It's an odd thing to hear Harrison Ford say that he's "out of the leading man business" -- especially to anyone who's grown up on his "leading man" movies for the last, oh, 36 years or so. (And it would be foolhardy to not admit that I am one of those people.) But, now, at 71, Ford has entered the next phase of his career. And he seems perfectly fine with that.
Ford has been a mainstay of popular culture since charming his way through the original "Star Wars" as everyone's favorite scruffy-looking nerf herder -- a film that propelled a career that resulted in Ford's becoming one of the biggest Hollywood stars of all time. And it's hard to tell if the famously shy Ford ever really wanted that designation, which is probably why he's never been the biggest fan of interviews and talk-show appearances over the years.
(Though, Ford doesn't get nearly enough credit for turning that reputation into a running gag. What used to be legitimately awkward talk-show appearances -- check out his 1982 appearance on Letterman when he was promoting "Blade Runner" -- have become, now, genuinely funny and entertaining segments -- see any appearance he's had on Jimmy Kimmel.)
Ford's next role is in the sci-fi adventure "Ender's Game," based on the popular 1985 book written by the beyond controversial Orson Scott Card. Ford plays Colonel Graff, a futuristic military head who trains children -- with a special interest in a talented young boy named Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) -- as our best hope against a bug-like alien race who may or may not be planning to attack Earth. It's fair to say that Graff has questionable motives, but, as Ford makes it very clear below, he doesn't thing Graff is "nuts."
Ford is obviously is very excited and engaged about "Ender's Game." And even the subject of "The Empire Strikes Back" came up during our conversation without even the hint of a bristle (in fact, a lot of Ford's past work was name checked as we went along) as he explains why problem solving on set -- Han Solo's "I know" line from "Empire" or shooting the swordsman in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" were both Ford's ad libs -- is what he loves doing as an actor. Or, as Ford puts it, "If this line doesn't work, fix it, goddammit."
I love it when you get to play shady guys. Like in "What Lies Beneath" or "The Conversation" and now this. Do you like playing shady guys?
[Laughs] Yeah. I like playing all different kinds of guys! And I love that when I'm playing a shady guy, I don't think about whether he's a shady guy or not. I think he's living his life. Because if you start judging your character while you're playing him, I think you lose something.
I saw a little bit of Allie Fox from "The Mosquito Coast" in Graff -- in the fact he's willing to manipulate the situation to do what he thinks is right.
Huh. Yeah, I hadn't thought about that.
Am I off base?
I think Allie Fox is straight-out fucking nuts. I mean, he comes more delusional as it goes on.
But isn't Graff kind of nuts, too, by the end?
You know, I'm terribly sorry to say that I don't think he's nuts. I think he's charged with a responsibility that is the kind that you find in the world that you sometimes find in the military -- where it's not your job to judge this. You have a responsibility that you have assumed and have been willing to discharge. And let's not forget, this is a very interesting kind of situation. Although it feels familiar, we're talking about an alien life form and a world government. We're not talking about war that's practiced to protect oil interests or economic opportunities or a cold war to make the world safer for democracy. This is a war to the death between life forms.
So Graff thinks he's just protecting Earth and doing the right thing...
Complicated by the irony that it's a preemptive strike. But, the whole theory of the thing, it would likely not have been Graff's choice. This training is all focused on defense of Earth -- but, then, there probably would have been some higher authority that would have decided to take all of this effort and training into a preemptive strike. So, that's the kind of thing that happens to a guy in the military: He's not responsible for the policy, he's responsible for the military training and the creation of the opportunity to use that potential. But, there are so many themes in this movie that are interesting to think about: the drone warfare aspect of it, the use of young people as our soldiers. There's another interesting metaphor and that's the fact that the invading force is propelled by the genetic necessity of every life form to find a place to reproduce and continue. It's like in your DNA of every form of life -- and they're coming for the water. And we're facing that kind of issue very soon. This isn't just food for thought, this movie. And that's why I'm hoping families will go and parents will want to experience this with their children.
I won't call him nuts again, but over the years do you feel you didn't get to play a lot of guys with questionable intentions because of Jack Ryan and Han Solo and Indiana Jones? That people kind of accepted you in one way?
You know, I got to play enough of them -- "What Lies Beneath" and stuff like that was interesting to me. Even in "Presumed Innocent," there's a moral pall over the character. And I think that's fascinating and, now that I'm out of the "leading man" business, I'm getting a chance to play both good guys and bad guys that bear no resemblance to Harrison Ford. And that's great. That's the fun of it.
I was fortunate enough to interview Irvin Kershner shortly before he passed away in 2010.
Yeah, sweet guy.
He had a lot of nice things to say about you as a collaborator on "The Empire Strikes Back." There's a part of the "Making of Empire" book where it's just a conversation between the two of you on how to film the carbon-freezing scene. Is collaboration on a movie important to you?
I'm not in it to change stuff. I'm just interested in making stuff work. And if under field conditions something comes up which can make it better and everybody can agree on that -- or, at least, you can raise enough of a constituency to do something that you think will make it better -- that's great fun. But, to me, when you're on a set, it's problem solving. That's what I love about it: problem solving. The job is problem solving. If this line doesn't work, fix it, goddammit. You know, how do I get from one side of the set to the other to motivate this camera that this director wants? Figure it out -- that kind of stuff is what I love about it.
Obviously the famous examples are the "Empire" "I know" scene and the "Raiders" swordsman scene, but this all makes me think there are more of those kind of scenes out there that you had a part in changing that we don't know about.
Well, you know, those are stories that slipped out. It's better to not to talk about that stuff, I think.
You were nominated for an Academy Award for "Witness." Do you think that's your best performance?
Oh, no. I don't think there's any "top of your game." I think if there's a top of your game and you don't have your A-game anymore then you ought to just take it to Palm Springs and play golf.
Has your approach to acting changed? Are there things you used to get away with that you don't do anymore, or are there things you used to not be able to do and now you can?
As a question, it makes sense ... but I don't know how to think about it. I don't think about "getting away with something," I just think about every moment is an opportunity to tell a piece of story that needs to be told to ensure the success of the film overall and create behaviors to help tell the story. And you try to get the story better told if you've got a degree of influence over the script at a certain point -- it's all just work.
I've been paying attention to your press tour a bit. It reminds me of when you were promoting "Blade Runner" and people kept asking you about "Return of the Jedi." I know "Ender's Game" means a great deal to you, do you get annoyed by the "Episode VII" questions? Or is that just part of the deal and you don't care?
I don't care. I'm trying to always rope 'em back into concentrating on the task at hand. But, most writers have editors and I can tell when a responsibility is generated by the editor.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.