But with a pedigree that includes a cult-classic original film and a long running, multiple Tony-award winning stage adaptation, there’s not much that a musical superstar like Travolta should be worried about. Well, actually, there is the matter of the fat-suit, makeup and sweat involved in playing the role of an overweight singing and dancing 1950’s mother! “My breasts were much larger,” he joked, when Tony showed him a doll based on his character. “And my butt was bigger — it was a bubble butt,” he laughed.
But it wasn’t all fun and games for John when it came to being transformed into his “Hairspray” character, Edna Turnblad. “It looks like what it was,” he said. “It was difficult to wear, it was difficult to put on, it took like four or five hours a night… but you know, that was the magic of it — you make it look like it is lighter than it is.”
And the renowned actor/dancer had his work cut out for him in that department. “I tried to [make it] so it would be more entertaining,” he said of his preparation for the challenge. “You don’t want to see someone — either of us — lugging ourselves around. “We wanted to be light on our feet, eh?”
When he said “either of us,” Travolta was referring to his on-screen daughter, actress Nikki Blonsky, who is making her film debut in the movie’s leading role — the “pleasantly plump” Tracy Turnblad. And, much like the character she plays in “Hairspray,” Blonsky’s story of “small-town girl makes good” is classic and inspiring:
“It’s pretty awesome that a year ago I was scraping dried ice cream off of a countertop, and now I’m sitting next to John Travolta,” gushed Blonsky, a former ice cream store clerk from Great Neck, NY, who was discovered when a New Line assistant saw her audition tape and passed it on to the film’s producers. Nikki, who compared her reaction to receiving the role as looking like “an exorcism or something,” told Tony of the intense emotions she felt when she saw herself on the big screen for the first time.
“I was so excited to just be up there, I literally just could not believe that it was me,” she recalled. “So I was crying in sheer disbelief, because I was like that’s got to be someone else, that can’t be my name [on the screen]!”
But in Travolta’s view, Nikki was a natural from the start. “Oh my God, I’ve never seen someone come on the scene that sophisticated, that confident, like she had been at it all her life or the life before,” raved Travolta. “Honestly, it was really that wildly good.”
Co-star Queen Latifah, who showed off her musical chops in “Chicago,” agreed with John wholeheartedly. “I’m so proud of [Nikki],” she told Tony. “You know, she’s so young, and she’s never really done anything. You put her on a set, she nails this thing — gets this gig. You’re on a set with all these big-time actors and producers and a big budget movie, and she handled it like a champ.”
Latifah went on to talk about the absurd, but somehow natural, way that Travolta and Blonsky “became” a true mother and daughter team in the film. “I saw some footage of a scene that he and Nikki had done where they go in Pink’s and do this whole makeover thing, and they’re dancing, and I’m like…wow, they look alike! They really look like mother and daughter,” she said.
But was it hard for Latifah to view Travolta as a woman in the film? Surprisingly, no — Latifah said she actually had to remember that it was Travolta underneath it all.
“After a while you just kinda get used to him being Edna,” she said. “When you see him as John, you’re like ‘oh yeah, that’s what you look like. You wear jeans and like t-shirts and you’re a dude — I’ll punch you in the arm!’…Before that, you’re like, okay — you kinda treat him like a lady, you know what I mean? I would come in and kind of squeeze his bum.”
“It’s soft,” she remarked. “You gotta squeeze it.”
“Hairspray” opens July 20, 2007.