In 1996, John Travolta starred in two films wherein he plays a seemingly human character graced with supernatural powers, which should tell you something about our national mood at the time. In Nora Ephron’s Michael, he’s a fallen angel with an unquenchable lust for women and the ability to bring dogs back to life. In Jon Turteltaub’s Phenomenon, he’s George Malley, a good-natured car mechanic who, when struck by some kind of space lightning, becomes a freaky telekinetic genius. Phenomenon and Michael are surely different films; where Michael can be slapstick and a little on the nose, Turteltaub’s film is a classic tearjerker, one that’s interested in slightly deeper questions, including, but not limited to: What would happen if we could use more than 10 percent of our brains? What would happen if we opened ourselves up to our fellow human beings? What would happen if we tried loving someone who is, quite chillingly, able to learn Portuguese in 20 minutes? What would happen if we made chairs out of branches?
As was the case with Michael, Phenomenon wasn’t the box-office hit everyone involved hoped it would be. Variety called it “soppy and soft-headed” — but Roger Ebert really liked it, dubbing it a “good-hearted story about the rhythms of small-town life and the meaning of friendship.” If I were to review the movie, I would describe it as “includes several shots of trees swaying in the breeze that make me cry so much it’s embarrassing and I can’t figure out why.” Phenomenon possesses a strange beauty, owing in no small part to its hauntingly exquisite Thomas Newman score. It grapples with spirituality without being too preachy; it touches on climate change and the frailty of nature without feeling too soapbox-y. It also features one of the sexiest non–sex scenes of all time, wherein Kyra Sedgwick, as George’s hard-won love interest Lace, gently shaves John Travolta’s entire face.
Travolta’s performance is appropriately unassuming and eventually heartbreaking, but I believe Sedgwick is the standout in Phenomenon. Her warm, calm, sandpapery-voice energy helps sells the shit out of a character arc that, in someone else’s hands, might feel sappy. She acts as something of an audience surrogate, expressing doubt and confusion and fear and, understandably, a low-key lust toward Travolta’s ability to move sunglasses with his mind. She walks around in gigantic cable-knit sweaters and overalls and does not give any indication that she is troubled by Travolta’s denim shirt, denim jacket, and jeans ensemble. She cries on at least four separate occasions, and each time her face gently crumples. She rocks an imaginary baby under an apple tree and it’s unbelievably poignant.
Sedgwick is currently playing a villain in the horror-comedy film Villains (co-starring Bill Skarsgård and Maika Monroe, in theaters now) but I just wanted to talk about Phenomenon — the shaving, the rocking, the sweaters, the trees — and she agreed.
Let’s go back all the way to the ’90s. Where were you in your life and in your career when you auditioned for this movie? What do you remember about that?
Gosh. I know I had done Singles. I had two kids. My daughter was 2, my son was 5. I remember Jon Turteltaub being hilarious and adorable and calling me and saying, “I really want you to be in my movie.” He sounds like a little kid, and he’s just one of the funniest people that you’ll ever meet. I remember coming in to meet John [Travolta], and John was lovely and adorable and totally personable and cool. And I remember I took my daughter [to set], and Kevin took care of [our son] Travis — he was in school in Connecticut. And I actually think Kevin was cutting Loverboy, or Losing Chase, or something.
We shot most of the movie in Marin County [in California]. I just had a fucking ball, you know? I totally, thoroughly enjoyed those guys. I remember John [Travolta] talking about how he kept going from movie to movie, but this one really meant a lot to him. He had a lot of personal identification, I think, with the character. And he was great. I remember saying, “That’s a lot of movies to do in a row.” And he said, “Making hay, making hay.”
I remember doing the famous haircutting scene, I remember doing the scene where we fight about the chairs. I remember doing the death scene when we’re in bed together — I was absolutely dead set on not crying.
I think it had something to do with the fact that girls always cry [in movies] and boys don’t have to, and that’s so unfair. I felt like she was at a place where she could let him go and, I don’t know, take it like a man or something. But then John sort of leaned over to me and was like, “I think you really need to cry.” And I was like, “Oh, all right.” Typical, whatever.
You do a lot of crying in this movie. How did you get there each time?
