Feel the force

John Travolta can feel your presence -- what's that all about?

Travolta once said he never reveals everything about a character in a single scene, that his performances tend to build with every frame. It's unfortunate that Simon West, who handles actors the way a 3-year-old boy handles Matchbox cars, cares little about nuance, especially when there's a fiery explosion waiting as the payoff. And to hear Travolta tell it -- or at least hint it -- making a film with the Con Air director wasn't particularly easy. Indeed, the actor spent 12 hours a day during the five days preceding initial filming by "going though every nook and cranny of the script" with all the actors, trying to make sure every character was "viable." Travolta even had it written into his contract that he could tinker with the script, which was partially doctored by All the President's Men scribe William Goldman.

"You have to trust the director and trust that at appropriate times, the collective scenes will equal the values that one has to express to the camera," Travolta says. "It's not always easy, but you risk it because you want to do it right. But the time [Paul] gets to reveal how smart he actually is, that's worth waiting for. It's a treat. You think, 'This guy has substance.' And I had to discuss a lot of it [with Simon], because there may have been moments of interpretation that were different, and I'm the one who has to carry it through. He wanted to make sure my choices didn't interfere with the visual style, and there were moments of negotiation."

In the end, Brenner is by far the least interesting character Travolta has played since Pulp Fiction rescued him in 1994 from a career spent talking to babies. He's two-dimensional at best, a cardboard hero no matter how hard the actor tries. The role's a far cry from the morally ambiguous protagonists he portrayed in White Man's Burden, Get Shorty, Mad City, Primary Colors, A Civil Action, even Face/Off -- all of them gray heroes in a black-and-white world. Those are the characters he seems best suited to play these days: the guys whose best intentions are never good enough, men whose Midas touch turns everything around them to copper. When he's too baleful (Broken Arrow) or too perfect (Phenomenon), he seems too much like Movie Star John Travolta having a good time, grinning all the way to the bank. His best work lies in the shadows.

Is that a gun in your hand, or are you just happy to see me, Mr. Travolta?
Is that a gun in your hand, or are you just happy to see me, Mr. Travolta?

Details

Directed by Simon West

Written by Christopher Bertolini

Based on the novel by Nelson DeMille

Starring John Travolta, Madeleine Stowe, James Cromwell, Timothy Hutton, and James Woods

Opens June 18

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"It might be that's what I observe to be true in life," he says of those roles. "People are a mixed bag. You don't know what part of them is acting-the decency, the indecency, the good urges, the bad urges. I do believe man is basically good; however, does it mean he doesn't have evil or false instincts? It's more realistic and more reminiscent of what I'm observing to be true and ultimately more interesting to play. I like playing colors within a character. It's more entertaining to find a character with varying degrees of intentions. It's quite something to watch."

So here's where it kind of gets weird.

The local Paramount Pictures rep comes in to break up the interview. Travolta waves her off, as is his custom, and tells the interviewer to ask some more questions. But before that can be done, he interjects with his own...observation.

"You have a very interesting presence," he offers, almost chuckling. He's animated for the first time in 15 minutes. "I gotta tell you. It's very strong. It's really...really...I don't know what it is, or what...I know it's a very interesting presence. Something about your persona. It's very..." He then trails off, apologizes for the sudden outburst, and gives the go-ahead to ask more questions.

Suddenly, it becomes apparent that Travolta is more than a good interview; the man's the quintessential flirt, like the politician whose goal is to seduce an audience of one or a thousand. How can you not like someone who compliments your persona, especially when it's Tony Manero and Chili Palmer and Vinnie Barberino and Vincent Vega and Jack Stanton doling out the kind words? It's like stepping into the last scene of Primary Colors, especially when, at the end of the interview, Travolta shakes your hand and grabs your arm while doing it -- a move often mocked in that film as something only the phony kind of man does.

He's the damndest celebrity -- a man who seems genuinely in love with the idea of being famous, yet who's almost embarrassed by his renown. Granted, no one knows what goes on inside the head of a $20-million-per-movie Scientologist who flies himself in his own jet from city to city to promote a mediocre movie, but take this example: After the interview, Travolta and his entourage walk to the elevators. Two housekeepers walk by and stare at him, clearly not prepared to see John Travolta standing in their hallways. They're not five feet away when both of them break out in a giggling fit, nearly yelling, "That is John Travolta! It's him!"

And he just stands there and smiles, offering them a small wave. When they walk away, he puts his head in his hand and keeps smiling until he's on the elevator. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the one man in the world who knows how to make being famous look like a very good thing after all.

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