Harrison Ford: Still Sane After All These Years
Today, as Harrison Ford reprises his role as Han Solo for the first time in over 30 years, let’s take a look at an interview from Movieline magazine from December of 1995. At the time, Ford had recently been named “Star of the Century” and he was promoting his somewhat risky move into romantic comedy, a remake of the Audrey Hepburn movie, Sabrina.
Harrison Ford is the most successful movie star in the history of motion pictures. The numbing figures are well-known: he has starred in four of the 10 top-grossing films of all time; together, his movies have brought in over two billion dollars in the United States alone. In an era that’ s marked by acceleration in the launch/crash-and-burn cycles of star life–soon the word “comet” will be more appropriate–Ford has shown a unique durability. Why this guy?
Talent alone is hardly the answer–Ford is underrated as an actor, but certainly there are more gifted actors out there. Luck has played its usual giant role–1977’s Star Wars was a blazing stroke of luck; 1981′ s Raiders of the Lost Ark would perhaps have made Tom Selleck a movie star had not “Magnum, P.I.” laid claim to him and left Indiana Jones to Ford; Alec Baldwin drove too hard a bargain after the success of The Hunt for Red October and Ford moved in to take over the role of Jack Ryan, another bulls-eye series character. But luck doesn’t explain Ford’ s career–after all, for most actors in Hollywood, luck is just the first step to failure.
The word “disposition” pops up in Ford’ s conversation frequently, perhaps because he recognizes its importance to his success. His disposition– his mental makeup–happens to be an unlikely, but obviously near-perfect, psychological recipe for late 20th-century movie stardom. Even in Hollywood, where all success is by definition a fluke. Ford’s disposition stands out as exquisitely improbable. For example, though an overweening need to be liked is what fuels virtually all Hollywood careers–including those of truly unlikable people–Ford seems to have a far smaller need to be liked than the average citizen.
On the simplest level, this means he is a polite person rather than a friendly one; on a more complicated level, his self-regard demands success, yes, but not adulation. This aspect of Ford’ s “disposition” set him up nicely to operate from strength even when he had no power. Also on the bizarre side in Fantasyland. Ford appears to be fundamentally rational. He has not, for example, trashed his career in search of the Oscar some part of him must want, while he has, for example, returned wisely to tried-and-true “Harrison Ford material” after taking dares with projects he found challenging but audiences weren’t willing to accept him in. In general. Ford appears to have less an urge to manipulate others (and such urges make Hollywood tick), than to control himself (a positively exotic strategy among actors).
Finally, Ford himself seems immune to the idealizations, hero-worship and erotic fixations that rivet fans to stars or other (worthier) heroes. This aloofness from the fan/celebrity dance of death is one of his greatest strengths.
Ford’ s unlikely cocktail of assets, served up over time, now has half the world tipsy with admiration for him. At 53, he is the quintessential late bloomer, having achieved success not until his mid-30s and peaked, if indeed he has peaked, at an age when most stars are on their way out. Ford’s new film is Sabrina, director Sydney Pollack’s remake of Billy Wilder’s 1954 film. In it, he plays the part Humphrey Bogart was miscast in originally, opposite Julia Ormond whose job it is to fill Audrey Hepburn’s shoes in the title role.
Q: Do you think any of the big power shifts that have taken place in Hollywood in the last several months will change your life at all?
A: It won’t make a bit of difference to me. I just work here. I don’t care.
Q: Speaking of power, did you have a good time when President Clinton came over for dinner?
A: Yeah, we had a good time. But it was a private visit and I really don’t have anything much to say about it.
Q: Can you tell me whether you were nervous in the President’s presence?
A: No, I wasn’t.
Q: Let’ s talk about Sabrina. Given that the original is not by any means a great movie, how did you approach the remake?
A: I hadn’t seen the original when I read the [new] script [but] then I was disadvantaged in talking about the script by not having seen the original, so I went and looked at it. I thought Audrey Hepburn was extraordinary as a presence, a personality. I loved Bill Holden. I felt as uncomfortable watching Humphrey Bogart as I think he was being there. The movie had a very dated period feel to it. [Billy] Wilder is a great director, so it’s unsuccessful now mostly just because of the passage of time.
Q: The original Sabrina is very dependent on the radiance of Audrey Hepburn. One would think the new script would have to focus more on your character, Linus, and less on Sabrina, since you could hardly assume you would be able to find the new Audrey Hepburn.
