You hear that Harrison Ford is not an easy man to be in a room with. Combative as an interviewee, defensive as a person, you read that he is pernickety, challenging, brusque, that he interrogates every question. He doesn’t want to give anything away. He holds a great weight inside of himself. That is part of his charisma.
I am in the beachy luxury of the old Spanish style hotel Casa del Mar in Santa Monica, chosen no doubt because he lives nearby, to be in a room with him. It’s a shock. He’s more sexy in the flesh. His face more rugged and real. He smiles a crooked but welcoming smile. His black shirt skims a taut stomach. No paunchiness, lots of working out. Age will not wither him. His hair is thick and in a ruffled crop. I tell him how much better he looks than the night before when I saw him on TV at the Academy Awards.
“Less well dressed,” he offers in his low rasping almost gravel whisper. More handsome, better hair. “What was wrong with my hair last night?” he says bringing out Mr Defensive. “It’s the same. It’s freshly washed. Nothing different.” He’s so easily offended by a compliment. Suspicious of everything already, but in a charming way. There’s an eruption of uneasiness and gentleness at the same time. Something taut and controlled as well as something wild. That’s often what he brings to his heroic roles.
He’s most known as being the hero. That’s what he’s good at, mixing ordinariness, even haplessness, with luck and strength that comes out of nowhere. The winner against all odds. He’s not showy or glossy. He doesn’t package or sell himself. He once said empathy was not a talent but a disposition. All of the above may have combined to make him one of the best paid heroes of all time. His combined films have grossed over $1 billion and he is the only actor to have made over $100 million for each decade that he’s worked. And here he is, about to reprise his most famous hero, indefatigable archeologist Indiana Jones, the role that first moved him to the super league of actors in 1981. The trilogy has been one of the biggest grossing box office takes of all time.
He’s good at being a hero. He does it so effortlessly with such laconic restraint, better at being a hero or a president than a romancer. But of course he’s done all of those things. What’s it like for him to be reviving the devil in his eyes role of Indiana Jones, 27 years after his first raid. The man who was voted sexiest alive as a thirtysomething surely finds different challenges as a sixtysomething? He is now 65.
He looks at me with yellow grey eyes. They fix a stare, reminding me of the stare he fixed on Kelly McGillis in Witness where she played an Amish woman. He stared at her knowing she wasn’t supposed to be stared at and managed to make it overtly sexy. “I like your hair too,” he says, although you see the circles of his mind rhythmically turning as he’s thinking how to correctly answer how time passes yet a hero remains the same. You see him measuring the rhythm of his sentence in his head before he says it.
His staring makes me feel the silence with the same question, slightly different. Does he feel a different kind of hero? Does he feel different about doing all the intense physical stuff?
“No,” he says. “It was fun. I was never so interested in the heroic part of it. This guy is an extraordinary character with an active imagination that’s just involved in a chain of events where some elements twist into something else…” He seems to like the stress, the haplessness. Indiana Jones, like Harrison Ford, doesn’t like to take credit or blame. He likes to just do the job.
“We didn’t shoot it like a Matrix style where if you hit somebody they end up in this big space and you didn’t feel the hurt, you don’t feel the fear. I feel you very quickly lose emotional connection with the character if it’s like that. We are more old school. I feel as fit as I did 20 years ago. They have figured out new things in safety so myself and the stunt man can do more. For instance when you see a car and a bus converging and we are in the middle on a motorcycle we are on a thin wire with a special harness…” He goes on, and on. He worked with the stunt men not they instead of him.
Do you have a thrill of doing those things? “No,” he says, pause, “It’s just fun. There’s not a lot of CGI, it’s mostly done with real physicality, real sets, some things put to scale.”
You ride motorbikes anyway, don’t you? “Yes,” he says, distracted, not wanting to talk about his own macho moments. Or maybe just his own moments. “But I don’t drag through the stuff he does. The fun is figuring out how to do it safely and survivable, the things that are outside your normal range of experience.”
He uses the phrase a few times, “Outside of your experience” as if for him that’s the excitement of the journey, to be outside of himself, a release. You ask why, when he so obviously loves his Indiana Jones persona and to make these movies, did it take so long? The last film was 19 years ago. “We started talking about it 15 years ago and over that period of time three scripts have been produced. It took the three of us, George (Lucas), Steven (Spielberg) and I to commit to course and none of us was fully satisfied with what was produced and then we were all doing different things.”
