John Travolta is back in court. The veteran actor, 62, was embraced by a new generation of fans (and nabbed an Emmy nomination) for his uncanny performance as lawyer Robert Shapiro in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Now he’s on the other side of the table. In The Life and Death of John Gotti, Travolta plays the titular notorious American gangster, nicknamed the Teflon Don because of his acquittal in three separate criminal trials. He was eventually convicted in 1992 and died in prison 10 years later.
In this exclusive photo, Gotti is flanked by traitorous friend Willie Boy Johnson (Chris Kerson from True Detective), who’s attempting to make amends after having been an FBI informant for 16 years. “That one really hurt John Gotti,” says director Kevin Connolly (best known as Eric on Entourage). “This is Willie Boy begging for his life, for lack of a better phrase.” (Johnson was murdered in 1988.) Connolly promises that the movie won’t glorify the mobster lifestyle. “There are nice cars and fancy suits in the movie, but we’re also showing where all that eventually leads.”
On that note, the film will candidly depict the man’s final years in prison. “HBO made a Gotti movie in 1996,” Connolly says, “but his death, which was horrible, hasn’t been covered too much. That’s a different angle that we’re going to explore.”
For Connolly, who has directed episodes of television (including Entourage and Unhappily Ever After) and the films Gardener of Eden and Dear Eleanor, working with Travolta is a dream come true. “I’ve been an actor since I’m 6-years-old,” he says, “but just watching John’s process has been pretty incredible. He does so much homework and is so well prepared, I’ve never really seen anything like it. His attention to detail is tremendous. I‘ve leaned a lot about acting from directing him. He’s got such a specific approach. He’s got his process down cold. I’ve been looking up to him for so many years and to now watch him nail down a role like John Gotti is just incredible.”
The movie costars Kelly Preston as Gotti’s wife Victoria, Stacy Keach (Prison Break) as Gotti’s mentor, and Spencer Lofranco (Unbroken) in the crucial role of John Gotti Jr., who himself is a producer on the film.
“Part of the story is about John Jr. going to his father and asking permission to leave the life as they know it,” Connolly says. “And Spencer has this raw, rough around the edges quality that I really love. You’re gonna see big things from this kid.”
The Life and Death of John Gotti arrives in theaters next year.