Hollywood’s hardest-working movie star, John Travolta dons a fat suit and breasts to play a housewife in his latest role, the all-singing, all-dancing musical ‘Hairspray.’

LOS ANGELES — Thirty years after “Saturday Night Fever” made him a star, John Travolta is back in a Hollywood musical. Only this time he has gone back a decade and swapped the white disco suit and seedy New York nightlife for fake mink, beehive hair and the idealism of Kennedy-era Baltimore.

The movie version of the hit 2002 Broadway musical “Hairspray,” itself adapted from the 1988 John Waters comedy film of the same name, sees Travolta playing Mother Edna, a plump housewife married to a doting Wilbur Turnblad (played by Christopher Walken). In the movie, Travolta plays overprotective mom to chunky high-school-girl Tracy (Nikki Blonsky), who dreams of dancing with Baltimore’s best-looking teens on television’s “The Corny Collins Show.”

Travolta’s career has seen him portray everybody from the oversexed young stud Tony Moreno in “Saturday Night Fever” to the sadistic villain Terl in “Battlefield Earth.” So perhaps the only surprise is that it took so long for the actor to pass himself off as a woman.

“Hairspray” became a huge Broadway hit, winning eight Tony Awards, including best performance for the playwright and sometime-drag actor Harvey Fierstein as Edna. But for the big-budget motion-picture version, the movie’s producers sought a box-office name large enough to take on such an oversize role.

“I didn’t want to do another musical if it wasn’t something really special and unusual. And this is unusual!” says Travolta, 53, on the phone to The Japan Times when asked why he took on this role.

He’s not wrong. Six months after “Saturday Night Fever,” Travolta starred in “Grease,” the film that surpassed “The Sound of Music” to become the top-grossing musical film ever. Since then, he has largely stayed outside the genre. Travolta wasn’t going to make his musical comeback in just any project. But surely this one-time sex symbol had qualms about playing a woman.

“No, not really. You know, a real actor can play anything. I say you can play anything,” he emphasizes. “But that doesn’t mean it’s believable. You can really feel a role and think you’ve been real great in it, but the audience might not buy it. Especially if you don’t look the part. I mean, looking like who you’re playing is half the battle, right? So if a guy plays a woman, I couldn’t really play a beautiful woman — there’s no way.

“But when people are really fat, those gender distinctions, they kind of become invisible. So if I play a fat lady, then I have a chance. And also, I don’t think of her as ‘fat and ugly’ like some people have described. She has a pretty face and a pretty mouth,” says Travolta.

“I asked them to give me a pretty mouth. Everyone has to have some feature that they think is good-looking, no matter what else they don’t have. So really, it was a hoot. Making ‘Hairspray’ was like one big party.”

It was writer-director John Waters, known for his offbeat taste, who made a star out of larger-than-life actor and drag-queen Divine, born Harris Glen Milstead, in this very role in the original “Hairspray.” And it was Divine who famously quipped when Elizabeth Taylor started to gain a couple of pounds, “All my life I wanted to look like Liz Taylor, and now she’s beginning to look like me!”

Asked if he was a fan of cult-favorite Divine, Travolta hesitates and is reluctant to provide an answer. That said, perhaps he was listening to her anyway, because even though he chose not to play Edna as a campy drag queen a la Divine, he has said he wanted to make his Edna “Elizabeth Taylor gone to flesh.”

Was he was at all worried about being compared to Divine and Harvey Fierstein, both of whom were acclaimed in the part of Edna?

He snickers, then says: “You got me there. I didn’t know how it would work out. I know they (the special effects and makeup people) can do fat suits and stuff, so you’ll look the way the part says you have to. But it’s a whole other thing, the way the role sounds.”

Travolta refers to Divine’s growly, surly voice, and to Fierstein’s famously raspy voice, then says, “I read how Harvey Fierstein got that deep, whiskey-sounding kind of voice in a book. ‘Cause you know, there was all kinds of rumors about how that really happened, ’cause his voice sounded normal to begin with.

