Emmanuel Itier: Why were you attracted to this role?
Queen Latifah: It’s true that blondes have more fun! I’m looking forward to my 50s and 60s, and definitely going blonde! It was great working with all the cast and getting to work with Adam [Shankman, director] after Bringing Down the House. I’m a fan of all these guys, and getting the opportunity to make a musical doesn’t always come around. It just raises your game; it’s a lot of fun. It was wonderful energy from the young people on the set. It was a whole different experience. It was great.
John Travolta: And for me, I’ve been Danny Zuko for 35 years. They have tried to get me involved in a musical for many, many years, including Chicago which, unfortunately, I turned down three times. This time, they said, “We’re not going to let you go. This time, we’re going to talk to you until you get the idea.” It took me a year and two months to decide to do it, and finally–after many discussions and meetings–the vision came to be; I said yes and for all the right reasons. With a musical, you have to have an idea how to make it work-otherwise, it doesn’t. Every department with a musical has to be at 100%, otherwise it falls apart. In this case, I had all the departments and cast to make it happen, so I said yes.
EI: Can you talk about how the movie resonates today for you, almost 20 years on?
Christopher Walken: Yes, it was at a period with the costumes and cars. It was all about a certain time that was very familiar to me. It was when I was young, and these issues are still there. I think it has a kind of nostalgia effect to it.
QL: Definitely for me, with my character, with the issues of weight and race, the youth being the future and being empowered and making the changes that move us forward–those things still resonate for me. My mum was a teacher. A lot of my ideas behind Motormouth Maybelle and how she inspired these kids to just go for it and do whatever they needed to do to implement change just reminded me of my mum secretly telling kids if they weren’t happy with the condition of their books or their classrooms to have organized sit-ins. You know, nothing crazy, no walk-outs, but how to get the attention of people and make their voices heard. I think Corny’s character [James Marsden] is really good at acknowledging that change and embracing it, as opposed to being afraid of it. There are always people who are afraid of change, but things are always going to change in life. There are a bunch of things in this movie, to me, that still resonate today, and big girls have more fun too! Try it!
JT: Hairspray is timeless to me. It’s hard to disagree with anything these beautiful people say, other than that I like the light-handed way that this musical states. The subject text could be otherwise heavily handed, and musicals shouldn’t do that…unless you’re Cabaret, which I think is one of the all-time great musicals. Even they hit heavy subject matters in an interesting way that wasn’t completely heavy-handed. This is really an overall sketch of issues that were big then and are still big now, but we can have a lot of fun with that too. I like that because sometimes you get the message across better if you’re light-handed about it, so that’s what I think.
EI: Your character [Wilbur Turnblad] is the only father figure in the film. What do you think is the role of your character to the film?
CW: You know, we never thought of that. I’ve never been a father. I think Wilbur is a very good-natured man, and doing the right thing just comes naturally to him. I don’t think he thinks much about it. And he’s crazy about his wife! I took that as a guiding light. I can’t believe I never get the girl [in a film], and the first time I get the girl, it’s John Travolta!
EI: How did it feel playing a woman?
JT: I think I upstaged the heaviness with large features, large breasts, and large bottom, and everyone wanted to feel me on the set.
JT: I didn’t mind that. I’m a little bit saying I might have been a slut! [Laughs] Go ahead and feel. Try it! I didn’t really care that I was this object of lust. That’s how I felt being in that outfit.
EI: What did your kids say about your outfit?
JT: They loved it. They were completely entertained by her. But you know, I disappeared in that and so it was difficult to find dad in there, but it was so well done–the prosthetics and the illusion. A lot of it had to do with my input. I wanted her very curvaceous. I think once you do those things, it’s difficult to find the man there.
EI: Did this movie teach you about women, and did you have someone in your mind when you played her?
JT: I did. I had a few people in my mind. I learned that women have a lot of power–just meaning if you were faking it. That was just a costume, but I felt like I had a little more-I could throw her around, and I don’t mean that literally. I had a lot more influence or something, and you gals, you’ve got it going on. You’ve really got that power over a lot of different areas, and that’s what I mainly discovered. To be an object of…I’m not saying that I haven’t had a lot of attention of being a male film star over the years–it’s a different kind of attention. People were flirting with me even with all that weight. And I liked it! [Laughs]
EI: John, why have you been so reluctant to re-visit a musical, even when it’s produced by such good friends of yours and it has been a long time for you? And was there anything in Adam Shankman’s comment in that was the only way to compete with Danny Zuko was to play a woman?
