Harrison Ford: “I Know Who the F*** I Am”
The actor is busier than ever with 'Shrinking,' 'Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny' and '1923.' We tried to get the delightfully testy 80-year-old icon to open up about his life and latest projects. Here's how that went.
“I try to arrive with an empty mind and an open heart,” says Harrison Ford when asked what he’s thinking as he sits down for the interview. Then he sarcastically challenges: “Shatter my illusions.”
The iconic actor, you might have heard, isn’t hugely fond of chatting with the press, particularly when reporters try hard to crawl up inside his head and poke around — which is precisely what we’re about to attempt. Ford makes it clear during our conversation that he’d rather be standing on a freezing hilltop in Montana filming the Yellowstone prequel 1923, or being pummeled by stuntmen as Indiana Jones for the upcoming Dial of Destiny, or doing pretty much anything else than reveal an intimate personal sentiment. Which is what makes Ford’s other role this year — yes, he’s weirdly busy lately — rather ironic: He plays a therapist on the new Apple TV+ comedy series Shrinking, earning raves for a character that riffs on Ford’s curmudgeonly public persona (which, by several accounts that follow, doesn’t fully reflect what he’s really like).
Seeing him now, I have to remind myself that Ford is 80 years old, as the math seems wrong. His posture is a bit bent, but that could be from injuries sustained on movie sets and his 2015 near-fatal plane crash as much as age. When he smiles, you can glimpse all those heroes he’s played — Han Solo, Rick Deckard, Jack Ryan … they’re layered over a bit with the passage of time, but there.
“Harrison is not unlike Indy in the sense he’s carrying with him the scars of all the films he’s made — as well as his own private calamities,” Dial of Destiny director James Mangold says. “He is literally this embodiment of all those bruises, broken bones and being bounced off walls and being thrown to the floor over so many years.”
At one point, I venture to ask Ford if he’s ever had Botox, lasers or fillers. Chasing med spa holy grails would be wildly off brand for the rugged actor, but it’s hardly a crazy idea when your face gets projected onto 50-foot screens.
“That’d be a ‘no,’” Ford says, then adds with a laugh: “Where should I go?”
In 2002 you said, “I only work once a year, and that’s enough.” You’ve had a dramatic ramp-up of productivity. What changed?
HARRISON FORD: The simplest answer is probably the most truthful: After two years of sitting on my ass during COVID, and waiting quite a few years for Indiana Jones to start, I had not done as much work as I wanted to and I wanted to do different things. So [Shrinking] came along, and then, very quickly after that, 1923 came along. I took the job without a script on both of them, on faith that the people who created the projects were going to deliver me a good script. I really didn’t realize how much work 1923 was going to be, and I absolutely feel it’s worth it. I’m excited to do another season of both.
Did being in your first TV comedy, Shrinking, make you feel like you used some new muscle or learned some new things?
Would it be arrogant to say that I didn’t learn anything?
Not if it’s true.
Well, look, I really didn’t learn anything. (Laughs.) It’s about being in the room where it happens and being appropriate to the circumstances and welcoming the opportunity to generate something with a little spontaneity and a measure of truth.
The show’s co-creator Brett Goldstein said when he presented you with the script that you found something in it that related to your life. What was that?
I’m not sure I want to talk to you about that. There are family issues that were relatable to me, OK? I’ve got five kids. This guy’s got a daughter he doesn’t see very often and an ex-wife. There are issues with his family — which are not the same issues I have with my family. But there are things we worked our way through, so I found an emotional reality to attend to.
Your Shrinking character Paul is, I would imagine, closer to how you are in real life than your other roles. He’s low-key, smart, affable but also sometimes grumpy. Would that be fair?
I don’t have Parkinson’s [like Paul] or a deep knowledge of therapy, and I’m not in business with a couple of fucking maniacs. But I recognize that maybe he’s like me. Or maybe he’s not like me — and that’s acting.
So whether he is or isn’t is not something you’d want me to know.
You’ve hit on the first rule of Acting Club: Don’t talk about acting.
You said in a 2002 interview that you did some therapy once. What’s your honest opinion of the profession?
My opinion is not of the profession, it’s of the practitioner. There are all kinds of therapy. I’m sure many of them are useful to many people. I’m not anti-therapy for anybody — except for myself. I know who the fuck I am at this point.
Your fans online have done some armchair diagnosis, looking at things you’ve said about being shy in social situations and some of your talk show appearances. Some assume you’ve wrestled with social anxiety disorder. Are they onto something?
