This Ford's not for crossing
Harrison Ford sports a small gold stud in the lobe of his left ear. Is that for the new movie? I wonder. "It's for my ear," he replies drily. Writing in his Biographical Dictionary Of Cinema the critic, David Thomson, observes of Harrison Ford: "There is a distance about him, a restrained, chilling patience that seems wary of going beyond his own known limits." Thomson was referring to Ford's screen work, but that restrained patience and wariness was very much in evidence on meeting Ford for an interview at a Los Angeles hotel.
He is precise and deliberate in his speech, penetrating in his gaze, reluctant to go with digressions from the agenda that is the movie he's promoting - Air Force One - and prone to prickliness. His face is tanned from working on Hawaiian locations for the romantic comedy, Six Days, Seven Nights, in which he plays a South Seas cargo pilot getting involved with a woman (Anne Heche) from the fashion industry. He is smartly dressed in a dark blue suit and navy shirt.
Directed with flair and at a driving pace by Wolfgang Petersen, Air Force One is a taut thriller: crucial to its success is the stellar and authoritative presence of Harrison Ford in the leading role.
"Get off my plane," he thunders at Gary Oldman, playing the head terrorist. Ford's President Marshall is a gutsy, resourceful, middle-aged hero, and this, the snappiest line of dialogue in the movie, is delivered with the grit and gusto of Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry inviting a punk to make his day: it has American cinema audiences leaping and cheering in their seats.
Just before he stepped on to the aircraft, flying home from Russia, Harrison Ford's US President James Marshall has solemnly vowed: "We will never negotiate with terrorists. Now it's their turn to be afraid." Which is pretty much an invitation to the nearest hijacker and sure enough, within moments Kazakhstani terrorists are holding the leader of the free world and his family to ransom.
This Marshall is a decorated Vietnam War helicopter pilot and a determined man of action. His presidential style has been described by one American critic as a cross between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Clint Eastwood.
So, how does Ford respond to one American review which stated that "limousine liberals may squirm" at the politics of Air Force One?
"I don't know what limousine liberals are," he responds.
People with liberal views who might object to the politics of the movie? "I don't know what the politics of the film are," he says. "The film doesn't have politics. This is a film about an individual's determination, tenacity and will to triumph over daunting circumstances. I don't think this is a film about American patriotism in any way, shape or form. It's not a film about American dominance or American pride or American influence.
"It's interesting that this is a man of great influence, this president, and that he takes seriously the ethical commitment of his job and his effect on the world.
"And it's interesting that in his statement at the beginning of the film, where he takes responsibility for failure to act, he then faces this tiger of terrorism in his own life and is forced to eat the words he so fiercely proclaimed and then has to struggle back to set things right."
Fictitious American presidents have been proliferating on movie screens Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 and the White House has become as familiar a film location as Sunset Boulevard (see panel, right). When Ford met President Clinton in Wyoming last year, he asked for and was granted a tour of the real Air Force One. "I had met the president when he was in Jackson the previous summer on a family vacation and on that occasion I hosted a small dinner party for the president and the first lady at my home. That was the first time I spent any time with him. I had spoken to him on the phone once before and I briefly met him on an earlier occasion. So we don't have a long relationship, or a relationship. I don't consider myself to be an intimate of the president - more an acquaintance."
Ford says he greatly enjoyed making Air Force One: "Each day was well organised. It was a pleasure working with everyone involved and with that material. We called it Air Force Fun." That must have been refreshing, I suggest, after the alleged disagreements between Brad Pitt and Ford on his previous movie, The Devil's Own. Would he have described that as The Devil's Fun? "No, we didn't call that The Devil's Fun," he frowns. Could he elaborate? "I'm here to talk about Air Force One, not The Devil's Own which has, er, passed into show business history. But it's nice of you to give me the opportunity."
Would Ford be interested in playing against his heroic screen persona and acting as a villain for once? "The only time it came up was when Martin Scorsese was doing Cape Fear. He asked Bob De Niro to ask me to play the lawyer, and I told De Niro that the only way I would be interested in doing that film would be if he played the lawyer and I played his role. Of course, he didn't want to give up his part."
Ford, who turned 55 last month, was born in Chicago to an Irish father and a Russian-Jewish mother and educated at Ripon College in Wisconsin where hestarted out in acting. Graduating at the age of 22, he moved to Hollywood and was was signed as a contract player by Columbia Pictures at $150 a week.
In the late 1960s, he worked steadily in bit-parts and supporting roles on television, in The Virginian, Gunsmoke and Ironside and in movies such as Dead Heat On A Merry-Go-Round, Luv and Getting Straight. Disappointed by his lack of progress, Ford quit movies for a few years and worked as a professional carpenter until 1973 when, aged 31, he was chosen by rising director George Lucas as one of the fresh young cast in the "where were you in 1962" movie, American Graffiti, which became a surprise smash in the US.
Four years later, Lucas cast Ford as the daring Han Solo in Star Wars and its two sequels. Ford scored with another hit trilogy when he played the laconic archaeologist-adventurer, Indiana Jones, in the Spielberg-directed, Lucas-produced Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels. Presenting an award recently to Sean Connery, who co-starred in one of those sequels, Ford remarked of himself and Connery: "We're of the show-up-on-time, do-it-and-go-home school of acting."
Ford's other notable credits have included The Conversation, Blade Runner, Witness, The Mosquito Coast, Working Girl and The Fugitive, although he was less happily cast, for example, tangling with the Provos in both Patriot Games and the recent The Devil's Own. He commands a fee of $20 million for every movie he makes.
A grandfather, he has two sons, aged 30 and 27, from his first marriage, and a 10-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter by his second wife, Melissa Mathison, screenwriter of ET, among others. One striking feature of Air Force One is the force Gary Oldman employs when he strikes Ford on screen. "What you see is physical acting which, for me, is fun to do and critical to the success of those scenes in the film," he says, warming to the topic. "All I urged Gary Oldman to do was to slap me hard enough that you could see the impact it had on my face. It had to be convincing that this was an affront to this man's dignity."
Ford abruptly demonstrates what he's talking about and slaps himself hard across the left hand side of his face. It's quite a slap. "That means something," he says without a pause. "And that I'm quite willing to endure for $20 million!
"It's not that difficult to do, no more difficult than playing tennis, which I enjoy doing. I have developed a certain degree of skill in physical expression in these moments and I think it brings a great deal of truth and reality to the films. It's a small price to pay."
Air Force One goes on national release in Ireland on September 12th