Battling aliens as an 18th century cattle baron was “just another day at the office” for Harrison Ford. Paul Byrne talks to the laconic, iconic, mildly ironic cinema legend.
Out in the hallway, Johnny Vaughan is crouched down on the floor, laughing hysterically. And, of course, he’s doing it very, very loudly.
It’s what the former personality-turned-breakfast radio jock does – make AN AWFUL LOT OF NOISE. ALL THE TIME. Must have been a tough childhood. Or maybe Vaughan is just angry about being a former personality.
Either way, I find myself apologizing to a slightly shellshocked Harrison Ford when I sit down opposite him a few minutes later. Vaughan had just been in the room. And he wanted Ford to pretend that they were in a hot tub together. Crazy.
Of course, the world of the movie junket has become even more of a circus these days, an assortment of miniskirts, muppets and dancing midgets keen to make their precious few minutes with a movie star all about them. In the hope that they too one day will share a breakfast radio mic with Lisa Snowdon.
Harrison Ford’s attitude to this particular strain of journalism can be best summed up by his brief unwitting cameo in 2009’s Bruno, as Sacha Baron Cohen’s fake Austrian fashion reporter attempted to accost our man for a latenight interview just as he left a restaurant. Without breaking his stride, or missing a beat, Ford turned to this shrill apparition and delivered two simple words for both him and his camera crew (and pretty much all the miniskirts, muppets and dancing midgets Bruno cruelly represents) – “Fuck off”.
Ford lets out a laugh when I remind him of that wonderful moment. Not a big fan of the circus that surrounds this job then…?
“Oh, you know, I’m a willing participant, to an extent” he says, “because I want to bring attention to the films that I make. It’s part of the process. I mean, there’s circus and there’s circus. I try and pick my circuses.”
The circus the 69-year old actor has chosen to participate in today is all part of the promotional tour for Cowboys & Aliens, a film that just about lives up to its sweetly bonkers title. Certainly far more than Snakes On A Plane managed to.
A title that’s been bouncing around Hollywood since 1995 in search of a good script, Cowboys & Aliens was originally going to be a follow-up of sorts to 1997’s Men In Black before finally landing at the feet of director Jon Favreau, fresh from his Iron Man success. Who, along with producer Steven Spielberg, decided that, unlike the tongue-in-cheek graphic novel series it inspired, this was a Western that had to be played straight. There just happened to be people-rustling aliens running amok.
Ford plays the grizzled old castle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde, his wealth and status keeping the one-horse town of Absolution under his thumb and his spoilt idiot son (Paul Dano) out of jail. All that is about to change though with the arrival of The Man With No Memory (Daniel Craig), complete with a hi-tech bracelet and a strange magnetism for town beauty Ella (Olivia Wilde). Before any Sergio Leone shoot-out can get underway though, alien ships come screaming down, lassoing the natives…
Some people have called it Gunfight At The E.T. Corral, whilst one of its many writers, Mark Fergus, described Cowboys & Aliens as The Searchers meets Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. What was Harrison Ford’s grip on this juicy hybrid when it was first presented to him?
“Well, I didn’t know what the intention was from the title,” he says. “Whether it was going to be a jokey kind of thing, or… what I came to understand from the director is that he wanted to make a serious Western, of which the aliens were an element, and that seemed an original idea. There was a character that I wanted to play, there were people involved that I respected, as far as their work is concerned, so, I was happy to become involved.”
I suggest to Ford that the main message of the movie seems to be that Americans of all colours, races, creeds and religions will pull together when it comes to keeping a new foreigner out of the country. He lets out a hearty laugh. Or maybe this is an origins movie – the origins of Scientology, to be precise?
Ford lets out an even heartier laugh. His reputation for being something of a grouch is one that’s ill-founded. Ford just doesn’t tolerate fools, gladly or otherwise.
And when it comes to his work too, Ford is more than happy to disagree with his director. At one point during the shooting of Cowboys & Alien’s closing battle scene in the hot, sticky deserts of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Ford’s request to remove his jacket was refused, in the name of continuity. Director Jon Favreau was quickly running through the sequence of events about to unfold, as what Ford referred to as “the chickens” descended from their mothership, and, yep, there were guys in grey suits with ping pong balls on their heads running towards them.
