ARTS

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January 22, 2010

From doctors to space cowboys, Ford still kicks ass

Harrison Ford is an actor you might be familiar with. If not, I’m sure that rock you’ve been under is also hiding Osama bin Laden, and the CIA would like you to please give them a description of your whereabouts. For those who’ve seen Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Witness, Working Girl, The Fugitive, or (“Get off my”) Air Force One, you’re familiar with Ford as a devil-may-care charmer, a cocky romantic, and a bit of a rugged cowboy. But who is Harrison Ford in real life? At 67, Ford is now, truthfully, old. He’s soft-spoken, pensive, and shrewd, and surprisingly does not smell like sweaty jungle. He’s also infamous for his reticent interview personality.

An Illinois native (Park Ridge to be exact) and former carpenter of Francis Ford Coppola, Ford got into acting thanks to a lucky break from Coppola, and it’s paid off. But asking the actor about whips and lightsabers is just off-topic these days—those roles were 20 and 30 years ago; he just wants to talk about what he’s up to now. Ford acknowledges the meaty roles don’t pile up in his mailbox anymore, and it’s become necessary to develop projects for himself. Such was the case with his new film, Extraordinary Measures, about which the Chicago Maroon was lucky enough to take part in a round table interview with the actor.

Question: What interested you in the role of Dr. Stonehill or Extraordinary Measures?

Harrison Ford: Well I was looking for material that I could develop for myself, to develop a film in which I could play a character that was different than what people might expect from me. A good movie. A movie that I could help assure the quality of. And the story of John Crowley, his story I ran across in the Wall Street Journal and then in a follow-up book by Geeta Anand called The Cure. It tells the story of a man whose two children are beset by a rare genetic disease called Pompe syndrome in which the kids suffer from a lack of capacity to metabolize sugar. It fills up the cells and doesn’t metabolize and creates a built-in weakness in the muscles – of the heart, of the diaphragm, of the liver. And usually the victims of this disease don’t live longer than nine years of age. Crowley, who was an executive at an over-the-counter drug company, was moved to quit his job, give up his health insurance, raise venture capital, and go into business to create a therapy for his kids. Facing almost impossible odds to get it done before his kids would reach the normal allotment of time for kids in their circumstances, and so that’s all a true story. The character I play is a fiction who represents the contributions of a lot of different scientists and researchers that helped Crowley.

But in looking for the nature of this character, the reality of this character, I did research in academic science labs and I found that, in fact, the coach of the football team does make more money than the entire science department. I found circumstances which believably might produce a guy of this ilk. I didn’t find anybody as maladjusted and difficult as the character I play. But the circumstances are such that I think one could find somebody similar in these circumstances—he’s a guy who works alone, lives alone, fishes alone, and goes every night and watches sports at the nearby bar. He’s not your conventional idea of a scientist, but his life is focused on his work, devoted to his work, and he cares about little else. And when Crowley comes along in his desperation, who else to seize upon but a guy with the kind of passion that Stonehill has with the belief in the quality of science? And a desperate man reaches out to him and he sees a way out of his academic dead end. But he’s unequipped to deal with the [exigencies] of the corporate world. He’s unequipped to be disposed toward giving up any control or authority and he’s indisposed to wanting to deal with money issues. So he’s a difficult ally for Crowley and that creates some character conflict in the telling of the story and gives us some opportunity for entertainment quality. An answer to a short question. Tend to do that. It saves time.

Q: I just want to ask since you’re very passionate toward this project – you talked about your role in developing it – how at this point in your career do you generally look for parts you want to play?

HF: Well sometimes I feed opportunistically and sometimes I participate in the development of the material. I’ve got a thriller coming out in April that I’m involved in right now as a producer. But I have a comedy coming out in July that I had no input until I was cast in the part. And then the natural amount of input that occurs when you have a collaborative atmosphere. But circumstances are always different. It’s very likely, since I no longer fall into the main vein of meaty roles, age-wise, that I’ll be developing things more and more for myself.

Q: This is the second movie you both acted in and produced, if I’m counting right. Are we going to see more of you producing in the future or directing?

HF: I think I just answered that. Directing is too hard, takes too long, doesn’t pay well enough. But you don’t always take the credit. There are diplomative circumstances

—I’ve always had script approval and casting approval in movies that you know me best for. So while I could have taken credit at some point, it didn’t matter. But when you’re on from the beginning and you’re—eh, there’s another word….

Q: A little Elmer Fudd thing going?

HF: Yeah. When you’re raising money for a movie! [Laughs] Sometimes your identification with it is not a negative.

Q: At the Dallas premiere you told the Dallas News that one of the reasons you took the role is you thought it would be a good movie experience for the audience. Could you be more specific? What kind of experience?

