The reluctant action hero

Sat, Jan 22, 2011, 00:00

INTERVIEW:Harrison Ford is an original Hollywood A-lister, but beyond his films, audiences know next to nothing about the man. DONALD CLARKEattempts to prise open the carapace of a true movie action hero

HARRISON FORD HAS a bit of a reputation. Well, that’s a stupid thing to say. He’s Harrison Ford. He has a reputation for piloting the Millennium Falcon and subduing Nazis with a big bullwhip. Even the stupider of your two cats knows Mr Ford and his works.

More particularly, he has a reputation for being one of the least animated interviewees in show business. Spend a few minutes in the Old Hack Tavern and you will hears tales – stories to chill the blood – of journalists pleading for release after enduring 10 minutes of subsonic monosyllables.

You can, therefore, appreciate my unease as I am escorted towards his room in Claridge’s hotel in London. Well, it’s Harrison Ford, all right. In the business for close to 50 years – although a star for only about two thirds of that period – the actor has become so familiar that his looks have gelled into a type. He’s a Ford-type. Grey all over, his face now so creased that the scar on his chin is barely noticeable, this Ford-type is a little older than many, but he’s still as handsome as that bloke in the Indiana Jones films.

He shakes my hand slowly and sighs his way into a chair. So, as I understand it, he doesn’t much enjoy talking about himself? “That’s more or less the hardest part of it,” he says in an achingly slow voice. “Not so much. But I am here to represent the product and take advantage of this free space in your wonderful publication. I am here to address your constituency and drag them into the fray.”

It’s hard to convey the lack of animation. You’ve seen Ford delivering dialogue in dozens of films and will appreciate that he is rarely confused with Jack Black. But nothing prepares you for the lack of volume. The noise of passing buses occasionally overpowers his leisurely anecdotes.

The “product” in question is a comedy entitled Morning Glory. Ford plays a grumpy, ageing newscaster who, against his will, is compelled to work on a fluffy morning show. It offers a rare and welcome opportunity for Harrison to flex his funny glands.

“It’s a really well written, witty comedy,” he whispers. “And there’s not a lot of those. I haven’t done enough comedy because I haven’t found the material. I haven’t always been thought of for it. In any case, I am happy to have the opportunity to do this. It’s fun. It’s great. I enjoy it.”

He’s actually pretty friendly. But the words come out so slowly, it’s a little difficult to establish any conversational momentum. It’s the sort of delivery you’d expect from the oldest man on the oldest bench in the oldest pub in Connemara. As it happens, Harrison is of Irish descent. Born in Chicago 68 years ago, the son of an advertising executive and a stay-at-home mother, he seems to have had a fairly steady middle-class upbringing. He achieved high rank in the scouts and enjoyed working on his high-school radio station. He boasts German, Russian, Jewish and Irish blood. A tasty combination.

“Oh I have never denied the Irish,” he says. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of. My father’s family are certainly Irish. He was orphaned early on. My father’s father was a blackface vaudevillian in America who died at the age of 25 after falling backwards off a brownstone stoop on to his head on account of being too drunk.”

On account of being Irish?

“Ha ha! No, I would never say that. Maybe you can say that. But I can’t.”

The interesting point here is that, despite that sober background, there was a flamboyant vaudevillian in the family. Delve deeper and you discover that both parents acted on the radio. So, you might argue that he comes from show-business stock. Maybe the drift into acting was inevitable.

A long pause. Another deep inhalation.

“No, no, no. I never thought of that until I was in college. I did philosophy and English, but I wasn’t a good student. Everyone I knew was going off to do something professional – a doctor, a lawyer, that sort of thing. I just could not see myself doing the same thing for 25 years – whatever it was.”

While figuring out how to escape the rat race, Harrison decided to take a few drama classes. He thought the course would just involve “reading plays” and was somewhat taken aback to discover he was expected to do the odd bit of acting. He took to it.

“I soon learned that I quite liked working with people on storytelling. I hadn’t liked working with people on sports teams or in a scout troop, but I liked that storytelling thing.”

And the job is still about storytelling?

“Oh yeah. That’s still the aim.”

It’s a strange career. As most movie fans know, during the 1960s, Harrison Ford spent as much of his time building shelves as delivering dialogue. A skilled carpenter, he made a few cabinets for George Lucas and, when American Graffiti came along, the director found a part for the good-looking tradesman. He also helped Francis Ford Coppola with his extension and later found himself acting in the great man’s Apocalypse Nowand The Conversation.

Before those breaks, however, there were lean times. “You know, it’s not like I felt I had any future. But I was sure that the key to it all was tenacity. Most people don’t bring that with them. I was seeing half the people I came over on the boat with slip away and give up on acting. I just knew that it would take me a while to figure it out. I am not much of a studier, but I learn from experience. All I expected was to earn a modest living as a character actor.”

A character actor? He’s too good-looking for that. Isn’t he? “I wasn’t conventionally good-looking.” Many would disagree. Indeed, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the new Hollywood, fired by post-hippie idealism, was seeking out odder faces and quirkier personae, Ford’s clean, suburban looks seemed a little out of fashion. It took the arrival of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg – and that swing back to the mainstream values of matinee entertainment – for Ford to finally become a movie star.

