On Christmas Day in 1996, one of the most profoundly ’90s films ever made hit theaters: Nora Ephron’s Michael, starring John Travolta as a fallen angel who embarks upon a genial Midwestern road trip alongside some tabloid journalists (Andie MacDowell, William Hurt, and Robert Pastorelli) tasked with exposing him. Michael included, but was not limited to, the following details: Travolta smoking, shirtless, in a pair of overalls; MacDowell singing about heartbreak at a dive bar in double flannel; a plinky-plonky Randy Newman score; the literal resurrection of a pet dog; a gentle, almost subversive take on the motivations of tabloid journalists; a benign vision of Christianity, unyoked to politics; women in boot-cut denim dancing to “Chain of Fools”; and the line, “You gotta learn to laugh. That’s the way to true love.”
At the time of its release, Michael fell into another very specific ’90s trope: a small, sweet, critically maligned film that still managed to pull in nearly $100 million at the box office and become a low-key millennial classic (other entries in this esteemed field include Practical Magic, Now and Then, and Phenomenon). The consensus now is that it’s one of Ephron’s worst films, usually dismissed or ignored in evaluations of her work. The take at the time of its release was even harsher (one reviewer in Variety wrote that Ephron lacked “the vision and skill” to pull off the screwball comedy).
While I wouldn’t exactly call Michael a masterpiece, I’ve always had a soft spot for it. It’s a strange, ambling little movie, shot through with Ephron’s signature wit. (At one point, a straight-faced Travolta explains that he invented “waiting in line.”) It’s earnest and tender, a love letter to the physical pleasures of being alive — eating, drinking, smoking, singing, dancing, making love, staring at gigantic balls of twine — that feels all the more bittersweet now that Ephron is gone. Watching it in 2019 — when the general cultural vibe is “cynical fisting” — feels like doing soft drugs. “Wait, is John Travolta … wearing gigantic angel wings … and fucking a judge in her chambers … to get out of prison time for a bar fight?” you might ask, looking around your apartment, wondering if you have accidentally died. “Does this entire movie … hinge on a tabloid kingpin’s love for a small dog?”
Andie MacDowell is a big part of why Michael works. As she often did in that bygone decade, the MacDowell of Michael is overflowing with a pure sort of charm and guilelessness. In one scene, she sings a Newman song about loving pie to a table full of men. Later, she and Hurt dance through the streets of New York City, everyone around them frozen in time. The role provides a sharp contrast to the icy villain she plays in this year’s Ready or Not, hell-bent on murdering a new daughter-in-law. When we spoke on the phone ahead of that film’s release, I just wanted to talk about Michael — and MacDowell was extremely game.
Do you remember being cast in this movie?
Yes! For one thing, I was a fan of Nora Ephron, so that was a huge bonus. I loved the script and thought it was magical. I thought it was so clever, and I love romantic comedies. I was cast pretty early on — I went in for the audition and sang for Nora. I don’t really consider myself a singer, but I was very brave. I think that was what solidified the audition. I remember her laughing at me. So that was a good sign.
What did you sing?
I think I made up a song, on the spot. I just created some crazy song about the men that I’d been dating and incorporated their names, and just kind of made it all up. That’s really, truly how I got the job.
What was going on in your life and career at that time?
I lived in Montana. I had three children. I’d work, and then I’d go home and not think about working for three months. I’d just be a mother. I wouldn’t read a script; I’d just focus on my kids. Then I knew it’d be time to get a job, so I’d call my agent. It was much easier then, because your thirties are the best time for your career, as a woman. I’d say, “Start sending me some scripts.” I knew I really wanted Michael, so I flew in and went to fight for it. I don’t remember what I did right before that. I was probably 36, 37.
What do you remember about meeting John Travolta?
He’s a huge person. You don’t miss him; he fills up a room and takes up a lot of space. He’s very generous and kind. He had his own cook, and would offer to feed you, which was always a nice bonus. He’s got a very special energy around him. I don’t know how to describe it, but he has more energy around him than most anybody I’ve ever met.
Would you describe it as … angelic?
Well, the thing about Michael is that he was a broken angel. He’s not really pure. So there are components of him that feel angelic, like his intentions are really good, but not pure — and I think because of that, he fulfilled that role.