HF: Well the reason I made the film is I thought it would be a good experience for the audience. My responsibility as an actor was to create a character that added to the quality and drama of that experience. I mean who can deny the value of an experience where you go into a theater and participate in the positive experience of this guy and his family. You may miss the car crashes and the blowing shit up, but you may walk away with a positive feeling about humanity and be compelled to consider your common humanity rather than your singular existence. And you may even remember the story 15 minutes after you walk out of the theater. I’m not about kinetics, even in the films which are, I think, unfairly characterized as action movies. I’m always focused on character and emotion and good storytelling.

Q: So I guess since Extraordinary Measures is quite a bit about risks, I was wondering what you would say is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken, either in a role or just in general? If that’s too personal, I can ask another. [Laughs]

HF: No, that’s fine. It’s not too personal, it’s just that I never consider that I’m doing anything risky. For me it’s all about – if there is risk and you’re capable of perceiving risk, then you must be capable of perceiving mitigation of risk. Some people think flying, which I do, or the kind of flying I do off in the back country, that it’s risky. I think it’s about skill and flying and developing the experience to mitigate against risk. So risk for me is no virtue. I’m not out there looking for risk. I’m looking for challenge. I’m looking for quality in the work that I do. But I don’t think of myself as a big risk-taker. Even when I was making the riskiest move of my life and deciding I wanted to be an actor, I didn’t consider it risky—I just considered it unlikely that I would be successful.

Q: Something that struck me is you have advocated for several different causes. Whereas you’re a famous face to help push something and get something known, to get people to support something and get behind something, in this regard, even though you don’t support—or maybe now you do—but something like a cause like Pompe disease, you seem to be playing one of those roles that’s doing the leg work to help get stuff going and advance this. So I was just wondering if that occurred to you?

HF: Well my first wife has multiple sclerosis and I have supported research in MS for a number of years. But personally, quietly. I’m not an advocate. I don’t appear preaching the gospel. My interest in conservation is a long-standing interest. I spend way more time in the board meetings dealing with the minutiae of running a $125 million-a-year organization than I do as a poster boy for conservation. I believe I’m useful as a communicator. But I don’t believe that I should have the expectation or be used as a member of an all-star team that the man on the street is supposed to decide between my all-star team or another all-star team to decide on which side of an argument to come down on. I believe the arguments of these critical issues should be conducted by experts and we should all take responsibility for making reasoned choices about these things.

Q: I was just curious because with this role you were like in the thick of all of it.

HF: I didn’t take this role for the purpose of obtaining a bully pulpit from which to preach about the difficulties of bringing a drug to market, or to incite or indict the pharmaceutical companies for their policies, or to become an instant authority on the healthcare system. I wanted to tell a story that would exercise people’s emotions and let them decide what they wanted to do with their responsibility for other human beings

Q: So I guess since Extraordinary Measures is quite a bit about risks, I was wondering what you would say is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken, either in a role or just in general? If that’s too personal, I can ask another. [Laughs]

HF: No, that’s fine. It’s not too personal, it’s just that I never consider that I’m doing anything risky. For me it’s all about—if there is risk and you’re capable of perceiving risk, then you must be capable of perceiving mitigation of risk. Some people think flying—which I do—or the kind of flying I do off in the back country, that it’s risky. I think it’s about skill and flying and developing the experience to mitigate against risk. So risk for me is no virtue. I’m not out there looking for risk. I’m looking for challenge. I’m looking for quality in the work that I do. But I don’t think of myself as a big risk-taker. Even when I was making the riskiest move of my life and deciding I wanted to be an actor, I didn’t consider it risky—I just considered it unlikely that I would be successful.

Q: Something that struck me is you have advocated for several different causes. Whereas you’re a famous face to help push something and get something known, to get people to support something and get behind something, in this regard, even though you don’t support—or maybe now you do—but something like a cause like Pompe disease, you seem to be playing one of those roles that’s doing the leg work to help get stuff going and advance this. So I was just wondering if that occurred to you?

HF: Well, my first wife has multiple sclerosis and I have supported research in MS for a number of years. But personally, quietly, I’m not an advocate. I don’t appear preaching the gospel. My interest in conservation is a long-standing interest. I spend way more time in the board meetings dealing with the minutiae of running a $125 million-a-year organization than I do as a poster boy for conservation. I believe I’m useful as a communicator. But I don’t believe that I should have the expectation or be used as a member of an all-star team so that the man on the street is supposed to decide between my all-star team or another all-star team to decide on which side of an argument to come down on. I believe the arguments of these critical issues should be conducted by experts and we should all take responsibility for making reasoned choices about these things.