David Hochman
November 20, 1998 AT 05:00 AM EST

Tell me about your hobbies,” John Travolta insists. ”Jogging? How wonderful. Do you jog every morning? Where do you like to run?” And soon: ”What’s the origin of your last name?” and ”What do you watch on television when you can’t sleep?”

He’s a clever man, that Travolta. Even as he turns his famous charm on a visiting reporter, he’s beating the drum for his latest movie, A Civil Action, and postponing — for the moment anyway — his own inevitable grilling. ”Which costume did you wear last Halloween?” he wants to know. ”What does your brother do for a living?” ”What was your bedtime when you were a kid?”

Suddenly, it all makes sense. Since this movie marks his first time out as a trial lawyer, he’s doing away with the celebrity part of the celebrity interview and deposing the journalist. But we do have questions for him, like, Is he itching for a hit given the disappointing returns of his last two films? Which of his nearly two-dozen rumored movie projects are actually going to materialize? Will it finally be that Scientology movie he wants to do? Does he think the serious drama A Civil Action — based on Jonathan Harr’s 1995 nonfiction best-seller — will finally provide him with a ticket to the podium on Oscar night?

Finally, he submits to a cross-examination. For starters, we want to know exactly why he took the risky role of Jan Schlichtmann, A Civil Action‘s flashy, real-life Boston attorney who spent nine years and his life’s savings fighting a toxic-waste lawsuit against two corporations. Travolta, 44, smiles that dimpled smile and gives an answer worthy of a $20 million-a-picture attorney: ”I solicited numerous opinions,” he allows, ”then did my own search and discovery.”

In fact, signing on to the film surely required some judicious deliberation. A Civil Action, directed by Steve Zaillian, who wrote the screenplay for Schindler’s List, is not a safe movie, particularly for a film opening Christmas day. It’s a wrenching, cerebral story about suburban children who die of leukemia caused by industrial pollution. Even the heroes are deeply flawed — especially Travolta’s character, who says in the film that he was drawn to the case because ”I can appreciate the theatrical value of several dead kids. Obviously, I like that. That’s good.”

”This is a huge challenge, and in some ways a huge personal risk for John,” says producer Rachel Pfeffer (A Few Good Men), who acquired the rights with Robert Redford to Harr’s 500-page book for $1.2 million before it was even published. This cynical on-screen presence, she says, is ”a different Travolta. He’s putting a lot at stake.”

Getting the film made turned out to be a trial in its own right. The eight Woburn, Mass., families involved in the real case expressed concern that they had not been consulted or compensated by the Walt Disney Co. for the movie. That suddenly made Disney look as diabolical as W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods, the corporations accused of dumping the toxic waste. At one point, a former Massachusetts state representative proposed a state bill that would have required producers to obtain permission from the principals before doing a story about their lives; it was shot down. Says Zaillian: ”Those early days were very difficult for everyone. Here we were making a movie about people’s deepest personal tragedies…. I don’t think I could have been supportive if it was about my life.”

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