I remember the day that we shot the last scene, which is her alone on the porch — she looks at the trees and she thinks of him because he said to her, “When I’m dead, just look at the trees and know that I’m with you,” or something. It was the perfect day, and I remember thinking, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this,” because it’s one of those — one, two, three, cry — which I’ve never been very good at. Especially with a slow push-in on a dolly. It’s, like, your worst nightmare. I can remember just being so scared. I think we did my POV of the tree first, and then turned around on me. And I just remember it was one of those magical moments where, like, the muse decides to sit on your shoulder and show up and all the emotions come really quickly and easily.
Afterwards, John Turteltaub came up to me and goes, “How do you do that?” It was just so cute. He was all teary and he was just adorable … As actors, we’re just so desperate for someone to tell us that our vulnerability means something to them, that our ability to tap into our vulnerability means something to them. And I say this kind of thinking how sad it is that actors live for these moments, but they do.
The truth is, you just never know if you’ll get there. I mean, I’m sure Meryl always knows she’s going to be able to get there. But I can just tell you that most actors I know, no matter how many whatevers they’ve won, they just have that moment where like, “I hope I don’t shit the bed.”
Do you use your own life when you have to bring it like that?
There was a time in my life when I used my own life. I think since then I’ve learned. I think that you empathize with the character. I think that you build a history for them, whatever that looks like. And this is a woman who was left by her husband, a single mother with two kids. So she was really a tough nut to crack. But once you cracked her, she was really cracked open. And I think that this man really cracked her open and to imagine what it would be like — then the loss feels very devastating, you know? And sometimes, you just totally feel nothing and do it technically. And who’s to say if the audience feels one way more or the other? I think that’s always the really fascinating thing about acting: You can be like, “Oh my god, I totally felt it,” and nobody else felt it.
For me personally, this is a huge cry movie. There’s something about the music and the score and the trees. I mean, why are the tree shots emotional?
I would agree with that. I remember the DP [director of photography], Phedon Papamichael, being very dramatic. He always had big feelings around how things were going to get shot. But, yeah, the trees were amazing. Phedon is a freaking genius. And that was one of his first movies. I think Jon had seen his work in some foreign film that he did. I can’t remember. But he was like, “We’ve gotta get this DP. He’s so amazing.”
Around the time of this movie’s release, the New York Times described you as follows: “Despite her candy box prettiness and fistful of complimentary reviews, Kyra Sedgwick has spent the last decade bobbing along at the edge of mainstream attention.” Did it feel that way to you? Did this movie feel like a breakthrough at all?
You know what? I think it would’ve felt more that way if the movie had done well at the box office. I think it would’ve been huge for me. But it didn’t. And that was okay. Something to Talk About was the one that sort of came before that, and that also didn’t do well at the box office. But my role was so funny and hilarious. And I think that kind of popped, to me, a little bit more than Phenomenon. But that’s because Phenomenon wasn’t a hit — if it had been, I think I probably would have had a different career.
Kevin and I both say this about ourselves: We’re workhorse actors. We never had that meteoric rise. We’ve always just been “slow and steady wins the race.” Whether it looks like that on the outside, I don’t know. But I feel like I never had that big moment where everything changed — that Jennifer Lawrence moment. Or that Julia [Roberts] moment, for that matter. I think people think I’m solid and good, but I don’t think that I have ever had that sort of meteoric thing. And I’ve had a sane life, probably, because of it.
Does any part of you wish that you would’ve had the Jennifer Lawrence moment?
Oh, of course. Of course. Isn’t it our human nature that we always want what we don’t have? I spend a lot of time being grateful for what I have, no question. But I can tell you that we all thought that movie was going to be a big hit. And we were all disappointed. I will say that.
Your life and career have always struck me as covetable — you’ve always worked and you’ve always been great, but you also have this incredible relationship that has lasted for a very long time. I’m curious if you think that that might not have worked as well if you had been this huge, huge star.
