John Travolta: 'I felt like the luckiest guy in the world'

John Travolta tells Tiffany Rose how the modest heroism of New York's firefighters inspired him to make Ladder 49
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The Independent Culture

John Travolta is always on time. You could set your watch by him. Unlike many of his Hollywood contemporaries, Travolta has respect for an awaiting journalist on a deadline. As predicted, dead on the hour, looking every bit the movie star at 50, his burly 6ft 2in frame appears in the doorway of the swanky penthouse hotel suite, the setting to discuss his new firefighting drama, Ladder 49.

"Nice to see you again," he says, offering a slow-motion handshake with a measured smile of a statesman. Travolta is the antithesis of Tinseltown showbiz. He is approachable; there are no topics barred, and there is not a whiff of affectation. In fact, you would be hard pushed to find a derogatory word said about Travolta. And the reason why? I suspect he appreciates Hollywood giving him a second chance.

After spending much of the Eighties and early Nineties making mediocre movies, Travolta became hot property again with Pulp Fiction. Everyone, it seemed, celebrated his reinstatement as a film icon, and for a while his star burned bright. However, a decade on and a few cinematic miss fires later - Lucky Numbers, Swordfish, Domestic Disturbance - the word on the street is that Travolta needs another hit. Yet the actor is not so sure that commercial success is necessarily the answer.

"Warren Beatty told me something years ago," he chimes, opening his piercing blue eyes widely. "He said don't worry about the success of your movies, worry about doing good movies, because that will give you longevity. And I think he was absolutely right and that's what I try to do, make good movies because nobody can predict success."

In his slow, marshmallowy tone, Travolta reasons: "And if you try to predict success, you're going to live a roller-coaster life. Forget about that roller-coaster experience. Even with Ladder 49, which I think is magnificent; I have to accept the possibility that this could go the other way too.

"It's the same thing with Pulp Fiction. In fact, it's the same with every hit or failure I've ever had. You go in thinking: 'Well, how do you like it? Oh good we won, OK.' So, you can only do your best work and choose the best movie to be in."

Despite some disappointing box- office returns for films such as Battlefield Earth and Basic, Travolta's price tag has remained at $20m (£10.6m) a role. "What I learnt," he offers candidly of the difficult period in his life, "is that I'd gone knee-deep into a cynical black hole, and it put me on a spiral where I could hardly function. All this information about how art works, how art comes out of depression and suffering - that the darker you are, the more depth you have, I finally learnt that that isn't true.

"Art fills my life with joy. If I act well, I make you feel a certain way. Violins and the French horn make me cry. Picasso's paintings do something different to me than Edward Hopper's paintings, but they both alter my perspective on life. Without art, all hopes and dreams go out of the window. I've had ups and downs in my life, but I was still acting. I was pleased, and that's why it was hard for people to look at me and go: 'Come on John, don't you have resentment?' No, I felt like I was the luckiest guy in the world because they were paying me to act in movies. That was marvellous to me!"

The youngest of six children, Travolta always relished the spotlight as a child, long before he pulsed his polyester-wrapped pelvis in 1977's Saturday Night Fever, as Tony Manero, a role which garnered him his first Oscar nomination. Travolta recalls the first time he received the Academy nod: "My mother wasn't feeling well, and when they announced the winner, she couldn't make out if I'd won or not, and so she whispered to my father: 'Did he win?' And my dad replied: 'No.' And she said: 'Good.' Because she knew that I'd have something to aim for still. Although I'd liked to have won, being nominated was still a big deal to me. I cherished the honour."

Growing up in a middle-class New Jersey home, to Salvatore, a tyre shop owner and Helen, a drama teacher, Travolta performed plays in the living room. With his parents' blessing, he left school at 16 to pursue an acting career in New York, which subsequently led to his break on the US comedy television series, Welcome Back, Kotter.

"I was a hyper-active kid," he says sagely. "Sugar was my problem. In my era, we were all on a sugar high. We would eat a lot of candy and go: 'Ahhhh!' Then, we'd crash and that was interpreted as being a child. Now, we interpret it as being a child on sugar. So, when you ask what kind of child was I, I was the kind who was an obnoxious, sugar fed, up-and-down kid, who finally learnt at about age 12, that when you ate something healthy you felt a lot better."

Travolta's career has had dazzling highs and some character-building lows. When Travolta turned down American Gigolo and An Officer and A Gentleman, Richard Gere became a star. Tom Hanks benefited whenTravolta refusedSplash. However, you can't fault the seasoned actor for making poor film choices.

