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  • Feature: John Travolta and Bolt

    Wed, 19 Nov 2008 18:39:44

    Feature: John Travolta and Bolt - The animated dog has bite, as voiced by action star John Travolta

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    A great actor can become any role that he takes on. John Travolta is certainly no exception. He plays the canine namesake of Disney's latest animated epic, Bolt.

    "Fortunately, I was already in touch with my inner dog," laughs Travolta.

    Whether he's a heroin-addled hitman in Pulp Fiction or a singing heartthrob in Grease, Travolta immerses himself in each and every character. That's one reason why Bolt is so good.

    In the film, Bolt's one complicated dog. He has no clue that he's an actor, and once he gets stranded outside of Hollywood, he must find a way back to his "person," Penny (Miley Cyrus). The movie tugs at heartstrings while igniting massive chuckles. Also, Disney drops in some pulse-pounding action sequences that wouldn't be out of place in a Bruckheimer flick.

    Clad in black jeans and a loose-fitting stylish black tie, Travolta is friendly and approachable. He looks relaxed while discussing Bolt, and his excitement for the film is palpable. However, playing a CGI pup wasn't easy, even for the Oscar-nominated screen legend. Leaning back with a smile, he explains, "Acting in an animated film was a new process for me. I had done advertisement voiceovers as a kid for radio and television. I was very comfortable with a microphone, but I hadn't yet gone on the journey of discovering how animated features are put together. So, really, the directors guided me through this process, because to some degree, it's a leap of faith. You don't have the other actors with you, and you don't really know what the animators are conjuring up as an end result. Therefore, as an actor, you're just like, 'Take me there. Show me the way.' You do 15-20 different versions of one sentence, and the animators hopefully like one of them, and that's it."

    However, in order to bring Bolt to life, he hearkened back to those voiceover ads. "Technically, you only need your voice. I learned that from doing ads when I was a teenager. Because I was on Broadway, the producer from Madison Ave. told me, 'John, you're not onstage now. I just need it from your voice. I don't need it from your face.' I learned to just focus on a vocal expression to give cadence and a different style there."

    That wasn't the only resume piece Travolta channeled for Bolt though. Travolta had another crucial skill on his side. He's been in numerous action flicks, playing both the hero and villain in the likes of Broken Arrow and Face/Off. In fact, unloading bullets and unloading barks didn't prove that different for him. "I certainly drew from my experience in those films. I wasn't sure about how much reality I should instill in Bolt. I wondered, 'Am I Clint Eastwood at some points?' Yeah, maybe a little bit. 'Am I John Travolta in Broken Arrow or these other action movies?' I thought, 'It's an animated feature geared mostly towards young people so I can't do the edgier stuff, but I can do a modified version of that and then balance it with all of the character's naiveté and guilelessness.' I had to balance it out."

    Walking that tightrope wasn't too hard for Travolta. Bolt is the fearless action hero he needs to be, but Travolta's warm sensitivity comes through as well. That middle ground demonstrates his true artistry. Director Chris Williams explains that no one could really play Bolt but Travolta. "One of the great things we were able to tap into with the character was the list of great roles that John has played. He's played real heavy tough guys, and he's always great. That's because there's this innately likable, genuine, and sweet side to John; that's always there. So we knew he'd be the right guy to play Bolt."

    Still, the action movie element remained integral, especially because so much of Bolt involves high-octane explosive set pieces. In some ways, the action movie correlation spoke to Travolta. "My good friends have done some great animated features. Tom Hanks did Toy Story, and Robin Williams did Aladdin. I didn't want to do an average animated film. I was competitive in a certain way. [Laughs] I thought, if I'm going to do an animated feature, I'm going to do a great one. You have to take a little bit of a risk and you have to trust that it's going in the direction that you want. I thought, 'I could play a dog with my eyes closed.' People always compared me to a dog growing up, and I didn't know whether to be insulted or not. [Laughs] I knew they needed this other quality that Chris was talking about—it's this guy-that-was-in-action-movies tone. Since I've done a slew of those, I knew how to do that. Plus, I knew how to handle the more heartbreaking side. I knew I could help them, but it was about whether it was the right animated movie for me to do or not, and I think it was."

    As a parent, this was also the perfect choice for Travolta, and his kids were definitely thrilled that their dad got to share the screen with the Hannah Montana.

    "I was so popular when I got home after the news of doing a song with Miley. Doing a movie with her, I can dine out on that for months," he laughs with a smile.

    Bolt also works because it keeps up with classic Disney tradition. In fact, Travolta especially pays homage to it.

    "One of my favorite Disney films is 101 Dalmatians, but I also love Peter Pan. Those were probably my two favorite animated features growing up."

    At the end of the day, Bolt's got heart, and it's going to resonate with parents and kids.

    "After I saw the finished product, it left me with something, honestly. Because you're so busy doing a hundred versions of what you think is needed and out of sequence, [so] you don't really get a sense of the impact you're creating while you're doing it. You're just hoping the animators like your choices. So it's really in the totality of the end result that you get the impact as an audience might. When I saw it, I cried five times, and I laughed probably a ton more than that. It left me touched as an audience member. I went home wanting to hug everybody I love, including my pets."

    —Rick Florino

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    Tags: Chris Williams, John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, Bolt

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