing box office numbers – not dance movies. Playing Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction was risky because he was a "heroin-addicted hit man" and Travolta with his twinkling blue eyes and dimples ... well, let's just say that nobody really expected him to pull it off.
Does he ever wonder where he would be if Tarantino hadn't come along?
"Acting is a mix of luck and choice," he says sagely. "I got lucky."
Luck was with the young actor when he started out as well. He was 21 when he was cast as the dim-witted Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back, Kotter. It made him very famous very quickly. By the time he was 24, he'd made Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978). By the end of the '70s Travolta was one of the most recognised people on the planet. He was credited with ushering in the age of disco and giving the '70s a discernible identity. Nik Cohn, who wrote the article on which Saturday Night Fever was based, said in an interview once: "The power of [Travolta's] presence defined a time and place; a generation and its world."
Travolta must have thought that it would always be like that. It wasn't. The '80s were not so kind to him. Every film he made flopped more dramatically than the one before; there were Staying Alive (1983) and Two of a Kind (1983) and Perfect (1985), which should have been renamed Seriously Flawed. Meanwhile he turned down American Gigolo and An Officer and A Gentleman, which made Richard Gere a star. For Travolta, the '80s ended with a sigh. How did he cope with the crushing criticism?
"I learned early on to stay away from gossip magazines and reviews," he says. "That stuff just makes you unhappy and I know actors that read everything that's written about them and they're miserable. You can choose what to let into your life. I've always been a pretty positive person. That's how I choose to be."
As for his latest film, so what if it has received a lukewarm reception in the US? He had a "blast" making it; he got to act like a big kid every day. The icing on the cake was that he also hit it off with his co-star.
"That doesn't always happen," Travolta says. "But we're so gabby. I'm half-Irish and half-Italian and the Irish side comes out with Jonathan. We just gab and the movie was interfering with our conversations."
What did the pair chat about?
"We'd just get on these subject matters and we're both fairly articulate so we can really examine our thoughts and exchange ideas and at the end of it feel a little better about what we talked about. Sometimes you just talk and nothing happens but when we talked I felt like we grew as people. It was refreshing."
The pair no doubt discussed Scientology but neither will confirm or deny that today. Travolta was a Catholic, like Rhys Meyers, before he converted in 1975 – at the height of his fame. He's said in the past that: "Scientology has given me stability. [It's] given me the tools to handle life's issues, stresses and problems."
Clearly it's helped him avoid doing a Tiger Woods. He must be one of the few celebrities that hasn't gone off the rails. Rhys Meyers, on the other hand, has checked into rehab three times in the past few years for alcohol-related problems and could certainly use some of those tools.
Despite its detractors, Scientology certainly seems to suit Travolta. He comes across as well-balanced and neurosis-free. There's never been any hint of a scandal in his long career. He has one of the most enduring marriages in the business and next year will celebrate his 20thanniversary – a rare feat indeed. Then there are his colleagues. They rave about him.
Morel describes him as a "big-hearted guy". Rhys Meyers says that with Travolta, "There's no ego. He's always willing to learn and to listen to other people and that's what makes him such a great actor."
They'll also tell you how he's always willing to help others, as he did in January when he took it upon himself to fly 700 tonnes of medical supplies and 22 doctors to Port-au-Prince.
"I had the means and the wherewithal to help directly," he says. He owns five aircraft, lined up in the garden of his Florida mansion. "The most successful aspect of it was I made sure the supplies stayed with the doctors because with the UN and the Red Cross it's very difficult to get the supplies where they're needed. The paperwork is complicated. So I have the privilege to bypass that and to make sure these supplies stayed with the doctors. And they did and they saved hundreds of lives."
Travolta's mother, Helen, first encouraged him to act. She was an actress who became a drama and English teacher. His father, Salvatore, ran a business with his uncle selling tyres. Travolta was still a teenager when he landed a role in the musical Grease and then a role on Broadway in Over Here! After that he travelled to California and landed his first significant role in the horror film Carrie (1976). Not long after that, he was cast as Vinnie Barbarino.
"I think my best roles are between 40 and 50 and still to come," the actor says when asked which part of his career he's enjoyed the most. "As you get older, actors have this wonderful luxury of being able to do a variety of things. I mean, look at what Meryl Streep's doing right now. It's not like a sports career where you're finished by the time you're 30."
Then he laughs because so many people hadthought he was finished by the time he was 30.Headmits he got a "kick" out of disappointing them.
"I gave up worrying about my career a long time ago," he says. "I mean I probably could have retired a few times now and haven't. I think I'll stick around for a while longer."
From Paris With Love is now in cinemas. http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/people/the-resurrection-man-20100227-pa1y.html