John Travolta Gets Dressed Up in Drag for Hairspray

John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky in Hairspray. © New Line Cinema

John Travolta's no stranger to movie musicals although most of his young fans never had the chance to see Grease or Saturday Night Fever on the big screen. And none of his fans have ever seen Travolta dance and sing in drag in a feature film until Hairspray, a musical set in the 1960s and based on John Waters' 1988 movie.

Getting Into Character: Travolta confirmed that playing Edna Turnblad was indeed just as much fun as it appeared to have been. “They let me play it," explained Travolta. "That was the difference between it being delightful or not fun to play. But they allowed me to play that Baltimore accent, they allowed me to make her curvaceous and more woman-like. Then, when I can do that, I was all over it because I didn't know how to play a man in a dress. That's Vaudeville, more Vaudeville. It works. It's fun, but for me, I like going all the way with it, so if I could be that - like all that and a bag of chips in her day.”

But getting all dressed up in drag did have its drawbacks. “There's an added level of weight to carry around, but more than that it was very hot inside,” revealed Travolta. “Martin Lawrence had warned me that it was not going to be easy, and others had warned me it was not going to be easy. So I was sweating a lot. A lot of air [was] needed. High heels were difficult to dance in but I committed to [it].”

A New Perspective on Women: Playing Edna changed the way Travolta looks at women. “Yes, because I'll tell you what happened for me. I realize the power a woman has because I was not a woman but I just had the illusion of a woman and yet I was treated differently. I was treated with a lot of flirtation. I was treated with a lot of added courtesies. I was treated with flirtation in a way that I think if they'd remembered it was me underneath it, it was like, ‘How you doing, Edna?’ ‘I'm okay, how are you?’ I didn't know how to respond to those things. A lot of groping... I used to think, pregnant women, everyone feels the right to just dive into, have to hold that stomach or their breasts and I'm thinking, ‘Well, why because you're pregnant does somebody have the right to do that?’ Where everyone felt the right to feel my breasts and my bottom. I must have been a slut because I was just there going, ‘Oh, okay, feel.’ The women's movement would have hated me. I was just, ‘Here, go do whatever you want.’

It was a definite appreciation of seeing what a woman must feel like having that kind of attention from everyone, male and female, that is a little different from what a man gets. It's empowering. It's dangerous but empowering, and I can see how a woman would have to curtail their messages. Like, if you have a message of voluptuous or sexuality, you might have to curb that down just to get people to know who you are because it can mesmerize them. I saw people mesmerized. It's an interesting thing. I thought, ‘Wow, okay.’ Of course, I wasn't even aware of the women's movement until the early '70s because the women in my family were so powerful and strong that they were already there. They worked and had babies. Nobody was following the rules of then. I had to learn from other women that there was a fight for women out there. But not in my family because they were already doing it. They were ahead of the game.”

On Playing Christopher Walken’s Wife: “We both have a Broadway pedigree history, summer theater, Broadway. We're both very comfortable with the genre. Musical is a genre that takes a special thinking as to own the zone. I was brought up with it so it was very natural to me to believe a musical reality. I knew it would be for Chris because he came from that. I wasn't going to worry about, "Oh, I’ve got to convince an actor who's never done a musical that it's make believe and you just talk and then you sing and everybody is happy about it.’ If you don't commit to that zone of performance, it doesn't work. I knew, I said, ‘Chris is the number one choice because he knows that zone. He did that for a living.’ It's a perspective. It's a point of view.”

Rating the Final Dance Sequence: The last dance scene of the movie may well go down as one of Travolta’s best dance scenes of his lengthy career. “It was my homage to Tina Turner,” said Travolta. “In the play, the character doesn't really dance and doesn't really sing too much either. But because they hired me, they wanted me to do both those things. I said, ‘Yeah, but that last number, it's got to be different than just grandma coming out doing it.’ They said, ‘Well, like what?’ I said, ‘Tina Turner. She really kicks ass at the end in I Am Woman in that shimmering dress and really attack that. And they said okay.”

The teaming of Travolta and Queen Latifah proved to be a good mix of styles. “We had little movements to do together. We had more subtle type things together, so we got in a groove that was easy to get into. It wasn't all that much - ours is more about a connection as to healthy women. And food. That's one of my favorite scenes.”

Travolta has nothing but compliments for his Hairspray co-star. “She reminds me of Oprah in a lot of ways because she's so wonderful in her graciousness and her richness of spirit that you always feel so comfortable and so in good hands, so cared for and not threatened and not judged. She's rich in personality.”