Shit. That sounds like something a psychiatrist would say, not a casual observer. No. I don’t have a social anxiety disorder. I have an abhorrence of boring situations. I was shy when I first went onstage — I wasn’t shy, I was fucking terrified. My knees would shake so badly, you could see it from the back of the theater. But that’s not social anxiety. That’s being unfamiliar with the territory. I was able to talk myself through that and then enjoy the experience of being onstage and telling a story with collaborators.
So when you are having a moment where you don’t want to do something, what gets you moving? How do you motivate yourself?
I just buckle down and do it. There are things I don’t love doing, but I want to be gracious about it, and I don’t want to shove it into somebody’s face that I don’t like doing it. They might be having a great time. Like you might be having a great time right now, or you could be having a terrible time and are preparing to write some nasty shit and I would never know. I’m just here to do my job, and my job, at the moment, is to help sell the product. This is what they really pay me for. The acting I’d do for free.
At your level, if you wanted to be an actor who only performs and then refuses to do press, you could get away with that.
That’s a prick. That’s wrong.
Ford’s Shrinking co-star Jason Segel tells THR that Ford is “a craftsman,” noting: “He said to me: ‘I’ve been hired to build a house, and all I want is that when we’re finished, the people who hired me are happy with the house.’ ” Ford used to be a carpenter, and many of his colleagues use his former occupation as a metaphor for how he approaches his work, though he hasn’t actually done carpentry in decades; the myth persists because, as Ford once eloquently put it, “It seems like such a nice idea to have this blue-collar worker become a fairy tale prince.”
When asked what he’d want written on his tombstone, Ford replies: “I wouldn’t want it to be ‘Harrison Ford, blah-blah-blah, actor.’ I’d settle for ‘Was Useful.’” I point out that’s a particularly reductive way to sum up a life, and Ford shoots back: “Well, there’s not a lot of space on a tombstone.”
This isn’t to suggest Ford goes about his job passively; more a tool to be used. He’ll push for changes if he thinks they’re needed. “I’m a guy who says, ‘If the words don’t fit my mouth, we’ve got to change the words,’” Ford says. This made 1923 a bit tricky when he ran up against prolific showrunner Taylor Sheridan, who doesn’t do rewrites. “Once in a while, we’d have an issue with that,” Ford says. “But life doesn’t do rewrites. You get a shot at something, and that’s what happened. I really committed to saying Taylor’s words because it’s fun for me to puzzle it out.”
Like the Dutton patriarchs in the Yellowstone universe, you also own a ranch in the Mountain West region and are a conservationist. Is that one of the reasons you signed on to 1923 without a script? Because you identify with that kind of character?
When Taylor and I first met face-to-face, there was no script because he didn’t want to write a script for people that are going to turn him down. But there are things in the scripts that I never would’ve anticipated that are emotionally consistent with things that have happened in my life. So when I was reading it, I was thinking, “What the fuck?”
They’re little things. I’m not going to tell you what they are. But he talks about turning a natural place into a city and the consequences to nature and for people that live there. He talks about it with real understanding and real complexity. I’m struck by how consistent it is with what I think — or what I might have thought were I a rancher with the same personality in 1923.
Has Taylor given you a sense of how season two is going be different than season one?
I haven’t got a fucking clue.
You’ve talked about knowing Yellowstone star Kevin Costner. You guys have a lot of history being up for the same roles over the years. Did you reach out to him at all?
Nope. I wanted my own singular relationship with Taylor to rule my behavior and my thoughts. I didn’t want to dirty up the road with somebody else’s. I have no idea how they get along. I would assume they get along great because Kevin does a great job.
So many people in the industry are leaving New York and L.A. You were kind of a pioneer in that sense, moving to an 800-acre ranch in Wyoming in the 1980s [where he lives with his wife, Calista Flockhart]. What do you think when you hear of so many others doing now what you did then?
I don’t think anybody was doing what I did; I don’t know anybody. Once people are established to a certain degree, they don’t have to be at a roll call in Hollywood — which is a fictional place, anyway. This is Los Angeles. We call the movie business “Hollywood.” But the movie business is everywhere now. It’s in Atlanta. It’s in New Orleans. People are building studios in Montana with a big investment. The question is: How do you want to spend your life? How much freedom do you have against how much freedom do you want? Do you care if you miss roles or not? Do you want to be there for everything? I lived in Los Angeles for a long time before I left. I wanted it for my kids.
