If you’re old school, he’s Vinnie Barbarino, Tony Manero, and one half of Danny and Sandy. If you’re new school, you may recall the time when you were working on your first play, and your theater teacher told you that if you wanted to explore non-linear sequencing, you’d have to rent Pulp Fiction. To you, he’s Vincent Vega, twisting on the floor with Mrs. Mia Wallace, or blowing off poor Marvin’s head in the back of Jules’ 1974 Chevy Nova. But in his latest film, John Travolta shakes off our memories of these beloved characters, and embraces something subtle and unique as Raymond J. Cutter in The Forger, in theaters and On Demand today.
For the first time in his forty years as an actor, Travolta gets to take on the role of a talented visual artist. Now, the criminal activity in which Cutter’s also involved? That might be a little more familiar. But director Philip Martin and writer Richard D’Ovidio have created a more complicated tale, with Cutter tending to his terminally ill son (which often results in hilarious, last wish-fulfillment scenarios), and navigating a difficult relationship with his own father.
Travolta opened up with Paste about his fascinating new character, working alongside Christopher Plummer and Tye Sheridan (who play his father and son, respectively, in the film), and even indulged one more question about that Pulp Fiction briefcase.
Paste Magazine: I love that The Forger starts off feeling like a crime thriller, and ends up becoming this very emotional father/son tale. Can you talk about what initially drew you to the project?
John Travolta: Initially it was the uniqueness of the story, with the backdrop of art. I love painting—my grandfather’s a painter, my father did some painting, and my brother did, as well. I thought it was pretty interesting, and I’d never played an artist before. He’s a savant, and he’s involved in passing off these [forged] paintings. So there’s a different twist on it, and I liked that idea.
And of course, there’s this emotion—the whole connection between father, son and grandfather. It’s a very offbeat family, but they’re real to people. You can identify to a certain degree. And the movie doesn’t try to be anything that it’s not—that’s what I love about it. It’s very honest, and therefore more moving because of it. The movie never feels sorry for itself. It’s a great mosaic, if you will, of different things. And it was challenging too.
Paste: Did you get to do any actual painting in some of the scenes?
Travolta: Oh yes, on screen and off screen! That was my favorite part—to be able to express myself in that venue. I was really excited about that.
Paste: You mentioned that there were some challenges with this role, and I was thinking about how, over the course of your career, you’ve taken on plenty of roles that have this similar balance of comedy with drama. There are some really fun, playful moments in The Forger, even though your character is in this life or death—or prison—situation, and you’re also caring for your son. But, what were some of the unique challenges that this role presented to you?
Travolta: I wanted to make sure that I had the accuracy of a real expert painter. I studied with someone in Hong Kong who was excellent, and with someone in Texas. I had to feel that it would be convincing. And, in a lot of ways, it was challenging to make this subtle movie. You’re straddling how to play these scenes without gilding the lily (laughs). And the director was completely helpful in that—he knew when to restrain and when to give. So, it was challenging, but also fun at some points. And the gravitas of the movie has its own flow. You couldn’t help but to feel the depths of these people suffering.
At the same time, none of these characters wanted you to suffer with them. And they did all of their suffering in private. That’s what moved me most—they were generous, and they didn’t want to make their problems anyone else’s problems. Even the son, when he’s sick with chemo, lies about feeling well, when he’s very sick.
Paste: Yes, and I think we also see that in the relationship between Raymond and his father. Christopher Plummer is always incredible to watch. How did the two of you work on building that sort of rough, but loving father/son tension?
Travolta: It’s easy with Christopher Plummer, because he’s such an amazing actor—as is Tye [Sheridan]. Half the work was done by casting. You get in there, and we just all believed each other. There wasn’t a false note that we presented to each other, so we responded accordingly. Like existentialists, if you will (laughs), we’d experience a moment, and how that thing unfolded in that moment.
Paste: I wouldn’t be a true Pulp Fiction fan if I didn’t ask for myself—do you have any idea what was in that briefcase?
Travolta: You know, when [Tarantino] directed that scene, he told me to respond like it was completely unique and amazing, and something that I’d never seen before. But he wouldn’t tell me what it was. So I just responded as per the direction.
Paste: And you never created an image in your own mind of something specific?
Travolta: No, I just focused on trying to mock up exactly what he’d asked. How would you respond to something that was unique and amazing, and hard to describe?
Paste: Having worked with directors like Tarantino, and now Philip Martin, and so many other greats, has it inspired you at all to get in the director’s chair?
Travolta: There are momentary desires, but it’s fleeting. There’s a little book that I wrote years ago called Propeller One-Way Night Coach that I wouldn’t mind directing—my own writing and my own vision. And I know a lot about the subject of aviation. But, directing is really a full-time, 24/7 job. It’s not something that’s easy, so you have to be really passionate, like Philip was with this movie.
Paste: Now I know a little bit about your upcoming projects because my cousin Asante Jones is in the movie I Am Wrath with you.
Travolta: Asante? (laughs) Oh, come on! You’re kidding.
Paste: It’s a very small world.
Travolta: He’s terrific. It was a fun project, and working with him made it that much more fun.
Paste: Well, obviously I’m looking forward to it. Thanks so much for this.
Travolta: Thank you.
The Forger is playing in theaters and On Demand Friday, April 24.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes all follows (and un-follows) on Twitter.