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Relatively recently, after enduring for decades as one of Hollywood’s most consistent marquee attractions, Harrison Ford reached a conclusion about himself and his future: “I had exhausted my potential as a middle-aged leading man. And I’m getting to the point where people don’t want to see me, necessarily, hit people and kiss girls. So I began looking for the next phase of my career.”
The 71-year-old came across 42, Brian Helgeland‘s script for a biopic that Helgeland would also direct about Jackie Robinson, the first person of color to play for a Major League Baseball team — and he saw in the part of Branch Rickey, the white Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who gave Robinson that chance, an opportunity for himself.
It was a role that called not for a movie star, but for a character actor, which is what Ford, at the outset of his career some 40 years ago, imagined he would be. “That’s what I’ve always wanted to do, was to play those kinds of parts,” he told me a few weeks ago when we sat down for a half-hour conversation in Beverly Hills. “When I was starting out, I had never a hint that I would end up being a leading man. I still don’t know how that happened.”
(You can watch highlights of our chat at the top of this post or read it in its entirety below.)
But, it turned out, Helgeland’s desire for a character actor to play the part of Rickey is precisely why he was not interested in Ford. “I understood completely why he didn’t want ‘Harrison Ford,'” the actor acknowledged. “Looking at the kind of work that I’ve done in the past, you might have no clue that I was ambitious for this kind of thing or that I had the capacity to do it.” Eventually, though, the two “convinced each other that it was gonna work” — and, in the views of most people, it did. Upon its release back in April, 42 received strong reviews — with Ford’s performance earning particularly positive mentions — and proved to be a surprise hit.
Buried beneath a fat suit and false eyebrows, sporting a shaved-back hairline and glasses and presenting himself with an altered posture, voice and vocal rhythm, Ford is completely unrecognizable as Rickey. Moreover, in scenes that vary from fiery (growling over the telephone in defense of Robinson, who was played by Chadwick Boseman) to soft-spoken (while interacting one-on-one with Robinson), and that feature several wonderful monologues (one about his past regrets that inspired his present moral stance is particularly good), he does some of his best acting in years. Compared to Boseman, he doesn’t have a ton of screen time, but, like every great character actor, he makes the most of the screen time has.
Ford, of course, is a man who has nothing left to prove to anyone but himself. As if anyone needs to be reminded, his credits include George Lucas‘ American Graffiti (1973), Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Return of the Jedi (1983), as well as Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Conversation (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979), Ridley Scott‘s Blade Runner (1982), Steven Spielberg‘s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Peter Weir‘s Witness (1985), Mike Nichols‘ Working Girl (1988), Philip Noyce‘s Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), Andrew Davis‘ The Fugitive (1993) and Wolfgang Petersen‘s Air Force One (1997).
His films have collectively grossed more money than those of all but four other people ever, Tom Hanks, Eddie Murphy, Morgan Freeman and Samuel L. Jackson. And he already has an Oscar nomination to his name, for Witness, 28 years ago.
But, as Ford made clear during our time together, he doesn’t measure his success and happiness with such figures or accolades. “It’s the work that I love, not the result,” he told me with conviction. With 42, he proved to himself — as well as everyone else — that he is capable of doing something very different from what he has done up to this point. “I don’t have to be ‘Harrison Ford’ anymore,” he said solemnly. “I can be anybody I want — if they’ll let me.”
* * *
The Hollywood Reporter: Do you remember what led you to act for the first time, even if it was just something silly?
Ford: Wow. It was a while ago. I had been a philosophy and English major in college [Ripon College in Wisconsin] and my grade point average was slipping dramatically because of my inattention. I picked a course out of the course book called Drama, without reading a full description of it. I thought we would just read plays and I figured I could get a good grade doing that. What I didn’t notice was the last couple of lines which said that you had to participate in the school plays. I’d never done anything like that before. I went on stage — I think my first role was playing Mr. Antrobus [in Thornton Wilder ‘s The Skin of Our Teeth] and, although it scared the bejesus out of me, I really became intrigued by it. That was the beginning.
