John Travolta has already portrayed outlandish New Yorkers (think Saturday Night Fever) and hardened criminals (see: Pulp Fiction) in his 45-year career, so it's no great stretch for the 64-year-old actor to star as notorious mob boss John Gotti in a new eponymous biopic. Gotti is directed by Kevin Connolly (of Entourage fame) and co-stars Travolta's real-life wife, Kelly Preston, as John Gotti's wife, Victoria.
Travolta and Preston recently visited Scottsdale to promote the film. Gotti opens today (Friday, June 15) in theaters across the Valley.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Phoenix New Times: What kind of preconceived notions did you have about John Gotti before you started this project?
John Travolta: I think what I knew was what most people knew from the headlines in the [New York] Post and the [New York] Daily News. I knew all the basic data, but it was pretty popular stuff. I didn't understand how the mob really worked — it had a whole, almost military-esque format. And I didn't understand the character of Gotti, why he was so loved and popular. So I did my own research and found out that what he did was: Any business that dipped into the red, he would subsidize and put back into the black. So nobody ever went out of business. So he became an ally, and almost an insurance policy for that.
In addition to that, he was kind of a neighborhood financier of things — if the gym closed down, and some promising boxers came up, he would reopen the gym for them. If a family was suffering from a medical issue, he'd take care of their bills. So he had a certain care factor. Because I don't remember Capone being loved, or Dillinger, or even Whitey [Bulger] being loved, so why was Gotti loved? Why did he become so powerful?
So that was a little bit of an insight to why. I learned about the structure, and I learned about why he was so loved. And he had a family devotion that was unbeknownst to me hitherto this point — how much he loved his family.
Speaking of the Gotti family, I know that you were their first choice to portray John Gotti. What was it like to work with them on this project?
It was fun, because they loved him so much that they really had so many kind of fun and interesting things ... so all the color, I feel I got from them. The broad strokes I got from history and I got from video tapes of him in prison and all those things, but I think the color of these nuances were from their tidbits, their anecdotes that at the outset were valuable to help me hone this character.
And what kind of feedback have you gotten from the family about the movie?
The family loves the movie because they approved the movie. And that was hard, because it's one thing approving it getting it done; another one is approving the final product, and they did both.
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I know you've worked with your wife [Kelly Preston] on projects before, but in Gotti you had several scenes of conflict. Is that difficult?
Without bragging, I think we're both experienced actors and we enjoy acting. So if it means getting angry at each other, you become those people getting angry at each other. I really separate myself from the characters I play. Some people need to use themselves; I really don't. I can actually pretend I'm another person, and that's how I do it.
One of the things that interested me (and you touched on this earlier) was the way that people rallied for him outside the trials and mourned him after he died. He was really kind of a folk hero. Can you talk a bit about that?
Well, I think he was a folk hero because of all the things I said earlier, and he was also a superstar in that he was photographed a lot, and he was pretty glamorous in his attire. You know, he dressed well. He was very well-groomed. He was elegant in his own New York way, and I think that added to his panache just like any historical figure. Whether they're legitimate in politics, like Kennedy ... if they have a kind of glamour about them, they tend to resonate more specifically than if they didn't. The Teflon Don had kind of a fun image to watch.
Speaking of his style, I understand you got to wear some items of Gotti's clothing.
It empowered me, because A. it all fit. B. All his jewelry fit. His watch, his rings, his scarves that I used in my jackets. And his overcoat, the black and white one I start the movie and end with was actually his. And photographed a lot in it. I loved it because again, it was the family encouraging me to own his presence.
Besides Gotti, what's your favorite mob movie?
Godfather. Absolutely. The first one.