Interview with Movie Producer and Actor Joey Travolta
Joey Travolta is a successful actor, director, and producer who started the critically acclaimed acting school, Actors for Autism. Most recently, Travolta served as the producer of the film Normal People Scare Me, a documentary about how autistic people see the rest of the world directed by Taylor Cross. Cross, a 17-year-old film maker, is autistic. The film features autistic people talking of their feelings about the NT world.
This week’s piece, conducted by Alex Plank of WrongPlanet.net, is an interview with Joey Travolta about Mr. Travolta’s work with autistic actors, people who have an interest in acting, Travolta’s work with Actor’s for Autism, and how Travolta got involved with “Normal People Scare Me.” One of the individuals in the film is Wrong Planet’s own Amy Gravino, who has written several pieces including a review and a story about the launch party for the film. Those pieces, which are part of our ongoing coverage of “Normal People Scare Me,” will appear in the coming weeks on Wrong Planet.
Be sure to check out the premiere of Normal People Scare me on Thursday, April 27th at 6:30pm – Jewish Community Center, NY – J.C.C. Manhattan.
member Amy Gravino at John
Schneider’s house. The hand holding
crackers belongs to director Taylor Cross
WrongPlanet.net: So, what’s your connection to Autism?
Joey Travolta: Well my connection to Autism is I am mentoring a 17 year old who, when I started was a 15 year old boy who has Autism, made a short film about Autism and they had approached me about… I have a digital film and acting workshop for kids about doing classes for special needs, predominantly kids on the Autism spectrum and so we started doing classes and at that same time I was sort of mentoring him on a short film called Normal People Scare Me and that’s how I got involved with it. I was a former special Ed teacher and that’s how they got to me when they wrote an article that I was sponsoring this film festival and Taylor Cross who is the director of the film… he wanted to enter a film and I volunteered my equipment and I guess that’s how it all got started.
WP: That’s great. So, you met Taylor Cross when he was 15. He’s 16 right now?
JT: He’s 17
WP: And his film is premiering on the 7th?
JT: Yeah, it’s starting up in April, there’s going to be some premiers around the country. I know there’s one in New York, and there’s several around the country and, you know it’s not totally finished we still have to mix the sound and do some things but for all intents and purposes for national Autism awareness month we’re trying to do some screenings.
WP: So Taylor Cross was in your acting group?
JT: No, he – they came to me about; one, the film, and two, doing, you know, classes, he’s in the acting group now. This was before he was in the acting group. He actually just started taking the acting classes in the last year.
WP: How do you think Autism facilitates a career in acting?
JT: Well, it’s not that it facilitates a career in it, I think it fills a lot of voids and I deal with people in this spectrum, because a lot of the social skills, the interacting with people and knowing what the proper social skills, whether they’re right or wrong – who knows? Which is kind of the point of Normal People Scare Me because, you know, who is right? But anyway, to fit in this world it kind of gives you a safe place to express yourself and build confidence and get used to collaborating with other people, and then it also teaches that gray area, especially through improv, you know, how to think spontaneously, where a lot of time with young people in this spectrum it’s very black and white, their processing and the gray areas or the areas that they don’t get, and through acting you learn those, through film making you learn those because it isn’t black and white, it’s very subjective and it promotes thought and provokes a collaborating which I think is huge.
WP: Right. I have a friend and he has Asperger’s and he’s in a Shakespeare acting group at UCLA, and one thing that I noticed about him is that he seems to be much more outgoing during the period of time that he’s acting, like after the performances, he thinks that that’s kind of something that it does to–
JT: Well yeah because you’re playing a character, your playing someone outside yourself, but still you’re playing a character and it’s a process that you have to go through, you know the work that you do to play a character, you know I think it’s a great tool for communication skills.
WP: I also act and when people ask me why I’m good at acting I tell them I’ve had to act my whole life just to fit into the social ‘norms’ of society you know? And that’s kinda how I felt.
JT: Well, you know, we all kinda have to do that. Like when you’re a salesman you have to be able to sell yourself, when you’re a politician you have to be able to sell yourself, you have to be able to convey your thoughts as a teacher, as, you know almost any walk of life that you go into you have communication skills. So to feel confident, to be able to present yourself or your product or the thing that you do, you know, those are the skills that help you with acting and film making.
WP: Right. I think there are some people in Hollywood, I mean even mainstream actors like Dan Aykroyd who have Asperger’s Syndrome, do you think that in any way Asperger’s Syndrome kinda gives someone a distinction that wouldn’t be there otherwise that kind of gets them noticed, and do you think that the fact that these kids have to act to fit in with their friends even more than most people who it comes naturally, I mean to some extent, people without Asperger’s still have to act but, I mean there is a lot more, I think, adapting in the role of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome especially someone with a very high level of intelligence like Dan Ackroyd, what do you think?