After you moved, you also took up flying again, in earnest. You had at least one near-death experience [when Ford’s World War II-era plane crashed on an Los Angeles golf course, shattering his pelvis, among other injuries]. Did coming so close to death change you in any way?
I changed a lot of things in my life. My wife does not fly with me in vintage airplanes anymore — she will in others. I certainly don’t want to have to recover from that kind of accident again. It was really hard on my family and it was hard on me. I went back to flying. I know what happened. So that’s part of the reason [I went back]. There was a mechanical issue with the airplane I could not have known about or attended to in any way. So in the words of the great philosopher Jimmy Buffett: Shit happens.
But isn’t that even scarier? When it’s something entirely out of your control, when even if you do everything perfectly …
Well, you never do anything perfect. That’s a dangerous concept. So you’re always looking to see what you did. Flying is especially like that. After every flight, you can analyze the flight and say, “Remember when I did that? That was a rookie mistake.”
You’ve also rescued several people with your helicopter. How do stranded hikers react when they’re rescued by Harrison Ford?
Well, one time we picked up this woman who was hypothermic on the mountain. She barfed in my cowboy hat but didn’t know who I was until the next day. I stopped doing it because we would be lucky enough to find somebody and then they’d be on Good Morning America talking about “a hero pilot.” It’s nothing fucking like that. It’s a team effort. It’s lame to think about it that way.
There’s another actor whose roles range from drama to intense physicality who also flies planes and helicopters. Do you and Tom Cruise know each other at all?
I like Tom. We talk about flying. But he’s far deeper into physical acting than I ever was. I don’t mind running, jumping, falling down, rolling around on the floor with sweaty guys. Tom takes it to a whole new level that’s pretty amazing.
Another way Ford is unique among the A-listers: He’s never expressed a Hollywood ambition beyond being a working actor. He’s one of the industry’s most powerful talents (his films have collectively grossed nearly $10 billion worldwide and he has regularly commanded upward of $20 million per film), yet he’s never directed a movie, or wanted to. He doesn’t have a vanity production company. He’s only taken three producer credits across more than 45 films.
“I don’t even know what a fucking producer does anymore,” Ford gripes. “Or why we need 36 of them around.”
Ford has never wanted to play an outright villain, either (“I prefer to be part of a positive statement,” he’s said). Yet he’s also chafed against efforts to keep him in the “epic hero” box. “It’s always been in my mind that I wanted to work different jobs for different audiences and not become known for doing just one thing,” he says.
Are you surprised to still be doing this, acting?
I think it’s the place I feel most useful. It’s what I know the most about. I lost my chops as a carpenter. I haven’t ever played fiddle. But I feel comfortable wrestling with how to make behavior out of words on a page and tell a story, and I’m still excited about the prospect of telling a story. I think this is a service occupation — telling stories. We need it. Whether it’s drawing on caves or religious tenets, we love telling stories.
Do you plan to keep doing this as long as you’re physically capable?
I like playing an old guy. If I wasn’t having a good time, I would stop doing it.
Do you think you’ll ever get an Oscar, and do you care?
(Ford shakes his head.)
Not even a little? Because you clearly care about your performance and care about the film’s success. An Oscar is an extension of both those things.
If I did a movie that had Oscar ambition, that was an Oscar-type movie, then yeah — I’d want the film to be recognized for its quality. If I were given an Oscar, I would be grateful and appropriate. I’m trying to artfully skirt this — I don’t want to campaign for it.
Do you think acting is sometimes overly judged by how radically an actor can transform themselves into somebody new versus simply how well they pull off a performance?
Oh, I don’t know. I like occasionally to play a character that’s very unlike me, and sometimes it’s less commercially successful than films where people are coming because they know the product and what I’m likely to do in it. Every time I wanted to wear a beard or mustache, [former Warner Bros. chairman] Bob Daly would say: “I’m paying for Harrison Ford’s face, I want to see Harrison Ford’s face!” I finally beat him in The Fugitive by playing a guy with a beard to start with.
You’ve said that, physically, Blade Runner was your most challenging shoot, doing like 50 rainy night shoots. But what has been the most challenging in terms of the performance side of things?
I’m looking in that file and I don’t see anything. I don’t mean that it was all easy, but it ain’t hard. I’d have to go back to where I didn’t feel I was right for the role. The thing that comes to mind is Sabrina with Sydney Pollack. We got along great, but the role didn’t feel right.
During that period, in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, you had a string of films that didn’t perform well. Looking back, is there something you learned from that?
What were the movies?