He shrugs as if there was no tension in that disagreement, as if it’s perfectly normal to reprise a role two decades apart. Over the years there have been other heroes and villains. Most successfully, Air Force One, The Fugitive, Patriot Games. Most critically acclaimed Bladerunner. He can do comedy as long as he’s not being too funny; Working Girl. There was the uncomfortable romcom Six Days Seven Nights with Anne Heche and the miscast Sabrina. And the super scary What Lies Beneath – taut sex scenes with Michelle Pfeiffer.
He is never raunchy. Always intrepid but never with a sense of entitlement. He usually does decency better than devious, but he can manage that too. It has been said that it’s his ordinariness that is so winning. But there’s far too much tangible conflict going on inside him for me to buy into that.
He’s never made an independent movie. He once said, “I simply have no particular yearning to do the same work for less money.” He once referred to his audiences as “my customers”. He grew up in the nondescript suburb of Des Plaines, Chicago. He left with his new wife when he was 22 to come to Hollywood. He had a small contract as an actor which he had to supplement with other work, mostly as a carpenter. After struggle came super money and the expectation that now Indiana Jones IV will be the biggest money maker of the year. Bringing all the players back together was obviously a big deal. He is resolute not to be ruffled by that or explain the ways in which they all couldn’t agree. Or perhaps he just wants to enjoy the moment of being back on the ride, escaping disaster, being outside of his experience.
He seems to study how not to even move an eyebrow when he tells me about a stunt that almost went wrong, that involved driving a military vehicle through a wall that was rigged with explosives. “It was supposed to look like the car was causing the wall to fly through the air and that I was driving through it, but it came just a millisecond before I went through… And I looked down and right next to me on the seat there’s this big-assed box of explosives that had survived. If it had gone off it would have caused a stitchable.” He uses the term stitchables as in cut as shorthand as if he’s old friends with stitchables.
“I didn’t get hurt on this one at all. I’ve got war wounds but they are all athletic or stupid, not because of a heroic willingness to endure pain or take risks.”
His most defining scar is across his chin, a great gash which has never
been homogenised by any cosmetic surgeon. It came from driving into a telegraph pole which somehow makes it more real, a different kind of heroic. “It was stupid. I was on my way to work in the knick knack and oil painting department of Bullocks department store. I was on this twisty Laurel Canyon road when I realised I had my seat belt off. It was an old Volvo coupe. The seat belt was hung on a peg over your shoulder. As I was fumbling to get it off the peg I ran off the road, hit a kerb, went up on two wheels and crashed into a telephone pole. I got this from the steering wheel on my way through the windshield. That was not heroic, it was stupid. Heroes are people who rush into burning buildings, who throw themselves on a grenade, who save starving people, who selflessly devote themselves to others.”
He looks at me closing his mouth to a full pout as if to stress that’s not him. He’s not up to that job. You sense that this is a man who doesn’t want to disappoint. In fact his life has been propelled by a dread of that. Don’t build me up and I can’t let you down. ” I’ve never had lofty goals – I just do the best job I can..” he once said.
There’s an insecurity about him that pulls you in, that translates on screen to vulnerability inside toughness, like a thread that runs through his work; daredevil hero, conflicted president, brain damaged lawyer, frantic husband or thwarted lover. He doesn’t like to be seen to try too hard. His sentences and movements are all purposeful, sparse. There is a heaviness around him that may come over on screen as strength and solidity, but as he rocks awkwardly in his chair you wonder if it’s not damage. He’s sitting so far forward I can see the label inside his black shirt, Theory. Not middle aged Brooks Brothers or pretentious Prada, but middle youth Theory.
He seems to feel me thinking about his vulnerability. “If the person you play behaves heroically they also have to humility and vulnerability and be deep enough in the shit of it all to have to save themselves. That’s a character I prefer to play, a guy who’s in over his head, who survives because of his tenacity, or his wit, or his dumb luck. That’s more interesting.”
Tenacity is interesting. “I think it is.” Is that him? Is that how he is? He smiles a long slow smile. He said the word tenacity with a strange kind of pride, wilfully dismissing any other of his talents. “I certainly have tenacity and in enough force to measure out through not just the last 15 or so years but the apprenticeship before I made enough money before I was able to say I was a full-time actor.” I don’t know why he said 15 years when he’s been a full-time actor for 30, but he’s just lost track of time.
It was a long time before he could say he was a full-time actor. He approached it with hands-on hard work, no over intellectualised method acting. He’s not the kind of actor who acts from the head or does it as therapy. It’s a different set of instincts. More from the body and heart. He has been dismissive of acting as therapy in the past, the idea that playing someone else gives you the chance of getting some emotional exercise. “I am not an unbridled fan of therapy,” he once said. Of course he’s not because he doesn’t like to explain himself. He’s all about the withholding. He’s cancerian. Hard on the outside, delicate flesh on the in, but choosing carefully who he might want to know that. The last person he would choose would be himself. Nonetheless he is emotionally present, even if he doesn’t want you to think he is. He never drifts off. He is very much on, alert, astute, assessing every second. Extremely driven at all times, even if he’s not sure where he’s going.