A: We didn’t think we would, and I don’ t think we did. I think Sydney [Pollack, the director] realized it was going to have to be more the shared story of Sabrina and Linus. It is not just about charm, or about qualities that Audrey Hepburn possessed as a person that are fascinating to watch. It’s more a story of the evolution of the effect of this girl, as she grows and matures, on this man who has never been touched by love. Julia [Ormond] brings her own charms and considerable talent. I don’ t think after the first five minutes you think about the old movie at all.
Q: I know that a lot of actresses were considered for this part. I was rather surprised to read in Entertainment Weekly that your wife [screenwriter Melissa Mathison] supposedly objected to Winona Ryder playing Sabrina because she was too young to act opposite you. Is there any truth to that story?
A: It’s bullshit. One of the interesting things about Winona Ryder, something I admire, is that she doesn’t seem to have an age. She’s ageless. I don’t know where they came up with the story. Even if my wife had said it, and she didn’t, it’ s not good thinking. This is, after all, an intergenerational love story. But I do think there is something about Winona Ryder that’s a little too close to Audrey Hepburn. What was difficult was finding an established actress who was willing to bear the comparison, I think it’ s very brave of Julia, and wise of her to know that the film itself will help her to bear that comparison.
Q: Of course, the audience doesn’t give a rip about any of this, do they? Who’ s seen Sabrina lately?
A: Not the people who are going to make the difference. I think of the movie audience as the East Coast and the West Coast, and all of the middle that makes the difference. And the East Coast and the West Coast are influenced by the elitist press and all this kind of nonsense, and the middle of the country could give a damn. They’ ll go to anything they hear is a good movie.
Q: What about the casting of virtually unknown Greg Kinnear?
A: He walked on the set the first day and he had more chops than I had after 12, 15 years. He understands what he’ s doing and he does it with grace. He’ s going to take off like a shot.
Q: The original Sabrina appealed far more to women than men. What about the new one?
A: We’ll have to see. This is a psychologically complicated film. This guy is pretending to be in love, and in the practice, in the performance of love, he becomes engaged by the feelings and open to them and changed. What is a lie turns out to be a dream, and he gets twisted by that. Whether men would prefer to see that kind of film instead of a film in which people are running, jumping and falling down–
Q: We know the answer to that.
A: [Laughs] Yes. Well. I think this is a family picture, which I haven’t done for a while. There’s no swearing, no ill treatment of women, no gratuitous sex or violence. I think it could be a film that women make their men go see. But once there, men will be engaged by it.
Q: In general, the films you’ve made tend to avoid gruesome violence and gratuitous this or that.
A: Gratuitous effects take up the space and the energy and the emotion that could be used for really important moments. If you blow people out of their seats with bullshit every 30 seconds, when something comes along you want them to care about they’ re already numb. The adrenaline’s gone.
Q: You don’t seem like someone who’ d inspect scripts for their political correctness.
A: It’s just a matter of taste. And a matter of respect for the audience as well. I have the choice of what story I want to help tell, and my taste is for stories that support positive relationships between people and that don’ t co-opt important issues and then provide glib answers. I think people feel the difference between bullshit and reality. Bullshit deflects them emotionally, and real relationships engage them.
Q: Have you ever sat through one of your own movies with a real audience?
A: Only in test screenings. I don’ t think I’ve ever seen a film of mine after that period. Once it’s all finished, once we’ve had the last arguments about the cuts and everybody’s had their say, that’ s the last time I see that movie unless it shows up on TV and I watch a few minutes. It’ s over. I’ m on to something else.
Q: Many people cite the scene where you and Kelly McGillis dance in the barn in Witness as one of the most romantic, erotic scenes in the movies. I talked to Peter Weir about how he directed the scene and he said that with romantic scenes you always go back to Alfred Hitchcock because nobody did it better. Do you agree with him on that?
A: I haven’t a clue what he’ s talking about. The way I remember it, we needed them to have a moment alone. Not a lot of it was scripted. We just set up the situation and lightly rehearsed it and shot it. There was not a lot of thinking about it. It was clear that it was about anticipation and violating the rules. Peter asked for a suggestion for the music and I picked it. It was Otis Redding, wasn’t it? No. It was Sam Cooke. Sam Cooke. Go back to Hitchcock? Go back to Sam Cooke if you want romance. That’ s where I’ d go. I don’ t know about Hitchcock. To me he never created a believable human relationship. I find his films incredibly stilted.
Q: I think Weir was talking about the whole choreography of erotic scenes.
