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INT: John Travolta

This Friday, THE PUNISHER gets a second shot at the big screen.  The popular Marvel Comics title, which fizzled the first time around (in 1989), hopes to replicate the box office performance of two of its brethren, SPIDER-MAN and X-MEN, who made the leap to theaters with stunning success. Some of you might remember the craptastic straight-to-video release, starring Dolph Lundgren, where the only people who got punished were the unfortunate few who actually saw the movie. Fifteen years later, it is now described with an adjective that makes comic book fans cringe: “campy”. Will this version of the Punisher finally live up to the promise of the gritty, dark comic?

There are several reasons to be optimistic: Dolph Lundgren had no involvement in its making, it’s rated R, and it stars John Travolta. As the Punisher’s main adversary, the villainous Howard Saint, superstar Travolta adds instant credibility to the $40 million film. And those of you who saw SWORDFISH (and didn’t leave immediately after seeing Halle Berry topless) know that he makes a great action-movie bad guy. I got a chance to talk to the John, who recently celebrated his 50th birthday, at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. The ebullient actor was eager to talk about his experience playing the villain to Frank Castle’s anti-hero.

JOHN TRAVOLTA

Do you consider this villain to be more serious than some of your more comic villains, like in BROKEN ARROW?

I think the key here is the more serious he was, the funnier he became. I wasn’t sure I was going to play this until the last minute because I had to see what Thomas Jane was doing and the rest of the cast. When I found out they were playing it dead serious, and that was pretty funny, I thought, “Okay, I’m gonna play it subtle and serious and it will be funny.” It’s funny because most comic strip movies think they have to do the other and the more we played it like we were in a Scorsese movie, the funnier it became.

Your character is out to avenge his son and you can identify with him at first. His wife was the bad guy.

Yes. This is a very interesting point. I think that the brilliance of the movie is that the two (Punisher and Saint) have the same button pushed and you go “Oh my God, I understand this. But where’s the dilemma? Who is going to be the real enemy here?” I do agree that the wife takes it…. He’s just happy to get the guy who killed his son.  She’s the one who just can’t stand the idea that it’s not going to be everything to make her feel better. Of course, when you get to know her character more, you realize that everything is very lustful in her life so it carries through.

The casting of you and Laura [Harring] was great.

I thought so too. I liked that. That’s Jonathan’s idea. He just wanted a very sexy relationship. He wanted my character to be obsessed with her. My character is obsessed with her differently than the Punisher is obsessed with his family. (Frank Castle) has kind of a healthy obsession with his family and mine’s kind of a possession / obsession. But they do push the same buttons in each family but from different levels. One is the high road and one the low road.

Your character isn’t in the original comic.

No. This is a new character and I had to ask a lot of questions about him because there wasn’t anything to base him on. I had to come up with an original. I thought, “Well, if I play it over the top, how do I do it?”  And I kind of had this idea of kind of a spidery villain that was really funny and almost grotesque in a way. Then it was whittled away. The way I was playing it was not where we were going with it. I’m just showing up for a very serious performance here.

So, how are you dealing with being 50?

Slowly I turn…us baby boomers, unfortunately have this eternal…we’re the largest group of people on the planet and we will not let it go! It’s like, “Older? Middle-aged? No!” It’s really amazing.

How was the party?

It was amazing. Where do I start? It was a true surprise. I told my wife a year ago that I wanted a big party but then I found out quickly that the logistics would be way too much so I decided that I would not want the big party. She fooled me for a year with lies and deception. My God, the dunce cap got bigger and bigger: “I wonder why all these corporate planes are here? It’s more than I’ve ever seen. It must be that golf tournament.” There were three hundred people waiting in the lobby and I’m thinking it’s employees and I said “See, look There are no free rides. Those two free rooms and the jet ride down here, we didn’t need it and now we’re gonna sign autographs and take pictures with all these employees the whole evening.” And then I see Barbra Streisand and Oprah walk toward me. “What are they doing here?” I think somewhere I perceived that something big was going to go on but she kept fooling me with saying “Oh, you’re going to be so disappointed it you think something big is going to be happening. I got a couple of people for you. I tried.”

How much different do you feel than the guy who starred in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER?

Well, my hair’s not as big. He looks like my son in the movie. You wanna know a piece of trivia? That boy that plays my son in the movie – he plays both parts, by the way – was in the Broadway production of “Saturday Night Fever,” so they hired him. He’s a great dancer and singer. That’s why he was immediately thought of.

You are doing BE COOL (the sequel to GET SHORTY) right now. Generally, how do you feel about sequels?

I don’t particularly care for sequels. However, Elmore Leonard wrote the book “Be Cool” and when you start to make a whole new unit and that much time and effort is ready to do something that good, I think it takes on a whole other life. It’s a wonderful script and a great cast. And, you don’t get these people to do sequels. You don’t get Uma (Thurman) and Harvey Keitel and Vince Vaughn to do these kinds of things so you know that it has to be a high-end script. And it’s based on Elmore’s very good sequel book. The opening line of the movie is “Sequels”. Chili Palmer is fed up with them. The sequel that he did in “Get Shorty” didn’t work so he’s fed up with sequels. So it’s very hip.

What’s happened to Renee Russo and Gene Hackman’s characters?

They aren’t referred to because he’s moving out of the movie industry and he’s looking for a new horizon. He stumbles upon the music industry, which is far funnier than the movie industry.

