It's not often that we get to interview a bona fide legend, but Harrison Ford qualifies and then some. As the star of two of the biggest movie franchises of all time, as well as the purveyor of some of the silver screen's most thrilling moments, Ford has earned his place among the biggest and best Hollywood has ever offered. These days, however, he seems interested in slightly more modest accomplishments, evidenced by Extraordinary Measures, a quiet little movie in which he plays an abrasive scientist who teams up with a desperate entrepreneur to find a cure for the disease that affects two of the entrepreneur's children.
That of course isn't to say that the film doesn't offer its own sort of spectacle, but that it's largely contained to emotion, rather than action. Cinematical recently sat down with Ford at the film's Los Angeles press day to discuss his participation in Extraordinary Measures. In addition to discussing the emotional dimensions of his cantankerous character, Ford reflected on the style and technique that's made him a household name, and offered a few observations about the state of the industry as we know it -- and the humble way in which he manages to maintain his status as a superstar.
Cinematical: While I was watching Extraordinary Measures, my first thought about your character was "this guy is going to have to melt a little by the end of the movie," but he is pretty consistently cantankerous. What to you was underneath all of that obstinacy?
Harrison Ford: Ego. Ego -- the belief that he's right. [There] were a couple of scenes where you see me with my students, and those are the scenes where this guy is the most comfortable, most relaxed, most happy, because these kids look up and admire him, naturally, their professor, and they have the opportunity to play with, which for them at that point are the big toys. This is a guy who, I mean, the reality of the character as I saw him, is that he's a guy who works alone, he's in an academic atmosphere, his intellectual interest in the thing [means] he doesn't care about patients very much; he's interested in it as an intellectual puzzle, on a cellular level. The football coach makes more money than his entire science budget, he's not appreciated, he's not understood, he's not got the funding to bring his theory to the form of a therapy. He's got two ex-wives, he lives alone, he fishes alone, he's got disdain for society, but it's in reaction to their not appreciating him. So when he finds himself in a position to [be recognized] through the character of Crowley, he's excited about it. You know, he's holding back, but he's ready for it. "Finally somebody's going to f*cking give me a break here. I'm going to get a chance to do what I need to do." But he keeps putting obstacles in the way because he doesn't want to give up control and he doesn't want to listen to anybody, so that's the detail which finally adds up describing to me what's required, what the reality of his life is. I talked with my screenwriter and my other collaborators about it, and we hone it and we detail it and we go back and look at it again, and we rephrase it and so on and so forth and that's how I work.
Cinematical: Notwithstanding even the sequels you've done, you've had an amazing effectiveness finding ways to reinvigorate certain kinds of storytelling conventions. This story is probably less familiar to audiences in terms of your previous work, but what do you think has been the key to your ability to taking something familiar and making it interesting again, or unique?
Ford: Well, first of all, I don't think I look for something unique. That can't define utility. What I'm looking for are interesting stories to tell -- to be part of films that will give an audience an experience that they will value. And that means emotion, whether it's visceral emotion that comes from Indiana Jones or the kind of emotion we deal with here; deeper, more human feelings. But I think that what I've always done is try and think of character as serving a story, so I make a character out of those things that are going to help tell the story. I don't add a lot of unnecessary ingredients; I let myself fill in some of the details, because we only have our own experience and our own understanding to deal with, and they won't let me do rubber noses or shave my head. But basically I think that the strongest position for an actor is to be alloyed, bonded to the story in a way that gives the character the strength of serving the story, and the story the virtue of having characters to express the details of it.
Cinematical: Does acting still provide you with the same satisfaction or challenges that it always did?
Ford: Absolutely, and I think what keeps it fresh for me is that you can never anticipate what the problems are going to be. For me, it's problem-solving; that's the part I really love. I love being on the stage, I love being under the gun and having a finite amount of time to do something and having to understand that you're not there for perfection. I love being in the front lines and having to make it up as you go along, to a certain extent, so it's always interesting to me. The other thing that I love is being able to learn new things -- find out something about science, to spend time with scientists to see what a real lab looks like. All of that kind of stuff is fascinating to me.
Cinematical: We've seen folks like George Clooney working with younger filmmakers like Jason Reitman. Are there particular directors you would like to-
Ford: Jason Reitman. I loved Thank You For Not Smoking. I loved Juno. I think he's enormously talented. George himself, I think, is an incredible filmmaker, and I would like to work with him on something. But in general, first of all I don't see enough movies; I've never been a movie buff. I appreciate what other people do, I admire a lot of what other people do, but somehow I just don't find myself going out to movies. And I don't like watching them at home. I like watching them with an audience. But I don't see much.
Cinematical: Do you find that the kinds of roles you're offered are things people understand are already in your wheelhouse, or are you able to explore as many different kinds of characters and stories as you've wanted?
Ford: I think the business has changed so much that everybody's looking for safety, and the economics have gotten so tough that if you want something that's a little different or that's a bit of the strange, then you'd better go make it for yourself. Having said that, there's still the comedy that I'm doing that comes out in July, Morning Glory, and it's something that just arrived whole cloth and ready to go. J.J. Abrams developed this with Aline Brosh McKenna and Roger Michell and that's a terrific part for me. I'm doing a thriller, which I'm involved in as a producer, and we're at the script [stage] now that I'm hoping will be up by April. But I think the studios used to be in the development business, but now people are developing things for themselves and they never get out because they are making it for themselves.
Cinematical: Are you trying to do that for yourself?
Ford: Well, like I said, I'm working on this one for April, but I'm still happy to feed opportunistically when something comes along. So I'm busy enough.
Cinematical: Does the producing allow you to flex a different set of creative muscles than acting, or does it just help facilitate your work on screen?
Ford: It helps facilitate my work on screen, but it also means I'm involved in decisions on marketing and publicity and editing and picking a director and casting and all of that other stuff. It's just a slight extension from where it is now, and it can be very gratifying; you can assure the quality of the machine overall before you get there, to some extent.
Cinematical: Is there at this point a film or experience you remember working on that you were most satisfied by in your career?
Ford: No, no. I think I honestly can say I like the work. I like practicing the craft of storytelling. I like working with a new bunch of people on new ideas and just problem-solving, the whole thing. And I like being on stage, and being useful -- knowing how to accommodate the dolly grip and the lighting and all of the craft skills that come together to make a movie. It's fun, it's fun for me; I spent my whole life doing it (laughs), but it's still fun.