John Travolta returns to primetime TV with a starring role in FX’s anthology series People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. In the 10 episode series, Travolta sinks his teeth into the role of Robert Shapiro, a key player among O.J. Simpson’s Dream Team of lawyers who helped defend the ex-NFL star when he was charged with two counts of murder. The new series from American Horror Story and Glee‘s Ryan Murphy and The Hunger Games‘ Nina Jacobson goes behind the scenes of the trial to reveal what went on outside of the courtroom among the defense and prosecution teams that the public wasn’t privy to during what was labeled ‘The Trial of the Century.’
After participating in FX’s People v. O.J. Simpson panel at the Television Critics Association’s winter press event, Travolta met with a small gathering of reporters to discuss how he approached playing Shapiro in this much-anticipated series.
FX will premiere The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story on February 2, 2016 at 10pm ET/PT.
John Travolta Interview:
Had you encountered Robert Shapiro at any point during your time in Hollywood?
John Travolta: “No, you would think I would have. I have a different legal team, even though you would have thought I would have run into him. I know a lot of people who knew him and that helped because I could ask questions. But he did write a letter to me at one point very thrilled that I was going to portray him.”
What fascinated you about him as you started to try the character on a little?
John Travolta: “The thing is his ego I knew I could grasp. I think I’d been around enough of his type of men in the legal world and in the show business world – producers, studio heads – there’s enough of the kind of person I understood that I felt like I could get an angle on it that would work.”
Have you watched any episodes?
John Travolta: “Only one. I loved the first one but I really wanted to wait to see how several of them one come out, and maybe binge-watch it to see the totality of the work.”
It’s such an extreme production. Did it come out differently than you expected on the set?
John Travolta: “Actually, better. I knew that we were set up for potential excellence, but I never had to use the [producing] card because everybody was on their A-game. I just at one point said, ‘You know what? These guys know exactly what they’re doing and I’m just going to do my part.’”
Is there a particular scene or sequence that you’re really looking forward to seeing on screen?
John Travolta: “Yes. There’s one in episode seven where I actually blackmail Kardashian, which was the most despicable moment I’ve ever had in my career of acting. I can’t believe that the character actually leverages him to try to settle, to convince the team to settle. It was such a strange day to play that and I want to see how that came out. And then there’s a lot of moments that I’m looking forward to. I’m looking forward to the F. Lee Bailey scene. I’m looking forward to the fun aspects of watching Robert Shapiro, some of the humorous things. Especially, you know, he’s sitting in front of him and he says, ‘You know who the victim is here? Me!’ Those are kind of enjoyable moments so it balances this darkness, if you will.”
Do you remember where you were when the Bronco chase was going down?
John Travolta: “Yes. We had just won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Pulp Fiction. My dad was on the chair in the living room in Carmel, Monterey – we were living up in Northern California – and he said, ‘Johnny, you’re not going to believe this.’ And then I was pulled right into this scenario.”
Have you ever met OJ?
John Travolta: “No. You would have thought I would have.”
Have you found there’s more attention on this than even the biggest movies you’ve done because of the subject matter and because it’s television?
John Travolta: “Yes.”
How are you facing that?
John Travolta: “Because it’s been a positive reaction to the quality of the communication, I’ve been pleased with everyone I’ve spoken with about it. It’s been a pleasure because it’s an agreeable subject. They’re so many that are pleased with the result of it that it’s easier to experience the big reaction it’s getting.”
You’ve talked about when Pulp Fiction was going down you were in this transition state of reinvention. What was that like?
John Travolta: “I think I was at a point where I felt I had done well in my career, but I never imagined that one project could give me that kind of a second career where I was offered the A scripts again, the Oscar contender type scripts. There weren’t many examples of that in the history of cinema so I was very honored and privileged that I had that kind of role.”
Has Quentin Tarantino ever had anything else for you?
John Travolta: “No. In the day, he gave me a choice between Dusk Till Dawn or Pulp and I said, ‘I’m not really into vampires. I like the other one.’”
Is this that kind of game-changing role do you think, given the landscape and how prestigious TV is right now?
John Travolta: “Well, TV is definitely prestigious and it’s 10 hours of a character, not two. So those elements could balance out to be a game-changer in a lot of ways, and all an actor wants is the best opportunities to play the best roles. That’s really what they’re looking for, nothing else.”
Could you see yourself doing more television if it was a 10 hour series?
John Travolta: “Yes, a limited series. I don’t know if I could do it full time. And, I also enjoy doing movies. I wouldn’t want to eliminate my time for that.”
How was it different playing this character as opposed to playing a variation on Bill Clinton in Primary Colors? How did you approach playing a well known real person without fictionalizing him?
John Travolta: “Well, it’s a similar approach because I felt like it was a very thinly veiled interpretation of Clinton and Mike Nichols wanted us not to admit that we were playing him. I said, ‘Mike, I look like him, I’m speaking like him, I’m walking like him, I’m behaving like him. We’re taking the direct dialogue from his speeches.’ I said, ‘I’m playing him, man, so let me play him.’ I had a very similar approach from building the character from physical attributes and vocal attributes and really, enjoying that process, which is my favorite thing to do.”
Do you feel some of the pressure other actors are feeling in this portraying a real life person?
John Travolta: “I do, but from my own personal view point. This is how I feel: if I get it right enough, I can invite you in to a true story. Because there will be a good majority of people who will be so familiar with the case and the character that unless I convince you – just like with Primary Colors – that I am that person, you won’t be as easily invited. So, you have to do just enough to say, ‘Hey, look, this is the game we’re playing. We’re playing this scenario. Come along and go for this ride.’”
Were you surprised by the theatrics of this trial?
John Travolta: “I was more surprised by the theatrics behind the scenes than the actual trial. We were amazed every new episode. When those Mark Fuhrman tapes came up, which you’re going to get to, we couldn’t believe what we were reading. Every week we couldn’t believe what we were reading.”
Do you feel differently about the trial now?
John Travolta: “No, just more informed. I just feel like I completely understand. This is almost the point of where someone gives an Oscar to someone for a performance they did. I mean, Rodney King should have maybe had the swing or other unfair situations, and this was the one that was almost the catch-all for earlier things that should have been handled differently.”
There’s almost a theatrical way Shapiro had of carrying himself. Can you talk about how that played into your performance without veering into a camp kind of territory?
John Travolta: “All you had to do was watch the videos of him. I was doing only what I observed him to do. I didn’t do any more than what he was. He was delicious to watch because he was doing exactly what I…and I’m good at taking on characteristics of people physically, whether it’s from dance or it’s all the years of being an actor. But that’s where I kind of excel so watching him I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is kind of interesting. This will be something to do to make this authentic.’ But I wasn’t really doing anything different than what you can find on the videos.”
What do you think about the return of musicals on TV and would you be interested in doing Grease?
John Travolta: “Not in the live aspects. I did 16 years of theatre and my cup runneth over for live productions. But in a musical movie, yes.”
Will you be watching Grease: Live?
John Travolta: [Laughing] “Well, now that I know when it is I’m watching it. Why not?”