After Episode VII hints and introspection? Harrison Ford is not the droid you’re looking for. Martin Robinson has a suitably gruff encounter with the coolest man in the galaxy
The door opens into the suite. Out on the balcony at the opposite end of the room is the unmistakable silhouette of Harrison Ford. As someone who’s seen Star Wars more times than I’ve had sex, it’s a tad disquieting.
We’re alone. He stays on the balcony, I sit down on a couch. Years pass. Then he’s stepping into the room, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were here.” I apologise for my existence and shake his hand.
He’s as tall as you’d imagine, but slimmer, looking 10 years younger than his 71. He sits, his earring glinting, the sickle-shaped scar on his chin hanging between us. It’s quickly apparent that the no-bullsh*t screen persona extends to the man himself. He’s all intense eye contact, slow articulate drawl, a heavy consideration of his words. He’s not rude, just very serious about his craft.
And acting is a craft to him. Which means attempts to talk frivolously or pretentiously are given short shrift. Gossip fishing on upcoming projects (including Anchorman 2, Expendables 3, Indy 5 and – apparently – Star Wars: Episode VII)? Well, I may as well have put on a Wookiee costume. Still, who wants him to be anything other than the gruff man’s man we know and love?
He’s here to talk about his role as Colonel Graff in Ender’s Game, the surprisingly sophisticated new teen film based on Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi novel. I’m here trying to disguise that my entire being is silently screaming, “I’m talking to HAN SOLO, bitch!”
You were admiring the view. Although that’s not London’s best angle.
It’s OK. I like banal.
Well, you’re in for a treat now, then. When did you first visit here?
1975 was the first time in London. I remember it was out of my price range [smirks]. I was living in Notting Hill in someone’s attic. And the food was not so good then. It’s really changed a lot. But enough about me…
You must have been offered thousands of sci-fi films in your time…
Not thousands, but go ahead.
Why return with Ender’s Game?
It has nothing to do with space. I’m not attracted to sci-fi or resistant to it, I just pick and choose roles according to what’s available at the time. I liked the shape of the relationship between Ender [the young military leader played by Asa Butterfield] and Graff. Besides the thrills and spills of science fiction, there’s a bone to chew on here. It’s thought-provoking, and I hope families will go to see this. I think the shared experience of seeing this movie can help parents talk to their children, and children talk to their parents, about issues that are very important.
Graff is both mentor and manipulator…
It’s not just about me, it’s about the whole thing. What are the challenges that the young person faces? What are the moral issues of becoming involved with some kind of military mechanism? The film speaks to these questions, and does it quite dramatically and usefully.
It looks at the dangers of video-game culture…
It’s part of where the film is coming from, it’s where I see the profit in it for a family discussion. Also, what are the responsibilities of leadership? When you’ve faced some issues in your life and suddenly you have the opportunity to have the perception of control, do you, in fact, have that control? How do you make yourself responsible for when you have control? That’s interesting stuff. I don’t think that’s the language it should be spoken about in, though [smiles].
The book is taught in…
Military academies, yeah, for what it has to say about leadership and focus on missions. All those things are very interesting for a military man. I’m more interested in what can get you through the day on the streets. At school. In life. [Leans forward and fixes me intently – as if I’m Luke in the cantina bar] Let’s not forget to mention in your magazine that this is a movie. It’s a big, thumping movie that’s kind of cool, that looks different, feels different and has real emotional content. It’s not just invested in blowing sh*t up.
Did you adopt a teacher role with the young people on set?
No, I don’t get paid well enough for that [smiles]. No, I don’t know much more than they do.
What were you like when you were 16 years old?
[Shakes his head] I was a hot mess.
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t remember. I’d lost interest in school by the seventh grade, sadly.
Asa Butterfield looks like a future star. What do you think are the different pressures that the new generation of Hollywood leading men face?
The only real difference is someone coming into a position where they have a lot of options. You have to find some kind of appropriate mix between the utility for people making movies and control for yourself, through virtue of your choices about how you want to represent yourself. Because, really, you may be an actor to yourself and the people you work with, but that’s not the way it transfers to the culture.
How would you cope with it today?
Badly, I’m sure. There’s also the bump of celebrity. There’s so much of an interest in celebrity, inappropriate attention that is generated and is used as a product by others. The very good advice I got from a very wise older man in the business, was, “Don’t let them make you into a thing.” Whatever that means.
You’ve been famous for 40 years now, but you’ve managed to stay relatively clear from the celebrity world. Was that a battle?
No, it was a choice. Some kind of an initial understanding about what it all means. What it’s all about, Alfie.
