You know the face well, and so do millions of others. But watching the charmingly rotund housewife Edna in Hairspray, you’ll barely recognise John Travolta, the macho star of Grease, Get Shorty, Pulp Fiction and dozens of other films he’s made over the past three decades.
The man who pilots his own Boeing 707 playing an old-fashioned stay-at-home mother? Yep, and he does it with gusto. Other male actors might have flinched at tapping into their feminine side, but Travolta, 53, has always taken risks in both his career and his personal life – from playing assassins and alcoholics on screen to proudly speaking out about his faith in Scientology.
Travolta sat down with Reader’s Digest near his adopted home town of Ocala, Florida, for an after-midnight snack. The self-professed night owl opened up about embracing middle age, his life with wife Kelly Preston, 44, son Jett, 15, and daughter Ella, 7, and what it takes for a man to create a character who’s just like a woman.
RD: Does it take courage for a man to play a woman?
Travolta: If it’s a good part, it takes no more courage than playing an addict or a president. My career has been pretty bold. It’s courageous if you’re not used to doing courageous things.
RD: Still, there are macho men out there who wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress. I think you have to be pretty…
Travolta: Confident? I am. As an actor, I’ve always been that way.
RD: Where does that come from?
Travolta: My parents and my family, and the public. They really go with whatever I do.
RD: They do, don’t they?
Travolta: Yeah, I feel like I have a tacit agreement with them. I trust my audience more than the people that work with me do. I’ll say to a director, producer or another actor, “Trust me, this is working better than you think.” It’s like, don’t mess with what I got going here with these people, because I have 32 years, plus another ten years of theatre before that, and I know how my particular abilities affect an audience.
RD: Did you help create Edna’s shape?
Travolta: I sure did, baby. Every inch of her. I wanted her to look like Sophia Loren if you added 200 pounds [90kg]. Very voluptuous. I didn’t want her to be Grandma. I wanted her to be a sexy bombshell who was fun to look at.
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