A: Maybe what he’ s talking about is that romance is not about coupling. It’ s about attenuating the moment before it happens, and it never has to happen. I think Barbra Streisand said about Sydney Pollack that he’ s the master of foreplay. That in his films people rarely end up doing it, because by that time all the pleasure and anticipation and the interest are gone, except for the people who are getting to do it. It’ s much more fun to watch the tension and anticipation than it is to watch people shut up.
Q: Do you think sexuality, as it exists in movies, leans more egregiously toward the vulgar or toward the boring?
A: Sometimes it gets boring first, and then it gets vulgar. Sometimes it’s vulgar to start out with and then that’ s boring. It’ s certainly some combination of those two characteristics.
Q: I know that you dislike the culture of celebrity and have tried not to encourage it with respect to yourself. How well do you think you’ve succeeded?
A: To the extent I’ve succeeded, it’ s been partly the result of disposition and partly the result of luck. But it has affected me enormously in ways that I don’ t express. I’ m sometimes quite desperate about it. About not having privacy, about not having the opportunity to be anonymous. Giving that up is giving up the most important thing. You’ d better get something for it. What I’ve gotten is considerable–I cannot complain. I got to the point where it wasn’t fun and I quickly passed through–I realized it was of very little interest to anyone else whether I was having a good time or not, so I might as well have a good time and not dwell on what was a minor inconvenience in a life full of privilege and opportunity.
Q: Do you think it’s better for stars to let people know less attractive things about them as a way of demystification, or to work hard to keep their image as positive as possible?
A: I don’ t know. I always try to be on my best behavior because it’s just the way you treat guests. Also, I think it’s unseemly to air your problems and dirty laundry in public. I don’ t feel any obligation or need to make myself seem interesting. I’ve always said that the most interesting thing about me is the job I do. I myself have very little interest in people’ s personal lives. I have a great deal of interest in what they do. I don’t think people go to the movies to see me because I’ m a fascinating person. They go because I have a history of appearing more often than not in good movies. I’d just as soon people not know very much about me, because I want to deliver who I am through characters who are made of pieces of what I am, in varying pro-portions depending on the character.
Q: People do become fascinated with the person they see playing characters they like.
A: When you’ve been around for 20 years, and there’ s been this person Harrison Ford in The Mosquito Coast and this Harrison Ford in Witness and this Harrison Ford in Clear and Present Danger, the aggregate experience over time gives them a lot more information about who that person is than a person who appears in two movies and turns out to be a drug addict or a person who… I’m not going to say, picks up a hooker on Hollywood Boulevard.
Q: For a time, you pointedly refrained from revealing what state you lived in–and then you had journalists interviewing you there! What happened in between?
A: It became fruitless. People would write a whole fuckin’ article about how they weren’t allowed to say where I was. Forget it. Let’s get to the work.
Q: Are there any places in the world where you can go and not be recognized?
A: I remember when I was in Fez, Morocco, during a break from one of the Indiana Jones movies, there were two movie theaters in town and both were playing movies I was in. And I realized, this is the end, this is the end of privacy. I could walk down the street though, because people’ s recognition is totally based on anticipation. You walk down Madison Avenue and they’re expecting to see you. But after this much time, I don’t have the expectation I’ m going to be recognized or care if I’m recognized. It’s just a fact of life. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. It’s great when they don’t. It’s inevitably positive when they do. Because these people are customers of mine, and by virtue of the fact that they’re engaging me, most of them are satisfied customers, so the exchange is, for me, usually based on that relationship. I don’t know what it’ s based on for them. For me. this is a person who’s supporting my career and it’s very little trouble for me to accommodate [my fans], unless I’ m actually taking a pee at the time.
Q: Do you make any effort to look anonymous or do you figure it’s not worth the effort?
A: It’s not. I never did it full Michael Jackson. The most I ever did was try to behave anonymously, and I still do that. There’s a difference between the head held high and the proud step and the walk of the average citizen.
Q: It seems from everything written about you, and all of your visible life, that you have quite a lot of common sense. Or uncommon good sense. Do you agree?
A: Common sense is all I have.
Q: Have you had it all along?
A: I’ve always had a pragmatic attitude. I’ m not blessed with a great intellect, but I am blessed by having a certain common sense.
Q: In a place like the movie business, common sense comes off as an absolute mystique.
A: [Laughs] Well, I have met others who have it.
A: Sydney Pollack, for one.
Q: But see? You can actually name the people who have it.