Uh, like Firewall. Cowboys and Aliens …
All entered with the best of intentions. I like to change genres. Take a movie like Morning Glory from Roger Michell with Diane Keaton and Rachel McAdams. That’s a movie that could have worked, that should have worked. But the first job of a movie is to make its money back. God knows why something doesn’t work. It doesn’t usually make that much difference — I just go on and do something else. I wasn’t counting the hits and misses.
I know you don’t pick favorites, but is there a role you feel was underappreciated at the time that you’re proud of?
I’m proud of 42. I’m proud of K-19: The Widowmaker, where I played a Russian submarine captain. But I think they’re good movies — that’s why I’m proud of them. Each film has its own destiny, and I don’t go back and parse the experience.
Ford would never proclaim a favorite role, but Indiana Jones, whom he has played in five movies over four decades, is arguably his most fitting. The intrepid archaeologist combines Ford’s signature strengths: a heroic figure projecting intensity and intelligence, dashes of comic timing and plenty of muscular-yet-deft physical acting.
The saga’s fourth film, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, was released amid heavy speculation that Ford was too old to still be swinging from a bullwhip — and that was 15 years ago. Disney’s upcoming entry, Dial of Destiny, is almost certainly the first wall-to-wall action movie from a major studio to star anybody near 80 years old (“Indiana Bones,” snarked Drudge Report of reports that Ford injured his shoulder during a fight scene).
Director Mangold co-wrote a script that reflects on Ford’s age and, just as crucially, the way the world has radically changed around him. “The mistake you can make in movies is when someone is of a ripe age but the movie continues this charade that they’re not that old,” Mangold says. “Every challenge he faces is through the reality of what someone of that age would be dealing with.”
On set, Mangold says the actor “looks for ways to make it more like life, mess up the false moments and to take the piss out of his own character. He’s got this great sense of how to be a hero and how to undermine the tropes of heroism at the same time.”
The director also found Ford was willing to continue to endure physical punishment to get that perfect take. Yet at one point on set, after being thrown onto the ground yet again, even Ford had enough, declaring to the director: “That’s the last time I’m falling down for you!”
Critics came down pretty hard on the last Indiana Jones movie. Now that some years have passed, what’s your feeling about it?
Where are they now?
Well, they’re still pretty harsh on it.
No. I mean, [the critics] were harsh on it, but what are they doing now? I understand. But those were their rules — not [director Steven Spielberg’s and co-writer George Lucas’] rules. They were imposing their rules on what the movie should be. I don’t feel it’s necessary to address those issues. I think that everyone has a right to their opinion. The film was not as successful as we wanted it to be, perhaps. But it didn’t create an attitude or a behavior that carried over into this film.
The film had a lot of “old Indy” jokes. It feels like that itself is outdated and that you have settled into who you are now.
Yeah. In [Dial of Destiny] there were a lot of old jokes in the script. We took them all out. There is a moment where he observes himself in this situation and says, “What the fuck am I doing in here?” But I hate what I call “talking about the story.” I want to see circumstances in which the audience gets a chance to experience the story, not to be led through the nose with highlights pointed out to them. I’d rather create behavior that is the joke of age rather than talk about it.
What was it like working with James Mangold instead of Steven Spielberg on this one?
Jim developed the script, so I knew what we were getting when we were going in that direction. But Steven’s still on the picture and has always been on the picture. He’s not the director this time, but he’s intimately involved.
What was your reaction when somebody first mentioned the idea of de-aging you for the film’s opening sequence?
I never loved the idea until I saw how it was accomplished in this case — which is very different than the way it’s been done in other films I’ve seen. They’ve got every frame of film, either printed or unprinted, of me during 40 years of working with Lucasfilm on various stuff. I can act the scene and they sort through with AI every fucking foot of film to find me in that same angle and light. It’s bizarre and it works and it is my face.
I know you’re not a nostalgic guy, but how did it feel putting on the hat and the jacket and whip for what is probably the last time?
(As if first learning of the role) I’m playing this archaeologist … who wears a brown fedora … and a leather jacket regardless of the weather … and carries a whip? OK, I’ll do it! Look, it was bizarre to start with, and it’s bizarre again. But that feeling goes away immediately because it’s so grounded in other things.
What’s the tone like? Each film is slightly different.
What I love is that we’re meeting him at a different point in his life to where we’ve seen him in these other films. It’s a logical place for him to be at this stage, considering his behavior and what he spent his time doing. It’s a very interesting script Jim came up with.
Has there been any other actor you’ve seen and thought: “That kid might fit”?
