They don’t come much bigger in Hollywood than Harrison Ford. With a career spanning almost 50 years (his first role was in 1966!), the Academy Award nominee (Best Actor for Witness in 1985) continues to expand his resume with diverse new roles and returns to old favorites.
At this year’s 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, the San Francisco Film Society conducted a Harrison Ford interview as they honored the star with the Peter J. Owens Award for a body of work that “exemplifies brilliance, independence, and integrity.” Along with a select audience, the softly spoken actor watched a retrospective of his memorable performances, then sat for the interview and a Q&A session with the guests. Thoughtful and gracious, Ford answered questions about roles past, present, and future, as well as how the industry has changed in his time.
“When America dreams of a hero, we see Harrison Ford,” lauded San Francisco Film Society executive director and independent producer Ted Hope as he introduced Ford to the stage. “Hell, when the world dreams of a hero, we see Harrison Ford! People either want to marry him, be like him, or just hang out with him.”
Ford stepped onto the stage to a rapturous standing ovation, dressed in a snug pullover, jeans, and Birkenstocks; relaxed and comfortable. Many of the questions focused on the current stage of his career, an actor known as a leading man now aging gracefully into more “character” roles.
Asked about his decision to take on the role of Branch Rickey in Jackie Robinson baseball biopic 42, Ford admitted that “I’m not really a leading man anymore. That’s my former job.” He went on to add that he loved the script, but was not initially considered for the role and had to make a case for himself to writer/director Brian Helgeland.
“Are these the kinds of characters you are looking to play now?” Ford was asked. He considered the question carefully before answering. “The job of the leading man is to lead the audience through the story and an emotional experience. But I’m a little too old for that.”
Ford also spoke about his role in Regarding Henry, reflecting on working with respected director Mike Nichols. He pointed out that the script was the debut effort of popular writer/director JJ Abrams. This was a natural segue for someone to ask about a possible future project with Abrams—the recently announced Star Wars Episode VII. Cheekily, Ford said he was “not at liberty to say”, making the audience momentarily giddy.
When asked why he turned down the leads in both Traffic and Syriana, Ford answered that he didn’t like the society and the culture that the films portrayed. That prompted a question about why Ford, as a staunch environmentalist, hasn’t tackled that subject in his work, to which he gave a measured reply: “Environmental issues are too complex for a two-hour entertainment. You just end up co-opting the issue for entertainment”—cheapening the subject matter.
On his craft, Ford said emphasized the inherently collaborative nature of film as a storytelling medium and that, as an actor, he is only a part of that process. He also spoke about how extremely fortunate he was in his career to work and grow alongside some of film’s greatest directors and storytellers, including George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and others of the “film school generation.”
One of the funniest moments of the afternoon was when a man, whose wife was pregnant, asked Ford if he would honor them by naming their soon to arrive baby. The audience burst into laughter, but Ford gracefully demurred after agreeing that the gentleman’s wife was a “wise woman” not to allow him to name their child Indiana.
Asked about what has changed the most over his career, Ford answered that “Films are more sophisticated today than they were 20 years ago; they have more complexity today. But the one thing I regret most is that people don’t watch film in theaters anymore.” He explained, with a sly smile, that people no longer have the shared emotional experience of “sitting in the dark with a bunch of strangers” and, without that, the film experience doesn’t have the same impact it once did.
As the Harrison Ford interview ended, the actor recounted the best advice he ever got, courtesy of Mike Nichols. “I didn’t really understand it at the time, but I figured out later that he was on to something,” Ford said.” [Nichols] said ‘Don’t let them turn you into a thing.’ It doesn’t matter what that ‘thing’ is or who ‘they’ are. But don’t let them take away your dream, your ambition, who you are, or what’s important to you.”
Ford chuckled to himself, adding, “That’s all I can think of right now. Ask me again in five minutes.”