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John Travolta to Silicon Valley: Catch up!

The Hollywood icon talks about playing an obsessive fan in the new thriller The Fanatic -- and about the tech industry not yet delivering the Jetsons-inspired reality he wants.

When he was a kid growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s, John Travolta dreamed that the future would be something out of The Jetsons, the animated series about a family living in a high-rise in Orbit City with an aerocar, complete with a transparent bubble top that plugs into the house to recharge. 

"Everybody would have a jet outside their apartment, like Marina City in Chicago, and you'd be like 'Plug into that' and then take off," Travolta said during a Q&A at CNET in San Francisco last week to promote his new film The Fanatic

Unfortunately, he says, Silicon Valley let him down. So the award-winning actor and avid pilot invented the future he wanted for himself -- and a place to park his planes, including a Boeing 707 -- at his home in Florida

"By the year 2000, none of this was happening," Travolta said. "So I decided to build a home where the jets could be in the backyard [and] they plug into the house. I've done it!  I have a jetport, and I'm the only one living a Jetsons lifestyle. It's like, 'Catch up!'"

His story draws lots of laughter because Travolta, known for iconic roles in iconic films including Saturday Night Fever, Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty and Face/Off, is very funny -- and a great mimic. He does amazing impressions of his friends Muhammad Ali and Marlon Brando as he tells stories about walking down the street alongside Ali, to see which one of them would be recognized first. After spending two days in Mexico with Brando, the legendary actor gave him some of the best advice he's ever gotten: "Don't expect things from people that they can't give you." 

Travolta keeps us laughing, saying he's an "inadvertent" techie after seeing how much fun he has posting photos to his 1.6 million followers on Instagram, including a post on his son's first movie -- Too Many Cookies. He's also a huge fan of his iPhone and hopes to make a movie version of the kids book he wrote in 1997 that shows his love of flying, Propeller One-Way Night Coach: A Fable for all Ages, using Apple's smartphone.

But he gets serious when he talks about playing an ardent fan-turned-accidental stalker in The Fanatic, which opens in theaters on Aug. 30. Written and directed by former Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, it tells the story of a misguided movie fan named Moose (Travolta geeked out in Hawaiian shirts and New Balance sneakers) who gets a little too close to the object of his admiration, action star Hunter Dunbar (played by Devon Sawa).Things go sideways pretty quick.

"It's the examination of going over the line, going over the privacy line, and what happens when there's unrequited emotion and feeling," says Travolta. 

John Travolta Fanatic interview

John Travolta loves connecting with fans on Instagram. "I'm digging it, like, big time."

James Martin/CNET

"I read the script and I fell in love with the story. I fell in love with the character. Because every single one of us, and I'm putting money on this statement, has a bit of my character in them -- meaning they are fans of someone they love and like," he says. "You could pick anyone in your life that you have that weird kind of, 'If only I could meet them. I know they would love me as much as I love them.'"

Travolta, sporting a bald look inspired by his friend the rapper Pitbull, also talked about why he thought Saturday Night Fever was going to be a "small art film," about "elevating" The Twist with dance partner Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction and about hanging out with Brando. Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: I'd like to start by trying to set the record straight on a few things --  I'm calling this "I saw it on the internet: true or not?" Here we go: When you were a kid your favorite movie was Yankee Doodle Dandy with James Cagney?
Travolta: Correct. 

You didn't think Saturday Night Fever was going to be a big deal because you thought it was a "small art film"? 
Correct. I did because it was the era of Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets and little movies that had an impact -- that was kind of their audience, you know? So that's why. There was a reason behind my thinking that.

Small art film?
Yes. [Laughs]

The iconic suit you wore in Saturday Night Fever -- was it once owned by Jane Fonda and movie critic Gene Siskel?

And it was made of polyester?
It had to have been. It was 1977. I don't think there's any other material around. You know, the animal "polyester"? It was made of many "polyesters."

The movies Splash, An Officer and a Gentleman, and American Gigolo -- were they were actually written for you?

Andrew Lloyd Webber asked you to do Phantom of the Opera?
Yes. You're correct every time.

That's one for the internet. A few more. One of your favorite TV shows is Mad Men. True or not?
It was, yes. Now I have two more favorites. The Act and Fosse/Verdon. Love that.