Probably. Look, as it was, every time I got a job, I felt so guilty leaving anybody. I think every woman feels that way. Guys, not so much, but every woman is like, “I got a job!” And she’s like, “Uh-oh.” Unless you’re like, “I’ve got to put food on the table and this is our life, this is what has to happen.” Even though I certainly contributed greatly to our financial life together, no question. But probably because my mom worked so much, I felt guilty literally the day they were born. I think that that’s also part of being a mother — I think there’s not a mother on the planet who does not feel guilt, just a general feeling of guilt all the time. The truth is, though, if I have any regrets, it’s that I felt guilty. Because guilt is a useless emotion unless it moves you to make a different choice. Unless it spurs you to some kind of action, it’s just a hurtful, painful thing to do to yourself.
Does Kevin have that guilt, too?
No. No, we talk about it all the time. He’s like, “Are you fucking kidding me? Of course not.” I think that’s the difference between men and women. I think it’s a DNA thing, I really do.
When you think back on Phenomenon now, what’s the first thing that comes to you? Is it frustration that it didn’t do better?
Oh, God, no. I think it’s so sweet that people are moved. That’s why I do what I do, right? It’s so nice when people come up to you and go, “God, that was such a beautiful movie. It’s one of my favorite movies.” Whether it’s the spirituality of it — or mostly it’s usually the love part of it — I’m so happy that people like it, you know? I love to remind people of their own humanity and their own compassion and their own feelings of love and their own feelings of betrayal, and loss. I think it really touched people because it spoke of grief.
You and John Travolta have incredible chemistry in Phenomenon. I think that’s what makes so much of it work. What do you remember about meeting him?
Well, I’m such an enormous fan. I mean, I watched Saturday Night Fever like ten times or something. But what really, really connects me to John is his deep vulnerability and empathy. He’s so empathic — and so am I. I think that we really bonded on that. But that little face! He was just so vulnerable.
Actually, I fell in love with him on Welcome Back, Kotter. I had a big crush on David Cassidy when I was a kid. And so he’s a little bit of a Cassidy, but he also has that bad-boy street thing, and was an incredible dancer. I just remember that scene in Saturday Night Fever where his father smacks his head and he’s like, “I work a long time on my hair!” I mean, you fall in love with him. You’re just completely smitten. I was smitten with him. I was madly in love with my husband so I didn’t have a crush on him, but I just thought he had a level of vulnerability for a man that I found really moving.
Your character is very skittish and nervous and frightened about this idea of being vulnerable to somebody else, and you convey that really well. I’m curious if you relate to that at all.
I would say, if someone had told me when I was 21 that by the time I was 23 I would be married and have my first child, I would’ve told them that they were fucking insane. Would’ve been like, “Ex-squeeze me, what the fuck are you talking about? I am working.” I mean, I’d been working professionally since I was 16. And I was living on my own, making my own money. I was like, “I’m fiercely independent.” So when I did fall in love with Kevin, it really just felt like there was some urgency to get married, and I don’t know what it was. Suddenly this thing came over me and I was terrified. Because I didn’t count on people. I just didn’t. That wasn’t where I felt like I would be successful. Not as an actor, I mean as a person. A lot of people had let me down and so I was not interested in being vulnerable or connected in a really serious way.
What was it specifically about this relationship that changed you?
He just was the one, you know? He was just the soul mate, he was just the one.
You mentioned it briefly, but I want to get back into the shaving scene. Why is that scene so hot?
I had no idea that it was going to be like the most romantic scene in the movie. People come up to me, still, and it’s the most romantic thing they’ve ever seen. It’s like, just me cutting his hair! But it was so sweet. I think it was sensual. Everyone says it’s the most sensual scene. And it is sensual, right? Because he does all these close-ups of the cream going on his face and me staring at him lovingly while we shave. And I think that definitely was the direction Jon Turteltaub gave us: “Sensual, sensual.” And everything was slow motion, and the lighting was insane. It took a long time to shoot it.
How did you interpret that direction?
My goal was to just completely love and nurture in that scene. I think that was my actionable item. And it could’ve gone into, like, a mother taking care of her baby boy, but that wasn’t it. They were falling in love at that moment, weren’t they? I remember we had to be really careful, because John’s hair had to sort of be just so.
Did you actually shave John?
No, I was not shaving him. No, no, no. It was foam and then a fake razor and he was clean shaven underneath.