At what point did you know that acting was what you wanted to pursue for a living?
Very shortly after that, I realized that this was the first thing I had done where I really felt a sense of community. I had never been a sports guy or a student government guy. I always felt happy as an outsider. And then this process of storytelling was the first time I really felt a sense of community and I thought, “This would be a great way to make a living.” Everybody else I knew in college was going to go off to do the same thing over and over and over again to get a gold watch and play golf. And I figured, I didn’t really want a real job.
When you first came out to LA, what sort of career did you envision for yourself?
My highest ambition was to make a living as an actor, nothing more than that. I figured that I would maybe get some work on episodic television, and I really never thought further than that.
My understanding, from what I’ve read, was that you initially signed with Universal…
Columbia at first. I was offered a seven-year contract at Columbia and I took it. It was the first time I’d been at a movie studio, for some reason. The man who was the head of casting at the time, Billy Gordon, was interested enough to send somebody after me when I left a five minute meeting. And he caught me coming out of the restroom instead of going down the elevator, which was my original intention. But I realized I had to go to the bathroom, so I went into the restroom and when I came out of the restroom to resume my trip down two floors he was running down the hall saying, “Come on back, he wants to talk to you!” And when I went back, he said, “How would you like to be under contract?” I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “It means a seven year contract. We start you out at $150 a week.” “Now, I am an actor!”
Is it true that you were simultaneously working as a carpenter?
No. I spent a year and a half at Columbia before I became such a pain in the ass that they let me go. I didn’t like the kind of work that I was being assigned and I didn’t like the whole mindset at the time. They wanted to mold you into some version of somebody else’s success. They sent me to the studio barber with a picture of Elvis Presley saying, “Make his hair do that.” I figured something was wrong here. They wanted me to change my name because they thought “Harrison Ford” was too pretentious a name for a young man. Anyway, after a year and a half, I got out of that contract and I had no other prospects, so I signed with Monique James at Universal for $250 a week — another seven year contract. That lasted about another year and a half, because I kept doing the same kind of thing over and over on episodic television and I figured I was going to wear out my face before I had a chance to do the kind of work that I was ambitious for. I had already purchased a little house up in Hollywood Hills and invested in tools, because I was going to remodel it myself, even though I didn’t know anything about carpentry at that point. But I’d invested so much in tools that I wasn’t able to buy the materials to do the remodeling with [laughs], and a friend of mine, who was running the board — he was a sound engineer — for [Brazilian musician] Sergio Mendes suggested to Sergio, when he heard about Sergio’s ambition to build a rehearsal space in a garage in his Encino estate, that I might be able to do the job. I met Sergio in his backyard in a bathrobe early one morning and we started talking about this rehearsal space and he kept becoming more and more ambitious. By the time I left, he had committed to me doing the job, which grew into a full professional sound studio over a period of a couple of weeks. Sergio, bless him, forgot to ask me if I’d ever done it before. So I was up on the roof of the building I was building — it became a whole new construction project — with a book from the Encino Public Library about how to cut in a roof. I finished the book, and I worked for a lot of great people that were willing to suffer a contract based on my word and time and materials. It allowed me, because I had a young family, to put food on the table, because I didn’t want to take every job that came along. I wanted a job that was more ambitious than the last.
If you had not taken up carpentry work, you may not have met George Lucas, isn’t that right?
No. I did American Graffiti with George Lucas prior to the Star Wars thing. Legend has a funny way of creating itself. Give me a chance to set the record straight — not that anybody cares, but– He walked in one morning. I was putting in an elaborate entrance to Francis [Ford] Coppola’s office at Goldwyn Studios. His art director, Dean Tavoularis, had asked me to do it because he couldn’t find anybody else to do it. It was built in the studio mill, but nobody could install it, so I installed it — but I only worked at night. And one morning, I was finishing the job and Lucas sat down, and Richard Dreyfuss walked in for the first of the interviews on Star Wars. And all of our agents — all of us who were in American Graffiti — had been told that there was no use seeking an interview for Star Wars because George wanted a whole new group of people. And in he walked with Richard Dreyfuss! All I did was say “Hi” and chat for a few minutes. Within weeks, they asked me if I would be good enough to read with all of the other actors that were being considered — with no indication, at that point, that I might be considered for a part, but just to read with them, which I did for about two weeks.