You were friends with Muhammad Ali. Is it true you used to walk down the street together because he liked to see who was recognized first?
Yeah, he had an obsession with that. And he said [does his impersonation of Ali]: "If we walked down the street together, who do you think will be recognized first? You or me?" 

And I'd say, "I don't know, Ali. Whoever you think."

"Let's try it out." 

And then of course, they'd recognize us both of us and they'd make a big fuss. And he loved it. He'd just get the biggest kick out of it for some reason.

John Travolta Fanatic interview

"Every single one of us, and I'm putting money on this statement, has a bit of my character in them -- meaning they are fans of someone they love and like," Travolta said of his character Moose in The Fanatic.

James Martin/CNET

When your career was, let's say, having an off-peak moment, did you consider chucking in your acting career to be a commercial airline pilot?
That's a complicated question because I was always -- I've been a pilot most of my life. And now I fly airliners. I fly the 747, the 707. I was the first non-test pilot to fly the A380. I have kind of a resume of flight and 12 different corporate types of jets. So it's not that I would have given it up for that. It's that I always had a vision of parallel universes, you know? Living the aviator's life as well as living the actor's life.  

Last one I'll ask from the internet. Do you really enjoy a super strong cup of coffee when you wake up in the morning?
Hell yeah! I have one cup a day. Am I allowed to name brand names? So Sumatra Starbucks -- but it's about a half a bag for one cup. Yeeee! Damn, it's good! And that's all you need. If you allow that to be the first thing, then I don't have to touch it all day.  But you know, it's the equivalent of probably eight cups, so maybe that's why.

You had your movie start in horror, and I'm not talking about your role in 1976's Carrie. Before that you starred in a 1975 horror flick called The Devil's Rain, with an amazing cast for an old movie buff like me: Ernest Borgnine, Ida Lupino, William Shatner.  I wanted to watch The Devil's Rain, but the only thing I could find on YouTube was a clip that said, "John Travolta melts in The Devil's Rain." What do you remember about this flick? 
I remember everything because I was 20 years old. And I was in LA and this famous casting director said, "If you just stick around town, I know that I can get you into film." He had almost gotten me in a film called The Last Detail with Jack Nicholson. Anyway. I wasn't able to do it. He said, "But if you stick around town…" 

I said, "I have no money. I have to go back to New York and do theater." 

And he said, "No, don't do that. I will get you a part."

So he calls his wife, Lea Stalmaster, and Lea says, "Well, look, I'm casting this horror picture with a bunch of legendary movie stars. And he could be like the makeup dummy/extra that melts and does all sorts of things." 

So I said, "How much is it?"

"$800 a week." 

I said, "Oh, that's good. 800 bucks a week times five weeks? Yep. That'll pay for the rent for... Yep, I'll take it!" 

So I did it. I had a blast and remembered a lot of things about it, mostly falling in love with Mexico. But then I got back and he did have a screen test for Welcome Back Kotter. I got that. So then the rest is history. 

So you melted in The Devil's Rain?
I more than melted. I had lines such as, "Blasphemy! Get him! He's a blasphemer!" 

Classic line.
I think that was my only line. And I had no eyes, which was interesting, too.

You mentioned Mexico. I found a story about you spending a couple of days in Mexico with Sean Penn and Marlon Brando. And the story goes Brando gave you what you consider some of the best advice. How did you end up in Mexico? 
I was at my house in Los Angeles and Sean called and said, "I have someone who wants to talk to you." And I got on the phone. And he said [doing Brando impersonation}, "This is Marlon Brando. And why aren't you here?"

And I thought, this couldn't be him. It's someone imitating him. I said, "Well, where are you?"

"I'm in Mexico City visiting with Anthony Hopkins. And I think that it would be good for you to fly down today." 

Anyway, we had a little short conversation. Sean got back on the phone. He said, "You gotta come."

I said, "That's really him."  He said, "Yes." I said, "I'm on my way." 

So I got on the plane and went down to Mexico City. And for two days straight, we had the most fun. There's no accident why great people are who they are. Because they always have these gems of observation of life. And one great example was, "Don't expect things from people they can't give you." 

He said, "Do you play football?" 

And I said "I did in high school." 

He said, "What position did you play?" 

I said, "I played quarterback." 

He said, "Oh… Do you know Joe Montana?" 

And I said, "I met Joe Montana. And apparently, according to him, I was his favorite actor." 

He said [continues to do Brandon impersonation]:, "Well, do you think Joe would like me? 

