Harrison Ford: Off the Beaten Path
Mention Harrison Ford’s name to anyone who has ever had to interview him and you should get an interesting response. The infamously private actor is very upfront about the fact that he doesn’t like talking to the press. Lawrence Grobel was well aware of Ford’s reputation when he interviewed him for the cover story of the July 1997 issue of Movieline magazine. His solution to the question of how to get the actor to open up was to ask him a series of off-beat questions.
If you know anyone who knows Harrison Ford personally what he’s like, they’ll tell you he’s playful and funny, among other things. If you are a journalist and you ask Ford what he’s like, he says, “I have very little interest in The Subject. I haven’t thought about The Subject.”
As statements from gigantically successful movie stars go, this one is unhelpful on the one hand, and understandable on the other. Either way, it’s the attitude Ford protects himself with in public. He considers interviews to be part of his job, something he must do when he has a film to promote–the film in this case being Air Force One, in which the president of the United States is held hostage with his wife and child by terrorists aboard the presidential plane. But if you ask Ford some of the offbeat questions he thinks he’s no good at answering, he can surprise you, and even hint at some of the lesser-known parts of The Subject.
LAWRENCE GROBEL: Did it ever occur to you at a certain age that you were old enough to be the president?
HARRISON FORD: It occurred to me when I played the president at 54 that I was probably a little old for it.
Q: Are you the hero in the end of Air Force One?
A: I’m a hero in the beginning. You’ll just have to pay your money and find out about the end. [Pause] Yeah, of course I am. He does save the day.
Q: How was it working with Gary Oldman as the bad guy? Do actors like Oldman raise the level of your own performance?
A: I don’t know if you can say that it raised the level, as though some greater quality exists, but it’s fun to work with, an actor to whom it comes easily, who’s able to be spontaneous and take advantage of what’s going on.
Q: Do you like to improvise?
A: I rarely improvise. I’d rather discuss the idea and get collaborative agreement on it before I do it. Pure improvisation doesn’t often work.
Q: Are there things you’ve seen in past characters which you’d like to do differently now?
A: I’m not satisfied, but I can’t imagine actively thinking about changing anything. I don’t have that kind of abstract head.
Q: Did things go more smoothly on Air Force One than on The Devil’s Own?
A: It was a piece of cake. We all called it Air Force Fun.
Q: Is that usually the case with your films?
A: It normally is. Every once in a while there’s a bump in the road.
Q: Have you ever bad-mouthed one of your movies?
Q: What was your reaction when you heard that Brad Pitt called The Devil’s Own an “irresponsible bit of filmmaking” in Newsweek?
A: First of all, I recognized the thoughts. They could have been my own. There was a point when everybody thought we should bag this stuff if it wasn’t going to work. But we kept pushing and then it started to work. So I couldn’t argue with what he said. I think it was simply a matter of forgetting that the person he was talking to was being paid to write this shit down. I wasn’t terribly upset by it.
Q: Do you think Pitt will come as far as you have over the years?
A: He’s already come as far–and further. I’ve been around for a long time, but I have never been as singularly popular as he is.
Q: Were they great leaps in characters for you–playing a cop in Devil’s and the president in Air Force?
A: In The Devil’s Own I played a New York City uniformed police sergeant, which I can easily imagine being. Imagining myself as the president is less easy because I couldn’t imagine an ambition to be the president. But the job is always the same. And the cop and the president both share the same head, which is my head.
Q: Did you spend time riding around with New York cops?
A: Yeah. They let me hang with them and do what they did. It’s a very tough job. Impossible job. I felt bad for them and bad for the people they were dealing with on the streets.
Q: What about the physical toll some of your movies take on you?
A: They’re frequently accidents, not the result of trying to do something outrageous. I tore a rotator cuff in my shoulder on Air Force One so I’m waiting for that to heal. I hurt my shoulder over the years a number of times–you have a side you favor when you have to hit the ground and I generally land on my right shoulder. On The Fugitive I tore my ACL [a knee ligament] because I was running towards the camera. When we rehearsed it there had been a hole next to the camera I could run through; when we shot it somebody set a century stand in that hole and I put all my weight on my right leg to cut left to avoid it. I’ve given up skiing when I have a picture in the spring because I don’t have an ACL in my left knee. That was run over by the flying wing in one of the Indiana Jones movies.
Q: Do you ever get nervous when you’re acting?
A: Not really anymore. There’s one thing that makes me nervous in life and that’s public speaking. Though it might seem to have some similarity to what I do, it’s completely different. Even when I act it, it makes me nervous.
Q: Did you expect the rerelease of the Star Wars trilogy to do the kind of business it did?
A: It’s just amazing that a 20-year-old movie can be released this way. I’m delighted it’s still of interest. And that’s about as much as I think about it.
Q: Did you make any more money?
A: There probably will be some small amount of money, but I was not in a position to negotiate for a back-end when I did Star Wars. I was paid $1,000 a week and $1,000 a week for expenses.
