Oral history articles are like my crack, and I’ve seen Pulp Fiction about a billion times, so Vanity Fair’s new oral history of Pulp Fiction was of obvious interest. Casting is a particularly tricky part of development, and it’s always fun to play the “what if” game (Nick Nolte as Han Solo?!? Nic Cage as Superman?!?). Some Pulp Fiction what-ifs and almost-weres include Daniel Day-Lewis as Vincent Vega, Paul Calderon as Jules Winfield, and Matt Dillon as Butch.
Harvey Weinstein was dead-set against giving the role of Vincent Vega to John Travolta. “John Travolta was at that time as cold as they get,” says Mike Simpson, Tarantino’s agent at William Morris Endeavor. “He was less than zero.” Simpson had given Weinstein a “term sheet” of Tarantino’s demands, which included final cut, a two-and-a-half-hour running time, and final choice of actors. “One of the actors I had on the list was John Travolta,” says Tarantino. “And it came back: ‘The entire list is approved . . . except for John Travolta.’ So I got together with Harvey, and he’s like, ‘I can get Daniel Day-Lewis, Sean Penn, William Hurt.’” By then, according to Simpson, “Daniel Day-Lewis and Bruce Willis, who was the biggest star in Hollywood, had both gotten their hands on the script and wanted to play Vincent Vega.”
John Travolta was washed up before Pulp Fiction, he was amazing in Pulp Fiction, and he hasn’t really done anything great since. Casting Travolta wasn’t like Christoph Waltz, where Tarantino discovered this amazing actor that no one had seen before. Travolta was around, but no one else thought he had it in him. I don’t know how many times Tarantino had to watch Look Who’s Talking coked out of his face to see that role in Travolta, but it’s one of the all-time serendipitous castings, where persona and role lined up just perfectly. It’s also fun to imagine Daniel Day-Lewis doing Pulp Fiction lines all perfectly enunciated in his Daniel Plainview voice. “Now HW, eating a bitch out and giving a bitch a foot massage ain’t even the same thing!” (I know that’s a Jules line, but I don’t care).
Bruce Willis’s interest in the project relieved Weinstein’s concerns that the movie lacked bankable stars. With the main role of Vincent Vega already cast, the only option for Willis was Butch, the boxer—which Tarantino had promised to Matt Dillon.
“So he gave Matt the script,” Simpson [Tarantino's agent] tells Seal [Vanity Fair Editor], “and he read it and said, ‘I love it. Let me sleep on it.’ Quentin then called me and said, ‘He’s out. If he can’t tell me face-to-face that he wants to be in the movie—after he read the script—he’s out.’” So the role went to Willis. “Once I got Bruce Willis, Harvey got his big movie star, and we were all good,” says Tarantino. “Bruce Willis made us legit. Reservoir Dogs did fantastic internationally, so everyone was waiting for my new movie. And then when it was my new movie with Bruce Willis, they went apeshit.”
In 2013, there’s no way someone with Tarantino’s 1994 level of fame is allowed to cast the 1994 equivalent John Travolta. These days, a studio would never let you take a chance on an actor, you’d have to take their boring famous person suggestion, probably someone like 2013 Travolta. Whoa, I think I just incepted myself.
The role of Jules Winnfield proved difficult to cast, mainly because Samuel L. Jackson was under the impression the part was his, until he found out he was in danger of losing the role to Paul Calderon. Jackson flew out to L.A. for a last-ditch audition with Tarantino. “I sort of was angry, pissed, tired,” Jackson recalls. He was also hungry, so he bought a takeout burger on his way to the studio, only to find nobody there to greet him. “When they came back, a line producer or somebody who was with them said, ‘I love your work, Mr. Fishburne,’” says Jackson. “It was like a slow burn. He doesn’t know who I am? I was kind of like, F*ck it. At that point I really didn’t care.” Gladstein remembers Jackson’s audition: “In comes Sam with a burger in his hand and a drink in the other hand and stinking like fast food. Me and Quentin and Lawrence were sitting on the couch, and he walked in and just started sipping that shake and biting that burger and looking at all of us. I was scared shitless. I thought that this guy was going to shoot a gun right through my head. His eyes were popping out of his head. And he just stole the part.” Lawrence Bender adds, “He was the guy you see in the movie. He said, ‘Do you think you’re going to give this part to somebody else? I’m going to blow you motherf*ckers away.’”
Samuel L. Jackson yelling “MMM-MMM, this IS a tasty BURGER!” is probably my favorite part of that entire movie. And to think, that whole scene wouldn’t even exist if not for Samuel Jackson raging-eating a hamburger while threatening to shoot a motherf*cker for not being to tell him from another black guy. Stories like this are why I started this site. How could you cover the movie business and have it be anything but comedy?