I said, "I think Joe would love you." Why would he not love Marlon Brando? And I said, "You know what the interesting thing was, is that when I met you, you gave me a big hug and a kiss. And when I met [Montana], I just shook his hand."

And he said, "But he's a football player, John. He doesn't have the emotional elasticity that you have or that I have. So don't expect things from people that they can't give you." 

And I was like God had spoken. Wow, my whole life I've expected things from people that they can't give you. And when you really get that, it's kind of a beautiful permission to love people for what they are and who they are and not have to worry about anything other than the truth, their truth. I love that piece of advice. And there were lots of others that were fun, too.

Feel free to share.
Well, let's see. I said, "You shouldn't fly on Mexicana tomorrow. You should fly back with me privately." 

[Still talking like Brando.] He said, "Oh, but I promised Tony Hopkins that I'd meet with him." 

And I said, "Well, look, don't make a decision. We've been up for 24 hours." I said, "You should eat something and then decide." 

He said, "Well, but what would I have?" 

I said, "You're going to have a shrimp cocktail. You're gonna have a cheeseburger rare with a pickle. And you will have an iced tea with lemon, no sugar." 

And he said, "Well, that is the last thing I thought you would recommend. But because you're so enthusiastic about it, I think that's exactly what I'll order." So he ordered it.

And then he said, "I do feel better. Would you give me one hour to pack my bag? And I'll meet you in the lobby. And we'll go back to Los Angeles together." 

So we go. I meet him in lobby. And we're off and running through Mexico. It's surreal, it's Mexico City, two in the morning, Sean Penn's in the front, and we're in the back and we're talking and it's Mexico City. And then we're out in the middle of nowhere and we end up at my plane and he grills me about every technical aspect of the plane.

"So John, what is the pressure per square inch of these engines? What do they offer the cabin?"

I said, "8.5 PSI." 

He said, "Sean, come here. John knows so much. Now why are these winglets here?" 

I said, "Well there's a wake that the wing creates and this apparatus thins the wake out and creates less drag and therefore can move through the sky with more efficiency and more fuel efficiency and speed." 

He goes, "We have to take a moment and appreciate John's knowledge of aircraft." 

Then we get on the plane. And I had made the bed in the back for him to fall asleep. He took the bed -- he hadn't slept in 48 hours. Sean and I were in the front. I said, "Can you believe it? We have Marlon Brando in the back. Let's go check on him." So we look and he's awake, he's not sleeping. 

And then he caught us looking and he said [looking up], "Did you look at the stars? They look like grapes. You could just pick them out of the sky."  

John Travolta Fanatic interview

John Travolta wanted The Jetsons lifestyle, and since Silicon Valley didn't provide it, he built his own jetport.

James Martin/CNET

Let's talk about your new movie. You've been very successful playing good guys and bad guys. In The Fanatic, you play a character who's not really a good guy, but he's not a bad guy, either. How did you come to work on this movie?
Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit years ago asked me to do a film with him. I'd only seen his videos, which are very entertaining and interesting, and I said, "Well, one day, if you have a piece of material that you think is interesting, send it to me." 

I read the script and I fell in love with the story. I fell in love with the character. Because every single one of us, and I'm putting money on this statement, has a bit of my character in them -- meaning they are fans of someone they love and like, whether it's a sports figure or whether it's an actor, musician. You could pick anyone in your life that you have that weird kind of, "If only I could meet them. I know they would love me as much as I love them."

And you have this fantasy about your favorite person having equal love for you that you have at a distance for them. I just love this character for having that. Now I play him slightly Asperger's-autism spectrum, because he does so many bold and unacceptable things that I felt I had to kind of go there in order to justify that behavior. However, the film star -- he's a good person, but he's not a good celebrity. He's a bad celebrity. He doesn't have any cognizance of that flow back to him. So they're kind of like 'Two wrongs don't make a right' in this movie. 

It's the examination of going over the line, going over the privacy line and what happens when there's unrequited emotion and feeling. It turns into a bit of horror at the end, which is shocking, because you don't think that's necessarily the trajectory you're going on. But I think it's what makes the movie unique. 

Did Fred Durst write the character that way or did you create him?
He wrote it that way and I just put it up a notch. The behavior was so extreme, I had to put it up a bit of a notch with behavioral physicalities and mechanisms of behavior.