The scenes where John is pouring sugar on his cereal, sugar on his ketchup and fries — do you remember if he was really eating it?
Probably. That sounds like something he’d have thrown himself into, just to do a great job. He is that kind of actor.
What was Nora like to work with? In Everything Is Copy, the documentary about her life, so many people she worked with seemed to have so much love for her, but some also seemed a little frightened of her. Meryl has said she was “intimidating.”
I was a little intimidated. I think Nora, in the time she was directing, was forced to — she had to really be in touch with her masculine side. I remember one time somebody tried to help her up onto something, and she was like, “No, thank you.” That sort of thing. At that period of time, women were fighting so hard to be accepted as equal. They’d wear suits and act like men in order to be taken seriously. So I think there was that part of her that was very powerful, because she felt that’s what she had to do in order to succeed. She had to let go of some of her feminine side. I think in her real life she allowed that, but at work she was tough.
Michael made almost $100 million, which was a lot for that time, but Nora was really harshly criticized for it. Did you get the feeling it was misunderstood?
I don’t know why people would criticize it. I don’t know if people felt like she needed to be picked on at that time? That was baffling to me. I watched the [Ephron] documentary as well, and I was hurt and confused about why our movie wasn’t in there. But maybe that was part of the reason she wasn’t as proud of it, because people put it down. I don’t see anything wrong with the movie. I don’t understand why people can be so cruel and so harsh. I guess I’d have to rewatch it with somebody who’s technically more educated than I am. But I don’t understand why they tortured her that way.
It seems like a classic case of ’90s sexism. Did you get a sense from her at the time that she was disappointed with how it was received?
Yes, maybe that was it. I wasn’t hanging out with her enough to know if she was upset. I’m sad I can’t have that conversation with her now.
Did you keep in touch with her at all after filming?
I was so involved with my kids, and I lived isolated out in Montana. Unfortunately, I lost connection with so many people because of that isolation. I think if I’d lived in New York, it would’ve been different.
What made you leave Montana?
I knew my marriage [to Paul Qualley] was struggling. And we were so isolated. We were way out in the middle of nowhere. And I was lonely, honestly. I was extremely lonely, because I felt like I’d lost a connection with my husband. And I was scared. So I did it mostly out of fear of not knowing what the future held. I moved to North Carolina, where I’d not be so isolated.
So when you think back on Michael, do you go back to that headspace of loneliness and isolation?
Every movie does that to me. When I watch a movie, I not only see the movie, I see my personal experiences at that time of my life. I go back there and I can see things in myself that I know I’m carrying, that other people may not see.
What do you remember about being trapped in a car with four men for this large swath of filming?
I probably liked it, honestly. [Laughs.] I doubt that I had an issue with that … it’s not something I’m uncomfortable with. Even though I love women! Sometimes it’s just nice to have male attention. I was probably ecstatic and happy to be surrounded by that energy.
Do you have a favorite anecdote from filming?
We didn’t really hang out off-set, because I had my daughter Margaret with me, so I was hanging out with her when I wasn’t working. I remember dancing with John and thinking, I can’t believe this is happening. Having memories of his movies. I don’t think the dance was in there originally. We added it. I don’t remember it being such a big deal at the time, but it became a bigger deal because of John. That was really magical.
I remember John flying his plane over set — it was a jet, excuse me.
Do you remember the lyrics to the pie song?
I can sing the pie song. But I’m not gonna do it! But I can do it. I’ve had people ask me to sing the pie song. And I will sing the pie song, if someone asks me on the street to sing the pie song. But I’m not gonna sit here on the phone and sing the pie song. But I promise you: I can.
When was the last time somebody asked you to sing that song?
Oh, it happens a few times a year, I would say.
And you indulge and sing?
[Sings] “Pie, pie, me oh my.” I can do the whole thing. “Nothin’ tastes sweet, wet, salty and dry … Apple! Pumpkin! Minced and wet bottom! Come to your place every day if you’ve got ’em. Pie, me oh my, I love pie!” See? [Laughs.]
That was delightful.
Oh, my gosh.
How long did it take you to learn your big musical number?
