EXCLUSIVE: During a long leading man career that spans films like Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Hairspray, Urban Cowboy, Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty and so many others, John Travolta has mastered everything from riding a mechanical bull to singing, dancing the two-step and executing disco gyrations that could clear polyester shirted rivals off a dance floor in a fast walk of shame. Tonight, Travolta premieres his latest, the crime thriller The Forger, and you want to guess what new skill he has mastered? The generational crime drama, acquired for release earlier this week by Saban Films, is directed by Philip Martin and also stars Christopher Plummer, Tye Sheridan, Abigail Spencer and Jennifer Ehle. Travolta plays a former art prodigy, sprung from prison and forced to replicate a Monet masterpiece. Here, he talks about what he learned about art forgery, and other career lessons that include unforgettable encounters with Robin Williams.
DEADLINE: You make mostly studio films. What appeal does a festival like Toronto hold for you?
TRAVOLTA: These independent films offer you an opportunity to express something that normally you wouldn’t be able to and this particular movie, I think, is the quintessential example of a great independent. I’d never been to Toronto before; I’ve done Cannes and Venice. It’s all about timing, when your film’s ready and if it’s good enough to meet their criteria for a Gala Premiere, which this is. There are thousands of films seeking a Gala slot and I’m proud of this one. It’s really a family drama about three generations, a grandfather, a father, and a son and the backdrop is a heist. But that is not really the primary message of the film, which is this relationship and a family’s love for each other in a very stoic fashion. Christopher Plummer is amazing as is Tye and the rest of the cast. I mean everybody’s doing a really good job. This director is this Brit who knows his stuff but allowed us, with him, to discover roots in these characters that weren’t there.
DEADLINE: You have picked up a lot of skills making zeitgest moment movies. What did you learn about art forgers and how hard it is to copy masterworks?
TRAVOLTA: I learned a lot. I’d taken up painting earlier in my life. My grandfather was a wonderful painter as was my brother and even my father. I picked it up again in a new unit of time in order to feel what it might be like to be forced to paint something in such an exact form. I studied with a guy in Hong Kong who is supposedly the master of teaching people oil painting, and this guy on the set from Texas also guided me in professionalism. But I said “Screw it, I have to feel what this is like.” And I took the lady with the parasol Monet painting, the one in the movie, and I tried to duplicate it myself. I must say I did a pretty good job of doing an impression of an impression.
DEADLINE: You became an art forger?
TRAVOLTA: Yeah. And I was actually quite proud of it. I’d love to show you the photograph. I framed it and put it in my house in Maine. It gave me the confidence that when I went to do the bits on screen, I could handle it, while at the same time feeling the fear that if I didn’t do it right, the lives of my entire family were at stake. Basically, there is a gun to my head to try to make this duplication of a masterpiece. You have to test the waters sometimes in order to portray these kinds of things correctly. And that’s what I did.
DEADLINE: How long does it take John Travolta to paint a good forgery?
TRAVOLTA: I worked on it four weeks. Just a little bit each day, maybe 40 minutes to an hour. By the end of the film I had finished and I found this immense pleasure in creating something that resembled this masterpiece. I couldn’t quite believe I could be in the ballpark.
DEADLINE: What’s the key to making good forgeries of priceless masterworks?
TRAVOLTA: I don’t know how long it took Monet to do it, but I learned a lot from the actual forgers I interviewed. What’s shocking is they all believe that over 50 percent of supposedly authentic paintings are not. That’s how good the forging has become. The guy I liked the best was this Frenchman who couldn’t speak a lot of English but enough to let me understand something that was very important. I used it in an improvised line in the film. That is, a forger is the only one that knows the difference because there’s an aesthetic, he almost called it like a frequency, that distinguishes the real work from a forgery. It’s a feeling from the painting you get itself that cannot be technically reproduced. You cannot duplicate the emotion and the communication exactly, and the forgers know this. I decided my character would be moved by this frequency, this communication of artistry, and the realization of what he could not do and that only the masters can. He recognizes this as his Achilles heel, his weakness in life; he wanted to be like these great artists but he couldn’t. I loved playing that in my character. It gave him a sadness and a poignancy. Clearly, he could duplicate art, but whether he was an artist or not, was the great nagging question in his life.
DEADLINE: These forgers you met, they make good money?
TRAVOLTA: Oh my, yes. Into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on what the artwork is. My character notched that up. When he was a young boy, he was influenced by his father to make his art a criminal enterprise. That included duplicating passports and other forgeries that were more of kind of low-level artistry if you will, a low-level crime but of course he was caught and put away and at the beginning of the movie you see him in prison for doing this. The sad thing about his character was, he was misguided. He never wanted to be part of any dark world of art. He wanted to be a real artist and had real talent as a child but was taken on the wrong journey by his dad. At the same time, the story is mixed with all this love that’s very confusing for all the characters.
DEADLINE: You play out that father-son dynamic with Christopher Plummer. You’ve done iconic roles from Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero to Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega, Get Shorty’s Chili Palmer on down, but he’s Captain Frickin’ Von Trapp from The Sound of Music. Where you do rate by comparison?
TRAVOLTA: [Laughs] Oh, I don’t know, but I was aware that Christopher and I had an amazing and magical historical bond. We both have iconic characters that define us in musicals and I think that whether you look at his performance in Sound of Music or mine in Grease or Hairspray, you’re looking at history there that we should not deny but that we should celebrate. He is a marvelous actor with that incredible pedigree.
