Gurney's Inn
August 15, 2007

Travolta Camps It Up In Hairspray

Big butt, big breasts, big hair no problem. John Travolta could live with the fat suit. Squeezing his size 12 feet into sky-high stiletto heels was an entirely different matter.

"I said, 'Look I understand. My mother wore those.' However, when I was growing up on Broadway, the girls in the chorus line wore a thicker heel, more like a dance shoe, so I knew they existed."

It had already taken director/choreographer Adam Shankman 14 months to convince Travolta to play super-sized laundress Edna Turnblad in this summer's buoyant, madcap musical adaptation of John Waters' 1988 Hairspray. This was no time to quibble over technicalities.

A hurried visit to the Capezio Dance Factory produced the coveted item, and Travolta's wardrobe closet was quickly stocked with sturdy pumps in every conceivable pastel color. That's a small price to pay to lure Travolta back to the dance floor.

Three decades have passed since Saturday Night Fever launched a kid overnight from Englewood, NJ onto Hollywood's A-list. He also managed to cop an Oscar nomination in the process, immediately followed by a starring role in Grease.

He's starred in roughly 45 movies since and whether he's portrayed a heroin-addicted hitman in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, an out-of-shape archangel named Michael, or hotshot Chili Palmer in Get Shorty, moviegoers remember the dancing.

During a press day in Los Angeles, Travolta conceded, "I have missed musicals, but I just couldn't find one I wanted to do."

Unlike gay icon Divine who starred in John Waters' original 1988's screen adaptation of Hairspray, and Harvey Fierstein, who later brought it to Broadway, Travolta adapted an entirely different approach. "I'm certainly not the first guy who's acted as a woman on screen. There's Robin [Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire] and Dustin [Hoffman in Tootsie] and Tony Curtis [Some Like It Hot]. The only difference is I'm actually playing a woman versus being in drag."

So what did he learn jumping into a fat suit, a prototype of Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, and Anita Ekberg rolled into one? Eyes twinkling, he laughed, "I was so flirted with and groped. I was convinced I had become a slut, because I was like, 'Go ahead touch me. Go ahead, I don't care.' The costume I liked most was the polka dot dress because it reminded me of the images I have of screen people in the '50s."

Edna's wardrobe also sparked maternal instincts towards Nikki Blonsky. One of the urban legends that populate the daydreams of countless aspiring actresses, it wasn't long ago that Blonsky worked behind the counter of Cold Stone Creamery in Great Neck. Responding to a national casting call, she submitted a video and trumped the competition to portray Tracy Turnblad, the perky heroine who lands her dream gig as Council Member on the Baltimore TV dance party "The Corny Collins Show."

Tucked between exciting production numbers like "Good Morning Baltimore," "I Can Hear the Bells," "Ladies' Choice" and "Run and Tell That" are some non-preachy messages about racial intolerance.

During their initial meeting, Nikki recalled how Travolta opened his outstretched hands and beckoned, "Come to Mama." The admiration works both ways.

"Nikki is phenomenal. I knew it from the screen test. I'd show people. It's like Barbara Streisand being reborn. I came from a theatrical family so at 17 or 18 they expected a performance from me. Nikki came from Cold Stone and had only done high school shows. This is not what you'd expect. That level of sophistication, knowledge and confidence, I was bowled over by it. From the first moment, I said, 'OK, we're home free now,'" the 53-year-old said.

Hanging up those dancing shoes for the moment, Travolta faces a full roster of upcoming projects, leading off with director Walt Becker's Old Dogs, a comedy co-starring Robin Williams, Preston, and Travolta's seven-year-old daughter Ella Bleu. His primary screen assignment is teaching Williams how to be a parent, while coaching Ella Bleu between takes.

His pride is unmistakable, "I'll give her as much guidance as I can, kind of a Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda situation. Maybe we'll even try to get my son Jett in a scene to make it a real family event."

Travolta's also been tapped to reincarnate J. R. Ewing, the patriarch of TV-land's most notorious Texas oil clan, via Dallas, while also lending his voice to the animated Sci-fi adventure Quantum Quest: A Cassini Space Odyssey. There's also a distant possibility that Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence, William H. Macy and Travolta could reunite for a sequel of Wild Hogs.

Raking up $250 million worldwide at the box office, the reception to Wild Hogs didn't come as a total surprise to the Ocala, Fla. resident. "I think it surprised a lot of people, including the studio because they were expecting at best maybe a $20 million opening weekend. It did $40 million instead."

He continued, "I just think there's a heartbeat of America that loves motorcycles and it's been going on for 60 years, since Marlon Brando in The Wild One."

Prodded further, Travolta admits, "Yes, they want to make a sequel. I don't know, I'm not big on sequels. I've done them, but I like doing little things that have their own timelessness. I mean, classic type things that you go onto something new."

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