A: Yeah. I can name them.
Q: If you had become successful at a much earlier age, how would you have handled it?
A: Less well. I was 35 when I did Star Wars, and I’ d been an actor and a carpenter and then an actor again, so I was pretty much inured and also experienced by the time it happened. By that time the only use I had for fame was to gainer opportunity.
Q: How did it come about last year that you were named the “Star of the Century”?
A: [Snorts] Well, it was a total setup. Some statistical construction of the National Association of Theater Owners. I know it had to do with money, and nothing else. The reason I was there was to promote Clear and Present Danger and in aid of that, to accept the award was not a disadvantage. I said to them, “I know why you’re giving me this award in 1994, six years before the end of the century. It’s because if you wait any longer, you’ ll have to give it to Macaulay Culkin.” It was a joke, but…
Q: And now Macaulay Culkin has disappeared from the face of the earth.
A: Yeah, but it was a good joke [at the time].
Q: I read that the college you flunked out of–Ripon–wanted you to come back for an honorary degree. Is that not a terrible idea?
A: Why, don’t they all do that? Invite those flunkies who’ve become notably successful–and most likely well-off–to return, with the very firm belief that such an honor would loosen the purse strings? Is that not the reality of such situations?
Q: So you’re not going to give into this temptation?
A: I’m not. It was a perfectly OK school. I didn’t have a real good time there, but I don’ t blame them for that. I don’ t aspire to have an honorary degree. If they could give me the knowledge I should have gained when I was there and instead pissed away…
Q: Couldn’t you learn now what you would have learned there? Haven’t you?
A: No, I haven’t. There are big holes in my knowledge.
Q: If you could lake a year off to study, what would you study?
A: I’m doing it. I’m studying to be a pilot.
Q: I mean stuff you would’ve learned in college, like physics.
A: That’s one of the key things I didn’t learn in college. I dunked a science survey course that had equal parts chemistry, biology and physics. I flunked it the first time because of a complete failure in chemistry and physics–I was good in biology–and I flunked it the second time. I flunked logic two times as well.
Q: When you worked with River Phoenix–on The Mosquito Coast, and he also played the young Indiana Jones–did you fear for him at all?
A: Nope. He was strong, quick, happy, well-adjusted. He had a great relationship with his family. He was a terrific person. I’ m really… very sad about what happened.
Q: It seems to have been a matter of drugs.
A: I don’t think there’s any way you can say that River had the kind of personality that becomes drug-dependent. But I think he was a person who became interested in everything and excited by everything and loved to get into any kind of shit just for the knowledge and experience. I don’t think he sought fun through drugs. The quest wasn’t for a high, but for an opening up and engagement in the world. He was a sweet, wonderful boy.
Q: Candy Clark, one of your co-stars in American Graffiti, recalled in a Movieline interview that you and another co-star, Paul LeMat, drank together and ended up doing things like putting beer cans on top of the Holiday Inn sign. Did you indeed raise a lot of hell?
A: I raised a lot of hell because I had a lot of time on my hands. It was all shot at night, so everybody was up all night whether they were shooting or not. I was a bit of a carouser in those days. And I was in the company of other hell-raisers. If I’ d been in the company of priests I would have behaved differently.
Q: After Star Wars you seem to have mellowed considerably. Were you, so to speak, in the company of priests then?
A: Rather, yeah.
Q: Alec Guinness must have been the first great actor you came in contact with, right?
A: Yeah. He was very charming and warm, and of course I was scared to death of appearing in the same frame with him. But the day we met he spent a couple of hours on the phone trying to find me an apartment in London. He was delightfully down-to-earth and absolutely did not insist on deference. Although you couldn’t [help] but grant it.
Q: A few different stories about you have referred to your “inner rage.” Is the word “rage” really necessary? Wouldn’t “anger” do? Where are these comments coming from?
A: It’ s coming from hyperbole. And it’ s coming from a period of time when I wasn’t encouraged or allowed to influence the situations I was in. It was born of frustration, and frustration led to anxiety. And anxiety led to inappropriate expression often. But it was almost always confined to: “Fuck me? Fuck you.”
A: “You don’ t care what I have to say? Fuck you” “You think I’ m a dip? Fuck you” “You think I’ m stupid and can’ t take advantage of this opportunity? Fuck you” That’ s what it comes from. It doesn’t come from any judgment about my superiority. Still, I think it’ s been overstated.
Q: You’re known for having a lot of creative input on your films without going so far as to actually direct, as other actors with your level of power have done.
