John Travolta knew what he wanted to do with the role of Edna Turnblad, the zaftig housewife at the center of "Hairspray." The movie's producers, however, weren't so sure.
Especially when he insisted on using a Bawlamer accent.
"I got fought on it, by everyone," Travolta says over the phone from his home in Florida, recalling his efforts to put his own stamp on the character. "Finally, I said to them, 'Look, I don't have to do this movie. This is a lark. Either you let me do it with my interpretation, which includes the Baltimore accent … or let's just not do it.'"
Not surprisingly, Travolta got his way — when you're a big-time movie star, producers generally like to keep you happy. And while that doesn't always guarantee a film's success, it definitely helped on this one. Travolta's Edna, exaggerating her o's and wielding the word "Hon" like a bayonet, was one of the most endearing (and amusing) aspects of a movie that would end up as the second-highest-grossing musical of all time.
(Even if it was filmed in Toronto, not Baltimore. But hey, that wasn't Travolta's call.)
So yeah, the 58-year-old Travolta says, Baltimore holds a special place in his heart. He may not be from here, like John Waters or Barry Levinson or David Simon, so he doesn't have that kind of Baltimore cred. But in Edna Turnblad, he played one of Charm City's most memorable characters. He's worked here twice, once as a teenager in a roadshow of "Grease" at Baltimore's Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, another time as an Oscar-nominated actor starring in a big-budget movie being shot in the city, 2003's "Ladder 49." He counts local hero Cal Ripken Jr. among his closest friends. And he positively relishes speaking like one of us, casually dropping into a pretty-good Bawlamer accent several times in conversation.
"It's the most entertaining accent you've ever heard," he says with a laugh, adding, "My connection with Baltimore goes way beyond movies and the stage."
Which is why it makes perfect sense that Travolta will be feted Saturday at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he'll be interviewed by the creator of "Hairspray," John Waters, in a fundraiser for the Maryland Film Festival. That, and he's one of the biggest movie stars on the planet.
"We knew he had this love for Baltimore, this professional relationship with Baltimore, and that mattered to us," says festival director Jed Dietz. "Plus, his career really is singular. I don't think there's been another movie star in the history of the movies who has shown the range of acting that Travolta has shown."
Waters, who got to know Travolta after his name was floated as a possible Edna (and was a fierce proponent of giving him the role), promises a wide-ranging interview. "I'm going to try to make him comfortable, in a good way," Waters says. "He knows I'm irreverent. He knows that I ask crazy stuff. I think that he's prepared for that."
For his part, Travolta insists he's looking forward to the interview. "He's a warm, engaging individual," he says of Waters. "Your conversations with John, you feel like you know him. He's very gracious. He's got a nice understanding of people. … He's an icon in his own right."
Travolta himself might shy away from the label "icon," but in a career spanning nearly 40 years, in roles from the cocksure dancer of "Saturday Night Fever" to the insecure boyfriend of "Look Who's Talking" to the cold-hearted killer of "Pulp Fiction," it's one he could certainly claim. He's played heartthrobs ("Grease") and psychotics ("Face/Off"), presidential candidates ("Primary Colors") and rogue spies ("Swordfish"), soldiers ("The Thin Red Line") and wannabe bikers ("Wild Hogs").
He played a firefighter once, too, here in Baltimore, in what he says may have been his most satisfying film shoot ever.
"It was one of my favorite experiences," Travolta says of the four months he spent here for "Ladder 49," much of the time shooting in South Baltimore's Brooklyn neighborhood. "First of all, I loved the movie. And I loved the Baltimore people. The Fire Department was incredibly helpful to each and every one of us. We really became firemen for that movie."
To this day, it's not unusual to find snapshots of Travolta on neighborhood bulletin boards and refrigerators, posing with people who lived near the shoot. Three years later, when the time came to bring Edna Turnblad to full-throated life in the musical version of "Hairspray," he was able to draw on some of those encounters. Travolta says he would spend hours bouncing the Bawlamer phrasing and vernacular off his good friend and longtime assistant, Linda Favilla, who grew up in the city.
"No, the accent wasn't hard," he says. "Linda would always improvise with me, with that accent. And then, I had had four months of being around the Baltimore accent in Baltimore — the firefighters, the locals. I was inundated with it."
Waters says he is intrigued by the variety of characters the actor has played. "John Travolta takes chances. That's why his career has lasted 40 years," he says.
Of course, one of his biggest chances involved playing a woman — and not playing her as a drag turn, as did Divine (who originated the role of Edna Turnblad in Waters' 1988 film) or Harvey Fierstein (who played her in the Broadway musical adaptation).
"John's Edna was not haggard, like Divine's was," Waters says. "Divine was more haggard on purpose, because that was the exact opposite of the Divine image. And Harvey played Edna as a Broadway babe in a house dress. John Travolta played the role like Anna Nicole Smith if she'd lived in Highlandtown and never had a career and got fat."
Travolta credits the breadth of his roles for keeping the acting game interesting. Not every role may be as challenging as playing a big-boned, big-hearted singing stage mother from Bawlamer, but there's always hope.
"My gimmick is to try and do something that I've never done before," Travolta says. "I try to make it unique."
That he does. "John Travolta can play a hit man, a mobster or a woman," Waters says with admiration. "Not many people can say that."
If you go
"An Open Conversation with John Travolta" hosted by John Waters is at 7 p.m. Saturday at Falvey Hall, Maryland Institute College of Art's Brown Center, 1301 Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $75 for the conversation only, $300 for a pre-conversation reception, preferred seating and dinner afterward with Waters and Travolta. Information: 410-752-8083 or md-filmfest.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun