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Thursday, June 5, 2008
Humble Harrison bucks his years
Special to The Japan Times
Despite his tough screen image, reinforced by his turns as Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones, Harrison Ford is soft-spoken and rather shy. He seems excited about returning to the "Indiana Jones" franchise with the long-in-the-planning, much-anticipated "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," released in Japan on June 21. However, speaking with The Japan Times shortly before the film's global unveiling, he seems a bit concerned, perhaps about the film's reception, and possibly about snide film critics who'll make a point of his being in his mid-60s while starring in an adventure flick with romantic overtones.
After all, the last entry in the series, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," was in 1989. A whole generation has grown up since then.
"I have very fond memories of that picture," says Ford. "When a project is going to take a lot of time to do and the requirements are high, it's sort of intimidating. A lot is expected of you, and you know you'll be working hard and long."
Ford, a firm screen fixture since exploding into stardom as Han Solo in "Star Wars" (1977) and its sequels, turns 66 on July 13. In recent years he's reduced his celluloid output, partly by choice — focusing more on his private life — and partly due to his being older than the vast majority of actors now playing romantic leads.
"What makes the difference between drudgery and enjoying the experience overall — and having all these fond memories — is the people," he continues. "I have to say, in my career I've met a busload of really terrific people, been very lucky that way. Steven (Spielberg), of course, George Lucas, costars too numerous to mention. . . . I wasn't sure at the time that 'Last Crusade' would be the last of the series, but I had a feeling it just might."
In "Last Crusade," Sean Connery played Indy's father. But Connery, now in his late 70s, isn't returning. Why? The question makes Ford uncomfortable. "I wish he were back," he says. "Sean has a timeless charm and talent."
Harrison himself mentions another cast member who cannot return: British actor Denholm Elliott, who appeared in more than 100 films and died of AIDS-related tuberculosis in 1992.
"The man was priceless," says Ford. "He was, of course, Dr. Marcus Brody, who was Indy's colleague and friend, bumbling but lovable. There was a line: he once, let's see, 'got lost in his own museum.' I still miss (Elliott); he was a gentleman and a friend."
On the other hand, Karen Allen, who played Marion, Indiana's love interest from the first installment ("Raiders of the Lost Ark," 1981), returns. After being absent from the last two series entries, Marion here presents Indy with a life-changing surprise.
"Karen is fantastic," Ford enthuses. "It's all still there — in the eyes. Within minutes of starting our first scene together, it . . . well, it almost felt as if all those years hadn't really passed us by."
"Crystal Skull," helmed by Spielberg, had numerous writers during its long gestation. David Koepp is the chief writer, with a story attributed to George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson. But several writers who worked on the project are uncredited (though they were highly paid), and a bit of controversy lingers within the Writers Guild of America, since this project is very high profile.
An anonymous source at the WGA declares, "It's not impossible that this may revive the franchise. Everyone's expecting it to be a huge hit. The special effects alone are said to be on a whole new level. Regardless, and even if the franchise ends here, this is a prestigious, very visible motion picture, and lots of hard feelings remain about who got final credit and why. Most of the reasons will remain within the guild."
Besides Ford and Allen, the cast includes Cate Blanchett, John Hurt and Shia LaBoeuf. Of Blanchett, Harrison says, "I'm, what, probably the 200th person to say that Cate is a fantastic talent. I'm not comparing two people or two actors, but it's evident to me that Cate is undertaking today the roles which 15 or 20 years ago would have been offered to Meryl Streep. They're both tremendous talents, each among the biggest and best not only of today, but I think in screen history."
After a pause, he adds, "And I love it that Cate's willing to join in with Indy. Some actresses or actors on that level of acclaim would think it beneath them to participate in this. I actually know of some performers who are snobbish enough to want to appear in things that are not big hits."
Ford, of course, is a box-office giant merely from his participation in the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" films. Yet he's also done numerous popular films apart from those franchises, such as "Blade Runner" (1982) and "Witness" (1985, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe), and almost none of his films have been flops (1991's "Regarding Henry" and 2003's "Hollywood Homicide" are among the less successful, and the less said about 1978's "The Star Wars Holiday Special" TV embarrassment the better). And of the "Star Wars" triumvirate of himself, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, only Ford went on to be a truly enduring movie star.
Again, the question gives him pause, perhaps embarrassing him.
"Carrie became a very successful writer," he states. As for Hamill, "I don't know. I think we all had some charisma in that picture. I think it was beautifully cast, and not just us: Look at Alec Guinness. It was all masterfully done."
Maybe the difference is that Hamill was still a boy and his youthful looks faded, while Ford, already in his 30s, was a man with lower-key looks and a more dependable, comfortable persona.
It's incredible to think that Ford nearly gave up acting right before "Star Wars." By then, he'd been at it for some time, and has since said that he wasn't earning enough to support his family. He worked regularly as a carpenter, taking what roles he could get on the side. He'd bowed on screen in 1966 (in the cult film "Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round") but didn't get many roles and wasn't in a hit until "American Graffiti" in 1973. Lots of now-recognizable actors were in "American Graffiti," although it didn't yield many more film offers for Ford.
"I did some TV work," Ford recalls, "but that's very on and off. It's not dependable, financially, if you're not a regular on a series."
Nor was the actor that comfortable doing auditions, a necessary part of any nonstar's professional life. "The younger actor longs for the audition, because it's a chance for work. At the same time, you sort of dread the audition, because it's so exposing, and then after you expose yourself the chances are you don't get the job, which goes to one person out of, say, 50 or 100 people."
The story goes that Ford had tired of the routine and of his lack of success, and told his agent he was retiring from show business. Then the agent called him up and insisted that Ford go for one more audition, for an offbeat science-fiction project called "Star Wars" as a character named Han Solo. Supposedly, Ford hesitated because, up until that point, most sci-fi films performed poorly at the box office.
He recalls, "I don't think any of the other actors, not just me, had any idea that ('Star Wars') would be anything but hit or miss, and that if it did hit, it would simply do well for a movie in that particular genre. What happened with 'Star Wars' was phenomenally . . . unexpected. We were far, far more than surprised."
By contrast, he admits that the part of archaeologist-explorer Dr. Jones in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" seemed a much more "commercial proposition. Not just because of the filmmakers, but the script, the concept, the action, the love story, the references to the Ark of the Covenant, . . . it was all very fresh — and it wasn't in outer space."
Ford, whose parents were both unsuccessful actors, has married and divorced twice, and has two children from each marriage. Today, the superstar is unwed but partnered for some years with actress Calista Flockhart, best known as TV's Ally McBeal. Since pairing with Ford, Flockhart's career has also seemingly been put on the back burner.
Ford considers how his parents' careers as actors influenced his acting career, saying, "I think the practical fact that both of them gave it up and did something else did influence me in that I was ready to give up my acting aspirations. I admire anyone who follows their dream, and if you want to try acting, try it. By all means. But don't expect the moon. Do not expect stardom. And do not even necessarily expect a living wage! I was simply following in my parents' realistic footsteps. They'd had their fling at acting, that was that. Time to readjust to real life and real-life economics.
"Most actors, those lucky enough to get work now and then, cannot support themselves. If you're a working actor able to support yourself, you are a true success and are definitely in the minority — as any member of the Screen Actors Guild will tell you. The statistics are not encouraging."
Ford's mother left acting to become a full-time homemaker and his father became an advertising executive. Ford recalls their reaction to their son's success, stating softly but intensely, "You could not find two happier people about this lucky and unexpected situation. As for me, I felt sort of humbled, because I had succeeded, by chance, in a field where they hadn't had lasting success. My mom later told me that I had succeeded for all three of us, and I do now feel that."
Ford is philosophical about his mid-60s return to the role of Indiana Jones. "I'd be more concerned if the script weren't tailored to that situation," he says. "I'm not spending the film racing with tumbling boulders, although (Indy's) not limited by his age. But we don't totally ignore it . . . And the filmmakers are of course aware that the average filmgoer is, oh, roughly a third my age. There's an old saying that screen actors can pretend and take 10 years off their age — which stars do all the time, but I've never asked for that — but to take off more than 10 years takes off from your box office."