Nora wanted me to play the guitar and I was really struggling. Thank god she didn’t force me to do that. I like to be innocent — the imperfection of just getting up there and doing it. I actually recorded it, which I remember vividly. The first recording is the one they ended up using. There’s something really innocent in my voice. I kept trying to do better, and it just got worse. The innocence and the purity was what made it work. She wasn’t supposed to be a singer; it was only a dream.
Your characters, especially during this period of your career, always have an innocence and a sort of purity. Where does that come from?
There’s an innate part of me that is that. I’m very in touch with it and I know how to use it. But humans are very complex. I have other parts. It’s just about convincing people you can do other things. When you do one thing really well, they typecast you and recast you. It’s easy to get recast. It’s breaking out of that that’s hard. For people to see you in another way. People are much more complex than two hours.
Do you feel like you did break out of it?
Oh yeah. For sure. Especially now. Now I play a variety of roles. Do I feel like I’ve touched every part of myself? No. I’d have to be working a whole lot to be able to do that. I have a lot more inside of me that I haven’t exposed.
What’s stopping you?
It’s just hard at my age. What I’m creating for someone my age — I’m doing really well, but there just aren’t a lot of roles. Most movies are made about characters in their thirties, for women. It’s easy to work in your thirties. When you get to 60, they’re few and far between and much smaller. Usually in the background.
To get a little lighter: Your curly hair has always been iconic, never more so than in Michael. What is your hair routine, and has it changed since the ’90s?
There’s one product I’ve used for a long time, it’s old-school, called Nature’s Therapy. It’s a great mask, for curly, dry hair. I put oil on my hair all the time. When I’m not working, I get oil and protein packs. I don’t know if you’re around people all the time and have to look good — I don’t. I go to yoga and I hike. I just put oil in my hair and pull it back, and I leave it like that, day in and day out. It really helps. I even went out the other night and was like, “I’m tired of having my hair down.” I put oil in it, put it in a bun, and went out. Looked just fine.
Your character works for a tabloid in Michael — what’s the craziest thing you’ve read about yourself in a tabloid?
Oh, that’s easy. I am the illegitimate daughter of Charlie Chaplin. [Laughs.] Isn’t that weird?
Why is that a thing?
I don’t know! It was in a South American newspaper. I found the clipping again the other day, on my computer. I don’t know how the hell that happened. My mother is in South Carolina, and Charlie is traveling through? I worked with Geraldine [Chaplin] on something, and I never mentioned it to her. But I wondered if she’d ever seen it. If she looked at me and went, “Oh my god, are you related to me?” I should have asked.
If you met someone and they said they were an angel, would you believe them?
I’d probably want to believe them. I would be asking questions. The idea appeals to me, I have to say.
I would inquire as to why they feel they are an angel, and what happened.
Have you ever seen anything else supernatural? A ghost?
Okay! My dad saw a ghost. When he was a teenager. And I’d never believe in ghosts, except my dad is the last person who’d say something like that. I think there are some ghosts in my house. My daughters are ecstatic about this idea. Because I’m not the kind of person who’s normally too ghost-y. But I’ve seen some ghosts in my present house.
Who have you seen?
A man. He’s not that tall, really broad, and I saw him and then he just disappeared. I know that sounds crazy. And there’s also a dog. [Laughs.]
Who do you think they are?
Someone from the past who’s hanging around and been there for a long time, and likes my energy. So they made their presence known to me.
Were you scared?
No, no. He’s got really good energy. I’m convinced he’s here to help me. And I will say, some of this belief comes from my grandmother’s house, an old house used as a hospital during the Civil War. We were convinced there were ghosts there.
Okay, the fact that you say, “Oh, yeah?” [Laughs loudly.] This other crazy thing — when I was a teenager, I’d take tracing paper and charcoal and go trace tombstones and try to talk to people.
I have to ask: Will you ever come back to Twitter?
[Cackles.] I didn’t delete it! I don’t know how. I have been back and looked, I have to admit. I’ve actually liked a few things, but haven’t said anything. I think for me, I’m much more comfortable not participating right now. I don’t know what the future will hold, but it’s been a negative trap for me. It’s been very bad energy. I used to interact with trolls because I wasn’t twitter-savvy, and I still see people I admire doing that. Now I’m baffled by the whole situation. It’s stupid! Even though there have been positive parts of it. Right now I’m focusing on Instagram, which is a gigantic job.
This interview has been edited and condensed.