'I've had my time'
He don’t talk politics or money, has no time for flattery and says he “works for wages”. TARA BRADYmeets the real Harrison Ford (and tries not to stare at his earring)
THERE IS NO training manual or official protocol to prepare for the moment one knocks on a door to find Harrison Ford standing on the other side. We know it’s probably best not to stare at the earring. We know to be polite for, as the euphemism goes, he is said to “suffer fools badly”. He shakes hands and exchanges pleasantries just like a regular mortal. Yes, we’ve just flown in from Dublin; weather not so bad this morning.
But it’s Harrison Ford, dude. What can we possibly say to the man who has embodied Han Solo and Indiana Jones and Deckard?
His face and delivery stays deadpan and motionless, it’s enough to signal that much of the star’s perceived grumpiness is likely parch-dry midwestern wit. More than four decades have elapsed since Ford arrived in La La Land, hoping to find work as his mother once had, in radio voiceovers. But he retains a direct, succinct manner befitting the prairie state. It’s not that he’s cantankerous exactly – he leaves little room for horseshit to creep into a conversation.
Enquire about the genres that made him a household name: “I don’t know how to think about it because I just don’t. I have no genre consciousness. I don’t act in genre films; I just act. I try always to confine my work and my focus to character and how that character relates to the movie. I could care less if it’s a western or sci-fi.”
Mention red carpets, premieres and the blandishments of Hollywood: “A nightmare. Never liked that stuff.” Talk about fans and adulation: “I think of them as customers.” Ask him about himself: “Nobody wants to see a romance with a 69-year-old man.”
He attributes this plain sensibility to his plain Illinois upbringing. “We don’t talk about religion or politics or how much money we make,” he says.
“We have no time for flattery. But what makes Chicago and Illinois interesting is the work ethic. It’s a very practical, pragmatic, strong work ethic based mentality.” He says he approaches his glittering career accordingly. A former carpenter, he likes to think of his roles as “piece work” to be undertaken with due care and pride. He “works for wages” but if a job is worth doing
“What’s consistent for me across disciplines is focus and work,” he says. “How I organise it. What tools I need to bring. And you can always pick out the bits you wish you’d done better. You learn something every time that’ll help you to train your energy and intelligence better in the future. I always thought when I was imagining what it would be like as an actor that that was a good point. You can keep working. You can keep learning. You don’t have to stop as long as you’re willing to play old farts.”
It is perhaps not the most nuanced description of Cowboys & Aliensruthless cattle baron Colonel Dolarhyde but it is, nonetheless, accurate. Ford’s latest movie assignment weds his sizeable box office clout ($3.6 billion and counting) to the popcorn might of Daniel Craig and Iron Mandirector Jon Favreau for a spectacular stand-off between an old west posse and marauding extra-terrestrials.
“The first time I read it I made it as far as 20-30 pages,” says Ford. “It’s not that I didn’t get it. I thought ‘oh well, it’s kind of jokey and it’s from a comic book’. But what I didn’t know was that John (Favreau) had an intention of making a serious western. I was reading the same words and hearing different music. Tone is everything here. And then Daniel Craig – who had been attached to the movie for months – was very generous by allowing my character a bit more space and time.”
Is it weird finding himself second on the bill to James Bond?
“Well, I’m not a leading man anymore I’m a character actor,” he shrugs. “I’ve had my time. Some people realise they’re old when they’re 50 or 60, but at 69 you know it. So the leading man is Daniel Craig and I’m playing a character part and I’m happy to do it. I loved it. It was never my ambition to be on top of anything. It was my ambition to do good work in whatever was available.”
Ford was born in Chicago in 1942 to Dorothy, a former radio actress of Jewish, German descent, and Christopher, an actor turned advertising executive with Irish Catholic origins. “But there was never a clear path for me to go seeking relatives in Ireland,” says Ford. “My father didn’t seem to know too much about his Irish heritage or else he was pretty closed-mouthed about what he did know. There wasn’t much dialogue about anything with my father. He was orphaned early. His father was a vaudevillian who fell backwards onto a New York brownstone stoop right onto his head and died. As far as I knew he had no family left after that.” Mostly, the actor remembers the “religious” instruction. Harrison and younger brother Terence were, Ford says, “raised Democrat”.
“We had no catechism,” he says. “Instead we were given Democrat instruction; to be liberals of every stripe. I don’t judge what other people do. At least I try not to ever judge what other people do unless they do it in my face.” Does that creed come with a guilt complex? “It does, thank you,” says Ford. “I only got out of the instruction. Nobody escapes the residual Jewish Catholic guilt.”