JT: Well, I’ve worked with him before and he’s very bright. Yeah, in dealing with actors as a director or producer, I would say a great deal of the actors are on the spectrum, you know, and they looked to acting because nothing else excites them, nothing else, you know. they don’t want to play a team sports, they don’t want to do other things but there’s something about acting that is very attractive, you know, and it’s just – it fills so many voids for people, but as far as people in the spectrum in this business I think there’s quite a few.
WP: When you worked with Dan Ackroyd on ‘Susan’s Plan’ in 1998 did you know that he had Asperger’s at that point?
JT: No, I still didn’t know, this is the first I’ve heard of it.
WP: Okay, he –
JT: I mean, does he talk about it?
WP: Yes, there’s an interview on NPR in which he talks about how he had Tourrettes and Asperger’s when he was a kid and now he still has the traits of Asperger’s but…
JT: Yeah, no I didn’t know that but I should call, I should let him know what I am doing.
WP: Right, my friend is trying to do an interview for the site since [NPR and Ackroyd] did have that interview.
WP: What was it like to grow up in a show business family because I know that your brother is an actor and I think your parents were somehow involved.
JT: It was great, it was great growing up in a show biz family, you know you just, it was what my family did, so I was in it and around it, I didn’t choose to go back down that path until later because I promised my father I would get a degree and I ended up with a special Ed degree which I did use my acting, my whole philosophy of teaching if kids would listen to me for five hours, if you can make your lesson plan entertaining and perform it then you have something, you will keep their attention and they can be educated at the same so I didn’t really teach, I performed.
WP: Right, I think that’s a really a good difference because those are the kinds of teachers who kids remember and you know –
Normal People Scare Me
with actress Amy Gravino
Right, I think that’s a really a good difference because those are the kinds of teachers who kids remember and you know –
JT: Well yeah, you remember those, the ones that are out there, that make it fun, because there’s no reason that education can’t be fun.
WP: What lead you to pursue a degree in special education and you were saying that it was your father or –
JT: You know what – I promised my father I’d go to school and then when I got there, when we were exploring different things, I went to Patterson State College in New Jersey and I had to declare a major and I was kind of leaning to education and I was always was kind of a protector of the special needs kids when I was in high school, even a couple of my friends today are probably somewhere more in special needs classes so it seemed like a natural for me–
JT: –and I really enjoy it but I got too involved and I kind of got burnt out on it early, but, I’m glad that I’m back involved because I get to do the things that I love, which is make films and then pass on my knowledge to kids.
WP: Right, I watched a video in which someone did a report on Taylor Cross and the video that you guys were doing, and I noticed that they were showing something to a group of people and that he won two awards about something and it seems to be that was the video so that’s –
JT: Ah, yeah that… you probably saw the documentary that was “California Connected” and I presented the award to him – that was my daughters film festival and that’s how it all got started at Chaminade High School in the West Valley, that was the festival that it got entered into, and I got a couple articles written about it and we got an award from Clay Aiken and the film was honored by the quarterback Doug Flutie, he’s got a foundation, and so it’s just one of those things that you kind of strike a nerve.
WP: I know that there is one event being held at John Schneider’s house and I know he has a son with Asperger’s, so do you other ever talk to other actors who have family members with Autism?
JT: Yeah, I mean a lot of them are on our board of directors here, so yeah, we do share, but they’re all on our board for Actors for Autism
WP: Okay, so John Schneider is –
JT: Yeah, he’s on our board. Where did you go to go? Normal People on IMDB?
WP: Well I actually interviewed someone who had taken part in the documentary … her name was… Amy …
JT:Was it one of the people we interviewed?
WP: Yeah, it was one of the people you interviewed. So, what was the name of the person who was trying to find the people to interview?
JT: Well, Taylor’s mom Kerri Bowers, they were setting up the interviews, but I think Amy, I think, because we did a couple people back East and maybe that’s who you spoke with.
WP: I talked to someone who was from New York who’s going to the event on the 6th, and she is a guest of Taylor Cross’s mom.
JT: Okay, well she must have been one of the people that was interviewed, there were so many, we had hours and hours of interviews.
WP: I know that people with… a lot of the entertainment business seem to be focused on who you know and what connections you have and people with Autism obviously have trouble with networking at the extent that their social skills in person, like person to person interaction are kind of inhibited, what kind of advice do you have with the more introverted or just socially awkward people with Asperger’s or Autism who want to find a way to start doing acting as a professional career.