His first marriage was perhaps the casualty of this drive, or perhaps he was just too young. He married Mary Marquadt in 1964, a cheerleader he met in high school. He had dropped out of the University of Wisconsin in favour of pursuing the Hollywood dream, or at least his version of it, which seemed to be rather a domestic one. They had two children to support, Ben, now a renowned Los Angeleno chef, 40, and Willard, 37. After working at Bullocks he became a carpenter, a good carpenter who like a Hollywood fairytale was rediscovered as an actor when he was cabinet making for George Lucas. He put him first in American Graffiti then Star Wars, and that was the start of the accidental hero trajectory, the one that fits in so well on screen and so uncomfortably off.
There are many interviews in the past where he has said the biggest regret was the failure of his first marriage. But that was before the second one had failed also. He has commented, “Sometimes I think I have been a better actor than husband or father. I had to leave my family behind in order to make money for us to eat.” Mary Marquadt now suffers from MS and doesn’t believe that he was a bad husband. In a recent interview she talked about how Ford still more than provides for her financially. “Harrison has been a true friend and a great love. He has stood by me quietly asking for nothing in return through my darkest days.”
It is impossible to imagine that Ford was not conflicted if not tortured when both marriages fell apart. He met his second wife, ET screenwriter Melissa Mathison when she was an executive assistant on Apocalypse Now in 1979. They were married for 17 years. They have a son Malcolm, 21, and daughter, Georgia, 16. Much of the marriage was spent in Jackson, Wyoming. He rebuilt woodland and redirected trout streams. They watched eagles. He was labelled reclusive and quiet family man. He was out of the public eye and enjoyed that. The marriage floundered. There was a separation, a brief reunion and a divorce. The disruption of it must have been hard for him as this is a man who also talked about not liking his furniture to be moved even a few inches. He depends on what is solid.
Colin Farrell said recently if he wasn’t an actor he’d be a carpenter because he likes making things. Is there a link between building a character and an apprenticeship in carpentry? His eyes sparkle, he moves from a nervous hunched position in his chair to a welcoming open one. He likes this question. “I think so. I think it’s a way to organise your thinking around something, making something. It is gratifying to take a piece of lumber and make it into something else, knowing that you had this idea and made this idea manifest. It’s the same thing with acting, you take these disparate bits and put them together and make this character. It’s purpose built to serve the story, just like you build a piece of furniture for utility. It’s a practical mindset that many actors have, not all. But there’s a strain that runs all the way down from me to Olivier who had this similar sense. We all have to find our own way but it’s interesting when you discover that others have the same idea of it as a craft rather than some strange artistic process that is not available to any but the most gifted of us. It’s a hard slug sometimes. You have to know what you’re doing and why you are doing it and that you are in service to an idea, a conversation between you and the audience. It’s always about the story,” he says loving the idea that he is lost in something bigger than himself.
Has he ever ever not been able to find a way in, had actors block? “No. It’s always been fun for me. It used to be more difficult because I had less of a sense of how to work with people to gain the kind of confidence and understanding that allows you to help them.” In other words being an actor taught him how to be.
“You have to learn about people to make it work.” Were you naturally good with people growing up I say, guessing that he was cripplingly shy, awkward and self-contained. “No,” he says looking at me with the grey yellow staring eyes again, sometimes so wounded, sometimes so combative. He knows that I must have read he was bullied at school. That boys took him up to the top of the hill, beat him up, then rolled him down.
“I wasn’t very sociable. In fact one of the things that I found in acting was something I could do with people because I didn’t like competitive sports, teams, so there was nothing…” the voice trails. Does he mean acting was a way of dealing with people but not actually being yourself, but a self you could make available to other people. “Yeh, that’s part of it as well. But also something slightly different. I discovered I could scare the bejesus out of people, but my own knees were knocking. I couldn’t control my own emotions even when I was pretending, so it was a matter of self-discipline, doing something that at times scared me and then I found I actually loved working. I loved stories and this is my way to being part of a group of storytellers. I felt the power of the story, the power of literature, identifying elemental themes, the things that concern us all, then disguising it in a revelation of plot and characters, and then I thought, shit, this is it, this is the stuff of life, give me a piece of this,” he says beaming, twinkling, theatrical even, but affecting.
