When Harrison Ford attended Wisconsin’s Ripon College, he drifted over to the theater department from the philosophy department and stuffed a pillow under his shirt to play Mr. Antrobus in Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth,” a wartime fantasy about struggle and survival. He also sang and danced a bit in “The Fantasticks” and played Mack the Knife in “The Threepenny Opera.” His summer stock credits included “The Night of the Iguana” and “Damn Yankees.”
Years later in L.A., during his first marriage (he once described himself as “an inadequate husband and father” the first time around), Ford made a living as a carpenter. He didn’t make a living as an actor full-time until his mid-30s. Once “Star Wars” happened, he never got the itch to return to live theater. Doing a play, Ford told me in 1991, was “too much like a real job.”
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Ian McDiarmid
(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 22 May 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 22 May 2008 (General release); 2008)
Here is Ford’s job these days: He is the star of ” Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” the fourth in a series begun in 1981 with “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Ford reunites with director Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Mr. “Star Wars,” who gets a story credit and serves as executive producer. The movie made its official premiere Sunday at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s set in 1957 and involves Incan treasure, a possible alien back story and Russkie badenovs, led by Cate Blanchett.
Job one on this particular day for Ford is talking about all of this, or some of it. Or, if he had his druthers, none of it. He’s not an easy interview. On the other hand he doesn’t waste your time with a lot of boilerplate self-promotion.
Ford and his brother, sons of an ad man of Irish ancestry and a Jewish homemaker, spent their early years growing up in an apartment at West Sunnyside Avenue and North Sheridan Road in Chicago. Then, when Ford was 11, the family relocated to “a tiny little tract house” in Morton Grove.
First film experience he remembers? “Bambi,” he says. “Left me in tears.”
Ford wasn’t a big movie nut. Mainly he recalls the Saturday matinee serials: Hopalong Cassidy. Gene Autry.
As an icon of Boomer nostalgia, Indy Jones owes everything to the archetypes of the old adventure serials and features. (Indy’s fedora, flight jacket and swagger came from the outfit Charlton Heston wore in the 1954 “Secret of the Incas,” a largely forgotten treasure-hunter tale.) Regarding the new “Indy” film, the one with the title that goes on a little longer than you’d expect, Ford avoids talking about how the script changed. Make that scripts, plural: Many screenwriters tried to please the major players involved - Lucas, Spielberg, Ford - but it took years and years and suddenly Ford was 66.
“It’s pretty hard to be definitive at all without giving away plot points,” he says, vaguely. “But it’s really a question of adjusting the recipe. George never backed off from his original ambitions in general. And when he” - big sigh here - “met resistance on certain elements of the story, he went back and refined them `til we were less resistant. Steven and I pretty much saw eye to eye on it from the beginning. We had similar ambitions for it and similar feelings about some of the elements George was pushing for. But Steven and I work together very easily. It was an enormous pleasure to work with him again.”
Ford did the majority of his own stunts. “In long shots, it didn’t make sense for me to do some of the stunts ... in anything that’s relatively close, it’s me about 75 to 80 percent of the time. Not that there was anything extraordinarily difficult. Just a question of logistics and availability. It was a tight schedule, even at 80 days, to get everything done. So it was necessary to have the stunt guys working on some stuff while we were doing other things.”
Speaking of other things: Ford, along with half of Hollywood, turned up in the sequel to Sarah Silverman’s fabulous viral phenom, the breakup video “I’m (having sex with) Matt Damon.” Jimmy Kimmel, Silverman’s real-life partner, responded with “I’m (having sex with) Ben Affleck,” in which Ford is seen blowing a kiss from a passing convertible in the direction of smoochikins Kimmel and Affleck.
That little lark came about, Ford says, when he was “talking to Casey (Affleck, Ben’s brother), and I mentioned how funny I thought the Sarah Silverman thing was. And I guess it got back to Ben, and then somehow it got to Jimmy. Blah blah blah. Next thing I know I’m being an idiot for free. I usually charge for it.”
When I talked to him in `91, around the time of “Regarding Henry,” Ford described himself the same way most of his storied colleagues describe him, as a hard worker, unpretentious but exacting. Back then he told me: “I go to dailies, I see various cuts of the film, I attend test screenings, I involve myself in post-production right up until they begin to strike the prints of the negative.”
With “Indy 4,” not so much. “I felt no need, reason or impulse to be involved in the editorial choices” of post-production, he says. “Especially given the players involved ... they didn’t need my help. Which is not to say I don’t have things to say.
“I wanted to make the best version of the script we could. Scene by scene there were things that were important to me because they were consistent with the ambition of the scene. You want to make the scene work, you want the relationships between the actors real and important. You want to get the necessary information vividly expressed, so the audience retains it.
“Small ambitions. Practical ones.”
In the `60s, when he was a contract player hungering for more, Ford was required to do a fair share of scene study and acting exercises. “I found all of it a bit too ... academic. My instinct was to do what I did as a kid - just dress up and pretend. I’m from the let’s-pretend school of acting.”
Has that changed?
“Not a lot. I take it seriously, but I’m not going for `performance’ per se. The kinds of movies I generally do are not movies built on key performance moments. The acting wants to be ... somewhat more invisible.”
Another Ford film arrives later this year, an ensemble piece called “Crossing Over.” His is a supporting role, which is tricky, he finds. “The wrinkle,” he says, “is that at a certain point the audience has an expectation that it’s a big movie, and you’re doing a big part. Sometimes that can be unsettling to the audience.”
By now, thanks to Han Solo and Indy Jones and “The Fugitive” and “Air Force One,” Ford has amassed enough millions to not worry so much about audience expectations. Hasn’t he?
The movie star counters: “They’re my customers. And without them, I really am from a let’s-pretend school of acting.”