If Don Corleone defined the Mafia in the 1970s, the 1980s belonged to the Dapper Don. That’s the fashionable nickname bestowed on John Gotti, a New Jersey-born mafioso who rose through the ranks to become the head of one of the country’s largest crime families. Gotti’s larger-than-life personality was catnip for the New York-based tabloid press, and he became famed for his brash manner, his ability to dodge criminal charges (a skill that gave him his other headline-friendly name, the Teflon Don), and his sharp dress sense.
He’s also the kind of outsized character that an actor like John Travolta can’t resist. For the new film Gotti, which opens in theaters today, the Pulp Fiction star steps into John Gotti’s shoes and other assorted clothing. And yes, those clothes came directly from Gotti’s closet. Although the Dapper Don passed away in 2002, his surviving family — including his son and fellow Mafia member John A. Gotti, aka Junior — kept many of his father’s personal effects and made them available to Travolta for the film. “All of the jewelry I wore in the film was his,” Travolta tells Yahoo Entertainment. “And particular coats, scarves, and handkerchiefs. One of them even had the scent of the cologne he wore, which was pretty haunting to say the least!” We spoke with Travolta about remaking himself in Gotti’s image, and one of his favorite memories from Grease on that movie’s 40th anniversary.
Yahoo Entertainment: What do you remember about the John Gotti case as it was unfolding in the 1980s?
John Travolta: Mostly, my memory is of the “Teflon Don” covers of newspapers and magazines — his glamorous side. As I researched more about him, he had this very interesting other side, which was about family and devotion to his children. At the end of the day, there was a duality, a mix of real gangster and real family man. That was a fascinating combination.
You have Italian-American roots; how do you feel about the popularization of the Mafia in American popular culture?
Historically, that’s been the case. The difference here I think is that [gangsters like] Capone and Dillinger weren’t very-liked characters, whereas Gotti was well-loved. A lot of that was this goodwill towards the people he was involved with, whether it was getting them back into the black if they were failing in business or financing celebrations or helping people with medical needs. He was kind of a Robin Hood if you will, which balanced the darker side of the old-fashioned Mafia and the “live by the sword die by the sword” [mentality].
How do you think the people he helped were able to reconcile his darker side in their minds?
Let’s say you have a business and you’re taking a percentage from that business. As long as you’re willing to make that business profitable when they’re in the red, that justifies the, let’s say, criminal exchange of taking money. You’re no longer stealing money, you’re an insurance policy for them. The old-fashioned Mafia had much more fair play than we think, especially because [Gotti] didn’t like the darker stuff as far as drugs and that kind of thing. I think the people that he did service saw the method to the unusual protocol if you will.
In terms of your performance, did you approach this as playing the real John Gotti or an approximation of him?
I find that because I’m such a familiar face to the masses, I have a duty to go more deeply into disappearing and becoming that character. It’s distracting if you’re thinking of me as you know me. I need to be that character, and I have an obligation to be that as best I can. The [Gotti] family helped with that; they had footage and the film is based on a book that Junior wrote. They were really a great help in defining the character. Junior was on the set every day, quality-controlling the outcome.
Which came first as you built your performance: Gotti’s voice or his physicality?
You observe these things and you start drilling them. He had a walk that was specific, and he spoke with his hands a lot. He had a voice that was far deeper and gravelly than mine; he had an old-fashioned New York accent and a particular swagger in his style of presenting himself. He would also change his style and verbiage depending on who he was talking to.
Your wife, Kelly Preston, plays Gotti’s wife in the film. Were there moments where your real-life relationship bled through into your performances?
We were acting to each other’s character, not to each other as we know it. Innately there’s a comfort because we’re married and have children, and we know how that feels. But we really wanted to react to each other’s characters, and arrived at a familiarity with them that we could turn on at a moment’s notice.
What do you enjoy about playing darker characters like Gotti?
It’s the joy in exploring attributes and characteristics that are not like yours. It allows you a journey you’re not familiar with, and, if you do it well, you’re taking people on a journey and arriving at something that is unique.
One of your best bad-guy performances is in Face/Off, where you acted alongside Nicolas Cage. What did he teach you about playing villains?
We were looking at each other’s dailies and created Castor Troy together. So that was basically a mutual performance; we had to decide what each other’s attributes were, and if I liked something he did, I would repeat it in my performance, and if he liked something I did, he would repeat it in his. That’s the only way you can pull off being each other — you have to agree on how you’re going to behave.
It’s the 40th anniversary of Grease, and we recently interviewed the cast about the big carnival finale. What’s your favorite memory of that sequence?
Mostly doing “You’re the One That I Want,” because I couldn’t wait to perform that. The whole song is just a joy to listen to and sing. I enjoyed the musicality of it and how one could dance to it. It was the same thing with “Summer Nights” and “Greased Lightning.”
Gotti opens in theaters today.
Watch: Grease was almost an animated feature that could have looked like this:
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