With no idea that it might lead to something?
No — no, I thought I was doing them a favor.
At what point was that notion reversed?
They called me up and said, “You know, do you want to play Han Solo?” And I said, “Compared to what? Yeah, sure!” [laughs]
Going back to American Graffiti for a moment — that was obviously immensely well received. How did it impact your life?
Well, it was more than that. For me, it was a big break because it was the first time anybody sort of allowed me any input in the creative process — any input that you could speak about. And I worked in a different way then, you know? It was much more comfortable for me and I was really delighted to be there. It was the beginning of a break, but it took another seven or eight years or something before it actually coalesced into something. I went from doing American Graffiti back to carpentry, and I would do a carpentry job and then I’d do an acting job. I did The Conversation with Coppola. I did The Court Martial of Lieutenant [William] Calley with Stanley Kramer. They were all jobs that I really wanted to do — that I thought were good jobs — and then I went back to carpentry.
When that unexpected offer to do Star Wars came along, did you have any expectation (a) that the movie would be the kind of success that it was, and (b), that it would really — I would imagine — completely change the rest of your life, in the sense of suddenly losing your anonymity, your privacy and things like that…
All of that — but I didn’t anticipate that. I mean, it was a job. It was a job and I never really thought about whether or not it was going to be successful. It was a better part. I was one of the three main characters, or four main characters; it was more money than I’d ever been paid before, even though it wasn’t enough, quite, to live on in England at the time; and, as the shooting progressed, I began to understand how this thing worked and why it might be successful — and that was in opposition to all the English crew members who were snickering and trying to figure out what the hell we were doing.
A lot of great things have followed Star Wars for you, but do you ever wonder how, if you had not made that film, your life might have been different? And is there anything about that alternative life that might even appeal to you? You’ve had to be a very public person in a lot of ways since then, and it always can’t be easy…
Well, I mean, if you look at it in the context of the opportunities that it’s brought to my family, the freedom from the ordinary that we’ve enjoyed — not that the ordinary doesn’t have its own charms and blessings– But what I anticipated back when I was thinking about the difference between being an actor and having a real job? I didn’t know anything about it. When I first walked into Columbia Pictures, I’d never been in a movie studio. I didn’t know what the names of the major motion picture studios were. I was not a film buff. I just figured, “You work for a finite period of time on a project with a group of people who you may not work with again in a place you’ve never been. You go to another group of people and confront another problem. And this is the way you spend your life — an endless variety. And portray different kinds of people, learn about their lives and experience their lives, to a certain extent, emotionally.” That was what I was looking for, in terms of the fullness of a life.
You emerged from the first Star Wars movie as not only an actor who was getting to work, but also a “movie star.” How did you feel about that then and how have you felt about that over the years since?
It’s complicated. I mean, at first it’s great because that’s where the work was at that period of time for movie stars — the most ambitious projects, the most ambitious characters with the best directors. That looked good to me. It still does. But that has its period in one’s life. Now, I was delighted. I think I had a chance to work with the best people. And at that time, budgets were high and people had the resources to make really ambitious movies. Yeah, I was stuck in a certain kind of movie, but there was a great latitude between, you know, a Mosquito Coast and a Witness. There were a variety of things that I had the opportunity to be a part of. It was good for me. I enjoyed it.
