John Travolta can still remember a conversation he once had with legendary actor-director-producer Warren Beatty. "I asked: 'Warren, what's the secret to a long career?' He said, 'Just do good movies.'" In other words, don't compromise. "What I think he meant was: 'Be true to your own passions, the subject matters you want to do, and … be fully on board,'" says Travolta, smiling. "I think that's the key."
It's sound advice that the New Jersey-born Travolta has tried to adhere to across a four-and-a-half-decade career in film (and occasionally TV) that exploded when he made Saturday Night Fever and Grease back-to-back in the late 1970s. Since then, he's been up, he's been down, but what cannot be denied is that Travolta is a Hollywood survivor who has frequently taken Beatty's pearls of wisdom to heart and followed his own path.
His latest movie, The Poison Rose, is a gloomy film noir that teams him up (for the second time) with his teenage daughter Ella Bleu, after 2009's Old Dogs with the late Robin Williams. "Her ideas come very quick to fruition," he says. "When she was seven, she said: 'Daddy, I wanna do a movie.' And a week later, that script with Robin and I came on my plate. She turned 18 last year and she said: 'Daddy, I think I'm ready to go back to movies.' Boom! A week later, this script came along."
In The Poison Rose, directed by George Gallo (who scripted the classic 1988 buddy movie Midnight Run), Travolta plays Carson Phillips, a "scruffy detective" from 1978 Los Angeles assigned to a missing persons case that turns deadly. Prime suspect is Rebecca, played by Ella Bleu, who just so happens to be the daughter of Carson's former love (Famke Janssen). Intertwined in it all is Morgan Freeman's high-powered businessman.
Remarkably, the 65-year-old Travolta and Freeman have never worked together, despite both enjoying long Hollywood careers. "We had a similar past," he says. "He was from Broadway. I was from Broadway [he performed in Grease on stage before making the movie]. So every day on the set, I would sing a song and he would finish it! I don't know if it's true, but he would tell me that he had the most fun on that set than on any movie. I think it's because we injected a little music into it."
Travolta famously reignited his career – and gained a second Oscar nomination after Saturday Night Fever – with Quentin Tarantino's 1994 classic Pulp Fiction, and has never been afraid to take on darker roles. Before The Poison Rose, he played infamous mobster John Gotti. "I don't mind playing dark characters," he says. "As long as there is a balance of yin/yang in them that makes them watchable, because they can be unwatchable if you're not careful. There's an art to it."
Keeping it in the family also helps. Travolta has not only acted twice with Ella Bleu, but three times with her mother – and his wife since 1991 – Kelly Preston, including in Old Dogs and Gotti. "We look like leading people but we're really not … we're very much character actors, Kelly and I," he says. "And I think that's not an exaggeration. All my biggest moments and all her best moments have been in character-driven pieces."
True or not, Travolta is all too aware of his legendary status now in the industry. "I just have been fortunate," he says. "Without trying to be egocentric … I just have more timeless movies than almost anybody!" Grease, Saturday Night Fever, Pulp Fiction … he has a point. "They're films that seem to carry on – and are interesting – to each new generation." Whether The Poison Rose will join them remains to be seen.
The Poison Rose is in UAE cinemas from June 13