John Travolta dons a fat suit in drag and lives to tell about it

It has been thirty years since John Travolta sang and danced his way into our hearts as Danny Zuko in the musical Grease. Since that time, he has lent his great disco moves to a dozen or so classic films. Now, he returns to his true musical roots in Hairspray. The film is based on both the original John Waters classic and the Broadway hit.

The film sees him taking over the role of Edna Turnblad, a character originally played by the great Devine (a John Waters regular). Edna is a loving mother in the sixties who must encourage her plus-sized daughter Nicky to be herself amongst the more popular, beautiful kids at school.

Playing opposite Christopher Walken, Travolta loved crawling into the skin of this rotund woman. He recently sat down with us for a chat about the experience.

Here is what he had to say:

How did they drag you back into a dance movie?

John Travolta: They didn't drag me back, I always like dancing.

But we've heard how you don't like to do the dance scenes.

John Travolta: No. I think you mean being dragged back to a musical. Because musicals are hard to pull off. I haven't done one in thirty years.

You're making me feel old here.

John Travolta: Yeah, me too. What can I say?

Doesn't it come almost as second nature at this point?

John Travolta: It does. But I don't have the ability to write them. I don't write music. I mean, I do write, but it's in another style. Not script writing. I do wait on the inspiration of others to create these things. I did turn down A Chorus Line and Chicago. What was out last year? Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera? You get the idea. Only one of them worked. It's difficult to pull off. Every department has to be perfect.

Like in this movie.

John Travolta: Thank you.

How did your kids react when they saw you in that make-up?

John Travolta: My daughter loved Edna. But she didn't love Flapper. Flapper was when I was undressed, and the prosthetic created a flap. So, one day I had lunch with her as Edna. And I had to get undressed. So, I was partially undressed with just the flap of the prosthetic hanging out. She said, "I like Edna. But I don't like Flapper."

Yeah, that's kind of scary.

John Travolta: Yeah. Flapper was scary, but Edna wasn't. But my wife cried when she saw "Welcome to the Sixties" done on the set. She was so moved by it for some reason. It struck a chord for her. I don't know what it was. A mother, a daughter, the sixties. The breaking out. I don't know what it was.

Can you tell us about the first moment that they came to you for the role of Edna? What was your thought process? No?

John Travolta: No. It took a year and six months. I said, "Why? Why do you need me? I'm not going to play her as a man. If I do this, I'm going to have to play her as a woman. Why would I be a good woman?" Do you see what I mean?

What was the answer to, "Why?"

John Travolta: "Because you can sing and dance. That has great entertainment value. And it would be funny to see someone that has had a thirty year history as a leading macho guy do this." I went, "Okay. But you are serious about me playing this as a woman?" They said, "Is that how you want to play it?" I said, "That's the only way I will play it." That's the actor I am. Unless you said this was about a drag queen. It's not. There is nothing that is written that says that. So I have to play it the way I see it. That's like when I played Clinton. I didn't play John Travolta playing Clinton. I became Clinton. That's my own urge. To do roles that are "the" roles.

What convinced you to do it?

John Travolta: When I realized that they had a real idea. That every department was an A+. They were all really excited about it. I thought, "Okay, if I can get them to agree on how I should look, and how I should talk, then I can pull this off." I wasn't worried about the singing and dancing. That was the easy part. It was the character. If I could convince them to let me do my interpretation, which was from Baltimore, not from New York. New York is masculine. Not to say that New York isn't feminine. But you get that accent, and it's all up in your nose. It's nasally, and funny. If it was New York, you'd see a guy under there. I thought, if I get to do that, I can pull this off.

How familiar are you with the Baltimore culture? This is a big deal in Baltimore.

John Travolta: It is. I did Ladder 49 there for 5 months. One of my best friends, a girl who is an associate producer and a writer for me, is from Baltimore. So, for twenty years I have known her. And we have kidded about that Baltimore accent. They didn't want me to use it. They didn't think the audience would be able to understand it. I said, "Well, it helps me. It is the one thing that is going to convince me, to convince you, that this is real." I said, "I can't make her real if I don't do that." Cause, it is a funny thing.

Did you have to change your way of thinking as a man, to show a motherly love for this daughter?

John Travolta: No. I don't think the love of a mother for a daughter and the love of a father for his daughter is that much different for a child. The way I love my son and my daughter is not that much different than the way Kelly loves them. Meaning, I am affectionate, I am dotting, I am validating of them. I am a lot of things with them. If we go to hug them, or love them up, we are doing it with the same energy. I thought, "That's a parental thing." Nicky has a lot of practice being a very loved daughter. The first thing I said to her was, "Come to Mama." You know? That was when I saw her in my regular clothes.

Can you talk about the make-up process?

John Travolta: It took four to five hours.

Was this every day?

John Travolta: Everyday. I had about five hours in the seat, and about five hours on the set. They had a lesser time to shoot me. So they would shoot other things while they were waiting.

How did people look at you differently when you were in this suit?

