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A flier not content to just glide

Comfortable at home, adjusting to being 50, John Travolta sees another path opening for him with roles like 'Bobby Long.'

December 26, 2004|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

At Jumbolair, time itself has been bent to accommodate this. Travolta is a nocturnal creature -- he flies in the middle of the night, takes his kids for breakfast at Denny's in the middle of the night, even schedules interviews and photo shoots at night, partly so he can get things done without being mobbed.

The unusual hours may explain the startling fairness of his skin and why, at 2 on a weekday afternoon, his 12-year-old son Jett is asleep and his 4 1/2 -year-old daughter Ella is sitting with a friend on her parents' unmade bed watching cartoons, her long pretty hair still mussed.

As Travolta talks in the living room, staff members polish and sweep and produce trays of cookies and crustless sandwiches, glasses of water and iced tea. The house is very, very quiet.

"Egg salad is an East Coast thing," says Travolta, helping himself. "You have to explain it everywhere else."

Travolta was born and raised in New Jersey and he mentions his family often -- his mother, his sisters, the creative atmosphere of the house where being an actor was considered a much loftier goal than being, say, a doctor. Nostalgia is evident in the decor, all of which is very much airport but of a specific time. The walls of the round dining room are ablaze with a mural depicting a glamorous cocktail lounge from the '50s overlooking a twinkling airfield; the living room is done in the cool turquoise and chartreuse of the early '60s.

Nostalgia was also one of the forces behind Travolta's decision to take on "Bobby Long." From the moment Scarlett Johansson and her mother, Melanie Sloan, approached him with the project, he felt he knew, and loved, the ruined scholar.

"He felt so real to me," he says. "He was almost too smart; it made him dangerous even to himself. I've known so many wonderful drinkers who are gone now and he reminded me of them."

His Southern exposure

The downscale local color and poetry-quoting characters of Ronald Everett Capps' book, on which the film is based, reminded him of movies he had watched when he was young, of writers he read when he was young.

"When I was growing up," he says, "the voice of America was the Southern writer, and I think we've forgotten that."

Back then, stories took their time to unfold rather than "popped" and had messages that were quiet and heartfelt rather than cool or hip. "I thought, 'No one has made this movie in 40 years,' " he says.

He also felt he really understood Bobby. "I've spent half my life with heavy drinkers, listening to them talk and spin and explain why it was 'so important to the creative process.' "

When you're an actor, he adds, "you're used to endless nights with very bright people lecturing and quoting things at you."

Travolta has heard the old saws about the pain of the creative process and the importance of the "altered state" often enough to realize that some people believe them -- "that is what Bobby thought was true, so I kept that in mind when I was Bobby." But his own attitude toward the work is rooted much more in pleasure than anguish. And it shows. The films from Travolta's Dark Ages may not be very good, but in every one there he is, acting his heart out.

"I can count on one hand the number of films that I didn't enjoy doing," he says. "No matter how they turned out.

"I was good friends with Brando. And he always experienced the moment. And that is why he was great. He was the spirit of play, and that validated me. Because I am the spirit of play too."

Travolta settles back and tells a Brando story: The two were discussing a famous football player. Brando said he had heard he was a friend of Travolta's; Travolta said, well, sort of, "but I told him it wasn't like when I first met him [Brando], when he picked me up off my feet and kissed me on the lips."

Brando looked at Travolta and shook his head. "He said" -- and here Travolta does a very impressive Marlon Brando -- " 'John, he doesn't have the emotional elasticity that you and I have, so you can't expect that of him.'

"I couldn't believe it," Travolta says. " 'Emotional elasticity.' Years of insecurity and worry about how other people acted and what it meant just rolled away. It was as if God had spoken."

Brando, he says, remained ageless in the public imagination, and that is a pretty good goal for an actor. "I would like to grow old with my art," Travolta says. "If I can stay healthy enough and productive. Like Cary Grant or Warren Beatty. If I lose a set of physical characteristics, that shouldn't matter. I'm an actor first."

Well, maybe. For almost three hours, Ella Travolta has played quietly in another room, but enough is enough. The universal cry of the 4 1/2 -year old -- "Daaa---aaadeee, Daaaaa---aaadeeee" -- precedes her by a few seconds into the room. The nanny and the teacher hang back waiting to see if this is OK. Travolta smiles at his daughter and they vanish.

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