By Mike Szymanski
Travolta points out a revolving lamp that sits on a front desk of the set that has been transformed into a hip, modern record company and he names the kinds of jets on the lamp. Then, he snaps into character and becomes the ruthless Chili Palmer.
"Chili is one of my favorite characters," says Travolta during a break. "He's like the James Bond of the streets, but he's also a guy with a kind of enthusiasm, with a childlike passion for movies, music and this industry."
In the sequel to the story penned by novelist Elmore Leonard, Palmer abandons the movie-making industry and becomes a music mogul, bringing his wiseguy mobster mentality to the world of rap and hip-hop. Travolta, who has made a few records of his own during his "Saturday Night Fever" days, laughs when Zap2it.com asks him if the music industry is more dangerous than the movie biz.
"Yes, because I think the kind of Mafia influence in the music industry is a little more historic," says Travolta. "Even before 'Grease' when I did records, even as a kid, I could sense leveraging going on around me, and there definitely was a heavier vibe than there was a movie vibe."
Although he's met a few sleazy characters in his day (and played them, too, most recently in "The Punisher"), Travolta says, "Chili is not a mimic of anything I know, but a compilation of many people I reflect on growing up in the movie industry and on the street. He's an original guy. He's a Sean Connery of the street. In the book, the details guide you how to play it."
He says he suggested Uma Thurman for the role, reprising the chemistry they had in "Pulp Fiction." As she's off in the corner of the set playing with her children between takes while a makeup person sprays her hair incessantly, he says, "I'm wonderful friends with Uma, I love her, and I like us on the screen together, we have a natural chemistry and trust each other on screen. It's a wonderful thing to have that professional experience."
Although other top-rated actresses wanted the part, she ended up taking the exotic role as Palmer's main squeeze. Travolta says that although he, like Palmer, probably prefers Frank Sinatra, he's aware of other new music.
"I have tons of CDs and musicians that they've been giving me that I should be familiar with, but I've known about Black Eyed Peas, some gangsta rap, and OutKast, of course," says Travolta. Outkast's frontman Andre 3000 has done so well in his small part as a band member for an agent played by Cedric the Entertainer, the musician's part was expanded, and he's become a scene stealer.
A makeup person brushes ash off the shoulder of Thurman's peach outfit and she puts out her Marlboro cigarette while another assistant takes away her knitting, which she works on during down time. She and Travolta re-take their scene a dozen times with Paul Adelstein as Hy and Kimberly J. Brown as Tiffany, two office workers in Palmer's music company.
Director F. Gary Gray throws down his NYN baseball cap and yells "Cut!" They take a break and he eats fruit salad and drinks tea. He directed "Friday," "A Man Apart" and "The Italian Job," but now he's taking on a sequel featuring a classic character.
"I'm not worried because the script was great from the beginning," Gray says. "I can have my own stamp on this because the only existing character is Chili Palmer, and he's in a whole new environment. It's much more dangerous and much more contemporary."
After spending 15 years in the music business, (he won an MTV Award for directing TLC's "Waterfall" video) Gray says he's having fun working with Travolta and Thurman, as well as directing a duet between Travolta and Harvey Keitel. Earlier in the day, Gray filmed James Woods being murdered in an over-the-top fashion, becoming the movie's first victim. The Oscar-nominated actor throws in different quirks in every take, pulling on his zipper in one shot, telling a joke in another shot.
After his scene is done, he's filmed while dancing crazily -- clown dancing, the call it -- so they can use it in the closing credits of the film.
Travolta looks across the warehouse and says, "I'm not going to do that!" When a crew member explains they'll want everyone to do it some point, Travolta smiles and says, "Now I'm nervous. I don't want to look silly. But then, I saw James Woods do it, and I guess I have nothing to worry about."
"Be Cool!" is tentatively set for Feb. 11, 2005.