Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan speaks with two-time Academy Award nominee John Travolta about why The Fanatic was a personal project for him, its similarities to Joker, and what he’s overly passionate about.
Throughout his 40-plus year career, John Travolta has collected a variety of obsessed fans. From Saturday Night Fever to Pulp Fiction to his Emmy-nominated turn on as Robert Shapiro on American Crime Story, Travolta’s roles have always managed to cause a stir.
And while he’s encountered obsessed fans, he got to play one in Fred Durst’s The Fanatic this past August. In the film, he plays a movie buff named Moose who stalks his favorite action hero Hunter Dunbar (played by Devon Sawa) and inadvertently destroys the star’s life.
The film involves a protagonist dealing with mental illness, something Travolta feels a strong personal connection to (“I felt like I knew him like the back of my hand, for all sorts of reasons”). I had the chance to speak with the star about why he decided to work on the project, the movie’s similarities to another 2019 film, and why he doesn’t care what critics have to say about it.
Awards Daily: How did this project come about for you?
John Travolta: Well, a very long time ago, Joaquin Phoenix and I were at a party for Ladder 49, the firefighter movie, and Fred Durst was friends with Joaquin and Balthazar Getty and that whole group of guys in the movie. So we were just there hanging out, and [Fred] was excited to meet me, but interested in telling me that really his first love is filmmaking and film and the music that he’s done is just a road to get there, and that one day he’d love to submit something to me. I said, ‘Sure, I’m open for it.’ Of course, that was maybe 15 years ago. Then two years ago, he submitted the script and when I read it, I fell in love with it, but I knew that it would be hard to get financed because it was such an eccentric and offbeat film. But I did! I got a friend of mine to go to different places to raise money and they got enough for us to do that movie. It was a really wonderful passion project for Fred and for me as well.
AD: That’s such an interesting backstory. So Moose appears to live with mental illness. Did you have a specific illness in mind, and if so did that inform your performance?
JT: It was more on the spectrum. I don’t always really like to look at people on the spectrum as having mental illness. I think it’s just a condition of a state of mind, and I think he would be on the autistic spectrum or some variation of it, but functioning and able to make a living and take care of himself. I viewed him more on that, as Asperger’s or sightly autistic. I think confusion with the mistreatment of others toward him, meaning the bullies at the Mann’s Chinese Theater and the movie star bullying him, that he would respond almost like any other person would, to the cruelty of that, and then lash out out of confusion. I don’t know if I really played him with mental illness in mind, but as an altered state of mind, a reaction to confusion. He’s got unrequited love in his heart. He’s dreaming that this person would at least like him as much as he liked him. The movie feels that he was worthy of his love, and he keeps trying to prove it through letters and demonstrations and collection. He’s very sincere, so I don’t think being a fanatic initially has anything to do with an unusual urge as much as the treatment of that urge from the movie star.
AD: What do you think his end goal is with Hunter Dunbar? Do you think he wants to be his best friend? Is it romantic?
JT: Interestingly enough I think that the simplicity is the most tragic part. I think if he had gotten all the things signed and had a fair, pleasant rapport, he would have just been a continuous fan and had a high level of interest. I think it moved into the irrational obsession when he kept on getting insulted and rejected, so I think that it evolved into an obsession with a romantic, global feeling that you can have for anybody you’re obsessed with. When he first sees him, he’s definitely starstruck, and I know a lot of people have been starstruck with me, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s romantic. It’s romantic in the concept, but not literally.
AD: That makes sense. We get no backstory about Moose. We’re just kind of dropped into this world. Did you have one in mind for him? How do you think he’s survived all these years? Do you think he’s done this before?
JT: I don’t think he’s done this at all. I think it’s the app that his friend [Leah] (Ana Golja) gives him. He wasn’t even aware that you could find stars’ homes. I think he was naive toward the technical aspects of the current scene, and I think that that’s what opened up his world. He was running around his apartment going, ‘And Jamie Leigh Curtis has two pools!’ He can’t believe someone is even telling you where these people are. So that was my take on his almost naivete toward it. If you look at his apartment, it’s decorated with all sorts of favorite movie iconic allusions and memorabilia and merchandise. He’s more of a collector. When I was little, I was obsessed with aviation and airlines, and I collected airline schedules. When my sister purchased me a ticket when I was eight years old, from Newark to Philadelphia, it was a 20-minute flight on an airliner, I went into a foam of disbelief. I was far more comfortable collecting the schedules. The truth of being in an airliner was too much for me to handle. I feel like the truth of being near Hunter Dunbar was too much for him to handle. He was much more comfortable just collecting things that reflect people’s stardom and roles and fame than he was actually experiencing it.
AD: It’s funny, I was going to ask you something about that. I know you probably have dealt with fanatical fans, but I wondered if you had ever caught yourself experiencing fanatical qualities. And that’s funny that it’s aviation.
JT: Yeah, and sometimes the ability to have the real thing, you’re not really up to par, you’re not there yet. It’s too close for you to handle. When I was a kid, the Beatles came out. Actually seeing the Beatles probably would have put me in a coma, I would have been so excited. But I could have the album very easily and listen to it over and over again.
AD: This movie reminded me a lot of Joker, and I didn’t know if you’d seen the film.
