John Burke Travolta, 55, does not often talk about his Irish side but sitting alongside Jonathan Rhys Meyers brought out the Celt in him.
His mother was in fact Irish American and his house, he says, had a distinctly Irish vibe.
“I’m half Irish. My mother’s people came from Kenmare in Co. Kerry and I’ve been down there to research where they lived. We’re related to Burkes and Murphys on her side, and I researched all the connections that there were,” Travolta revealed.
“It’s a beautiful country, just gorgeous and I’ve said many times I would love to make a movie there. You know, all it would take is the right script. I would love it. It would be great.”
His mother it turns out was an Irish American dance instructor called Helen Burke and he grew up in an Irish neighborhood in Englewood, New Jersey.
He is known for his edgy characters on screen - Think of his turn as misguided hood Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, or as Baltimore bombshell Edna Turnblad in Hairspray.
But even by those standards, Travolta’s new role in From Paris With Love as badass trigger-happy Charlie Wax is a new direction.
Wax is a shoot ‘em up superhero who is seemingly impervious to bullets himself. He’s also a comic book anti-hero who he turns ordinary people’s lives upside down to show them everything they’ve been missing.
“I’ve never done this much action in a movie ever,” Travolta told the Irish Voice during an interview last weekend. “This was the most running and jumping and fighting and flipping role I’ve ever played.
“I told them I’m old guy now but they didn’t listen, thank goodness, because I ended up doing my own stunts. I’m surprised the body is still able to do it.”
For Rhys Meyers, who’s 33 and in terrific shape, stunts weren’t the problem. It turns out the Irish actor suffers from vertigo.
“I don’t like heights, and of course I had to go up these endless flights of stairs and look down and I’m not height guy. That was an issue.”
Onscreen in this nonstop action extravaganza, it turns out that Travolta and Rhys Meyers have natural chemistry, playing their respective roles with so much conviction you can tell they hit it off behind the scenes too.
“Jonathan is a miracle,” says Travolta. “He’s just this amazingly talented, gorgeous guy that can do anything. He just approaches a role full bodied and we communicated well. There was no stone unturned when it came to discussing the possibilities together.”
Although Travolta has played an Italian American in his most iconic roles to date as Danny Zuko in Grease and Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever,
Longtime fans of Travolta’s iconic roles may spend the first hour of From Paris With Love trying to come to terms with this new incarnation, but Travolta himself is unfazed.
“I knew that Charlie Wax was a pretty extreme character, and I knew that I would be trying something new with this. It’s a new direction for me. Something that would surprise a lot of people. But I also knew it would be effective,” he said.
Rhys Meyers agrees, adding, “I’ve seen John in many films but I didn’t see him like that. My character expects a sophisticated James Bond kind of special agent to turn up, and what he gets instead is a foulmouthed biker boy minus the Harley Davidson.”
Rhys Meyers -- a Co. Cork native who’s won a Golden Globe for his role as Elvis Presley in a TV biopic, and is perhaps most well-known for his role as King Edward VIII in the Showtime series The Tudors -- had his own concerns about his own character, a personal aide to the U.S. ambassador to Paris who wants to get away from administration and hone his talent as a spy.
“We were making a film where I’m playing an American guy in Paris, so if I didn’t have someone like John around to help me I’m not sure it would have worked,” he says.
“I was shooting The Tudors in Ireland on a Tuesday and I arrived in Paris to shoot the film on a Wednesday. So the first time John and I met was on the set, in the scene where our characters meet for the first time. That worked well in the film because it worked well in real life.”
Charlie Wax is the sort of larger than life, one good guy against 1,000 bad guys role that once might have been played by John Wayne or Charles Bronson.
“We decided that full tilt was the only way it would work,” says Travolta, “to be bold with it and go all the way. For research I hung out with some undercover guys in Los Angeles and I got to see what these guys do. I don’t think the character is anything like me at all, but I sure liked acting it.”
As Reese, the mild mannered sidekick, Rhys Meyers also shows a new side to himself. Reese has glamorous dreams about what being a spy is going to be like. But the reality is it’s a dirty job, and only people who have the experience and cynicism that Wax has acquired survive in it.
“Wax enjoys Reese’s naivety,” says Rhys Meyers. “He enjoys seeing him get a punch. He enjoys seeing him shocked by all the shooting. There’s only one way to train somebody and that’s to throw him in at the deep end.”
Travolta’s dramatic new look in the film -- bald headed with a Village People-style goatee -- was the result of a lot of experiments on Photoshopping. The director tried the character with hair, then without it, then scarred and then not, until they found the final look.
“He’s a rogue,” says Travolta. “Even though he does things that we don’t agree with he’s so good at getting the job. You can take that liberty when you’re that good.”
When Travolta looks back now at Saturday Night Fever, the film that first made his name, he sees a little boy.
“I thought I was very advanced and mature in those days, and maybe I was, but I look so young. I’m proud of myself. I had a great start in this industry,” he says.
“Saturday Night Fever and Grease back to back and I got my first Academy Award nomination. I couldn’t have had a better start at 23 years old. As my Irish mother, who was very dramatic, said about my acting abilities to a reporter one night, ‘Porter House, darling, Porter House.’ Meaning top notch, meaning I did well.”
Asked about the tragic passing of his 16-year-old son Jett, who died after suffering a seizure while vacationing with Travolta and his wife Kelly Preston last year, Travolta pauses for a long time. Jett’s death occurred in the midst of filming From Paris With Love. “
It’s been a rough year. I’m not going to say it’s not. But we’ve been doing a lot of healing. We’ve worked with our church and with each other and our friends and our family,” he says.
Now Travolta is taking time to promote his new film and commit to other projects, like flying in aid relief to tragedy torn Haiti (Travolta is a pilot and owns his own 747). Working on the film, and on such an extreme character, helped to direct his attention, which turned out to be a relief.
“I’m a comedian, and my instinct when acting is to be over the top, and the director (Pierre Morel) would always pull me back from that. Meryl Streep told me she called her approach the Chinese menu. What that means is you play a whole range of approaches and then you trust the director and editor to pick the right ones,” he says.
It’s not an acting approach that appeals to Rhys Meyers, who has his own ideas about how to create a compelling character.
“I don’t give Chinese menu,” he says, “I give the Blue Plate special.”
From Paris With Love opens nationwide this Friday.
Three million people in the world are descended from one Irish High King