Travolta was in town to talk cheesesteaks and Gotti, his new biopic where he takes on the role of the titular gangster.
John Travolta has been a lot of people. He’s assumed the roles of a former American president, an aloof contract killer and a greaser with slicked-back hair whose chills keep multiplying, among more. Most recently, he was American gangster John Gotti, boss of the powerful Gambino Mafia family in New York City.
But sitting in Dante & Luigi’s in South Philly wearing a teal green blazer, he’s dropped the pouted lips and Brooklyn accent. Travolta as Travolta is a friendly guy — he strokes his chin as soon as he spots me approaching to indicate our matching beards, before pulling me in close for a picture like we hadn’t just met a quarter of a minute ago, and asking if I wanted iced tea.
Gotti has been a passion project of his for many years, and finally it’s seeing the light of day. Here’s what he had to say about it.
You’re in South Philly. Have you had any cheesesteaks yet?
Not yet, but we’re planning it for the plane. It’s from Tony Luke’s. When I did Blowout (1981), Brian De Palma always liked to have cheesesteaks on set.
You’ve been playing a lot of dramatic roles in recent years. What has been drawing you to those roles?
You know, I started out with Saturday Night Fever, which is a dramatic role and earned an Academy Award nomination, and it became a pop culture phenomenon. I think I felt that even though I had done comedy prior to that, the dramatic role started my movie career. So dramatic roles were kind of my blueprint for later-day movies — although certain movies were commercial like Pulp Fiction, but it was still considered very dramatic. So, it doesn’t feel like a turn. What feels different is I’ve been asked to play historic characters. I played Bill Clinton in Primary Colors (1998) and Robert Shapiro in The People v. O.J. (2016) and now Gotti, and it seems that someone’s asked me to play Vincent Lombardi. It seems that biopics are becoming my direction because certain directors or producers feel I have an ability to assume the meanness of those particular characters in our history.
How did you prepare to assume the role of Gotti?
There’s a lot of research, a lot of drilling of accent, behavior, walk, talk, attributes. I got help from Gotti’s family. You know, the clothing I wore was some of his clothing. Even the coat I wore was his. There was a lot of film footage I could look at, especially the prison stuff when he was ill. When he was younger, family holidays and things were on film. Of course, [John Gotti Jr.] and his mother were very helpful in informing the character.
Was there anything that drew you to this specific character?
As I did more research, I discovered that I wanted to know why he was loved. I hadn’t remembered someone like Dillinger or Whitey or Capone being well loved. This is about the last really famous American gangster that will ever be, because the mafia doesn’t really exist anymore because of the RICO Act. I discovered he did things that ingratiated him to the public. He would bring small businesses that were in the red back into black, and they would be in profit again. Even though he may have usurped a percentage, you never went out of business. He would finance neighborhood parties and things like that that endeared him, and helped people out when they were in dire need. He’d open up a gym that was closed and a lot of kids lost their mojo for being professional boxers, he’d give it back to them by opening up the gym again. He was caring and generous on that side, even though he had this dark side where business was business, live-by-the-sword die-by-the-sword type of thing. The gangsters were, “You’ll die on the street or die in prison,” and gangsters were very aware of that notion.
This film was a passion project for you in production for many years. Film rights were first secured back in 2010. How did the project evolve over time?
At first, it was a big budget film with me and Pacino and Pesci and different directors. As the budget got smaller, we went through different scripts and different directors. I think we went through four directors and four casts, and finally we narrowed it down to reflect the book [John Gotti Jr.] wrote, Shadow of my Father. We had a director who really had a vision [Kevin Connolly], we had a budget everyone could afford and we were able to do it.
How close is this final project to the original vision after all these changes?
I think it’s even better. It was going to be a big thing and the script was good, but the script became great because everything we did, every single scene actually happened to the Gotti family historically. We duplicated it verbatim. I feel like we got only the truth up there, and so I feel better about the script we finally did than the initial script, which was not as accurate as my research ultimately revealed. So, it really was worth the wait.
What was your favorite part about the whole process?
Probably convincing the [Gotti] family who chose me, since I was their first choice to play the role, that I could do it justice and that they believed I could disappear as a famous person, and become another famous icon of a gangster. If they bought it, I thought everyone would buy it. By the time I filmed the prison scenes where I was dying but trying to be strong, the family was moved and taken aback by it because it was so accurate to what they had seen and experienced.
Just one more question — are we ever going to see you singing and dancing again?
Yeah. I think you will. [laughs] ••
Gotti releases to theaters Friday, June 15.