And did he ever receive a tap on the shoulder from meaningful party sources? He has, after all, played a US president in Air Force One. How hard could it be?
“I’ve never been that interested in politics,” he says. “Contrary to mythology I’ve never been a backdoor visitor to the White House. It’s too big a job. With politics there’s always an agenda and I don’t think that way. I’ll support someone but I don’t want to meet them.” Acting was already something of a family guild when, in 1964, young Ford made his way to Hollywood. Within two years Columbia Pictures came in with a $150 a week contract.
“I was extraordinarily lucky,” he recalls. “I had a five-minute interview. ‘How tall are you? Do you speak Spanish? Can you ride a horse? We’ll let you know.” I went down to get the elevator, realised I had to take a pee and when I came back out the guy’s assistant was gesturing me in. And the guy said “Do you want to be under contract?” and I said ‘What does that mean?’and he said ‘$150 dollars a week’. It took me a while to register that I wasn’t obliged to pay him $150 a week. So now I was an actor. You can’t be much luckier than that.”
He was lucky but far from content. He earned a regular stream of income from TV horse operas The Virginian, Gunsmokeand Kung Fu. The work was dull and unchallenging and inspired Ford to retreat into professional carpentry for some seven years. He built stages for The Doors and a recording studio for Brazilian jazz musician, Sérgio Mendes until 1973 when a call brought him to George Lucas’ house to build cabinets.
The director promptly cast him in American Graffitiand brought him to the attention of Francis Ford Coppola, who in turn used the actor in The Conversationand Apocalypse Now, a set where Ford would meet Melissa Mathison, the future screenwriter of ETand his domestic partner for the next 20 years. Between those gigs, Ford built Coppola an office.
The actor insists, nonetheless, that his place and affiliation with Hollywood’s Brat Pack – that loose nexus comprising his former employers Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola – has been grossly exaggerated.
“The perception that I was knocking around with those guys was never correct,” he says. “I just worked with them a few times. I’ve only ever spent very small, finite periods of time with any of the people I work with.”
It is, however, difficult to envisage the Brativerse without him. Would Indiana Jones have had the same resonance if Tom Selleck, director Lucas’s first choice for the role, had been available? Would Star Warshave worked if Ford hadn’t insisted that Han Solo says “I know” instead of “I love you, too” as the line appeared on the script?
“I can’t take credit,” shrugs Ford. “It’s a collaborative business.”
He doesn’t share his peers’ enthusiasm for the medium. He likes movies when he sees them, he says, but that doesn’t happen often. It runs in the family: Calista Flockhart, whom he married during the Cowboys & Aliensshoot following an eight-year relationship and 16-month engagement, claims to have never seen Star Wars.
“I was never a film buff,” says Ford. “I went to Saturday matinees when I was a kid and I went to movies when I was at college because it was a good way of getting a girl to go to a dark room with me for a couple of hours and I could make pathetic attempts to grope her. Once I started to act I didn’t want to see movies because I was worried I’d start imitating somebody else. So I just got out of the habit. We have a 10 year-old at home so movies start when we’re doing the dishes.”
The young lad is Liam, Flockhart’s first child, but Ford’s fifth. Is it more tiring than it used to be?
“Yes, but it’s also an opportunity,” smiles Ford. “I think it’s something you have to learn as a man. I think mothers are more naturally gifted caregivers. They’re better at it. They have that connection. I’ve always felt very connected to my kids but sometimes I was also very connected to my work and – when my first kids were born in particular – I wasn’t there as much as I should have been. Now I have a little more experience under my belt.”
Between parental duties and his newfound success as a character actor, Ford collects and flies helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Is it a boyish collecting impulse or is it something bigger?
“There’s so much I love about it. A lot of it has to do with the combination of the discipline and the freedom. Being responsible for yourself. Meeting certain standards.
“I love the opportunity to live in a three dimensional world. When your feet are on the ground you’re only living in two dimensions. I was 52 years old when I started flying. I didn’t know if I could learn anything really. I wanted to be something other than an actor when they came to engrave something on my tombstone. And I love the mechanics.”
Hasn’t his inner-geek ever considered the other side of the lens?
“It looked too much like a real job. I’d come in and work on a film for a period of time and leave but the director would be working for a year and a half on it. I never wanted to be in charge of something as big and bumptious as a movie. I love to collaborate. I love to make my case. I don’t need to be in charge. I want to do the job and move along.” Spoken like a cowboy.