“I was working with a group of people and it was the first time I found a sense of community in my life, in a culture that I was part of.” His hands lay open on his jeans. His soul now seems open. That element of fear that he talks about and overcoming it, learning from it, is that what still drives him? “No.” He is comfortable in his pause. What is he afraid of tackling? “Nothing really. I enjoy the performing up until the point they ask me to sing,” he laughs. “I’m not interested in being scared any more. When you get scared you close up and it’s all about opening up,” he says as if I should know, opening up is what’s been hardest and scariest for him as opposed to knowing how to protect himself.
What about the notion that if you are afraid of something you should do it anyway, it’s good for you? “I don’t identify with those things,” he says sternly. He has a way of shrinking you instantly, making you feel bad for talking to him in T-shirt slogan psychology. He corrects, “I would fear going to war but I don’t have any reason for doing that. I would fear going into a fire, and I’m not going to do that.”
The silence becomes awkward again, filled with unasked questions and a rearranging of barriers. He wobbles about in his chair. It makes a noise – clack, clack, clack. His black shirt skims his body in an interesting way showing off his shape which is lithe and strong. He looks good not just for 65, but just good. He holds back his emotions in such an obvious way; anger, pain, self righteousness, and fear of being judged are all set out there in front of us. Now he is sitting in a squashed up position doing something strange and tense with his arm, almost pushing himself back on it. His eyes dart the room and then back to me. He’s looking at me to see what I’m looking at, perhaps testing if I am going to look away first. I don’t. He softens. “I’m not afraid of flying for instance because I’ve learned to fly and I was taught properly in stages. People think that my attraction to it might be for the thrill or I might be into things like that for the speed or the thrill. I’m not so crazy about that. What I’m interested in is understanding what the risks are, mitigating them by having the required skills, practising those skills, planning the event and knowing where the danger is.” Pretty much his reasoning for dangerous acting, working with the stuntman, not CGI.
Does he feel afraid when other people are flying the plane? “Oh,” he smiles, “I far prefer to fly myself. I’m not afraid but I’m a do it yourself kind of guy.” He is a cocktail of insecurity and fearlessness. You imagine that he was reared with emotional low maintenance. That must have taken its toll and left gaps that will go forever unnurtured. Does he still have his ranch? I imagined him there tromping through the woods, through the mountains in conversation with only himself.
“I have what they refer to as a ranch. I have a piece of land in Jackson, Wyoming, that is largely forest rather than cleared for pasture. It’s full of wildlife and streams and the like. It’s on the Snake River and it’s much the same as it was 150 years ago,” he says dreamily. “It’s in the mountains and it’s…” His voice stops. Do you spend much time there? “I don’t now because I have a seven year old in first grade, so we are nailed to the school schedule and she is doing a series in television that is very successful, so she has to be here.”
The she is Calista Flockhart, his girlfriend since meeting at the 2002 Golden Globe Awards. He had never seen an episode of Ally McBeal. The neurotic lawyer and her pin thinness had made her extremely famous. Much was made of the fact she was 22 years younger, although she looks more womanly now. They have been together six years and though the barbs may have softened against them, you feel that they’ll forever be scratching in his head. People didn’t seem to accept them as a couple. It wasn’t what they would have imagined, but a few years prior to Calista, people were shocked to find Ford drinking tequila slammers, he was pictured in nightclubs or strip joints and once was even said to have a woman’s bra on his head. Perhaps it was because people had him down as boringly trustworthy, a grafter, not a player.
Wasn’t that the real time of terror? Wasn’t it frightening to change his life by stepping into a new relationship? “No. It’s exciting exploring new relationships. I had been out of the relationship business for a couple of years when we met, except for relationships with my kids that is. I hadn’t had a serious relationship…” There’s a pause as if he might be thinking of a different way to put that. “As an actor I’ve always taken risks. I open myself up to possibilities.” Those possibilities came after a long phase of being out on the town. Suddenly here he was in public, a man who had always loved anonymity. There were reports of flings with Minnie Driver and Lara Flynn Boyle, who inspired the phrase ‘lollypop lady’ because her head was too big for her tiny body. He inherited her from Jack Nicholson and seemed to be enjoying releasing his inner Jack on the world. Isn’t that the time that people refer to as his mid-life crisis I ask.
“I don’t know what the fuck they are talking about. I went out more since there was no reason to stay at home. Not a big deal. I think they were looking for some new development to introduce into the Harrison Ford story, so they went for that and the appearance of an earring was enough for them to generate the whole mid-life crisis thing.” Yes, indeed reams were written about the small and black glittering thing that still sits in his ear.