“He was in a small play, and he had to say a long speech, and somebody was singing a real loud song during his speech. So Harvey decided he would compete with that, and each night he said his speech real loud, ’cause he wanted to be heard. And I guess that changed his voice for keeps.” Travolta laughs heartily. “Isn’t that great?”

By contrast, Travolta’s treatment of Edna’s voice is more conventionally feminine.

Unlike many Hollywood stars, Travolta, whose weight has fluctuated over the years, had no qualms about donning the fat suit and is relaxed about his appearance.

“My weight, it goes up and down. I love food. I’m Italian! (Travolta’s father, Salvatore, is Italian; his mother is Irish). I overeat too often, and I know it. When I get into it, it’s really hard to stop.” He brings his own personal chef on movie sets. “But it’s not that I don’t have any self-discipline; it’s not like that. I can lose up to 10 pounds fairly easy. If I have to do that for a movie, I do — I’ll do it, and I’ve done it.

“It’s just a good thing that I do what I do for a living, or I might be like Marlon Brando,” says Travolta, referring to the deceased actor’s weight-gain in his later years. “But I’m not fat, and I never will be. Not while I’m an actor.”

If a role required it, would he gain weight, as Robert De Niro famously did for his Oscar-winning turn as boxer Jake La Motta in “Raging Bull?”

“Nope. ‘Cause it’s not hard to gain all that weight. I could do that. But it’s next to impossible to get it off. I’d have to be dieting too long and I hate dieting!”

Despite his age, Travolta can still dance and move gracefully. In “Hairspray,” he cuts some rug with Christopher Walken. Was he concerned about his moves as Edna? This, after all, is a man with a reputation to maintain on the dancefloor, even if the “dancefloor” in “Hairspray” is under a washing line in a weed-strewn backyard in suburban Baltimore.

“Yeah, sure. When you play a woman, you have to move different, and a fat one moves even more differently,” says Travolta, who thinks “Hairspray” has all the right ingredients to make it as successful as “Chicago” — the first movie musical to win a best-picture Academy Award since “Oliver!” in 1968 — or the more recent “Dreamgirls.”

“I think it’s got so much going for it, and the music’s terrific. Marc is, I think, a musical genius. And it has a message (of racial tolerance) and it’s got Michelle Pfeiffer, too and she’s great!”

Fifty-year-old Pfeiffer has been away from movie screens for more than four years, and she is about to return to our screens in a handful of films. In “Hairspray” she plays a snobbish mother and polar opposite to the lovable, down-to-earth Edna.

Regarding Pfeiffer’s absence from films, Travolta admits, “I’d never, I mean not ever, be away that long. Not unless I was forced to. ‘Cause usually, all that happens is the audiences either forget you or you lose your standing in the industry, or you get older or heavier or whatever. Michelle’s looking terrific and everyone still wants her, but we’ve all heard the stories about what temporarily leaving the business can lead to.”

Travolta says this with a slight shudder in his voice, perhaps remembering how the industry cold-shouldered him after his early successes were followed by a string of flops (1978’s “Moment by Moment,” “Two of a Kind” in 1983) that all but made him a joke in the business for several years.

Travolta’s dry spell ended with his bravura performance as gunman Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film “Pulp Fiction.” Since then, he’s worked nonstop, so much so that some critics say he makes too many films, sometimes with little regard for their quality. Recently, he took second billing to TV actor Tim Allen in the motorcycle- themed movie “Wild Hogs.”

Mention his various career slumps (“Mad Dog,” with Dustin Hoffman, and “Battleship Earth” are two notable flops from the past decade) and Travolta sighs. “People say I was away, but that’s not true at all. I was never away. Ever since I dropped out of high school, which everybody knows I did ’cause I’ve always said it and I never felt it held me back or made me any less of a person, I just kept on doing movies.

“And the thing you gotta remember is that I’m not a producer, I’m not a writer, not a director. I’m an actor. That’s my life. Acting and flying (Travolta owns five planes, including a 747, and is a certified pilot). It’s what I do, it’s what makes me happy.

