Canberra Sunday Times, Sun 10 Oct 2000

Bad guys good to the king of cool

John Travolta tells Roger Moore how he laboured to get his new sci-fi film to the screen.

Bad guys have been pretty good to John Travolta.

After a down stretch so long it would have killed most careers, the star of Saturday Night Fever and Grease became bankable once more with Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994), playing an inquisitive but amoral and befuddled hit man.

"Pulp Fiction communicated a possibility to me," he says. "Like the old actors Cagney and Bogart, I discovered that I could still be entertaining and likeable, and be evil. That possibility led to Broken Arrow, which led to Face Off, which led to Battlefield Earth. As long as you're entertaining being evil, you're fine."

The actor, cool and relaxed in a cream-coloured suit for a day of interviews in Miami Beach's Bentley Hotel, was making the rounds, talking up a project he has nurtured on to the screen. Hits like Get Shorty, A Civil Action and The General's Daughter brought him back to the top tier of his profession.

Now he's spending a little of that career capital on a risky sci-fi project close to his heart.

For 15 years, Travolta has tried to get Battlefield Earth before the cameras. It's a slam-bang sci-fi epic set 1000 years in the future. But more tellingly, it's a film based on the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.

Travolta is a Scientologist, the most famous one on earth. But even though Tom Cruise, Chick Corea, Jenna Elfman, Kirstie Alley and several other celebrities share that with him, most of Hollywood does not.

And faith isn't enough to get a movie on the screen.

"I didn't have the clout to get it made," Travolta says. But clout wasn't the only problem. There was the script.

"It was a long time in the making, mostly because I didn't finally get [the script] right until recently," he says. "A year and a half ago, we got a version of the script that tackled the book and did it justice."

Then there were the special effects.

Hubbard's action-packed novel features gigantic aliens, futuristic technology and battles, battles everywhere.

"I don't think, if we'd done this book 15 to 20 years ago, the special effects would have measured up to what we were able to do," Travolta says. "Now, they're state of the art, realistic. This was just the right time to make this film."

But, of course, he's leaving out the obvious hold-up to Battlefield Earth. Hubbard invented Scientology, the controversial self-help religion that has been under fire for decades for its expense to its followers, its medical claims and the intimidation tactics its leaders use to quash dissent and bad publicity. Battlefield Earth is a movie with a lot of baggage.

Could anti-Scientology bias have kept Hollywood from making the film?

"Quite the opposite," Travolta says. "It's so many people's favourite book, when word got out that we had the green light, the options I had for people who wanted to work on it were amazing.

"All the Star Wars [production] people were on it, and they worked on it for six months for nothing. They had the same commitment they had on [The Phantom Menace] movie. That blew me away. Clearly, it wasn't just me. It was this book."

Travolta has, from time to time, distanced himself from the church, which uses fasting, counselling and a gadget called an e-meter to help its practitioners purge toxic substances and toxic forces from their lives. But he's never dodged questions about it.

"He doesn't push Scientology," says George Thomas, film critic for the Akron Beacon-Journal, who has interviewed Travolta several times. "He charms you into understanding his position and tries to make you respect what he believes."

Something of a compendium of Hubbard's sci-fi writings recast in a new story, Battlefield Earth did earn some good reviews when the novel came out in 1982. But some critics have said the sales figures were inflated by Scientologists buying multiple copies, a Donald Trump trick for creating a best-seller.

Some, such as Richard Lieby, writing in the Washington Post, see the book and film as a metaphoric treatment of Hubbard's philosophy, that psychology and psychiatry are the root of modern evil - the villains of the piece are the "psychlos".

But any suggestions of a link between the film and Scientology draw swift rebukes from the church leadership. Travolta also dismisses such suggestions.

He says, "Hopefully, this will be better than you're used to seeing when you go to a popcorn movie. More fun, more realistic, more overwhelming. I think the movie has a quality of overwhelming you [with] the sound, special effects, the story."

The $US80 million ($A138 million) film doesn't have an A-list director, but George Lucas recommended his second-unit man from Phantom Menace, Roger Christian.

Aside from Travolta and his wife, Kelly Preston, the movie doesn't boast a lot of names. And the biggest name, Travolta, is in pretty deep character make-up throughout the film.

He decided that he was no longer young enough to play the idealistic young hero of the piece. So he became the gigantic arch-villain.

"I always liked how Terl looked" on the cover of the book, and on billboards advertising the book, he says with a laugh. "It was so correct. But getting that was hot, uncomfortable, claustrophobic. It made me be more evil - what can I say? It motivated the wicked feelings."

At 46, he's quick to see the possibilities in playing a good villain.

"This character is hilarious. He's not a comic villain, but he is funny," he says.

In Numbers, coming later this year, he plays a corrupt TV weatherman who tries to fix the lottery. And he's thinking about a return visit to one of his most acclaimed characters, Chili Palmer of the Miami-LA mob-and-movies comedy, Get Shorty. He's just waiting to see a script.

But even though Chili Palmer brought him great acclaim, Travolta didn't rush out and read the sequel novel, Be Cool, which takes Chili from the movie business to the music business, when it hit bookstores.

That hints at one of the knocks one hears about Travolta: he's a guy who likes his creature comforts and isn't big on busting a gut researching a role. This is a guy who flies his own jets, who has his personal chef hired for every film he works on and who doesn't like working away from home.

How did all that hold up when he went off to Toronto to film Battlefield Earth? He wasn't just the demanding star of that film, he was a producer.

"This was the most responsibility I've ever taken on a movie," he says. "It was challenging to do that, because I was going into an area that I didn't know a whole lot about.

"I would look at myself in the mirror and say, 'You. Get on the set! You're late!' It was quite psychotic, actually.

"Just kidding!"

[Press articles on Scientology]