DEADLINE: You’ve got a long list of incredible movies, you’ve had ups and downs, but you don’t have much left to prove. Your recent roles have been eclectic, your characters interesting, in films from Killing Season with De Niro to Paris In Love for Luc Besson, to Old Dogs with Robin Williams, Savages with Oliver Stone, and Taking of Pelham 123 with Denzel and Tony Scott. What’s important to you that makes you put in the time to learn a skill like art forgery?
TRAVOLTA: Well it’s a thoughtful question and let me take a minute to do it justice…What I do at this point in my life is look for a story that I feel hasn’t been told before, in one way or another. It could be a in a familiar genre but it’s unique enough that I would find it interesting if I were in an audience. Secondly, I look at the characters and see if there is something I have to offer that could give life to what might feel unique for that character? Do I have the ability or a take on something that might be different enough where a person watching would say, “Okay, I’ve never seen that guy before and I want to take that journey with him.” Three of those movies you mentioned. Killing Season; I’ve never seen that guy, that mean guy, I’ve never quite ever seen that story before. I felt the same with From Paris with Love and Savages. There was something unique and distinctive there.
DEADLINE: I’d make the same observation about the characters you and Denzel played in Tony Scott’s The Taking Of Pelham 123. Your villain was vastly different from the one Robert Shaw played in the original. He had this warped code to him and forced Denzel’s character to face his own transgressions.
TRAVOLTA: That’s what Tony and I really wanted to achieve and that’s how I saw it. A guy with white collar potential who went south, completely criminal. What happened where he could be this wild and violent person, while at the same time being smart and charming? I said, “Okay. I’m going to visit the prison life in him, meaning maybe he went to prison and who knows the level of things that he had to deal with there, but he became a winning personality in that world, took on those qualities and style of talking and dressing and behaving as a guy from the hood. And yet his origins were intellectual and that played into who he was. I thought, now that’s interesting, a different way to play him and Tony went with it with me. He allowed me to explore that, down to drawing the beard on my face or the mustache and the sideburns. He had such a helpful flow toward allowing me to go all the way and even when I improvised with such drastic dialog he went with it. Even when the studio was saying, “No. No. No. He can’t say that. He can’t’ do that.” He supported my quest, that’s the nutshell version of how I approach things in my more recent work, though I’d like to think it’s always been in me. From the beginning, I’ve always asked, what’s different about this? How can I give it something that someone else might not think of? Is the story unique enough that it would entertain an audience and entertain me so you don’t feel like you’re watching something that you’ve already seen.
DEADLINE: When you get to a place in your life where you don’t have to feed the $20 million a picture meter anymore, it seems an admirable path.
TRAVOLTA: It feels that way. I’ve worked as an actor since I was 12 years old, and when you work that long, you have to feel at some point that you’ve earned the right to slow down and only do things that captivate you 100% and for no other reason at all. Though I’ve tried to always do that, and not make money the consideration, just do what feels interesting. Especially now, it’s a luxury that’s quite nice at this age to do something because it’s what you want to do. It’s no different from a writer or a painter who decides to paint something. He just sits and expresses himself, not looking for any kind of permission, and that’s always been the luxury of being a writer or a painter, only you get a little older and realize it more, the freedom you have.
DEADLINE: Crude comparison, but it sounds like those Viagra commercials, where the guy just figures shit out and finds his way out of jams like being stuck in the mud with a truck full of horses, letting those animals pull him out of the muck. You might have told me the first encouraging thing about getting older.
TRAVOLTA: Despite you needing a Viagra commercial for inspiration, that’s well put.
DEADLINE: I mentioned Robin Williams, with whom you worked recently. Got a cherished memory?
TRAVOLTA: Well, it was wonderful to work with Robin on a film, but the best memories came earlier, when we were at Paramount together, hanging out. One time he came up to Santa Barbara to visit me and we were sitting in the lobby of a hotel. There was this big wedding going on next door, and we are getting a little bored, sitting there with our iced teas. I say, “Should we?” and he said, “I think we have to.” And we just crashed this wedding together. It was an all black wedding that just beckoned us and we just had a blast. We laughed about it for years because it was so unexpected and so much fun to just do that kind of impromptu thing.
DEADLINE: From what I’ve heard of him, I have to ask if he gave the toast to the newlyweds.
TRAVOLTA: It was so long ago, I don’t remember if that was part of it, but with Robin it might have been. What I remember was us dancing, and just responding to the enthusiasm that was coming our way. Just the idea that we were young and audacious enough to do this because we knew we could, that we have the golden ticket to do this and used it to have fun and give a lot of joy to people and to us. What a way to start our weekend! Robin was this rare human being willing to play the game of life and willing to do something like crashing a wedding at a moment’s notice, and he gave us permission to find that in ourselves. At the end of the day, it’s what we all want in life, to be empowered to have that spirit of playfulness.
TRAVOLTA: There’s a few other stories how special and unique he was, but the one I most appreciated was how kind he was to my daughter during the shooting of Old Dogs. He was a father, so he understood the importance of nurturing, but nothing matters more than how people treat your children and he was all there for my daughter, who had never acted in a film before. He made it very safe for her to be natural and to be good and she certainly was that, and he was a lot of reason for it because her primary scenes were with him. It was a very touching thing for me to see and to watch, as a father, and I think that was the first film that he claimed that he was sober on. That also felt like a moment in history that was valuable to him and to all of us that he achieved that and got through a film at a level that he was quite proud of. It was a wonderful accomplishment and I was proud of him, that he could do it.