“So I get offered scripts. Everything. Terrible stuff, real good stuff, hardly ever anything fantastic, but I thought ‘Hairspray’ was fantastic, so if the role had been a fat black woman, I’d still have taken it — I mean, with the creative team behind this movie . . .” There’s a pause, before Travolta continues, “While I kept doing all those movies that didn’t click with the public, I also had some, in between, that did, like ‘Look Who’s Talking’ and it even had a sequel, so that proves it was a big hit.”

As to the charge that he makes too many movies, he says rather coolly, “I don’t make any more films than I get offered. I have to turn down most of what I get offered. And I don’t have a huge ego where I might work less ’cause I only want a huge role or I want to be billed first only, or think ‘I’ll never do a supporting role.’ “

Of course, a cynic might say this is Travolta simply facing up to his advancing years, taking on character- actor roles such as Mother Edna since, at 53, the romantic leading-man parts are being offered less frequently.

Asked to discuss his past hits, or flops, Travolta demurs. What he will discuss, with a somewhat exasperated sigh, are some of the roles he has turned down in films that ended up being major hits. Why, for example, did he turn down “Chicago”?

“Richard Gere didn’t get an Oscar nomination for that and everybody else in the movie did. Well, that’s the role I would have played,” says Travolta, who was nominated for a best actor Academy Award for his role as Tony Moreno in “Saturday Night Fever.” “The (female roles) were flashier. They both got nominated, and one of them won, right?”

Right. Catherine Zeta-Jones walked away with the statuette for best supporting actress.

It’s rumored that Travolta didn’t want to sing or dance in the movie. “I can sing just as good as Richard Gere, maybe better,” he says by way of defense. “I’m not a great singer. I know that. And the dancing — I think they added that dancing routine that he did,” says Travolta, referring to the scene in which Gere performed an extended tap dance in the movie. “I don’t remember if that was already in the script or not.”

Why does Travolta think audiences seem to forgive him his occasional movie bombs?

He erupts in hearty laughter. “Because they can’t help themselves! They love me! Am I right or am I right?!”

After 30 years in front of the camera, it seems it’s the art of collaboration that gets him excited about a project.

“You read most scripts, and half the time, I swear, I’m falling asleep by the middle, if I even get to the middle. (It’s about) who’s directing it, writing it? Who did the music?”

The long-delayed movie version of the 1980s television series “Dallas” is due to star Travolta as the villainous J.R. Ewing, memorably played on the small screen by Larry Hagman. How will the essentially amiable Travolta play this at times loathsome character? He snickers, “Oh, you don’t think I can play someone loathsome? That’s really great. I mean, in a way. Well, that’s from the script — half of it’s already done for you. But it’s a great role. I mean, I want to do everything — I want to play men and women, good and bad, funny and drama.

“For me, just the chance to keep acting, that’s what keeps me going.”

Travolta is not willing to be drawn on the Church of Scientology, of which he has long been a member.

Several years ago, he reportedly decided to leave the cult, but, according to Time magazine, was pressured to stay, due to the group having inside information on the actor’s private life. It’s said that Scientology officials pressured him to finally wed longtime fiancee and actress Kelly Preston.

Though Travolta doesn’t mention his religion, it was widely noted that when he last accepted an award for his acting, he included the name of Scientology founder and science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in his acceptance speech but omitted to mention his wife.

It might seem a rare misstep for someone who is clearly concerned what the public think of him. “Everybody’s more complex than what you see when you go to the movies. We play what we’re supposed to be, up there, in public, for the role,” says Travolta.

“When an actor becomes a star, you have to give the public what it wants. Whatever that means. I’m an actor, so we talk about my latest movie. That’s what the public wants.”

“(‘Hairspray’) has got a story,” Travolta says, giving the public what they want. “The proof is that ‘Hairspray’ was a movie without any music (in John Waters’ original comedy) and no songs to begin with, and then they kept the story — which people liked — and they just added all this great music. So what more could you ask, right?”

“Hairspray” opens nationwide on Oct. 20.

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