JT: Well, I think most the important thing is to take classes and get used to being on stage or being in front of a camera because that’s how you get better and see if it’s for you, because it’s not an easy business, it’s a very tough business, but, if it’s something that you love, and you’re passionate about it, and you have it in you, you’ll find a place somewhere, but it’s a tough business. But most of the people don’t get in it for the money and the fame, they get in it because they like the work. There’s something about performing. My advice is to take class and try to get on as many auditions as possible – the business has changed so much, but if you can get in a play in school, any kind of theater group you can get into, get into it.
WP: Right, I actually saw that you did West side Story at one point, my first time on stage was playing baby John on West side Story, that was in high school and that’s what got me interested interested in the whole thing of just pretending to be someone you’re not, but doing it in front of other people and really –
JT: And also out here there is a group called ‘Media Access’ and it caters to people with disabilities, when there’s a role for somebody that has Autism or Asperger’s they’ll submit you and things like that.
WP: Do you know who Gloria Castenada is?
JT: Yeah, I hosted their awards last year.
WP: Oh that’s great. Because I registered with them at one point and I’m trying to get my friend –
JT: Do you live in California?
WP: I live in Washington D.C. I actually live in Charlottesville, I’ve only been to California once, but, I just registered while I was there.
JT: Okay, well you know they’re a good group of people there. They try to look for people for work.
WP: Have you seen Mozart and the Whale?
JT: No I didn’t, but my friends produced that up in Washington.
WP: You know it’s about a guy named Jerry Newport –
WP: I interviewed him and he had some family [in show business]. He said that the key in terms of getting into [show business] is to always be accommodating of things because there are a lot of different people and all of them could do the same thing.
JT: Oh yeah! You need… like when I cast movies I’ll get like five hundred to a thousand submissions for one role, and there are probably a hundred and fifty that could play the role just as good as anybody else, but it’s just how someone strikes you that day, you just don’t know.
WP: So, it’s more of like an instinct, you can see something in someone that’s -
JT: Yeah. Sometimes I’ll cast somebody and not even read them, just like a look, or I get a feel from them right away like, yeah they can do this.
WP: That’s interesting. Yeah, that’s what a lot of people have told me. WP: … you first came into [contact with] people with Autism when you were a special Education teacher? WP: You didn’t start this group but you work for this group, Actors for Autism? WP: With Asia Wolf, is that correct? WP: Could you give a summary [of Actors for Autism]? WP: That’s good. I really appreciate that you have been able to give me the insights that you have on this because it’s really great to see that there are people out there like you, like fighting for the rights, and not just the rights, but fighting for the welfare of people who have a harder time, in terms of working with, in acting and just helping them out with the social skills and I really appreciate that. WP: Do you have any information on the camps? WP: All right. Thank you, I really appreciate this.
JT: No, it was, like I told you, two years ago or two and a half years ago they approached me when they saw that I was a former special Ed teacher and that’s how it all got started again, because I hadn’t been involved, other than special Olympics over the past twenty years, once in a while I get involved with special Olympics but I hadn’t been involved with the field, and know it’s become fifty percent of my life now.
JT: We started that group.
JT: Well, basically, it’s to scholarship kids into our programs, they can’t afford it, into our camps, we do film making camps in the summer, so we just started this non-profit too, to further the education in the film and acting field.
JT: Well thank you.
JT: Yeah, in the summer we run these two week, ten-minute-short-film camps, where we take them through the whole process of making a film and then we make a film, together, it’s like a two, two and a half day shoot, and with a professionally written, professionally shot, and then along side the pros, the kids make the short film. They are in it, they help produce it, they help direct it, and we do it over a two week period. We’re doing one in Michigan, one at Oakland University, they got a grant to do one so we’re going in to run it for them. We’re doing one in San Francisco and San Jose, and then we work three here during the summer, and then we’re very close to starting a practical film workshop where it will be a six month program where we’ll make a real movie that will be the lesson plan, and during that period they’ll work in it, around it, and go through every step of making a feature length film.
JT: No problem!
WP: … you first came into [contact with] people with Autism when you were a special Education teacher?
WP: You didn’t start this group but you work for this group, Actors for Autism?
WP: With Asia Wolf, is that correct?
WP: Could you give a summary [of Actors for Autism]?
WP: That’s good. I really appreciate that you have been able to give me the insights that you have on this because it’s really great to see that there are people out there like you, like fighting for the rights, and not just the rights, but fighting for the welfare of people who have a harder time, in terms of working with, in acting and just helping them out with the social skills and I really appreciate that.
WP: Do you have any information on the camps?
WP: All right. Thank you, I really appreciate this.