Travolta's Freedom of Choice

Lithe, alert, definitely switched on. That's John Travolta, in Washington recently to promote "Basic," a military thriller.

The hotel-room conversation, though short, is roundly entertaining and covers a lot of ground. There's the timeless richness of Steely Dan's "Aja" album, for instance, or his uncanny imitation of Bill Clinton, which persuaded director Mike Nichols to give him the lead role as a Certain Southern President in "Primary Colors."

He speaks, naturally, about "Basic," whose script was so well written, he says, he didn't need to improvise. But it also presented him with many interpretative choices as an actor. His character, after all, is both hero and mystery, an investigator who's under investigation (for alleged bribery) himself.

"There was a kind of physicality and sexuality that I really haven't used in a character in years. (This character) uses it to seduce and distract. He's a renegade. . . . I felt like I had lots of areas to go to. I had five different choices for everything."

Travolta was also delighted, he says, at being reunited with Samuel L. Jackson for the first time since their memorable pairing in Quentin Tarantino's 1994 pop-culture smash, "Pulp Fiction." Travolta is happy to speak of both movies, and how much satisfaction each work has given him.

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Basic **

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Ironic that a film named "Basic" is too complicated for its own good. John Travolta stars as a DEA agent assigned to solve the murder of an Army sergeant ("Pulp Fiction" co-star Samuel L. Jackson). "Rashomon"-type flashbacks add to the intrigue, even if the plot favors compounding twists at the expense of logic.

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Also in this conversation: the fluidity an actor needs in order to be fresh about his performance; that sense that he or she might go any number of ways at a given moment. The key to this, says Travolta, is preparation, "so you can be free."

In the most enjoyable part of the chat, he applies the idea of Picasso's art to such postmodern screen moments as the famous dance scene he performs in "Pulp Fiction."

The scene (and indeed his casting in the movie), he explains, knowingly plays with Travolta's "iconic baggage" from his earlier life as the dancing sensation Tony Manero in "Saturday Night Fever" and Danny Zuko in "Grease."

So when his heroin-addicted character, Vincent Vega, gets up to dance with gangster's moll, Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), he performs party dancing moves such as the Batman, the Hitchhiker and the Cowboy instead of leaping into showpiece razzle-dazzle.

The scene, he says, is Picasso-like in that it reconfigures the audience's perception of the Travolta persona.

One of his most emotional moments, he recalls, was when he watched "Pulp Fiction" at its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. When that dance scene came on, he realized something.

"The character comes into full-throttle fruition. . . . At that point, I said to myself, 'Game over. Shut it down. You don't have to do anything ever again. Ever. This is it.' "

The 49-year-old actor's eyes well over at the memory. But as "Basic" makes clear, he has certainly not shut things down. He's working hard. Very much here. And very switched on.

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