“People always ask me, 'How did you come to cast John Travolta?'” says Kevin Connolly, the director of Gotti, the biopic depicting mafia boss John Gotti’s rise to the top of the New York underworld. “Cast Travolta? Travolta cast me!” he laughs.
From their initial meet-and-greet, Connolly and Travolta realized they were both on the same page, wanting to make a family-centric piece, not a new Goodfellas. “Their family was just like anyone else’s family,” says Connolly. “Except when my dad went to work, he did different things than John Gotti did when he went to work.”
The two men may have agreed on their approach, but nothing quite prepares you for working with a legend. Once production began, Connolly was surprised by the Travolta effect. “It was pretty incredible. When Travolta walks onto set, it’s game time,” says Connolly. “You could hear a pin drop.”
As the film that has taken the better part of a decade to bring to the big screen is finally hitting theaters on June 15, Travolta sat down to talk about his fascination with Gotti, costarring with his wife, advice for his kids that’s rooted in his own childhood and his thoughts on being labeled an icon.
Where did the passion for this project come from?
Gotti really was a composite that was very intriguing. He had a lot of style but was down to earth and could adjust to anybody he was talking to. He'd adjust to the street guy, the young people, the older people. He was thoughtful and considerate, but yet tough as nails, and would do what he had to do. How do I play that? I had never played that kind of character, with those kinds of complexities. And he had a swagger and a style that was different from other characters that I'd played. I really feel that it was a challenge, and I like challenges.
John Gotti had a very distinctive physicality, including a limp from an accident at age 14. Was playing him a physically demanding role for you?
That's my favorite stuff to do. I build characters like a recipe. I love adding things. I love accents, I love walks, I love style of behavior, cadence of vocal quality. If you're doing Clinton, you have to have the raspy thing, and his Southern thing. When you do Hairspray, and she's a Baltimore housewife, that's quite marvelous and different and fun.
I just look for fun in my challenges. Even with Robert Shapiro [in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson], I looked at the videos and thought, He would be so much fun to play. I knew people like him. I thought, I've never seen that type of guy on-screen before, but I've seen studio heads and producers and directors that have that kind of elitist thing, and they were high on a mountain, but it was fragile. It was so much fun to play that note. Really, really, really interesting stuff to do.
There's nothing wrong with a husband and wife working together. I think nepotism and that whole thing is less attackable, if you're authentic about the product that you're doing.
The only thing similar, I would say, would be that both the Gotti family and Kelly and I really adore our children, at a level that's immeasurable. They had that, and we have that. But their style of living and their particular values are fun and interesting to play. Very different.
They were very comfortable going at each other until [a problem] is solved. And we try our best to use logic. If there's a brewing episode, you put that on hold. What's the real situation? How can we articulate it, so it's helpful and solves it? And I think that this couple fought it out and then resolved it … somehow.
Is it fun using that kind of vernacular with someone whom you do love that much but don't normally have those types of arguments with?
Yeah, because I don't think I've ever cursed at Kelly, and I don't think Kelly's ever cursed at me. [John and Victoria Gotti] were pretty rough on each other verbally. But there's also a great humor watching it, because these are funny people to watch. They have an innate humor about them.
Did you enjoy meeting the Gotti family?
I loved the Gotti family! They were hilarious, adorable, articulate. John Jr. was a revelation. He was lovely and smart as a whip—and constantly aware. I was really impressed with him. It's so interesting, how he stood up to his father because he didn't want that life. He wanted to protect his family, not make them be unsafe. It took a lot of guts. And the film explains that.
Kevin Connolly told us that Gotti’s death was very uncomfortable for him to film as a director. Seeing John Travolta in a body bag is apparently not how you want to spend your day. How do you feel about those scenes? Is that difficult for you as well?
No, because I have this ability to become the other person without personally suffering from being the other person. He had stage 4 cancer, and he was in another state of mind. So, I just became that, and only entertained what he might be thinking, as opposed to what I might be thinking. I think I have that ability to become that person, while detached from it personally. My mother was an acting teacher, and she was of [the school that] acting is believing, acting is being, acting is pretending. I've always been able to not suffer the pain that the character's suffering, but just be it. Portray it.
You get knocked around. You can't believe it. And it doesn't ruin you as a person, but it's highly disappointing. Highly disappointing.