What did you learn from STAYING ALIVE and the LOOK WHO'S TALKING sequels?

It’s not that you learn anything. Usually it’s just a studio’s effort to cash in on the success of the first thing and the difference is that Elmore Leonard really wanted to make (Get Shorty) continue so he wrote another book about Chili Palmer and that I preferred, that someone else made the first step as opposed to a studio. Eight years or nine have gone by so a lot is involved and mostly, Elmore Leonard doing his homework. That’s the only way it’s fun to do one of these things. Otherwise, I don’t particularly care about it.

What do you think the studios making so many comic book movies?

Well, certainly Marvel comics has an audience out there. They really want to see these stories come to life. I think that you need a basis for stories and a library of material to entertain and the kids want it so I think it’s a good idea.

Where you a fan of ‘70’s action films? Tom Jane said he saw a correlation between this and action films of the ‘70’s.

He sure did. He took it further. I think he did, in this film, what Clint Eastwood and Bronson and McQueen really wanted to do. He just played it to the best of his acting ability and it’s the culmination of all those films that he ended up with that performance I think. I was more of an art film guy. Even all the films I do don’t represent…. SHE'S SO LOVELY probably represents the closest thing to the kind of films I liked growing up. Other than your YANKEE DOODLE DANDY and stuff like that which I just thought you can’t deny. I liked LA STRADA and A MAN AND A WOMAN and GOING PLACES. That was our era. The early ‘60’s and late ‘50’s were filled with European directors. I came from a Beatnik house so that’s what you appreciate and you’re playing jazz. My sensibilities…. I liked BOYS DON'T CRY. You can’t ask me about mainstream films.

What is the fascination for you for these tough crime lord guys? Are they just really fun to play?

Oh definitely. The lateral movement you have on this is tremendous.  It frees you up completely. Not at first, because it has to under control. But by the time he starts getting paranoid, then the fun begins. Because, since Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, honestly, nobody has been able to walk down staircases like I get to. Let’s face it. In the first one I come down to kill my best friend; it’s down a staircase talking about some historic character and the second one is throwing all her luggage…boom! And then that big staircase and I’m saying all these mean things. It’s a blast.

Are you eager to make something smaller, like an art film?

This summer I have a film called LOVE SONG FOR BOBBY LONG, which is exactly my kind of film. Probably only five people will see it but it’s a wonderful art film with Scarlett Johansson. It’s a great little film.

What else are you working on?

I did LADDER 49, which is as a captain of a fire department and he’s dead, blue collar real and fun to play. I change up as much as I can.  This year, all these four films are as different as they can be. Punisher’s very different than Bobby Long. Bobby Long’s very different from Ladder 49 and the sequel to Get Shorty is different as well.

There were rumors of problems during the making Ladder 49.

Oh no. It’s a brilliant movie. It’s a really breathtaking film. It’s the best firefighting film that’s ever been made and I’m not even exaggerating. It’s a beautiful movie more along the lines of APOLLO 13, that level of quality in the approach. It’s by far the best homage to the firefighters. It’s in Baltimore and Joaquin Phoenix plays the young guy in it and I’m his mentor in it. The main story is about him.

Can you compare it to BACKDRAFT at all?

It’s so much more based in reality. You feel it in this. It’s a beautiful story too. More importantly it doesn’t play on anything but a genuine reality of what these guys are about. I love it. It’s just beautiful.

You passed on the lead role in CHICAGO. Do you still want to do a musical?

Nobody ever bothered to…. The reason this film was so easy to say “Yes” to was that Jonathan really explained what this movie was going to be about. He really took his time and told me the vision of it and why it would work. No one ever sat with me with CHICAGO. I was offered it three times but no one sat and said “Okay, look: it’s going to be fantasy and it’s going to be very appealing girls.” In the play it was these cold hookers that hated men. You put Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta –  these are glorious women. Them hating men, you don’t mind so much. It’s like you don’t mind me being the bad guy in this movie as much as you would if you had someone playing it venomously. So, those are things you have to hear in order to be invited into doing a screenplay. If it’s based on just the stage show, I don’t get it.

Do you still want to do a film musical?

I’ve always wanted to do a musical.

Do you have any thoughts on conflicting release dates of this and KILL BILL: VOLUME II?

Yeah. I would rather it had been separated.

Are you going to call Quentin about it?

We were there first, in all fairness to us. We didn’t know KILL BILL 2 would be ready and they didn’t know. Then, because we have kind of the same audience in some ways… I feel bad that there is that built-in competition. Probably what will happen is they’ll both do fine and we’ll share the audience. 

Did you know anything about Thomas Jane before you worked opposite him?

I’d seen him in “61” and I thought he was amazing in that.  That’s really where I knew his work from.

Do you still have hopes to do the second half of BATTLEFIELD EARTH?

I don’t know. It did well but they have the rights to it. It would be up to them.

Did Quentin tell you his new idea for the VEGA BROTHERS?

No. I heard it through a journalist that said Michael Madsen had said something about it. But that’s up to Quentin. I don’t question him. I wouldn’t even ask him. He’ll tell me. He did it the first time. Someone said I had to vie to be in one of his films and I said, “I didn’t the first time. Why would I have to do that this time?” He’ll let me know.

Source: JoBlo.com

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