“Just another day at the office,” quips Ford. Favreau’s run-through was a little too quick. The desert son was getting a little too hot. Ford needed to take five and have a few words with his director away from the set.
It must be at times like this when Ford questions how he spends his time. After all, he’s got a young(ish) wife at home (the 46-year old Calista Flockhart, the two having married last June in Santa Fe, during the Cowboys & Aliens shoot), and a 10-year old adopted son, Liam, Ford’s fifth child.
Then again, battling aliens in strange locations is nothing new to this old hand.
“Exactly, exactly,” he replies. “It’s not my first rodeo. Movies are made in little chunks of work, whether a guy has got a ping pong ball on his head – later to become an alien – or whatever, there’s a very specific task at hand, and the process has always intrigued me. Still does, so, I’m happy to be there.”
Ford has had a busy weekend, popping over to the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award. He’s also been on the campaign trail for Cowboys & Aliens, during which he has had to deal with the fact that The Smurfs have pipped his movie to the post in the US. Ford took out his frustration at such news – and the fact that Calista had taken Liam, “with my money”, to go and see our little blue friends – by ripping the head off a Papa Smurf doll on Conan.
Given just how busy he’s been over the last few days, I thought it only fair to share the good news with Ford that Sony have just announced a Smurfs 2. Which should make Liam happy.
“Ah, yeah, thank you,” he smiles. “I’ll let him know. Thanks for that…”
Talking of the Locarno Lifetime Achievement Award, it’s pretty ridiculous that the man who starred in such movies as American Graffiti, Blade Runner, Mosquito Coast, Witness, The Fugitive and the Star Wars and Indiana Jones outings has never been given an Oscar. Perhaps Ford just isn’t up for all the shaking babies and kissing hands that comes with an Oscar campaign? Or does he just feel no great need for an Oscar?
“Well, that’s an either/or question,” he says, “and I can’t pick one or the other. I’m not losing any sleep over it, but, yeah, I’m gratified by whatever attention I get. This is part of the job, but it doesn’t mean so much to me. Work is what appeals to me. I like to make movies. If I can continue to do that…
“Certainly, in many cases people will make a film that is not so successful on a financial level but is successful on an artistic level, and they’ll be rewarded for that accomplishment. In my case, I just get money…”
And a great sense of pride in your work, right?
“I do take pride in my work, absolutely.”
Well, most of it. When I spoke with Ford last year, he addressed the fact that many of his recent choices haven’t exactly set the box-office alight (2009’s Crossing Over didn’t even get a release in this country), stating “I don’t mind taking my chances. I’ve taken my falls”. We all have our moments of madness, and say yes to something that we clearly shouldn’t have said yes to. Such as the 1978 TV outing The Star Wars Holiday Special.
“Oh, god…” Ford laughs.
I’m sure George Lucas is working on a 3D version for the fans. Is there any part of Harrison Ford that enjoys the memory of that particular travesty?
“I… It was in my contract,” he replies. “There was no known way to get out of it.”
Has Ford seen it? Chewbacca and his family – including horny old granddad – live in a treehouse. Bea Arthur is a grizzly old bar owner. Everyone sings. Everyone dances. Even Harrison Ford.
“No, no,” he states emphatically. “I was there, man. I didn’t have to see it.”
When I spoke with Ford last year, we didn’t have time to talk about his father, Christopher, who, yep, has Irish blood. Real name John William Ford, did Harrison’s dad ever speak about where those Irish roots might stem from exactly?
“No, I don’t think he even knew” he says. “My father lost his father quite early, and I don’t think he knows so much about his family history.”
You could be related to the great filmmaker John Ford. You could even own a castle. Situated on a beautiful river, so you could take one of your beloved family barge trips right outside…
“Nice. I really should look into it then. And being related to John Ford? Yeah, I could certainly live with that…”
Words – Paul Byrne
(Watch the video interview next week!)
Cowboys & Aliens descends upon Irish screens Aug 19th or see it at Movie Fest this weekend!