Harrison Ford Talks Acting, Conservation
by nadine schiff-rosen
The first thing I notice when Harrison Ford strides into the studio for our interview is, well, everything: the boyish grin on his ruggedly, still handsome face, the single earring, the scar under his chin, the whip. Okay, he has no whip. But he still possesses that piercing Indiana Jones intensity, even as he graciously shakes the hand of every assistant and grip on the set, who are left speechless in his wake.
And with good reason. Ford is the stuff that myths are made of, a carpenter turned superstar. And in turn, he has starred in some of the most mythic movies of our generation: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Blade Runner, The Fugitive, and Patriot Games, to name just a few. But he’s not just an incredible box office draw; his heroic portrayals of ordinary men who triumph over extraordinary challenges have become part of our national lexicon—his characters are embedded in American culture.
Ford is also a passionate and hands-on activist: a vice chair of the Board of Directors for Conservation International, a global organization dedicated to preserving nature’s biodiversity for the well-being of the planet. When he’s not filming or accepting awards for his conservation efforts, Ford is at his 700-acre ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. There he is known as an unofficial overseer, piloting his own helicopter to aid in wildlife and human rescue missions.
Despite his obvious passion for adventure, he’s also comfortable at home with his wife of two years, actress Calista Flockhart, and their son, Liam. Luckily for his audience, though, even at age 70, the Chicago native shows no signs of slowing down. In 2013 alone, the actor is being featured in three major film releases. The first is 42, a biographical account of Jackie Robinson’s relationship to his mentor, Branch Rickey (played by Ford); the film is set to hit theaters April 12. An emotional story of how together they desegregated Major League Baseball, 42 promises to be another feather in the cap of the legendary actor in this, his fourth decade of American filmmaking.
You grew up in Chicago before moving out to LA to become an actor. What’s your affinity for the city?
HARRISON FORD: I love Chicago. I love the energy of the place, the architecture, the people, the rigor of the place. Bitter cold in the winter, fierce winds, hot summers. During college I’d come back for summer jobs. I worked on a boat in Burnham Park Harbor, in a nightclub on the near north side. I was a manager at the first Crate & Barrel on Wells Street. I am always happy to go back to Chicago.
Do you still maintain a Midwestern sensibility?
HF: That’s not for me to say. I’ve been out in Los Angeles for 35 years, and I think there are some things about my upbringing that reflect the values and the attitudes of the Midwest.... a kind of work ethic that I find particular to the Midwest. I can say that those were important, formative years for me, living in Chicago.
In 42, you star as Branch Rickey, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who, in 1947, desegregated major league baseball when he brought on Jackie Robinson to play for the team. What attracted you to the role?
HF: I felt emotionally connected to Branch Rickey’s ideas, to his history, to the way he expressed himself, and to the quality of his relationship to Jackie Robinson. There were complicated motivations that led him to bring Jackie Robinson into major league baseball, and I thought the film addressed those in a way that I wanted to honor. When I read the script, I thought it was a well-wrought story about something significant, a character different than any I’d played before. It was an opportunity to work with a director I admired, Brian Helgeland, who was passionate about the story, and not the least interested in me for the role. I pestered him to the point where he relented.
Do you think the relationship between Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson helped change America?
HF: I think what happened in baseball was an important precursor and foundation for the Civil Rights Movement. In this country, there is an ambition for honorable relationships, and there is an ambition for doing the right thing. It’s just, I think, something innate in American culture. We often violate this ambition in many ways, but 42 is a very powerful telling of a story in which we attended to a moral injustice in our culture and overcame and accrued to the welfare of baseball, America, and our history as a whole.
In the film, you’re made to look uncannily like Branch Rickey. What went into the transformation?
HF: I wanted not to look like Harrison Ford. So I shaved my hairline up to where his started, wore a black wig, added a bit of nose, and covered the scar on my chin. I was motivated by a conversation with Sir Ben Kingsley. I was working with him on a movie, and I said, “I’m thinking of really adopting the physical characteristics of this character. I’ve never really done that before. I hope I get away with it.” And he said, “If you give a man a mask, he’ll tell you the truth.” That advice served me well all through the film.
What made you become so passionately involved with Conservation International?
HF: I never wanted to be a celebrity spokesman. I just wanted to be involved in a process, to bring some meaningful energy, an application of intelligence and effort to an issue. The people who founded it were very much scientists and people who understood that science had to underpin the policies and strategies that they employed. What makes the work so palpable and powerful now is that people are seeing this geometric progression of the failure of nature to be able to support people in places where it’s been abused. Whereas they thought the destruction of the environment would take years and years, now they are seeing it right in their economic face. Editor's Note: Watch the video about Conservation International below.
What is Conservation International’s philosophy about the environment?
HF: We want people to understand that nature doesn’t need people. People need nature. The human population could disappear completely, and nature would prosper and heal. But we need intact and vital nature in order to support ourselves. We cannot afford to provide for ourselves through our effort and financial means. All the free services our environment provides help us. Nature provides for humanity: fresh air, clean water, pollinators for our crops, renewable sources of food, and sources of future medicinals. We need to closet and preserve these resources.
You named a newly discovered butterfly after your daughter. That’s a very unique gift.
HF: Well, I didn’t choose it. It was proposed that they name it after me, but I was already the namesake of an ant and a spider.
You didn’t want the entire animal kingdom named after you?
HF: [Laughs] Yeah. So I proposed they name it after my daughter, Georgia.
Last summer, you turned 70. You’ve been a superstar for 40 years. You’re a grandfather. You’re a newlywed, and you have three movies coming out in 2013. I want what you’re having.
HF: I’m very happy to still be working. When I imagined being an actor, I thought, Well, there are as many jobs for older people as for younger people. If you didn’t want to retire, you could work for as long as you were useful to the telling of a story. So I’m not worried about getting older. I’m fine with it. The kinds of roles that I’m playing now are as satisfying and interesting as anything I’ve done.
In Indiana Jones and Blade Runner, you did many of your own stunts. What’s that like?
HF: I never accepted the notion that I was doing stunts—I was doing physical acting. I like rolling around on the ground as much as the next guy. And I like the work involved. I like work, and there’s physical work involved in that kind of stuff. It’s fun.
So many of the films you’ve starred in have been nominated for Best Picture, and many of the pictures you made in the ’70s and ’80s were box office blockbusters.
HF: That was the heyday of filmmaking, when people went to films more than they ever had. Film had a great influence on the culture, and the business itself prospered. People were still going to theaters to see movies, rather than sitting at home alone and stopping the movie to get up and get potato chips. It was still a time when people went to a dark place with a bunch of strangers and felt something in common, which I think is the real value of film—to reinforce a sense of common humanity.
Photography by Jeff Gale and Jeff Crawford
Michigan Avenue celebrates with cover star Harrison Ford at Chicago Cut Steakhouse.