Ford is honest enough to allow that the inevitable transition to doing smaller roles in between leading-man assignments will be "an adjustment. Not so much ego-wise as in practical terms. It's difficult to explain, but by now I've become so used to a particular sort of role and position in a given film. But one thing I don't want to be guilty of is to be — and I think it's diminishing anyway — a male lead around 68 or 70 chasing after, or even doing a love scene with, an actress 31 or so. I usually feel that's sort of desperate, and I don't want to follow that pattern."
Of course, this policy does not necessarily extend to Ford's private life— Flockhart is over 20 years his junior.
Harrison Ford is one mature movie star who isn't looking to extend his industry life span via directing. Insiders say he's never been extremely ambitious and isn't as immersed in showbiz as many other actors. He briefly admits that most of his friends and interests are outside of the movie world. Carpentry is still an interest, now a hobby. Marriage is a vague consideration. Ford won't comment on his romance with Flockhart, but does note, "Marriage is less important to more mature people. Whether you define mature as older or as wiser, that's up to you. But the contract itself is, I think, more key when offspring (are) concerned."
Part of Ford's image is that he's stolid and doesn't display much of a sense of humor. He acknowledges, "I'm not Laughing Boy. Never was. I do have a sense of humor. Wry, perhaps. . . . Somehow it's not all that evident on the screen. And maybe being a little shy in some situations . . . For instance, I'm not fond of going on television to promote my latest movie. I've done it, but it's not my cup of tea. In real life, you can ask people who know me, and they'll tell you I do have a pretty good sense of humor. I guess I save it for people I know, or feel comfortable with."
In February, Ford joined Brad Pitt and other progay heterosexual stars in a made-for-TV short that aired on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" before becoming something of a sensation online. In the short, Ford blew a kiss to the camera (and to the offscreen male-male couple of talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel and actor Ben Affleck).
"Oh, that was fun," Ford notes. "Good, clean fun. And very creatively done."
Yet we don't often see Ford in comedies. "I don't get offered much comedy material," he explains. "They offer it even less when you're past 50 or so. I guess the concept of growing older is that frightening to a lot of the younger screenwriters, but I'm not really sure."
It's also been reported in movie-trade journals such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter that Harrison is less of a box-office star overseas, where he is viewed as part of a hit franchise, rather than as an individual stellar name. Even so, his movies do well worldwide, whether or not he travels abroad to publicize them.
Recalling a trip to Japan for publicity, he notes, "You want to sell your movie in an effective but not . . . obnoxious way. That's why they send you there, and yet you'd also like to get out of those halls and hotels and go see the real place, the real country — Japan. You want to go see Mount Fuji and look at the people, instead of standing or sitting there, having them look at you. It's a kind of push-pull situation. What can you do?"
Another part of Ford's reputation is that he's a poor on-screen kisser. Several columnists have written that his kissing scenes tend to be wooden, lacking in passion. Is that shyness again? Costar Michelle Pfeiffer ("What Lies Beneath," 2000) has said, "He does it well enough for the camera, but he saves his passion for real life," and Karen Allen feels, "He puts soul into his kiss. Some actors just put in tongue."
In short, Harrison Ford, though a confirmed adventure hero, seems a throwback to the era of the gentleman actor: romantic but not blatantly sexual, confident but not aggressive, and likable without trying for the audience's affection. He's also honest enough to admit that it can't be predicted how teenagers will take to the new "Indiana Jones" movie, but that he's confident that "people who've seen Indy before will want to revisit the scene and spend some time with an old friend. Or should say a familiar friend? It's an excellent movie. I'm very pleased.
"I didn't want to do another for the sake of another. Some years there, I really did resist. But I know Steven and George also would not have wanted to return to this extremely popular territory without something new, fresh and exciting to offer. And also something not so new — me! — but in a whole new situation, with lots of fun and thrills for everyone involved. And a great cast, interpreting a terrific script.
"That's my opinion," he grins. "But see for yourself."
"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" will be reviewed in The Japan Times on June 20, the day before its Japan release.