by Ed Symkus

John Travolta is ripped. Not as in being mad at anyone. No, he's in amazing physical condition -- trim and muscular, possibly the best shape he's ever been in for his new whodunnit--Army film Basic.

He plays a former army Ranger and problem-solver who's called back into the fold when some recruits start turning up dead or missing. Part of the reason he looks like he does when he dons a tight black T-shirt in the film or offers a firm handshake in person is work-related: A Ranger has to maintain a tough fitness regimen. There's also the fact that Travolta thought it was time to get rid of the flab.

"It started a few years ago when I just wanted to get healthy again," he says. "I had kind of let it go for all these parts. I thought, 'Well, no one cares how I look onscreen, so if I'm the president [as he was in Primary Colors] or if I'm a fat angel [the character he played in Michael] it doesn't matter.' But then I realized that I was still finding it hard to breathe after a while. So I started to get in shape, and then this role came along where I was going to be an ex-Ranger, that he was buff, that he wore a tattoo on his bicep. So I decided that I had to step up to the plate and really get in good shape."

Although Travolta's played all kinds of roles throughout his career, it's interesting to see him back in military mode once again, after related roles in The General's Daughter, The Thin Red Line and Broken Arrow.

"I find the military people fascinating because there are all these different types," he says of his decision to play one again. "There's the warmonger and the patriot and someone in between. I find the mix of all that very interesting. I find the discipline interesting, too. I like discipline in a certain way, and I like organizational skills. So I can identify with it on that level. I think it's the military persona and precision that I get attracted to."

In order to research his role of the soldier with a "colorful background" who is, of course, the only guy the army can turn to when they have a problem, Travolta actually signed up for a training course with the Rangers.

"That was very difficult to take part in," he says. "There's very high security on that, and we got a waiver to go through Washington to allow me to do it. It was tough training, but at the end of the day, it was sad. The next day the battalion was off to the Middle East, and I was thinking, 'God, I'm just pretending here. And these guys are actually going.' "

It's no exaggeration to say that Travolta has spent his time in the acting trenches, however. A huge success in Welcome Back Kotter, he popped up in a couple of films -- Carrie was the most notable -- before striking gold with Saturday Night Fever. He remembers not having a clue as to how big that film was going to be.

"I thought I was doing a little art film," he says, laughing. "I thought I was doing a slice-of-life art film. I had just given up Days of Heaven because the network wouldn't let me out of Kotter. I wasn't happy about that. But then I got offered this other art film called Saturday Night Fever."

An interesting point is that Richard Gere eventually got the part in Days of Heaven, and Gere is currently in Chicago, another role that Travolta had turned down.

"I was asked to do Chicago a few times," he says. "My mistake was that I never met with the director. He had this vision that was kept a secret. Usually you meet with the director and they let you in on what they're going to do. This was just an offer that ended at the offer."

Even more interesting is the fact that over the years, Travolta also turned down roles in Breathless, An Officer and a Gentleman and American Gigolo, all of which went to Gere. Travolta says the two have never discussed it.

"And I have other fun careers that I helped to make by not taking a part," he says with a smile. "The Tom Hanks role in Splash -- that was written for me. And believe it or not, the Dudley Moore part in Arthur. But I think I took Urban Cowboy instead of that one."

And he took Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, a movie that would change everything for him when good parts had stopped coming his way. Asked once and for all to tell what was in the film's infamous glowing briefcase, Travolta shakes his head and says, "We will never know, because Quentin will never reveal it. So it's all subjective, all personal. Some people think it's greed, some people think it's God."

He stops talking for a moment, then flashes the smile again and says, "It's actually a light bulb -- a green light bulb."

Publication date: 03/27/03

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