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.