Page 2: The 1960s, Welcome Back, Kotter and His Career Choices

Page 2

Reflecting Back on the 1960s: Does John Travolta feel it was a better time in America’s history? “Yes and no,” answered Travolta. “Yes, in that there's never a more exciting decade in change. I mean, big changes were made, remarkable changes but a lot of suffering happened that is still happening in parts of the world that I wouldn’t want to repeat. We've come through big movements - racism, women's movement. Of course the only thing that seems to repeat itself more than ever is war, which is not a good thing. But I like the boldness of the '60s, but I like the progress we've made since then in that life is a lot easier on all of us. So it's a mixed feeling I have about it. But the fashion and the dance and the music, the Motown sound being introduced, those designers like Mary Kwan, Yves Saint Laurent, all of that excitement, there's never a more exciting decade as far as progress and movement. Going to the moon. The positive aspects of the '60s were unbeatable, but the negatives were scary too.”

Spreading Positive Messages: Travolta’s early career included a stint on Welcome Back, Kotter as ‘sweathog’ Vinnie Barbarino. That show and Hairspray are both loaded with positive messages and Travolta’s pleased to have been a part of both projects, as well as other movies with important stories to tell. “I witnessed with my own eyes the '60s and the '70s and all the decades since and seen the progress, and we have made some progress. I think you can't take your eyes off it because there's always more progress to be made, but I am proud of the fact that I can be part of several movies that have messages deeper than just entertainment value. And yet, some of them are more light-hearted where you gracefully allow an audience to interpret, so they go home with what they want to go home with. It's a tricky thing. You don't want to hit it over the head but you want to get the message out. You want to do it with some grace.”

And speaking of Welcome Back, Kotter, Ice Cube is set to star in a film adaptation of the classic TV series. Asked what he thinks of the planned movie, Travolta replied, “I can't wait to see it. I think that'll be fun. I think it's a good idea and I think it's so much smarter that he does it with another perspective than what we did so it's new.”

Travolta says he’d even consider a cameo. “I don't know. I've been approached on it, but I'd have to see what it was and how it was and what the real thing was.”

Taking a Pass on Chicago: Travolta passed on the role of attorney Billy Flynn in the musical Chicago, which was nominated for 13 Academy Awards and won six. Richard Gere eventually landed the role and earned critical acclaim for his performance as a sleazy tap-dancing lawyer. “We made a mistake with Chicago because Chicago was presented to me three times but nobody did the explaining of what the movie was going to [be],” explained Travolta. “As a stage show, I said, ‘I don't think it's going to work.’ But the concept of the movie was so much different, bigger and better, that if I had heard those and had several meetings with those people and got convinced, but no one was convincing me. They were just offering it. They kept re-offering it, re-offering it. But that wasn't enough. So when Hairspray came around, they did the same thing but they said, ‘We're not going to let you get away this time without meeting. We're going to have lots of meetings on it.’ I said, ‘Okay. I have to trust you because I made a mistake last time. Let's have the meetings.’ So for a year and two months we had meetings.”

Travolta explained why it took so long to get onboard. “Their commitment to an A+ quality of each department, because musicals are a minority genre. They are not a guarantee. They don't always work and I have the biggest movie musical in history behind me. I wasn't going to ruin that. So I had to be convinced that everybody's got their ducks in a row. You’ve got to let me play it the way I see it so I can contribute to it. Then we're all good, so they allowed that and here we are."

Travolta continued, “After several times of asking what the vision was and the steadfast answers were being said, and who they were hiring to get to do certain things - wardrobe, sets, the actors they had in mind for each of these parts - I said, ‘Okay, they're going for an A+ attack on this.’ Then most importantly for me it was, ‘Am I going to be free to interpret this role the way I see it, or do I have to stick with like a drag queen concept?’ Because that's not interesting to me. It's been done, A, and B, a lot on screen, and C, I would have more fun really trying to fool you, make you believe I was a woman than not. So those things allowed me to do it.”

Revisiting Wild Hogs: Audiences ate up John Travolta, William H Macy and Tim Allen as three buddies who leave their lives behind to go on a short road trip. The film was so popular that rumors of a sequel were inevitable. “Well, they've asked about it but we'll see,” revealed Travolta. “They want us to do it but I don't know, sequels… I have to play that card when it comes, see how good it is and all that. I have to do new things.”