He could have got a tattoo or something like that? “No I couldn’t because then I wouldn’t be able to be buried in the Jewish cemetery.” But he is not Jewish. “I’m half Jewish. My mother. And that’s the half that makes you Jewish. But I don’t want a tattoo anyway. The earring came after I had lunch with a couple of buddies – Jimmy Buffet, the singer, and Ed Bradley, the guy from 60 Minutes. Both had earrings, pirates the both of them.” he likes that word pirate. He smiles conspiratorially as he says it. “I walked away from lunch saying you know what, I’m going to get my ears pierced, just to piss people off. And I went down to the first jewellery store on Madison Avenue that offered to punch a hole in your ear for the price of an earring and suddenly I had one.” I admire its glitteringness. “It doesn’t much matter to me, but I liked it a little bit that people say wait a second, what’s going on. Although I don’t go out of my way to get people to comment,” he says, and stops, realising he has contradicted himself saying he loves attention, he hates it. He loves the woods, he likes the parties. He particularly liked the idea that such a tiny thing could orchestrate huge hysteria.
I tell him I like the idea that someone who embraces a riven masculinity could introduce something to his persona that’s a little feminine and a little camp. He looks uncomfortable, pauses, laughs, first of all nervously, and then wickedly as he says. “I think I was introducing the naughty.” And here we see what is perhaps the most natural Harrison Ford, the playful. Who would Indiana Jones be if he were not playful. He continues, “Those two buggers were genuine pirates. They were brilliant. Ed had to wear a suit to work and he had this big assed earring and you weren’t supposed to do that if you were on 60 Minutes. That’s what I liked. It was a little tiny case of being a rebel.” Was that new for him to rebel? “Oh no. I think I always had the rebel, I just didn’t have the earring.”
If you had a superpower what would it be? “I would love to be invisible.” Yeh, of course you would. We laugh. “Yeh, that’s problematic, isn’t it.” You wonder about the premier action hero, one of the biggest grossing actors of all time and his desire to be invisible. I’m sure the real Ford has been concealed, buried, mutated within Indiana Jones and all the others – all the brave ones. Perhaps that’s where he went to be invisible. “Perhaps,” he says. By now though he’s not looking tortured or stiff. He’s funny and easy to be in the room with. “Don’t you think it would be great to have that super power? I wouldn’t use it just to sneak into changing rooms. I would be able to observe human nature without being observed.” Would he sneak into changing rooms as well? He laughs. “I don’t know if my earring would be invisible.” We imagine the little dot swooping around the changing room and women trying to swat him like a fly. “I’d like to fly too. Everyone has flying dreams. They are the most spectacular. Have you seen those guys who wear squirrel suits. It’s a suit that has a web here,” he points to under his arms and between his legs. “They jump off mountains. I would never do that. I like having engines.”
The conversation has wound itself back to engines and action and I turn it back into something more interior. When he’s in a relationship does he like to observe but not really known himself, I ask? “It looks like we are running out of time,” he says deadpan. The publicist has been in and out several times now to end it. But he has been enjoying himself he says. Two more questions, I say, one simple, one less. “Let’s start with the less simple one,” he says, consciously unpredictable.
When you are in a relationship do you prefer to be the person who loves most or is loved most? He rocks back in his chair thinking. “I don’t know if it ever works quite that way because the ambition is for it to be equal. That’s the thing that keeps you in it.” But it’s never equal. He doesn’t disagree, continues thinking. Not tensely or avoiding the question, but wanting to give the right answer. “I think there is only one appropriate answer and that is to be the person who loves the most. That gives you the greatest potential to be loved.” Some people define themselves by their capacity to feel. Some people by their need to receive. “Yes, but I don’t think I could make it either way if it was just that for a length of time, although I understand both emotional positions and I think I have been there in both of them. I don’t fall in love easily but when I do, by God, I both have the need and expectation for it to be equal. Now can I have the easy one please?”
What characteristics of your parents have you inherited? “My father’s work ethic and my mother’s insecurities. My father is Irish and my mother is Jewish. The only thing that held the family together is that they were both Democrats, so I was raised Democrat.” His eyes twinkle when remembering his parents.jm
“It was a great upbringing.” Challenging perhaps? “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he says looking at me, giving me one final quizzical look, making those words seem real and not a cliche. It’s as if he wants me to wonder what it was that didn’t kill him, or maybe he’s just looking at my hair. I’m not sure if goodbye is going to be a smile or a handshake but it turns out to be a hug, a firm all embracing one. I feel a tingling going up and down my entire body. When I leave the room I realise I have blushed from the inside out. Whatever he’s learned, whatever he’s lost, whatever he closes or opens, you felt a real person in that hug, not necessarily one that always wants to be invisible.