When John Travolta was a 5-year-old, his parents allowed him to watch Federico Fellini's La Strada. "When I saw Giulietta Masina in that movie, it broke my heart," he recalled Wednesday as he took part in a master-class conversation during his appearance at the Cannes Film Festival. "I said, 'Why did she die?' to my father. He said, 'She died of a broken heart.'"
The emotional impact of that moment hit him so deeply that he decided there and then that he wanted to be an actor. Although his mother, Helen Cecilia, was an actress and singer, he was dissuaded from pursuing a career as a performer. "I was a tenacious brat," he joked.
Travolta has been making the rounds at the festival. His passion project Gotti screened Tuesday, followed by a party at the Hotel du Cap. Earlier in the night, Travolta hit the red carpet for the Solo: A Star Wars Story premiere at the Palais. Gotti was not part of the festival's official lineup but was presented by Cannes head Thierry Fremaux as a special screening. Tonight, Travolta will appear at a beach screening of his classic musical Grease, celebrating the film's 40th anniversary.
French critic and journalist Didier Allouch conducted the one-on-one talk held in the Bunuel Theatre on Wednesday evening. The Q&A touched on a number of subjects including Travolta's practice of Scientology. An audience member named Sandy, who told Travolta that she was born in 1980 and named after the Grease heroine, asked about his techniques for staying positive.
"I practice Scientology, and we do very simple things to get ourselves in better shape: take care of yourself, get good sleep, be better parents, be productive, be motivated. It sounds simple, but they all contribute to your well-being," he said. "And surround yourself with people who are positive influences because one bad egg can spoil everything."
For the talk, Travolta surrounded himself with two rows of positive influences including wife and Gotti co-star Kelly Preston; daughter Ella Bleu Travolta; longtime manager Randi Michel; sister Ellen Travolta; and director Randal Kleiser, who collaborated with Travolta twice — on the TV movie The Bubble Boy and Grease.
While La Strada played a pivotal role in the actor's career choice, it turns out that he influenced the career of Benicio Del Toro. The Sicario actor and Un Certain Regard juror told Travolta that he watched Grease 14 times as a kid. "Benicio has this gravitas and power as an actor that you never really associate that Grease would be the thing that created Benicio Del Toro," Travolta quipped.
Travolta charmed the crowd of mostly fledgling actors and filmmakers, including a Ukrainian director who offered him a role in her short (he said he'd consider doing a short because he has no career rules) and a Ugandan animator, who asked for advice on how to get to the same level as the Pulp Fiction star. Travolta said he chooses roles — including playing Mafia don John Gotti Sr. — because they have little in common.
"Reinvention is what I’m all about. I get very bored with my own personality," he said. "Another character, I could do all the time."
Waxing on the success of Pulp Fiction, which won the Palme d'Or in 1994, Travolta said he had no idea the indie film would ignite as a cultural and box-office phenomenon.
"I don't think anyone had any clue as to the magnitude that the Cannes Film Festival would have on the launch of this film," he said. "We thought of it as a small art film that would have a limited audience and not a global audience."
He also said that Pulp Fiction director Quentin Tarantino has one thing in common with all of the great directors he's worked with, including John Woo, Robert Altman and Mike Nichols.
"They trust the actor they’ve chosen," he explained. "Quentin always saw me as an unpredictable actor. He said, 'If I wanted predictability, I would have chosen someone different.'"
Throughout the course of his career, which included iconic turns in such films as Saturday Night Fever and Primary Colors ("I think I have Bill Clinton in my back pocket"), he received guidance from a number of forefathers including Marlon Brando, who Travolta tried unsuccessfully to enlist to co-star in A Civil Action (Robert Duvall eventually played the role and was nominated for an Oscar).
"He said, 'You should never engage in a movie [if] the director isn't crazy about you, isn't in love with you. They have to like you deeply because that trust will allow you to perform at a new level.'"
When asked by Allouch about the #MeToo movement upending the old paradigm in Hollywood, Travolta had little to say.
"I don’t know much about it. I try to keep people equal. I’m a citizen of the globe," he said to the biggest applause of the talk. "Division is a dangerous thing."
Ultimately, Travolta said he has no career regrets, even about the box-office flop Battlefield Earth, as one audience member asked.
"Picasso had sketches that didn’t sell as well as others. I’d put it on my wall," he said. "I don’t really worry about the absolute success of something. ... I was really proud I got it done. That was a personal accomplishment of my life. I literally could do anything I wanted, and I thought, 'I want to do that.' And I got it done."
Other master classes during the festival run included a talk with Christopher Nolan.