JT: I haven’t seen it yet, and I’ve seen previews, but I think we were probably filming either before or at the same time. Have not seen it yet, other than the previews. It wasn’t enough for me to tell what the character was like. Maybe you can tell me.
AD: Both films have characters living with mental illness that have women in their lives that are trying to help them. They both are bullied by people and then they kind of accidentally get on this murderous path. They both work essentially as clowns, too. I couldn’t help but notice it. They’re good companion pieces in 2019.
JT: Interesting. I wait until Christmas week to look at all the movies and Joker is on my list. I’ll do my own analysis, and this will be fun to compare.
AD: At one point, Todd, the street performer, says that they’re going to make “mucho Donald Trump”—as in money. Does this film exist in a universe where Donald Trump is on printed money?
JT: (Laughs) No, it’s just classic reference to a wealthy person I think. Wealth equaling money.
AD: For a second, I thought, wait, it’s all about the Benjamins—it’s all about the Trumps?
JT: That’s funny.
AD: Hunter Dunbar seems to have a lot of anger inside him, especially toward Moose. Is that something you can relate to as an actor, feeling defensive? Or have you seen it in other actors? Cause in real-life, you’re the Hunter Dunbar! I didn’t know if you related to any of that.
JT: I actually don’t, to be honest. I think the character was written as a good person that’s a bad celebrity. He’s good to his son and tolerant of his ex-wife. He shows regret with the affair with the maid. He’s not a bad person, but a really bad celebrity. I think he has no patience for ill-timed things. For instance, every time Moose sees him, they are times that are just bad timing. The first time is with his wife and his wife is mad at him, and he’s in a middle of a signing, and Moose rubs him the wrong way. The second time was at the house, and he feels his privacy is invaded and then it rubs him the wrong way again. Then he remembers it’s the same guy who rubbed him the wrong way the first time. By the third time, he’s had it. I think that he’s got an anger problem and he’s chronically angry and that he takes it out. I don’t even think he registers that Moose is not all there. I don’t think he registers that Moose is special needs until he’s tied up in bed and looking at all the bizarre behavior.
AD: Moose breaks my heart.
JT: He breaks my heart, too. If I even think about Moose, I start to tear up. He’s the definition of a tragic character, Shakespeare tragic. And I think he’s in all of us. I feel like I identify with Moose’s ability to admire and daydream about artists that you like liking you equally back. I do think he’s beautifully tragic and I’m so happy that he has Leah to take care of him during bad times.
AD: I feel like I’ve seen Moose and probably walked by him, and maybe looked the other way. He felt very real to me.
JT: I’m very proud of this movie and very proud of this performance. It’s one of my acting roles I’ve probably enjoyed playing more than most. It was an interesting thing. A lot of times actors feel like they have to stay in character all day to remain in the zone and I felt like I wanted to be him all day. Also between takes, I was ‘him’ to entertain the crew and entertain Fred. We would improvise in order to get it worked up to do the scripted dialogue. It was really a pleasure to play Moose, and I felt like I knew him like the back of my hand, for all sorts of reasons.
AD: Much of this film is about the relationship between the idea of celebrity versus the non-celebrity world. Do you read reviews and social media or do you avoid it all together? If you read it, how does it affect you?
JT: That’s a good question. What I do is that I try to be more pragmatic about it, and what I mean by that is that everybody has an opinion of something and they are entitled to that opinion, but sometimes the opinions valuable to you are the ones that you can use to forward your own agenda. So for instance, if a certain handful of important critics like your work, then you use that to forward your own message. And if they don’t, it would depend on whether you like their opinion or not. [For example] I think if you get to the point where you can walk into a house decorated in a certain way, some people love it, others don’t—that’s OK, because everyone needs to have an opinion. But you lean toward the people who liked that you decorated it in a mid-century way. You go toward the opinions that agree with your viewpoint on it, because you wouldn’t organically be attracted to the people who disagreed with your piece of work. Like any artist, if you look to the work of Calder or Picasso or Rembrandt, there are pieces of work that are more famous, less famous, some people don’t like certain people’s work or don’t respond to it emotionally—and that’s the beauty of the variations of art. You pick and choose what you like. We’ve all disagreed with very popular movies and agreed with smaller, less popular movies or vice versa. So I think it’s really the magic of art. You have the right to interpret. I’m sure there are movies you adore and you can’t understand why your best friend doesn’t.
AD: Yes! (Laughs)
JT: Why didn’t they get this? But you’re willing to respect their opinion, because that’s really what it is. Years ago, [New York Times critic] Janet Maslin taught me a lesson. She said, ‘I hope you never get affected too deeply about our opinions, because that’s all they are, John.’ I was 23 when she said this. She told me to take opinions with a grain of salt if they weren’t agreeable and use the ones that are agreeable to the best of your needs or wants. If you don’t put a weighted perspective on it, I think you survive it better. In his last few years, Steve McQueen did a tiny Shakespearean movie and the journalist asked him, ‘Why are you promoting it so much?’ He said because, ‘Sometimes you just love what you’ve done and your proud of it and you want to promote it. Just because it’s a little movie, doesn’t mean I don’t have the right to do that.’ And I loved hearing that. He was so articulate and fresh and bright in this interview, and it made me realize, we do have the right to believe in our own views of things and take it as far as we would like.
The Fanatic can be seen on most cable providers and Amazon.