Sir Ben Kingsley’s in the film, sporting tattoos on his face.
I noticed that. Yeah, what he does is so particular, each character he does is so strong. It’s wonderful to watch.
Who’s been your best co-star?
Are you asking me to make everyone other than the object of my affection feel bad?
No, I just wondered if there’s been someone who’s made you think, “I need to be on my A-game here”?
I think that’s a very bad mindset. There’s no competition. It’s about being focused on the object of the scene. Your job is to concentrate on the craft elements to help get that idea into the can. You don’t have the consciousness to say, “Oh this is a wonderful actor. I better bring on my A-game.” If you think you might have left your A-game at home, [snarls] then f*cking go home.
How much is prep and how much can you leave to being in the moment on camera?
Well, the camera sees what happens. It doesn’t see your plans. It depends on the material. Some material doesn’t get into focus until we see the problem manifest itself in its scene. The thing is never give up, there’s no limit for better. Make sure you get the best expression of a scene before you walk away.
How has filmmaking changed since the Seventies?
I suppose it’s changed technically. For me, it’s not changed much. Every experience is particular and has to do with the way the director feels he best works. And has to do with the degree of participation you need to make it work. Every experience is different and challenging. That’s the fun of it.
How have you kept your sanity as a massive film star for 40 years?
How do you unwind away from it all?
Tennis at 7 in the morning. My hobbies are as famous as I am. It’s ridiculous.
Sorry to bring up flying, then, but if you were on a jumbo jet and the pilot got food poisoning from bad fish, would you be able to get up, take control and land that sucker?
[Unfazed] Er, if I could figure out how to work the computers. Every aircraft flies by the same mechanical principles. But it’s a learning curve on a new aircraft, adjusting to the new tonnage. You need to know how much to employ the redundance. But there might be a better choice on the aircraft than me.
What values do you think make a man?
A good partner. A simple work ethic is very important. Developing a capacity in whatever area you’re responsible for. Being a responsible parent. And being a useful citizen. When young actors say to me, “You’ve done blah blah blah… any advice?” Y’know, figure out how to be useful. Work well with others! [Smiles] If it’s guerrilla war on set every day and you fight for your principles, you have to know you have a limited amount of time and money. It’s not all about you. Just get the job done. Be useful.
Who are your acting heroes?
I don’t have heroes.
You don’t have heroes?
Is there anyone you admire, then?
I admire many people, but most of them are not actors. I have no disdain for actors – I can spend a night watching television, and I can see that 90 per cent of people are good at what they do. I’m quite actor-friendly, as it were.
We’re in the middle of a TV revolution. Does doing something like Breaking Bad interest you?
Yeah. I’ve got a couple of things brewing, actually. Upcoming.
Speaking of upcoming work. You have a lot of top-secret projects…
[Leaning back] I’m a good soldier. You’ll not get it from me.
OK. But Episode VII. What’s your approach here? Everyone is going to be asking you about it. Is your attitude to have a bit of fun?
I don’t think so.
Maybe give out some misinformation?
Ah, y’know, I’ve never taken any pleasure in misinformation. Um, I just don’t think an explanation is required in this particular situation.
Expendables 3, then?
Great fun. I didn’t really know any of the guys very well. I’d only worked with Sylvester. I admire his particular brand as a filmmaker, and I find him engaging as an actor. He’s very smart about what he does.
Was it a testosterone-fuelled set?
There are scenes of contest between his character and mine. But it’s not physical. It’s a struggle for authority, which is interesting.
Do you hang on to any Harrison Ford merchandise?
No? What’s the strangest piece of Harrison Ford merchandise you’ve seen?
Whatever… [sighs]. Er, the frozen in kryptonite, no, er…
Carbonite frozen coffee table was one.
I can’t believe you haven’t got that in your front room.
Yeah. It doesn’t fit in with my décor. My décor is not about me. There’s no posters or memorabilia in my house.
You do seem to have a nice lineage with the greats from the classic era of Hollywood…
...you’re a Humphrey Bogart type...
[Almost collapses out of chair with ennui.]
…with a real weight to your roles. How do you characterise your persona?
I… don’t. That’s for others. [Firmly] I think about the logistics of storytelling. [Holds palms up] I work here. I just work here. Don’t ask me.
Do you ever think, “Do you know what? I’m going to hit all the parties tonight, I’m going to be Harrison Ford the star and have a wild night”?
[Scoffs] I’m not comfortable in stretched limousines, with a hot tub in the back. There are times when I stumble across situations to have fun, but… it sounds unlikely [laughs].
Ender’s Game is at cinemas nationwide from 25 October
(Image: Rex Features)