Whatever you do, don't take "Battlefield Earth" too seriously around John Travolta. Ask him sci-fi convention geek questions about his new movie's minutiae and he's going to laugh at you. Ask him what the movie's message is, and you'll get a reply like this:
"There is no particular message of this movie other than 'How big is your popcorn and your candy bar?' I did it as an entertainment piece."
The $20-million-per-picture movie star has been fielding such questions frequently while promoting this over-the-top, sci-fi summer event movie, mostly because it was written by a pre-Scientology L. Ron Hubbard and Travolta is arguably controversial faith's highest profile follower.
For 10 years he'd had his eye on filming the epic novel -- a man-vs.-monster parable about an enslaved human race rebelling against their alien masters a millennium after being nuked back to the Stone Age. But he had to wait until he'd gathered enough clout to get a special effect spectacular made just because he's John Travolta and he wanted it made. And since the first day of production, the rumors have been flying that the picture would be some kind of subliminal propaganda machine for the start-up religion, which has become very fashionable in Hollywood.
"I was entertained by some of it, to be honest. Especially subliminal stuff," Travolta said on a trip to San Francisco last week, laughing at the idea he's out to brainwash salivating summer movie audiences. "I think it's so funny, because it's so not what (the movie) is. Fortunately there's a lot of literate people in the world who know the difference between science fiction and philosophy, and this clearly separates the two."
The actor is so enthusiastic about his futuristic $60-million pet project that he grins like a kid on Christmas morning while being quizzed about it, coming as close as a tres-cool matinee idol can to bouncing in his chair while still hanging on to his dignity.
He quotes his own lines from the movie as if he was a rabid fan standing in line to see it a fifth time. "You know, when he's in the bar and the guy doesn't want to be blackmailed? The bartender? And he says, 'Well, you'd better start thinking about it! I'm not your friend!'" Travolta beams. "Every day I couldn't wait! It was delicious to me to say those words."
Ask him about the four-hour makeup process that transformed him into a 9-foot-tall, pasty-skinned, dreadlock-sporting, scenery-chewing, Klingons-meet-KISS alien baddie, and he even makes that sound fun.
"Actually the process wasn't bad. Afterward the claustrophobia and the heat are quite something," he says as if that's a good thing. "But every little trick added to my potential evilness there, so it was fun on a certain level, you know?"
From playing drug-blissed hit man Vincent Vega for Quentin Tarantino to the enjoyably deranged antagonists he's created in two high-octane John Woo action flicks, the actor obviously loves the bad guy roles. But he seems to think his egomaniacal alien in "Earth" will be hard to top.
"He's so full of himself! You know? It's just delicious," Travolta grins madly, rubbing his cleft chin the way he did in "Broken Arrow" just before setting off a nuclear bomb. "'Pulp Fiction' was more subtle. 'Broken Arrow' started the theatricality, 'Face/Off' went over the top. (But) this, with this get-up (I wore), invited me to have a blast!"
Can he ever imagine a role so juicy that he'd quit acting afterwards knowing he'll never enjoy it that much again?
"No!" he laughs as if he's never heard anything so absurd. "After 'Pulp Fiction' there was all this brouhaha about my performance. It had been almost 20 years since "Saturday Night Fever," and I thought, OK, well, what next?
"Then suddenly scripts fell in front of me that I hadn't had before, like 'Get Shorty,' you know? 'Broken Arrow,'Michael,' 'Face/Off,' 'Primary Colors,' 'Civil Action.' I never dreamed of playing those kind of parts! I knew I could, but I didn't know they would be in my future. So I don't think you can put the curtain down on yourself. I like performing too much."
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