Now we get to Star Wars. One myth must be confirmed or denied. It has long been claimed that, when Ford saw the script for Lucas’s space opera, in which he played the cavalier Han Solo, he was aghast at the clunky dialogue. Did he really say, “You can type this shit George, but you sure as hell can’t say it”?

“Well, yeah, but it wasn’t when I saw the script. It was when we were actually making the movie. There is one other line that is often unreported: ‘You’ve got to move your f**king mouth when you’re typing, George. Because you can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it.’”

It’s a funny story, but it also conveys a truth about Star Wars: virtually nobody expected the thing to be a hit. We think of the science-fiction picture as one of Hollywood’s most lucrative genres, but, back in the mid-1970s, such enterprises were regarded as the preserve of cultists and nerds. It had been two decades since the last science-fiction boom. Did Harrison himself have any inkling of what was to come?

“Of course not. It’s not even possible. How could anybody be capable of imagining that? The only thing I did note was the similarities between the story and other things that had worked as stories elsewhere. You have the callow youth, the beautiful princess, the rapscallion I played and the sage old wise man. Those are the classic ingredients of stories and people love stories. How bad could it be?”

Not bad at all. Star Warsbecame the biggest movie in US box-office history and Harrison Ford became an A-list movie star. Ford still remembers seeing the picture for the first time and suddenly realising that it might actually change Hollywood. “The minute I saw it with all the effects in place, I thought: this could be something special. Lucky me!”

Well, quite. You couldn’t say that Ford has made nothing but hits. For every Working Girlor Witnessthere was a Hollywood Homicideor a Six Days & Seven Nights. But his status as a proper, old-school star has never since been questioned. Looking back, it seems as if the world was waiting for a chiselled-jawed matinee idol to take over from Paul Newman or Robert Redford.

Confirmation that Ford was our man came, of course, with Raiders of the Lost Arkin 1981. Like Star Wars, the project did not strike all observers as a sure-fire, bankable hit. Indiana Jones was a very creaky class of matinee hero and the series’s structure – cliff-hangers in the jungle – drew its beats from the cheap movie serials of the 1940s and 1950s. Ford only got the part when Tom Selleck, long favoured by Steven Spielberg, was drawn back to Magnum, PI, his hit TV show.

“I think it was more ambitious than you suggest,” he says with a slightly aggrieved sigh. “Even from the beginning. I saw those old series too. But the first Indiana Jones movie was made by a very successful film-maker, Steven Spielberg, and he was not likely to make something shabby and under-scaled.”

Actors who become identified with iconic roles – and few are more iconic than the buccaneering archaeologist – sometimes come to resent their creations. Thirty years after Raiders of the Lost Arkannihilated the world’s box-offices, punters still think of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. The character has become as much a linchpin of popular culture as Batman or Mickey Mouse.

“No. That never bothered me,” he says. “It doesn’t bother me at all. I could see the connections. The success was manipulable and I could use it to do a Jack Ryan movie or I could do K-19 – all because I had that success. I could only get those made because of Indiana Jones and so on and so on.”

That answer confirms Ford as a man of the mainstream. Whereas the Depps and the Penns of the world use their fame to finance directorial debuts concerning drug-addicted idiots savants, Ford is happy to make Jack Ryan movies (the Tom Clancy series that included Clear and Present Danger) or K-19: The Widowmaker(Kathryn Bigelow’s so-so submarine movie).

At any rate, he clarified his affection for Indiana Jones by returning to the role in 2008 with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Set in the 1950s, featuring aliens and communist witch hunts, it wasn’t a bad film, but you do still wonder why he bothered. There are other things. Did Spielberg and Lucas (who wrote the story and co-produced) have to twist his arm?

“I was quite happy to do it. I thought we had a strong script. We had been talking about it for many years. I wanted to move up in time to the 1950s. I wanted it to involve the McCarthy era. So I was seriously invested in it.”

Talk continues of a fifth episode. “Yeah. I know there’s a germ of an idea and that George gets first crack at it. He and Steven work on it. Then I have a say to a certain extent and if it all works out, then away we go.”

So, Harrison Ford will continue to be Harrison Ford. Attempts to break through the protective, movie-star carapace continue to yield unimpressive results. It says something about his success in deflecting chatter that, a few years back, reporters felt inclined to report on the uninteresting news that he had got his ear pierced. (The earring is still there, incidentally.) Having recently married Calista Flockhart, some 20 years his junior, Ford was accused of embarking on a much-delayed mid-life crisis. He shrugged, refused to comment and moved on. His mild taciturnity is, perhaps, just a manifestation of shyness or an understandable reluctance to discuss stuff that is none of our business.

An example. What does he think of the political situation in the US at the moment? He has, at least, allowed us to know that he’s a Democrat. “I am from the Midwest,” he says gnomically. “We don’t talk about religion. We don’t talk about politics. We don’t talk about how much money we make.”

Fair enough. We know as much as we need to know.

Morning Gloryis on general release