Q: Has George Lucas sent you any presents since the rerelease?
A: He did give Alec Guinness, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and myself a small percentage of the net. He didn’t have to do that. He did the same thing on American Grafitti–I got a tenth of a point on that.
Q: Did you know that Al Pacino turned down the Han Solo role in Star Wars?
A: Really? I think a lot of people were up for it, but frankly I don’t think anybody was offered the part. My understanding was that George had two different groups of three that he had narrowed it down to. The only one I know he’d seriously entertained playing Han Solo was Chris Walken.
Q: It’s hard to imagine your being any more famous with the Star Wars rerelease than you already were. Is it true that you and Sydney Pollack tried to drive away from your fans after seeing The English Patient, but they followed you for miles until you stopped and signed autographs?
A: They were driving dangerously, so I decided if I signed autographs they wouldn’t do that.
Q: Do you understand such behavior?
A: No. I don’t understand it.
Q: Is it ever scary?
A: It’s not been scary … yet.
Q: Have you ever worried about stalkers?
A: No. I’ve had a number of people over the years who have not appeared to be totally in possession of all of their marbles, but I’ve never had any real trouble.
Q: What was it like when you went to Harvard to receive the Hasty Pudding Man of the Year award?
A: Silly. I was flattered to be chosen. I guess I dodged it a couple of years in a row and then, having been asked once more, I decided to do it. It’s not the kind of thing I usually do.
Q: Would you do it again?
Q: Did you really don a wig of rubber snakes and put on a red feathered, tasseled bra?
A: That’s correctly reported.
Q: Were you paraded around Harvard Square?
A: No, that’s the Woman of the Year who’s led through the streets. I just had to appear onstage briefly dressed up in that rubber wig and sit and watch the Hasty Pudding show.Then I was led backstage for a press conference, the basis on which I can say I would never do this again.
Q: Given today’s advances in technology, do you think one day some film editor might use the image of you as Indiana Jones to, say, sell vacuum cleaners?
A: I’ll be long gone and will have spent the money.
Q: A lot of people probably don’t know that you’ve done commercials in Japan.
A: I don’t do it anymore. It was contractually understood that they were only for Japan. They were relatively fun to do. I did them for the Honda motor company, Kirin beer and a cellular phone company.
Q: Do people think of you more as a movie star than an actor?
A: Yeah. It’s too fine a point to belabor, but what I do is act.
Q: Do you view any movies as art?
A: I think you can make a case for film writing being, under some circumstances, an artistic endeavor.
Q: You live with a screenwriter. What is your respect for that process?
A: I have the utmost respect for activities where people discipline themselves, work so much alone at the point of genesis and then begin to work with others, [which is] something else. It’s very tough work.
Q: How rare is it to see a first draft of a script really work?
A: Very rare. Very. Things change when you begin making something.
Q: How many good scripts do you read?
A: I’ve read any number of scripts which are good in and of themselves, which doesn’t mean that they are perfect for the job at hand. There’s no limit for better.
Q: Is it harder to make a good movie than to write a good book?
Q: You were a voracious reader up to the age of 12–what books did you most enjoy?
A: Biography and history.
Q: And why did you stop reading as much after that?
A: Because I began to have assigned reading.
Q: Are there any novels you’ve liked recently?
A: I haven’t read a novel in at least a year. I read practical nonfiction or scripts. My wife’s a voracious reader.
Q: Did your involvement with the Dalai Lama happen because your wife wrote the script Kundun, which Scorsese is directing?
A: Yes, that was totally based on her. It’s quite simple: I regret the situation of Tibet and see it as a failure to preserve simple human rights. I think the Dalai Lama is a remarkable person. I’ve come to respect and admire him.
Q: Is there a saintly aura around him?
A: I think he is a religious person. I think he’s the real deal.
Q: You were declared a persona non grata by the agency that handles visas for Chinese-occupied Tibet. Was this because you spoke out before a Senate subcommittee on behalf of the Tibetan people?
A: Apparently. I’m sure I did a number of things to annoy the Chinese. I was nervous about public speaking, but it was a small panel. They sought our input. The ambition at the time was to prevent the Chinese from gaining Most Favored Nation status without redressing some of the problems they’ve created in Tibet.
Q: A year ago at Christmas you helped feed 4,000 homeless at the L.A. Mission. How did that affect you?
A: Being there didn’t affect me one way or another, but the problem is something I think about and something I try to do some small part in alleviating through projects other than the L.A. Mission.
Q: You’ve said you don’t quite understand happiness. With all you’ve got, what’s to understand?
A: I don’t understand happiness as an ambition. As a pure ambition it’s not really worthy. I understand it as a by-product. My work is still an awful lot of fun for me. I love going to work. When it’s coming easy or when it’s going hard, I still love the job. I love the problem-solving.
Q: You’ve said that you have a degree of irritation with people who are undisciplined. In what ways?
A: People who don’t do what they say they’re going to do. Don’t work hard at what they’re doing. Give up easily. Don’t prepare themselves.