He has played some of the most memorable action heroes in cinema, yet Harrison Ford fiercely rejects being labelled an action hero.
“I think you should go back and look at your proposition,” he gruffly protested. “If you look at what I’ve done, I’ve done 40 films and maybe five or six of them could be considered action movies. But really I’ve done more drama, thrillers, comedy than I have action.”
Indeed, Ford has made dramas and comedies, but what really comes to mind when one thinks of him is action heroes such as the eponymous Indiana Jones, Han Solo from Star Wars, Dr. Kimble in The Fugitive, Rick Deckard from Blade Runner, Dr. Buckley from Frantic, even feisty policeman John Book from the drama Witness for which he received an Oscar nomination for best actor. But the inexorable Hollywood superstar is not convinced.
“You’re characterised mostly by what’s very successful. But I never considered Indiana Jones movies, for instance, action films. They’re kind of adventure films,” he continues, waving his hand dismissively.
“Acting is storytelling through creating behaviour for a character. I’ve always thought of Indiana Jones movies as being comedic, really. And sometimes the comedy is expressed in physical action.”
I had this heated exchange with Ford at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York, where he came to discuss his new action-filled science fiction Western, Cowboys and Aliens, in which he portrays an iron-fisted cowboy leader (Colonel Dolarhyde), who joins with a stranger (Daniel Craig) and an elusive traveller (Olivia Wilde) to fight off highly sophisticated aliens, who cause havoc in their town and abduct its inhabitants.
No stranger to the saddle, Ford, who owns a ranch in Jackson, Wyoming, liked his and Craig’s horses so much, he ended up purchasing them upon wrapping the shoot.
“I’ve always kept at least two horses in Wyoming. The last two horses before I bought these horses were old and I needed young ones, so I made a deal,” he laughs.
Hailing from the Midwest, Ford grew up playing cowboys and Indians and watching westerns in the local cinema. “I remember those early childhood experiences, but this is a different form of storytelling.”
In spite of liking the script, the notoriously picky actor was initially reluctant to commit to the project.
“My character was well written and his ambitions were clear, but it was not the script, it was the concept that I didn’t think was something I wanted to become involved with. And then I realised that that’s the kind of movie people go to see and enjoy these days. It’s good for your professional reputation every once in a while to do a movie that does well.”
Once deemed the highest-grossing actor of all times, Ford’s instinct for picking the most potentially successful projects has rarely failed him. His films have made over $10 billion at the box office worldwide. Ironically, the journey to this illustrious success began in carpentry.
In 1968, Ford, Frustrated by acting in mediocre films and burdened by the new responsibilities of raising a young family, left acting for carpentry, which ultimately lead him to installing an office for director George Lucas, who ended up casting him in “American Graffiti” and recommending his carpentry services to his friend Francis Coppola, who also ended up offering him a part in his film “The Conversation.”
In the meantime, the struggling actor was so picky he rejected every acting offer, even the well-paid ones, developing a reputation for being surly and grumpy, mainly because he went to auditions and acted as if he did not want to be there.
Ford’s patience and determination to work in the best projects eventually paid off. In 1975, George Lucas offered him the part of Han Solo in Star Wars, which catapulted him into an international superstardom. Six years later, he portrayed the eponymous Indiana Jones, which firmly established him as one of the biggest stars in the world.
But due to the capricious nature of the film business, even the most bankable star was not immune to misjudgements. In 2004, he declined to star in the thriller Syriana and prior to that he had passed on playing the lead role in Traffic. Decisions he has later regretted.
“I think you make so many mistakes in a career,” he muses. “Your judgements are based on circumstances. I’ve turned down films, which have become big successes, because I couldn’t figure out how to do them or I didn’t think I was right for them. But I don’t consider that to be a failure. I’ve made films that didn’t make money. I don’t consider that to be a failure either. I made a couple of movies that I probably shouldn’t have made, but I am not going to talk about them,” he chuckles.
Although the veteran actor is not big on on-set improvisation and rarely demands changes to the script, he never shies from expressing his point of view to directors, whether they are Spielberg or a young director, if he thinks they are doing something wrong.
“I am not shy. I find a way to explain my point of view,” he stresses. “I do what I think needs to be done to protect my investment in the movie. I want the movie that I’m in to be as good as it can be.”
And he didn’t shy from arguing long and hard against shooting Cowboys and Aliens in 3D, when it was considered, and he won. Ford thinks that anamorphic frame is important for the Western.
“It puts you always in context of where you are. And being out on the edge and being on your own is apparent in the anamorphic frame and you can get into the eyes of the characters you’re dealing with. In 3D, you still have to sort of stage it for the camera, which I don’t like anyway. I like, when it’s possible, to let the behaviour dictate the frame, rather than being forced into some preordained staging.”
But what Ford insists on more than anything else is getting paid for his hard work. He concedes that acting for him is merely a job, like plumbing for a plumber, and he is in it for the money.
“I always thought that the trick in this business was to make sure that they paid you fairly, since their respect for you is based on how much they have to pay you. So I have never been shy about asking for money. And I certainly have been well paid,” he laughs satisfactorily.
Dressed casually in jeans and a shirt, with his waist strapped with a cowboy belt as if he has just dismounted a horse that brought him from the wild West, the 68-year-old looks fit and trim and at least a decade younger than his age, but, unlike most Hollywood stars, he has no personal trainer and no special recipe for fitness.
“I don’t do a huge amount of physical activity. I play tennis, I work out sporadically, and eat well and take care of myself.”
Although affable, Ford comes across as cold, grumpy and occasionally acerbic. “Am I grumpy?” He wonders, then acknowledges: “I might be. But I think maybe sometimes it’s misinterpreted. I’ve always been an independent son of a bitch. So, if I’m grumpy, then call me grumpy. I’m all right with that,” he laughs nonchalantly.
Currently, Grumpy is developing a couple of projects, which he wouldn’t disclose, and waiting for George Lucas to come up with an agreeable story line for the next Indiana Jones, which he is eager to revisit.