John Travolta has revealed it was his own near-death experience while flying a plane on Thanksgiving that first drew him to “The Shepherd,” the new Alfonso Cuarón-produced short film set to premiere on Disney+ this winter.
The film, which is based on Frederick Forsyth’s 1975 novella of the same name, tells the story of Freddie Hooke (played by Ben Radcliffe), a young Royal Air Force pilot flying home for Christmas across the North Sea. Shortly into the journey his de Havilland Vampire jet suffers total electrical failure, leaving Freddie facing almost certain death. Suddenly a mysterious pilot (played by Travolta) appears in the sky, ready to guide the young man to safety.
Travolta eschewed a traditional Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday evening in favor of attending the film’s intimate premiere in London, where he watched “The Shepherd” on a big screen for the first time before participating in a Q&A alongside writer and director Iain Softley.
During the event, the actor, who has a real-life pilot’s license, touched on the topic of his own near-miss plane crash in 1992, a subject he hasn’t discussed in public for almost thirty years. “I actually experienced a total electrical failure, not in a Vampire but in a corporate jet over Washington DC,” Travolta said. “So when I read [Forsyth’s] book, it resonated even more because of this experience I had personally had.”
“I knew what it felt like to absolutely think you’re going to die,” said Travolta, who was piloting a Gulfstream II from Florida to Maine for Thanksgiving when the incident occurred. “I had two good jet engines but I had no instruments, no electric, nothing. And I thought it was over.”
“And then as if by a miracle, we descended as per the rules to a lower altitude. I saw that Washington DC monument and identified that Washington National Airport was right next to it and I made a landing just like [Freddie] does in the film.”
The actor credited Radcliffe, who was handpicked by Softley out of 150 actors, for “so beautifully” portraying Freddie’s horror as the gravity of his situation hits him. “He captured that despair when you think you’re actually going to die. And I had my family on board and I said ‘This is it, I can’t believe I’m gonna die in this plane.’”
According to a contemporary Washington Post report, the emergency incident took place on Nov. 24, 1992, almost exactly thirty-one years ago to the day of “The Shepherd” screening. Although the actor managed to land safely at the time, blowing only the jet’s tires in the process, a safety investigation later determined the electrical failure had almost caused Travolta’s plane to collide mid-air with a Boeing 747 and resulted in flights being briefly suspended across four airports.
Travolta’s near-death experience didn’t put him off flying, however, and the two-time Oscar nominee purchased his own de Havilland Vampire not long afterwards. A little while after that he stumbled across Forsyth’s book, drawn by the picture of a Vampire jet on its cover, and “instantly fell in love” with the story. “So I’m reading this book saying ‘I’ve lived with this,’” he revealed. “And of course, I was young enough then that I could have played this part [of Freddie]. But I had to wait 30 years to play the Shepherd.”
That’s because, it took three decades to get “The Shepherd” made — despite Travolta’s post-“Pulp Fiction” career boom and perhaps even because of it. After reading the book, the actor quickly snapped up the screen rights from Forsyth but never found the time to make the adaptation happen. “Because it was right after ‘Pulp Fiction,’ I was doing one movie after another,” he recalled. “After 10 years, I just let it go and decided that I was never going to really get to do it.”
It was only after Softley, who also “fell in love” with the book, became attached to the project and connected with Travolta that the actor came back on board. Originally, the team planned to turn “The Shepherd” into a feature-length movie but after the COVID-19 lockdowns stalled development, “Gravity” director Alfonso Cuarón, who was already working with Disney+, approached Softley about turning it into a 40-minute short for the streamer. “I’d known Alfonso for many years, but I didn’t know that he had also fallen in love with this story when he was a child in Mexico,” Softley said.
“There’s very few projects I’ve ever been involved with that were locked in here,” Travolta said, indicating his heart. “I wanted to have a destiny with it for 30 years. It took 30 years but here I am tonight. But 30 years for me, fantasising that we’d get this book done because there’s nothing like it I’ve seen.”
Although he’d originally had his heart set on playing the role of Freddie, the actor said he was able to “let it go very easily” in favour of playing the Shepherd, the pilot who guides Freddie to safety. “I preferred myself in the Shepherd,” he said. “Because I felt like I was the old man that had that experience and could bring someone down safely. So it was much more authentic.”
“I’ve been in various emergencies over the years and it was very easy for me to be that [guide] for someone,” he added. Travolta went on to praise his co-star’s performance, saying: “We’ve seen a lot of actors in cockpits, and often it doesn’t go so well. He was just really genius.” (Radcliffe is set to don his pilot’s uniform again in “Masters of the Air,” Steven Spielberg’s upcoming World War II drama for Apple TV+, in which he plays Capt. John D. Brady.)
As well as echoing his own experiences, Travolta said the book’s themes deeply resonated with him. “It’s life and death and how precious life is,” said the actor, who has tragically suffered two close bereavements (his 16-year-old son Jett died following a seizure in 2009 and his wife Kelly Preston died from breast cancer in 2020).
“So when Freddie comes so close to death and it’s Christmas, and he’s got a girlfriend and he’s got his mother… These are people he’ll miss and we can all identify with what that might be like,” Travolta concluded. “That’s what touches me.”