Were you nervous at all, filming something that intimate?
No. I think he was nervous. Honestly. There was something about that day. He was nervous in that scene, and he was nervous in the other kissy-face love-making scene. I find that a lot: That guys are usually the more nervous ones and you kind of have to just guide them through it.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. I think that for guys to be sexual on camera, and sensual, is not totally organic and natural, whereas women are socialized to do that at a really young age.
Well, the love scene itself is rather chaste. What sort of direction did you guys have? Was there more that you shot and they didn’t use?
Now that I’m remembering, I remember both [John and Jon] were a wreck. And I was like, “Guys, I got this. Let me just tell you exactly what I would do if I were her slash me.” She kind of takes control of the whole thing. I mean, if you look at that scene again, you’ll think John looks terrified. Maybe not, I don’t know.
I’ll have to watch it again.
And Jon Turteltaub is such — prude is such a mean word, but he’s shy. He’s shy. I think they’re both shy, And I’m not shy.
So you had to take charge of the whole love scene?
I kind of felt like that, yeah. I mean, they may remember differently. But I remember being a little nervous, and then I remember being like, “Oh, they’re so nervous. I need to be like, ‘Come on, guys. Here’s the way we do it.’” And yes, it’s chaste, but I had to take my shirt off, of course. Women always have to take their shirts off. I mean, it was the back of me. But it felt a little vulnerable. And John Travolta stared in my eyes. He didn’t look anywhere else, just looked right in my eyes.
I also really like the way the movie subtly handles faith and spirituality in a way that doesn’t hit you over the head with anything. It’s not preachy but it’s moving. Were there, like, late-night discussions about those sorts of things taking place during filming?
I think that was at a time where I really wasn’t feeling any of that stuff myself. Since then, I’ve become much more of a spiritual person. At the time, I wasn’t. But [on set] we talked about believing in something else that isn’t just what we see in the universe. We talked about what we don’t know and how much we don’t know. And, yeah, some people are in tune with things that aren’t visible to the naked eye.
What shifted in your life or in your mind that made you more spiritual later?
Gosh, I don’t really know. Nature is very spiritual for me. At this point in my life, there’s so much I don’t know and I have to believe that when I look at nature — in particular, a flower. It’s like, I know the flower’s beautiful to attract bees. But really? Is that it? Is that the only reason why a flower’s beautiful? Is it there because something is creating beautiful things and knows it?
I’ve always felt that nature was holy. Especially now that nature is in peril. I feel something every time I see something struggling to live in the world that we’ve created for it.
As an empath and an actor, do you feel like you can tap into things a little bit more than the average person?
I definitely think that sometimes I get a sense of what’s going on with my kids, and so I’ll call them and be like, “I was called to call you. I had this feeling that I needed to call you.” And they’ll be like, “Well, that’s funny because …” So yeah. I usually have a sense about the people that I really love a lot. And yeah, I see things. It’s weird.
Sometimes I’m in a situation where I’m working with people I don’t know, and then I meet somebody and they act a certain way, and I’m like, “I wonder if it’s because of blah, blah, blah.” And then I find out that that’s the reason. It’s hard to explain. But I think that’s not necessarily a good thing, being hypervigilant about other people in a way that’s probably not all healthy. How are they feeling? Are they okay? How are they feeling? Are they okay?
I have a little bit of that hypervigilance, too. And it can definitely get exhausting.
Right. It is, it’s exhausting. And then people like us like to be alone. We really need to spend some time alone because it’s too exhausting to be around people and their feelings.
There’s another scene that really sticks with me: When you guys are sitting under the tree, near the end of the film, and he asks you to pretend you’re rocking a child. You get this really beautiful expression. Do you remember filming that? Were you thinking of your own kids?
God, that was so beautiful. And I totally did. I used my kid.
Do you show your work to your kids?
My kids have no interest in seeing our work. At all. I mean, seriously, from the time they were little. I honestly don’t even know if they’ve seen that movie. They probably haven’t.
You should show them this one!
[Laughs.] “You must sit down and watch mommy’s work from 30 years ago.” No. No, that wouldn’t happen.