Hairspray: Starring Travolta, I Mean Edna

Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with big hair and an even bigger heart, has only one passion, dancing. Her dream is to appear on “The Corny Collins Show,” Baltimore’s hippest dance party on TV. Tracy seems a natural fit for the show except for one not-so-little problem–she doesn’t fit in. Her plus-sized figure has always set her apart from the cool crowd, which she is reminded of by her loving but overly protective plus-sized mother, Edna.

This new version of Hairspray is not without at least two traditions of the franchise’s legacy. The role of Tracy Turnblad has always been played by an unknown talent. And the role of Edna Turnblad has always been played by a male actor. First it was Ricki Lake and Divine, then Marissa Winokur and Harvey Fierstein and now, Nikki Blonsky is Tracy and John Travolta is Edna.
“Come to Mama.” With arms wide open, those were the first words actor John Travolta said to his latest leading lady, Nikki Blonsky, upon meeting her for the first time back in August 2006. Seeing them together, everyone involved in the production knew they were on to something special.

“Their connection was immediate,” recalls producer Neil Meron. “That first meeting exemplifies the relationship they had from the get-go. It was a bit overwhelming because it was like these two people were destined to be together in some way. We all just took a step back because we knew we were witnessing the beginning of what might be one of the greatest ‘mother-daughter’ acts of all time.”

Meeting Travolta

“The day I met John Travolta is a day I’ll never forget,” says Blonsky, the high school senior who was working part-time at a Long Island ice cream store before landing a starring role opposite one of the most famous movie stars in history. “When we hugged, I felt like I was hugging my real mom. He made me feel so comfortable and loved and protected–which is just what moms are supposed to do.”

Travolta on Nikki Blonsky

“A star has definitely been born,” says Travolta of Blonsky’s performance. “I don’t think I’ll ever have to eat my words about that. Once you see Nikki perform it will be quite evident that she has a presence, talent and charisma not unlike a young Barbra Streisand or Bette Midler. She is as unique in her abilities as those two women are in theirs.”

The chemistry between Travolta and Blonsky may have been instantaneous, but the casting of Edna and Tracy Turnblad was not accomplished quite as quickly. In fact, it took more than a year for producers Zadan and Meron to convince Travolta to star in the film.

Reticent Star

“John is the greatest movie musical star of this generation, but he was reticent for a long time because he was concerned about a return to the genre that made him a star,” says Meron. “He kept telling Craig and me that if he was to make another musical he wanted it to be a project that was not going to be ordinary in any way. Well, we just kept saying to him that John Travolta portraying Edna Turnblad would be anything but ordinary.”

Zadan adds, “Understandably, John was hesitant for many reasons, but we kept telling him that this was his role, that it would be unlike any role he has ever done in his career. John has always kept surprising his audience, and we told him this would be his biggest surprise ever, literally and figuratively speaking.”

Turning Down Chicago

This was not the first time Meron and Zadan had approached Travolta about starring in a musical. They initially hoped that would accept the role of Billy Flynn in “Chicago,” but he turned it down and the part ultimately went to Richard Gere.

“Honestly, ‘Chicago’ was the first musical film project that tempted me to return to the genre, and now I have regrets that I didn’t do it,” says Travolta. “So, Craig and Neil told me that I was not getting away this time. They gave me all the details of how they were going to approach the material and all the reasons why I should play this part. For quite a while, though, it was hard for me to grasp the concept of being a leading man for 30 years, and now I am being sought out to play a fat woman from Baltimore. But after many, many months of indecision, they successfully convinced me to shake my booty again, but this time as Edna.”

Man Playing a Woman

Says Travolta: ” I think it adds an entertainment value, and besides, it’s a tradition for the role to be played by a man, more like Greek theater way back. It’s an old-fashioned idea, but one that if done properly can hold up as vastly entertaining.”
Maternal-Paternal

I think both parents often feel similarly about their children. I can relate to it: The enthusiasm that Chris Walken and I have for Tracy is no different than the enthusiasm that Kelly Preston (Travolta’s wife) and I have for Ella or Jett.

Role Models

For Travolta, “The challenge was how to convince the viewers that this is really a woman, and for that I used role models like Sophia Loren gone to flesh, or Anita Ekberg, or Elizabeth Taylor, where you saw voluptuous shapes so you wouldn’t be bothered with the idea that there might be a man under there. It was more about getting the female illusion and then adding my instincts as a parent to it, because some of the dialogue, like not wanting Tracy to be hurt, is something I would say to my daughter even as a father, if I were in that situation.

Makeup

Helping transform Travolta into Edna was the special makeup design expertise of Tony Gardner and his incredibly talented team of makeup artists and prosthetic craftsmen. Essentially, for four to five hours on each of his workdays, Travolta was encased from forehead-to-toe in a full body fat suit (weighing over 30 pounds) and five separate gel-filled silicone prosthetic appliances (chin & lower lip, upper lip, two cheek pieces and one wrap-around neck and cleavage piece). In total, three full body suits (plus a half-body silicone suit weighing 75 pounds) were built, and 11 pairs of legs, nine pairs of arms and over 40 sets of facial appliances were manufactured to use in the transformation.

In regards to the daily makeup process, Travolta had a love/hate relationship with Edna. “I can say being Edna was fun, but becoming Edna was not fun,” says Travolta. “I loved the effect the look had on people when they would see me on set as Edna, but I did not love the process involving the prosthetics and the fat suit. It was very uncomfortable and very hot. It was like wearing seven layers of very uncomfortable clothing, and I remember thinking I would never want to be a woman if that was the case.

“However, I was thrilled the first time I saw myself as Edna and I bought it,” he says. “Out of nowhere really she just appeared, and it was a lot of fun walking on to the set and having people greet me as Edna–people kind of forgot that I was inside there somewhere, so that was funny to me. Instead of playing the old joke of being a man in a woman’s fat suit, I decided to play a new joke and create and become a blue collar woman from Baltimore.”

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