JT: I think there’s something to that. How do you compete with that? I mean, Danny Zuko is one of the best male roles in musical history. You can count the men’s roles in musical history-Pal Joey, Danny Zuko in Grease, and there might be three to four other great roles, but they are a scarcity. If you come off the biggest musical in history, which is Grease, you want to have a good reason to do (another musical), because you kind of won that slot in history. So I didn’t want to make a mistake in doing it, so it took 27 years because I didn’t want to make a mistake. The best way to do that was to do something that was so completely unexpected that it would be another kind of impact–it wouldn’t be the same.
EI: Do you agree with Queen Latifah that big girls have more fun? And what was it like dancing with Christopher Walken?
JT: I do think big girls have more fun. And once Chris decided that he was going to be crazy about me, then I knew that I didn’t have to work hard to an object of desire. I always felt that they were kind of nutty about each other, so that was an important quality to have, but once Chris arrived at that decision, I just kind of fell in it.
EI: What about dancing with him?
JT: Oh, dancing with him. Chris and I are kind of old Broadway musical stars, you see? We’re the old geezers of the group and, truthfully, it’s old hat for us to do that. That’s where we started, and we did summer theatre.
EI: But who was leading?
JT: I think he had to lead because he was the man.
CW: It kind of went back and forth.
EI: John, did Kelly give you any beauty advice, and does she look at you differently now?
JT: Kelly cried with happiness when she saw it. She loved this movie so much. When we did “Welcome to the Sixties” and I came out of that store with my daughter and we do that whole routine, she bawled. She thought it was extraordinary. She was into it before we even knew it was a movie.
EI: John, given how reluctant you were to play in another musical, does it mean we will have to wait another 30 years for you to play a woman again?
JT: Only the sequel!
EI: John and Christopher, what do you remember about the vision of John Waters and his movies?
CW: I never saw the Broadway show. I saw the John Waters movie, but only once we had started this one. I knew a lot of people in it. I knew John Waters’s movies.
JT: I didn’t see the Broadway show. I saw a national motor company show of it in Orlando. I did watch the movie years ago and I remember the part very clearly was a man playing a woman. It was good, but I thought, well, what can I do that’s different? I thought maybe if I completely commit to being a woman instead of a man playing a woman, it would be more fun for the audience because they’ll go: “Oh my God, is that really him?” I thought maybe instead of having a deeper voice or giving her masculine qualities, I’ll make her like Sophia Loren in the flesh. Both are valid choices, it’s just that I wanted to do something different.
EI: John, your mom was a German teacher-did she influence your career? Was she your agent too, like in the movie?
JT: [Laughs] No, but she did have some influence because there was an actor studio group from New York which was forming in our hometown in New Jersey, and she knew all of those people. She said, “Look, I’ve got this kid, he’s 12 years old and I think he’s a natural, and I’d love for him to audition for your next play.” And I got the part at 12 years old, and she was the one who introduced me to the stage. It was a very effective first move mom made.
EI: John, are you aware that you’re an idol to a lot of actors?
JT: Now I am! Well, thanks for telling me, and I’m proud to be an idol to anybody. For my fellow actors, it’s even more special because it means that I inspire them somehow. And one of my purposes in life is to inspire people, so if I’m an idol to them, it means I’ve done my job.
EI: John, was that your idea to do that move from Pulp Fiction in the dance sequence in Hairspray?
JT: That was like, “I’ve got my eye on you.”
EI: Are you aware that that move is a landmark now?
JT: Yeah, you know what’s funny about that step? Quentin only wanted to do The Twist in that movie. And I said, “Quentin, you’re younger than I am, and when I was a kid, there were a lot of fun novelty dances.” And he said, “Like what?” And I said, “Well, there’s The Swim, The Hitchhiker, The Batman, and The Cowboy. The Twist is fine, but it’s going to bore people after a while.” And so he said, “Let’s try them.” So I tried them, and they became iconic outside of The Twist.