I think we go for, “Are we really suited for those characters?” Because there's nothing wrong with a husband and wife working together. Nothing. Except that it gets criticized if they're miscast. If you have integrity to the casting, there's nothing wrong with it. My daughter [Ella] is about to play in a movie with me. She's perfect for the role. She's playing a Texas Southern belle. My daughter is a tall, gorgeous, dark-haired beauty that will be brilliant in that movie. So there's authenticity to that. I think nepotism and that whole thing is less attackable, if you're authentic about the product that you're doing.
Do you remember meeting Kelly for the first time?
Well, it was a screen test. And I had two big dogs with me. And she came in, this gorgeous woman. And she was actually getting popular. She had done a couple of things. She was establishing herself, but I didn't know her.
Anyway, we had an immediate chemistry, but she was married at the time. I remember she was going down the steps, and I said, "May I ask you a question?" And she said yes, and I said, "What's it like to be married? Is it a good thing?" 'Cause I didn't know. I was 37. I was a late bloomer. She said, "I love it." And I thought, Wow. Nobody says they love being married. Wouldn't that be great? To be married to someone who loves being married?
Your daughter, Ella, is 18, and your son Benjamin is 7. What's some of the advice you've given your kids?
My parents were loving. I had a wonderful childhood. But they never taught me about cynicism. And I don't know why. They didn't tell me there were people out there you shouldn't trust. They didn't tell me about the dark side of life. And I think that I would never want to spoil their optimism, but I want to protect that optimism by saying, "Look, there are people that can hurt you. Be smart about who you choose to be in your life. Not everybody is worthy of being in your surroundings. Maybe they're not healthy for you to be in." I just went diving off the diving board, like, “Everyone will love me as much as my parents love me! Wait till they see me do this!” And boom, boom, boom. You get knocked around. You can't believe it. And it doesn't ruin you as a person, but it's highly disappointing. Highly disappointing. I just don't want them to be disappointed. I don't want them to go through it—it's unnecessary.
You're about to open yourself up to social media. That's a whole different world.
It's terra incognita. Territory I do not know about. I have trepidations, but I'm going to play it by ear. I will see how it goes. If it's something that is not comfortable enough for me, then I won't do it. Especially because I know you can get attacked on social media. I think there are methods to divert a majority of that. I have no idea of what will happen.
Do you wake up every morning thinking, I'm an icon?
“Icon” is so simple. Whether it's Marilyn Monroe or James Dean or myself, it's not an egocentric concept. You're just super famous for something that people visually recognize you for. I can't help it that the white suit made me iconic, or that leather jacket in Grease. Marilyn Monroe can't help it that that white dress made her [an icon]. Or Elizabeth Taylor, in her white dress in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It's just part of the illusion. So, I like to take the egocentric part of it off, because it's just a simplicity of sorts.
Have you ever had any doubts about your career?
It's an interesting question, because I think I achieved even more than I had anticipated achieving. I’ve felt lucky about what I had achieved, so I couldn't easily move into this feeling of despair or insecurity. I'd already went up and above what I had expected. My manager, however, had expected it—I was just hoping he was right.
But actors have those moments [of insecurity]. I have actually said to actors who have texted me or called me saying, "I'm so upset, I don't know what's coming next, and I don't know what I'll do if this doesn't happen." I said, "OK, what part of being in show business did you ever think was certain? If you wanted certainty, you'd go to a 9-to-5 job." Part of the chosen job is a mystery of what will happen next, but it's also the excitement of what will happen next. I said, "Embrace it, as opposed to thinking that you're going to find some sort of envelope of security.”
I'm an eternal optimist. I always see that water in the glass half-full. And although life tries to knock it out of you and make you cynical, I'm just not capable of that cynicism. Even though I’ve played cynical characters, I am personally not capable of so much cynicism.
Were there roles that you've ever regretted that you turned down?
There's only a couple of roles that I think I could have taken that would have made certain career transitions smoother. I think Splash was written for me. An Officer and a Gentleman was written for me. I think Days of Heaven and Pretty Woman … There's films that I could have done that may have made a transition [smoother], but overall, I'm so happy with the films I have chosen. If had done those, I don't know whether I'd be where I am now. And I like, very much, that at an older age, I'm able to choose the subject matters and characters that I like. I think that's more interesting to me than having a perfect arc to a career.