Every actor, in a sense, has a screen persona, and I feel like yours is that of a hero. You’ve embodied that in many different sorts of films, from the Indiana Jones movies right through 42. And I just wonder–
You know, there’s a difference. Allow me, please, just as a point of discussion: you don’t play heroes. You play a doctor, a lawyer, a person who has to be established first as a believable person. And then you put them in a situation where they either confront their opposition or run away. Now, we call that, from some distance, “heroic.” And you say — and everyone said to me during that period of time in my life — “You just– You play heroes. That’s what you do.” Not so much. Not in my mind. I don’t think you can “play a hero.” What happens to this person may characterize him as a hero, but you’re not playing a hero. Anyway, that, I think, has more to do with the style of the times, the kind of movies that were successful then, at that period of time — and I was lucky enough to be a viable leading man for that kind of a movie.
You have said — and I thought it was very interesting that you said — that there have been only a few times when, “I could choose not to bring Harrison Ford to a film.” You mentioned Witness as one of them, and also 42…
I think Mosquito Coast rather than Witness. And I would say there are a few other movies in which I wasn’t obliged to be an American leading man. And 42 is the first of the character parts that’s attracted enough notice to be — maybe — auspicious for me, because that’s what I’ve always wanted to do, was to play those kinds of parts. When I was starting out, I had never a hint that I would end up being a leading man. I still don’t know how that happened. But all I ever thought about was Mr. Antrobus. For Mr. Antrobus, I had a pin-on mustache and a pillow under my shirt and talcum powder in my hair — and I felt free behind that. El Gallo in The Fantasticks — you know, the little mustache and black hair? A whole different thing. I mean, that’s the kind of thing that was really fun for me. And 42 was really fun for me.
Just to expand upon what you were saying, as far as getting almost lost in a character, physically, if somebody had bumped into you on the street as Branch Rickey they probably would not have even recognized you, it was such an amazing transformation. I wonder if you can talk about, logistically, how it happened, and what led you, as a guy who has said he’s not really a baseball fan, to commit so much to a part like that?
Well, first of all, I read a very good script. The director and writer of that script, Brian Helgeland, didn’t want to see me for the part because he had in mind that he wanted a character actor. And my understanding of why he wanted a character actor is that he didn’t want a movie star; he didn’t want a movie star because he wanted the character of Branch Rickey to be observed, and understood that the relationship between Rickey and Jackie Robinson had to be seen in a clear way. And I understood completely why he didn’t want Harrison Ford because — you know, looking at the kind of work that I’ve done in the past, you might have no clue that I was ambitious for this kind of thing or that I had the capacity to do it. I wanted to do it because it’s the kind of role I’ve always wanted to play. I was done– I’d exhausted my potential as a middle-aged leading man. And I’m getting to the point where people don’t want to see me, necessarily, hit people and kiss girls. So I began looking for the next phase of my career. And so I basically didn’t give up on Brian and harassed him, to a certain extent. I didn’t actually harass him, because I only had one meeting with him, where I convinced him– We convinced each other that it was going to work.
When 42 came out and you heard the responses of critics and audiences — obviously, the movie did very well with both — and then, additionally, of the Rickey family, which said that you nailed it, does that (a) makes you feel good, and (b) spur you to say, “I’m going to seek out more parts like this?”
Well, I have. You know, I have sought out more parts like this — but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I want to go into a fat suit. It just means that I don’t have to be Harrison Ford anymore, that I can be anybody I want — if they’ll let me.
Is that a relief?
It’s an opportunity. It’s a challenge and it’s an opportunity. I want to be useful. I’ve always wanted to be useful, from the very beginning of my career. I understood that opportunity was tied to utility and I want to continue to work because I love the work. And the way to continue to work is to be useful.
If things had not worked out for you with acting, what might you be doing today? And, knowing now that they have, is there anything left that you really desperately want to accomplish? It seems to me that you’ve pretty much done it all, as much as anybody has…
It’s the work that I love, not the result. It’s getting a script, knowing what the use of that character is to the telling of that story, making yourself useful in the telling of that story and then having the opportunity to do it again. It’s the work. It’s not some other concept of the result. It’s just, I love the work. And what else would I be doing if it hadn’t worked out for me, so to speak? I have no idea. I probably wouldn’t be in Los Angeles, you know? As much as it’s a nice place to live, I’d probably be someplace else.
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