Arts: Five minutes in the starry life of John Travolta

IT WAS WORSE than meeting the Queen. In fact, meeting John Travolta was rather more like checking out the Sun King at Versailles.

Travolta, star of Seventies pop musicals, disco king, chubby darling of Pulp Fiction, was at the Cannes Film Festival for his film Primary Colors. I was therefore offered an interview at his hotel on the Cap D'Antibes. In the old days, stars would stay in the middle of Cannes. Nowadays, only film financiers and journalists stay in town. Celebs breathe a more refined air. After all, they are treated as gods; obviously they must have their own Valhalla.

The hotel looks like a French chateau; but rather than putting up French blue-bloods, it puts up with 20th-century aristos, i.e. film stars. Madonna stayed here, Bruce Willis stays here, Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley check in from time to time. If you find yourself directing your taxi to the Hotel Du Cap, you know you've made it.

Arriving, we swept into the majestic entrance. A press person advanced, waving madly. We swept out of the majestic entrance and turned down something with potholes in it. The tradesman's entrance. By a large iron gate we were stopped by a young man who looked rather like Tom Parker-Bowles. "That's Tom Parker-Bowles," whispered my producer. I wasn't surprised. When you are viewed as royalty, you need the minions of royalty about you. Tom advised us to get out of our taxi and pointed up a long path, which wound through a sort of faux-wilderness.

On the way up we bumped into a Japanese film crew coming the other way. Their faces looked strangely beatific. Clearly they had already had The Meeting. I came across an American woman sitting in the middle of the path on a dining-room chair. "Go up this path and turn left at the green wooden gate," she said. It was like something out of the Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

Turning the corner, I spotted the director of Primary Colors, Mike Nichols, taking a stroll amid the fragrant Mexican Orange bushes. Like you do. "Hello," I said. "You guys from the BBC?" he said. I admitted that we were. "Remember when Susan Sontag visited Andy Warhol? She got all the way to his apartment and buzzed the door. `He's not in,' said a man. `Oh shit,' she said. But I'm here with the BBC!' And that was the whole piece! Ha ha ha ha!"

Unsure how to cap this anecdote, I suggested that he might give me a few tips on how I should treat the star. "Be as you are," he said. "He is as he is. You'll like him." And with that he vanished behind a clump of jasmine.

An exclusive interview? Don't make me laugh. We were parked in a hut alongside 20 others. It was boiling hot. After two hours, my moment arrived. "I told you we'd keep to the schedule," enthused one of the PRs, as if he expected me to burst into tears of joy. I was led to a leafy ante-chamber. "Since you're the BBC, we've extended your interview to five minutes." I found myself babbling thanks. A woman with an ear- piece appeared. "You will step forward and meet Mr Travolta." It was his 16th interview that day.

What was he expecting? Another few minutes opposite a hot-looking journalist who would have time for four questions. "I don't mind the press," he said. "If you resist it, it's harder work than being open to it."

What was I expecting? With PR people waving to the decreasing minutes, and the sense that I was receiving a huge favour, there was little hope of getting a balanced interview or interesting discussion. Even if the questions are interesting, how can a person answer them thoughtfully with 20 interviews a day? It's not until you say something surprising that the celeb even looks at you properly.

And so I offered up thanks to the God of Celebrity that a) I had seen Saturday Night Fever on stage in London and that b) Travolta had not. Because when I told him about it his face lit up; he smiled; he turned into a proper person. We were having a proper conversation. Then the publicity person did the wind-up sign and my 300 seconds were up.

Rosie Millard is the BBC's arts correspondent.

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