"I always viewed things positively. When I took my first dive in '85, I never viewed it as: 'Oh gee,' but more like: 'Wow, I was the biggest movie star in the world, isn't that something?' I can tell my grandkids about this. I held that positive and then it turned into a positive again, and I never lose sight of that.

"They thought I was gone, and I'm not trying to say I fooled myself, but I didn't worry about it. It's like if you buy a new car and someone dents it, you can say: 'Well, to hell with the car, its over.' Or you can say: 'Why I still have a great car, I can get it fixed.'"

Ladder 49 tells the heartwarming story of a fresh-faced firefighter rookie, Jack (Joaquin Phoenix), who gamely falls for the pranks his truck mates play on him. During the course of a decade, he not only falls in love and starts a family, but earns the trust of his peers as well as his big-hearted, but stern chief, Mike Kennedy (Travolta). This story is presented in flashbacks, while Jack is trapped in a blazing building.

Playing a figure of authority came easily to Travolta. "I had natural seniority, so that helped," he chirps. "They all grew up with me and I am a figure for them off camera. So on camera it was easier to grab that authority. But they're all very powerful actors too, so I had to get their attention by throwing a chair, and letting them have it."

If Ladder 49 had been made at any other time, it would have involved a crew of fearless firefighters hot on the trail of a serial arsonist. One of the firefighters would have fallen in love with a girl who would be kidnapped by the bad guy just in time for a nail-biting finale. But as this script was given the go-ahead in the ultra-patriotic wake of 11 September 2001, the film instead acts as a sober and, at times, tragic celebration of heroism.

Travolta admits that the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington played a role in his decision to make the film. "Sure 9/11 shone a light of respect and a different viewpoint on the firefighters that endeared them to me. I felt a kinship of some sort and so I wanted to play one, but in the right way. In a way, it's a homage to all the firefighters, because they don't want to be looked on as heroes, and they are heroes, and they are modest, hardworking people.

"If there is only one film ever to tell a story about the firefighter, then this is it. Even Backdraft was about the arsonist."

Travolta met his wife , the actress Kelly Preston, on the set of The Experts in 1989. The couple have two children, Jett, 12, and Ella Bleu, four. He attributes his clear thinking and successful marriage to his affiliation with Scientology. Created by L Ron Hubbard, the belief has often been portrayed by the media as a religious cult. Travolta, an active member of the church, denies such accusations and is adamant the philosophy has become a way of life for him and his family. He reverently insists that Scientology has helped his marriage. "Any relationship has a better shot at longevity when two people are really right for each other. If they go off the tracks, it's still easier to fix than two people who are not right for each other at all.

"I don't care who you want to be with. If you want to be with a monkey, then fine, it doesn't matter, you both make up your needs and want list. I mean list everything you need and want from the other person: how much sex you want; what kind of food you want to eat; is your bed soft or hard: where you want to live. Then you say to yourself, 'that's my ideal scene.' Then you find someone and weigh up how close your ideal scene is to theirs." He adds: "If the inherent needs are way off, you're not even going to get through the first year, so don't even go there. It may sound unromantic, but it's that simple."

Travolta agrees that all marriages need "fixing" at some point, and his was no exception. "My wife left one thing undone and we fixed that. She forgot to say on her list, I want the man I'm with to live in California. I was living in Florida at the time, and we were commuting every week. She was like: 'This is exhausting.' We fixed it, because fortunately I had a jet!" He throws back his head and laughs.

Following a lifelong love of aviation, Travolta holds a commercial pilot's licence, and the highest pilot medical certificate. With homes in California and Maine, Travolta spends most of his time at his Florida residence, which is modelled after a Fifties airport lounge, complete with a mock flight tower and a 1.4 mile runway. He parks his two 707 planes in the driveway and employs a live-in flight crew.

He admits he only faced death once when he experienced engine failure on a flight from Florida to Maine. "I was near Washington, and there was intermittent light coming through the layer of weather, so you could see there was a big city below," he explains. "But then we lost the electric power and then we slowly lost every system. We were flying at around 600 miles an hour at 39,000 feet, but I wasn't scared."

Fear of dying did not even enter his mind, he says. "No," he looms. "I had this feeling of being really pissed off, because my wife and son - Ella wasn't born - were in the back. But it all turned out well in the end, because I made an emergency landing at a nearby airport."

He stands up to leave the suite and quips: "And the funny part was that the guys at the terminal had no idea they were helping John Travolta land his plane!"

'Ladder 49' is released today