John Travolta: You know how, with a pregnant woman, everyone feels like they have the right to touch her stomach? And sometimes her breasts? Where does that come from? Why do you feel you suddenly have this right? Well, everyone felt they had the right to touch my breasts and my bottom. I must have been a slut, because I said, "Go ahead." I couldn't feel it. But the attention you got from everyone was interesting. Women have a lot of power that I wasn't aware of before. I mean, they have a lot of power to me, because they are important to me. But I didn't realize the shift of attention units that you get. There's one thing, being a famous person walking into a room. You get a certain kind of attention. You add large breasts and an ass, they forget that you are this famous person. It's like, "How ya doin'? What's up, Edna?"

Did you ever do any field research? Did you ever go out in public in this getup?

John Travolta: I didn't need to. I knew that it was working. I saw it on the screen test that it was working.

How difficult was it, with a dance background, to let Christopher Walken lead? You had to do everything backwards.

John Travolta: It was a transition for me. Sure. But I had a couple of months as a kid where I wanted to be an instructor at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio. I remember having to learn both parts in order to instruct. It's nothing different when you are fourteen. You just do it. I just had to give into that. There was a little transition, for sure.

So this was easy for you?

John Travolta: The thing with dancing, and the same thing with Chris, is I have always needed a lot of drilling when it comes to dance scenes. But once I get it, I perform it well. I have always needed a lot of rehearsal. More than any average person would. But then I can add a layer of style to it. You know? But I really need to know the dance well. Drill, drill, drill, drill. I have to get it down, then I can add layers of expression to it.

In your wildest dreams, did you ever think you'd be dancing with Christopher Walken?

John Travolta: Well, he was my number one choice. We have the same background. We both went to Broadway Summer Theater. I thought, he will understand the comedy. It's a zone, man. I'm telling you, you have to understand and believe that surrealism. I grew up with it. One of the first things I remember seeing were musicals. My family was in them. Broadway. Summer theater. School. It's what I grew up with. It's a zone. You have to buy into it, and believe in what you are doing. You have to perform at a level where you are able to talk, and then go right into songs.

Have you seen the film?

John Travolta: Yeah, I saw it a month ago.

The moment Christopher Walken kisses you on the cheek is so sweet.

John Travolta: You mean at the end of Timeless?


John Travolta: Yeah, I thought that was pretty sweet, too.

Was your mom on Happy Days?

John Travolta: No, that was my sister, Ellen.

Did you ever go back and watch some of those old episodes to try and get a feel for this role?

John Travolta: I didn't need to. I'll tell you why. I was inundated with female performances growing up. Imagine if you watched the levels of Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas every week. I was watching the likes of Ethel Merman, Vivian Blaine. My sister. There were about ten Broadway stars at the time that would also star in summer theater productions with my family. I had a plethora of memories about how women moved in musical comedies. I always said to Craig and Neil. "Women have the best roles in musicals." They said, "You asked for it. You said women have the best roles, and I'm giving you one."

Can you still do your Tony Manero moves

John Travolta: Sure. The funny things is, someone asked me if I remember all of my steps from Saturday Night Fever. The funny thing is, I do remember all of them. You know why? Its because you drill them so much. You rehearse them over and over again. They become embedded. So, as long as you have that right piece of music, I can probably recreate it. Whether I can get from my knees up in a matter of quickness, I don't know.

What do you see in Nicky?

John Travolta: I think she is phenomenal. From her screen test on, she was an amazing talent. Look, when I was seventeen or eighteen you kind of expected it from me. Because I had a pedigree family of musicians. She came from Cold Stone and high school. How does that happen? It's another worldliness. To be that sophisticated without that level of experience is amazing. Its wild. We had a similar dream. When she was eighteen, she wanted to be Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray. When I was eighteen, I wanted to be Danny Zuko in Grease.

Did she know that?

John Travolta: Yeah. We just talked about it yesterday. It was the first time we paralleled those strong dreams.

Had you seen the stage musical before signing onto this?

John Travolta: I saw it once, in Florida. And I saw the movie years ago. Again, both those shows and performances is not what I felt I could do the best.

Do you think we'll see you doing another musical in the near future?

John Travolta: I would love to. But like I said earlier, they don't make too many of them. I was asked to do four over the course of the past thirty years. Whereas, they offer me a comedy and a drama every month. Four musicals in thirty years? That means there is a scarcity of it. It also means that people just don't know how to do them. It's a dying art. That's why I felt like this was a last shot at keeping a genre going.

Did you see this as a big risk?

John Travolta: I did. I see it as less of a risk now. But when I did it, sure. I see musicals as a risk, period. Then add the other layers of me being a woman, and whatever complicated things you want to put on it.

You're working with Robin Williams next?

John Travolta: Yeah.

How is that going?

John Travolta: We start next month. My daughter Ella is going to be in that, and my wife Kelly. And Robin. We play two dads. Robin doesn't know how to be a dad, so I'm teaching him. But I don't know how to do that either.

Can you talk about the tender side of Christopher Walken?

John Travolta: When Chris decided that he was going to be crazy about Edna, we were home free. We knew the singing and dancing was going to work. He said, "I just discovered, they are crazy about each other. They have a wild time in the sack." I looked at him and said, "Yeah, cool. That's how we will play it." If they weren't truly in love, someone like Michelle Pfeiffer comes along, and he'd drop me like a hot potato. So you had to have this heightened commitment and love to play that. Once I knew that's where he was going, we were home free.

Hairspray opens July 20th, 2007.