You know that scene in a Harrison Ford movie where someone has made him really, really angry? When he gets the fire in his eyes, locks them like laser beams, and quiveringly delivers a stern warning that you'd better not mess with him anymore or he just might lose his practiced self-control? I now know what it feels like to be at the other end of that stare. Luckily for me, Mr. Ford was only telling a story of a memorable encounter with a studio executive. Mr. Ford himself proved to be in fine form, happy to discuss his craft and reminisce about his career and even his boyhood.
From the early days of American Graffiti and Apocalypse Now to his latest picture Extraordinary Measures, Ford has always been a consummate screen actor. He is also an indisputable movie star, whether playing Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Jack Ryan, Rick Deckard (Blade Runner), or the "kick-ass President" (Air Force One); whether headlining a provocative drama (The Mosquito Coast) a pulse-pounding thriller (Frantic, The Fugitive), or something in-between (Witness).
An accomplished pilot and a committed environmentalist, Ford regularly pitches in to his favorite causes by putting in helicopter rescue hours, teaching kids about aviation, or speaking about climate change. In promoting Extraordinary Measures—in which he plays a testy scientist who may hold the key to a treatment for Pompe disease—Ford sat down to chat with me at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Harrison Ford: Whack away.
Groucho: Despite your scrupulous professionalism, the average American filmgoer probably thinks of you in terms of the movie star first—and one of the great things about Extraordinary Measures is that it’s a great reminder of your skill and range as an actor.
Harrison Ford: Well, that’s kind of you to say so. Thank you.
G: Sure. Dr. Robert Stonehill is an iconoclast, making him, I think, kind of an intellectual hero.
G: But he’s also carrying this unacknowledged emotional need. Is that kind of inner tension what made him dramatically interesting to you?
HF: Well, the character, of course, is a fiction. This is based on the true story—the real life story of John Crowley and his family. And the things that are attributed to Stonehill are contributions from a range of different people that Crowley worked with. But we had then the opportunity to create a character. My ambition always is to create a character out of those things that will help tell the story. I’m not really about performance. I’m about storytelling. So I had a lot of options. And one of the things I think adds drama is obstacle. And I wanted to create a character that would be both obstacle and then eventual ally to Crowley. And I wanted to tease that out to the benefit of the film.
HF: I did some research on—of course, I did a lot of research and met well-adjusted kind and socially graceful academic research scientists. So the character is a fiction in every sense. But it seemed to me this guy works alone in an underfunded—as he complains when he first meets Crowley, the coach of the football team makes more money than his entire science budget.
G: Right. Yeah.
HF: And he’s—you know, he’s interested in the disease that besets the Crowley family on a cellular level. His interest is abstract and intellectual. He’s probably never met a Pompe patient and has no ambition to. So I tested the reality of this with other scientists and said, "This is not unknown."
G: Now, when you did that research, I know you toured labs and met with a number of people. You've talked about loving observation as an actor. Are you sort of a magpie? Do you look for certain behaviors you can kind of steal from when you do those meetings?
HF: I didn’t really meet anybody that provided a kind of matrix for the character. But, you know, the beer drinking and cowboy boots and T-shirts and stuff—it was not—
G: Not uncommon.
HF: In general it wasn’t—I never saw it in particular. But neither did I believe that it was—
HF: Unlikely. Yeah.
G: You’ve spoken of how one thought you had in mind was to refashion the image of scientists—to sort of humanize them. I think those things you just described help to do that. You’ve done so much great work as an actor in my humble opinion. But in looking back over your resume, The Mosquito Coast always stands out to me as the most daring and provocative role that you played.
G: It can be difficult for an actor to be out on the edge. Do you ever—have you ever felt insecure about your approach to a role or does your careful preparation always preclude that?
HF: Um, no—the only thing that makes me feel unsure when I’m making a film is disagreement between myself and the director or other people involved. No, I—you know I like to be involved before we start shooting so that any questions I have or concerns that I have have been raised at an appropriate juncture and they can be addressed before we get to the stage, so that when we get there, we can play and not argue.
G: Yeah. Along those lines, Stonehill is a guy—he’s got this antisocial armor that has been built up by bad experience. He’s been burned by—he doesn’t like to suffer fools and he’s been unappreciated. And I’m sure there have been times in a showbiz career when you felt that way. What is it that a director or an actor can do that immediately earns your trust from them?
HF: Oh. You know, I can’t wrap my head around that. I think it’s different in every case. I think people are really very different one to the other, and I’m just—I’m reassured by somebody that appreciates collaboration—is interested in other people’s observation—and generally I work best in a collaborative atmosphere.
G: I have to ask about (500) Days of Summer. I assume that they approached you at some point and said, "Hey, what do you think about us using your image?” Is that true? Did they come to you?
HF: I have no—I know nothing—
G: Do you know you appear in that movie?
HF: No. What movie is that?
G: It’s a romantic comedy, and there’s a guy...who—there’s a fantasy sequence, and he’s walking down the street feeling great like he’s the best he’s ever been, and he looks in the reflection of a car and he sees Han Solo, like, winking back at him.
HF: (Smiling.) I see. Well, I suppose I must have approved that at some point, but I’ve forgotten about it.
G: I bring it up actually because, you know, when I was a boy, my models for masculinity were my father and you, your screen image. And I wonder, when you were a boy, who did you look to for sort of your models for masculinity either onscreen or in your real life?
HF: You know, I had—I was never a kid for heroes, but I was fascinated by the story of Abraham Lincoln.
HF: And I was raised by a couple of old lefties, and I was really—at a certain point when I was a kid, I was—we had a visit to Springfield, Illinois and I met Adlai Stevenson.
G: Oh, wow.
HF: And so, between the two of them, I think they’re the closest that anybody came. I also had a fascination with—my father was in the advertising business and produced and directed radio and television commercials. And I was fascinated by Sky King, until I went to the studio one day with my Dad and met a pudgy little man—
HF: Who didn’t fit my image of Sky King. But I think that tweaked my interest in the whole business of show business.
G: That’s interesting. Did you have a "eureka" moment as a young actor about how to navigate the business and wrangle your independence?
HF: I don’t think it was a moment. I think that it was a series of occasions. Maybe the only "eureka moment" was when I was under contract to Columbia Pictures at a hundred-fifty dollars a week, and I did my first onscreen movie role and played a bellboy at their insistence.
G: Yeah, Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round.
HF: Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round. I was called into the office of the head of that program or vice-president at Columbia Pictures, and he told me that I would never make it in the business. He told me the story of Tony Curtis. He said, "Tony Curtis delivered a bag of groceries." "A bag of groceries!" he emphasized. "And you took one look at that guy, and you knew that was a movie star!" And I leaned across his desk, and I said, "I thought you were supposed to think that he was a grocery delivery boy."
HF: And he threw me out of his office, of course. But the crux of it all is right there. It’s not about being a movie star. It’s about serving the story.
G: Yeah. Alright, I have to wrap it up—I have to ask my last question. You’ve always been your own man, even as a child when you passively resisted bullies.
G: Is that the secret of your success—uncompromising service to your inner self?
HF: Oh my god—that sounds much too noble.
G: Too grandiose?
HF: Too noble and uncomplicated. I just—I make it up as I go along.
G: All right. On that note, thank you very much for talking to me.
HF: My pleasure. Thanks.
[This interview will run soon on KSJS' Celluloid Dreams—90.5 FM in San Jose. Listen on the web at www.celluloiddreams.net]