Your character, whose name is Moose, loves Hollywood and has a line at the end where his passion for film, even in the worst moments, comes through. No spoilers here, but at one point he's walking along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, bleeding and injured, and looks down and reads one of the Hollywood star's name. He says, "Louise Fletcher." Pauses, and then adds, "Not a good nurse." Did you come up with that?
Yes, I did. I did write that. Because we had to go with what we saw. This is a little bit of guerrilla filmmaking, so you kind of grabbed your geography and your atmosphere. So I see the star there and I thought that would be so good to say that. And then in Moose's own way, he remembered that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest had a little bit of scare and he thought she wasn't a good nurse. And she wasn't.

I wasn't expecting to laugh in that scene.
There're many moments that you don't expect to in this movie, but you do. It's a magical experience to some degree because it's something very different.

It goes back to your ability to play both good guys and bads -- or as in Face/Off, both. I've heard you say that villains are hard because you have to let people like them a little bit. Is that right?
Well, I think what it is, is you have to like something about them that's fun to portray because I've done villains that are terribly unlikable. But if I enjoyed portraying them, then it's contagious because then you have fun watching them. Something like in Broken Arrow, or even in The Punisher, those were not good villains. They were evil. But they were fun. They were fun to watch. And that makes it, then, likable. Not that you like them. You just like watching them be evil. You know, like, Cruella de Vil is fun to watch. But we don't love her, you know, or even like her.

For that famous dance scene in Pulp Fiction, you tried out a lot of dances beyond The Twist. I had to look up some of them because I didn't know The Batman or The Hitchhiker. How did you create that scene? 
So there's an old movie, a Godard film, that Quentin tried to emulate with just The Twist. And I thought that was fine. I looked at the old footage, and I was eight years -- or six or seven when The Twist arrived, so I remembered it. I won a contest doing it. 

And I said, "But, you may not know this, Quentin, but there are a lot of other dances that we call novelty dances."

He said, "Well, like what?" 

I said, "Well, there was The Swim. And there was The Hitchhiker. And there was The Batman or The Catwoman." And I said, "I'll show them to you." 

And he said, "Well, those are pretty interesting looking. We could we could do a bit of each of those."

I said, "Good, let's do that." 

So he had the camera and he filmed it. And he would call out when he would get bored with one. He'd call out the other and I taught Uma the dances and she took to them very well. And so we actually elevated what would have been just one dance to more my character's era, which Vincent Vega as a young guy would have been familiar with. He would have watched Batman when he was 12 on TV. 

Let's talk tech. Are you a techie?
Inadvertently, meaning that I just got onto Instagram a year ago. And I'm digging it like, big time. I looked at all my peers' Instagrams and they're all like pictures of lunch or flowers and stuff. I thought, well I don't want to look that up. I want to do something that's involving my life. So I started really just picking up things that were interesting to me. I let my son do a little -- his first movie, Cookie Monster movie, and [posted that.] That went over big. 

I just have enjoyed the ability to communicate directly with a fan base of people. Whether I'm flying in a cockpit taking off for Europe or on a special mission of some sort, I like sharing those moments and family moments. I only do it if it's interesting to me. So that's probably as high tech as I get, but I'm really appreciative of that ability to communicate. It's cool.

Do you have a favorite piece of gear?
I love my iPhone, I love. I love the portrait pictures. They're very clear and crisp. And I'm having a daydream of doing my first directorial movie on an iPhone. I'd like to do that. I wrote a little book years ago called Propeller One-Way Night Coach, and I would love to film it on an iPhone.

What piece of tech do you wish were invented just for you?
Oh, gosh. I mean, I think that it's gone beyond my expectations. I'm older than all of you put together. So in 1964 at the World's Fair, you went to these events that they had -- these pavilions. And it was the AT&T Pavilion and you could actually see the person you're talking to on the phone. A lot of oohs and ahhs there for the face phone. That was a miracle. There was another machine that I thought was hysterical. You talk into it and it changes your voice. 

These were all high-tech concepts. And the only high-tech concept that I took literally, and continue with, was the Jetsons concept. We imagined that everybody would have a jet outside their apartment and [gestures] you'd be able to "plug into that" and then you put it on and take off. 

Well, by the year 2000, none of this was happening. So I decided to build a home where the jets could be in the backyard, and they plug into the house. And I've done it. That what I have. I have a jetport, and I'm the only one living a Jetsons' lifestyle. It's like, "Catch up! Please, somebody!"

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