Tom Selleck [who was originally offered Raiders of the Lost Ark but CBS wouldn’t let him out of his Magnum, P.I. contract].
Poor guy. You’ve got to feel for him a little bit.
No. I feel lucky I got it. But I don’t feel that he’s had an unlucky career. He seems like a happy guy.
That reminds me of your casting for Han Solo, a tale that’s been told many times. You were merely helping George Lucas during the casting process, running lines with actors who were auditioning for the leads, and he eventually realized you were right for Han. Wasn’t there a point during that process, when you’re sitting there reading Han’s lines, where you started to think: “Hey, I could do this”?
No. Never thought about it.
I don’t remember ever having thought about it. I was doing this thing. I had no idea why they would ask me to do this thing, and then they actually cast me.
What made you want to take the Marvel role [as Thunderbolt Ross, previously played by the late William Hurt]?
I don’t know. I can’t explain myself to myself, I just work here. (Laughs.) I thought, “Everybody else seems to be having a great time.” I watch all these terrific actors having a good time [in Marvel movies]. I like doing something different to what I’ve ever done and pleasing people with it. So I’ll try a piece of that.
Helen Mirren — who co-starred with Ford nearly 40 years ago in The Mosquito Coast and now does once again in 1923 — says she has seen an evolution in Ford. She noted carpentry was a solitary, meditative practice and said Ford never wanted fame. “I think he had to overcome his natural character to become this huge movie star that everybody knew,” she says. “Whenever he was in public, he was seen as Harrison Ford, The Hero. He was always incredibly gracious with young kids and wasn’t quite so patient with adults. Now he’s balanced, wise, kind and loving and has found human vulnerability — not as a sign of weakness but how it can be a strength.”
Mirren’s observation is interesting, as Shrinking has a line where Segel’s character chastises his fellow therapist, played by Ford: “Why’s it so hard to be vulnerable? This whole fortress of solitude thing, it’s getting old. … Sometimes you got to put yourself out there.” I ask Ford whether the same could be said about him, and he replies, “I don’t think so. I think I put myself out there.”
Segel says he expected Ford to be like his media image, but he “was vulnerable from the start. He said, ‘You guys have more experience with comedy; I’m here to learn and watch and please tell me any ideas you have.’”
Shrinking co-creator Bill Lawrence also suggests there’s a side to the actor entirely unlike his public persona. “He’s a dude whose lust for life is still so high, I found it inspiring,” Lawrence says, and jokingly described a night of partying when Ford tried to “murder us with alcohol.” Says Lawrence: “I always like to have a young staff writer or two on a show because I think it’s so important to have people that still come to work and go, ‘Wow, a TV show!’ Otherwise you get very cynical and jaded. I did not expect that voice on set to be 80-year-old Harrison Ford. After the first table read, which was something he’d never done before, he was bouncing around, like, ‘How fun was that?’“
Lawrence made it sound like you have a boyish and youthful side that’s very different, and suggested it’s more the real you than what people tend to see.
Do you fish?
No. I mean, not since I was a kid.
There’s this thing called “match the hatch.” It’s when there’s a natural bug in the air the fish are eating and you use an artificial fly that’s the same color. I have a protective coloration. I try to blend in. That’s what I do. When I’m getting dressed, if people are going to be wearing a suit, I wear a suit. If people are wearing blue jeans, I’m wearing blue jeans. I’m comfortable in all kinds of company. If they’re serious, I’m serious. They’re not serious, I’m not serious. And if they’re too fucking serious, I’m not serious. (Laughs.) I don’t know why people have an expectation of me. I come in all colors. I don’t know who’s going to show up. But it’s usually me and it looks familiar.
One of your majors in college was philosophy. Has any of that stayed with you?
Yeah. There’s a Protestant theologian named Paul Tillich who wrote that if you have trouble with the word “God,” take whatever is central and most meaningful to your life and call that God. My mother was Jewish, my father was Catholic, and I was raised Democrat — my moral purpose was being a Democrat with the big D. But it didn’t apply to a political point of view so much as it applied to nature. I didn’t have any religious construct, but I think nature and God are the same thing. The mysterious origin of life — science tells us how it happened, prophecy tells us another story. I found that everything in nature — the complexity, the biodiversity, the symbiotic relationships — is the same thing other people attribute to God. … Now aren’t you glad you asked that question? You want to get back to the funny shit?
I am glad I asked. I haven’t heard you say that before.
I’ve been saving it just for you, man.
Lacey Rose contributed to this report. A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.