A: I don’ t want to be the boss, I don’ t believe I’ve developed the skills to be a director.
Q: Other actors seem to think they have to direct, whereas you seem to be able to get what you need done without directing.
A: I like to go away and have another life. When you gel involved in directing you lose whatever time you’ve tried to set aside for your personal life. I like to work intensely for a period of time and then finish and go back to something resembling real life. If you direct, you’ re looking at two years instead of five or six months. Enough is enough. I watch directors, and know this to be the hardest job in the world. The hardest job in the world.
Q: Most directors seem to have just so many movies in them. Do you feet that way about yourself?
A: Sometimes I feel that way. Then I read a piece of material that engages me emotionally and I realize that’ s the coin of the realm, emotion, and it never actually leaves you. Invention is not as important as investment. You don’ t really have to be all that good, all that smart. You just have to be there and give of yourself, and take.
Q: How did you deal with failure as a young actor?
A: My feeling was that you could succeed simply on the basis of attrition. I came in on that mythical bus to Hollywood with a full busload, and in two years half of them had gone back to Omaha. After three years, another third had left. After five or six years, you’ re the only one left from that bus. Attrition diminished the competition. I never gave up. I had a limited ambition: to make a living as an actor. But I always knew that if I worked at it long enough I would reach that limited ambition. So my way of dealing with failure was to choose something I could succeed at to put food on the table. I became a carpenter. I always knew that taking the wrong job was failure before you even showed up. I was terribly frustrated, though, and some of the anger that people attribute to me came out of that frustration.
Q: What were your feelings after the failure of The Mosquito Coast?
A: I adored that movie. If people didn’t want to see me be mean to kids, I understood that. But I was thrilled to have made that movie, to have worked with Peter Weir, to have been in Belize for five months, to have worked with River and Helen Mirren. That was a success for me.
Q: One story written about you quoted “close friends” as being of the opinion that your character in The Mosquito Coast was so much like you the film could have been called The Harrison Ford Story. What did they mean?
A: I don’t know who [said it] and I don’t know what they mean, except that I have the capacity for the kind of indignation and ire that [Coast character] Allie Fox showed at the injustice and wrongness of the world–I don’t pin it on the Japanese or whoever else Allie used as excuses for his own failure but…
Q: You also don’ t seem to have his propensity for going off the deep end.
A: No. I don’t.
Q: What about Frantic, which also failed at the box office?
A: I like that film. It’ s not a perfect film, but it’ s good.
Q: What was the idea in that film?
A: Fish out of water.
Q: Where did it fail?
A: Fish out of water sometimes die from lack of something to breathe. If it is a failure. What I’m describing to you is my separation from commercial success or failure. I’ve always looked at success as giving me the opportunity to fail. The circumstances that create the success or failure of a film are so complicated, I simply value the experience.
Q: You are not all that happy with Blade Runner, even in its restored version, are you?
A: It really is Ridley Scott’s expression. It’ s what he wanted to make. My dissatisfaction with it was in the communication between Ridley and myself about what it was he wanted to do. I felt more a pawn than a partner. We engaged in a process for several weeks at my dining room table and then very little, of that seemed to make its way into the film. The film is not my style. It depends on surfaces. It’ s intellectual as opposed to visceral. I understand its attraction for others, but I like a more emotionally engaging kind of film.
Q: Which movie of yours are you most proud of?
A: I just don’ t think that way. It’ s like saying, which is your favorite child?
Q: Is your home in Wyoming the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?
A: For pure physical beauty, I think we all get something set in our heads early on, and the first time I saw Jackson Hole I said, this is the place that’ s been in my mind all the time. It was about water, streams, trees, animals, a grand expression of nature–the Tetons rising sharply from a flat, high mountain plateau. There’ s nothing to compare with it. When I need to relax and change my head, I can mentally go on a walk through my woods and remember what you see looking left as you cross the first bridge. I can remember the day I saw the moose down there. I’ve been all over the world and I come back to that and I’ m refreshed and reinvigorated by that beauty, without exception.
Q: One last question. How’s your tennis game?
A: Various. I never did any physical exercise till I was 45 and then I realized I was getting kind of creaky. So I started skiing and playing tennis. I really love tennis and I play it all over the world with different pros. I never play socially because it seems like a waste of time. I like to get out there and work on skills and run around and sweat. So I play with pros, I don’ t mean, like Agassi, but tennis coaches who can tell me how to improve.