Harrison Ford started out in Hollywood as a bit player and a professional carpenter; the latter role has given journalists a news peg and a metaphorical basis for discussing his acting over his more than 35 years in the business. While he’s largely been known as an action star—as Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Jack Ryan, and falsely accused doctor Richard Kimble—Ford is a methodically thoughtful actor, whose seriousness about his craft and the construction of his characters belies the popcorn fantasies of a lot of his movies.
He takes a slightly different tack in the new medical drama Extraordinary Measures, about John and Aileen Crowley, a real-life couple who devoted their lives to finding a cure for Pompe Disease in time to save their two afflicted children from early death. Ford co-stars in the film as Dr. Robert Stonehill, an irascible, impatient, frequently troublesome university researcher whose tack on the disease might be the Crowleys’ best hope. The A.V. Club recently sat down with Ford to talk about why he produced Extraordinary Measures, how he went about making up his fictional character for this non-fiction film, and how he feels about those carpentry metaphors.
The A.V. Club: You have a reputation for hating doing publicity interviews. Does having that out front help? Do you think it makes people approach you any differently?
Harrison Ford: I didn’t know that I had that reputation. I think that was something that—obviously you’ve done your research, but I think I was characterized that way early on in my career, and it stuck. I don’t mind doing interviews. I don’t mind answering thoughtful questions. But I’m not thrilled about answering questions like “If you were being mugged, and you had a lightsaber in one pocket and a whip in the other, which would you use?”
AVC: Do you get anything out of the interview process?
HF: Absolutely. I get an opportunity to communicate with the audience about the movie that I’ve made. I get the chance to bring attention to the film that I’ve made. I care a lot about the movies that I make. I want them to reach an audience, and I want them to be successful. I see this as a real opportunity. That’s why I’m out here. I promote nearly everything that I do, unless I’ve got some bad taste in my mouth.
AVC: You were reportedly the motive factor behind Extraordinary Measures—it became a film because you read and enjoyed Geeta Anand’s The Cure, the book about the Crowleys.
HF: Yeah, because I and my production partners were looking to develop a number of different projects for myself to be a part of. Of the three things that we had a notion of developing, this is the one that bore fruit. We had the true story of John Crowley, and we had the opportunity to create a character to partner with Crowley in his scientific endeavor to create a therapy for his kids. We took the contributions of a number of different scientists and researchers and folded them into one character.
AVC: Was the character created for you to play from the start?
HF: The character was created for me to play, and I was a willing co-conspirator and participant in the project from the very get-go. We did our research, we got the permission of Crowley to tell his story, we hired screenwriters, we gave them a brief, we went through four or five different drafts and polishes of the script, we hired a director, and I was one of the partners in all parts of that. And the creation of the character was my special interest. I researched the science so that I could be part of the group which would decide how we would present the science, how we would parse it out for the audience. I needed to understand the science myself first, so that I could be part of trying to communicate it. I needed to know the reality of the character that I played, so I went to the University Of Nebraska and did some research—with people, by the way, who were well-adjusted, who bear no resemblance to the character I play.
AVC: Did anyone you meet during that process particularly stand out, in terms of what went into creating that character?
HF: No. No, no. I created the character out of those things that helped tell the story, which is what I normally do, since there’s a certain reality to a character, without the context of the story he finds himself in. Some of the things I discovered in research—details like that the coach of the university football team makes more money than the school’s entire science budget, or that this is a guy who is interested in a disease on a cellular level, on an intellectual level. Though he’s a medical doctor, he probably never met a Pompe patient, had no interest in that. A guy who works alone with students who look up to him and who doesn’t have a lot of social graces, a loner who goes and watches football at the closest bar, drives an old pickup truck because he really doesn’t have any money. All of those details are folded into a character.
AVC: But all of those details are things that came out of specific people?
HF: They came out of my research. Not specific people, but a specific reality. The pickup truck is a choice I made, but the observable reality was that these are people who work with students. Their students do look up to them. But the choice of character, the detail of the character, are choices made to make him a difficult guy for Crowley to get along with, but a guy that Crowley needs. The passion that he shows for his science, his belief in himself, is what wins the day in the bar when Crowley first meets him. These are conscious storytelling choices.
AVC: Maybe this is also a mischaracterization, but you also have a reputation for being hands-on in the development of the films you appear in, and working to build the details of your characters.
HF: Yeah, that’s true. It’s not a mischaracterization.
AVC: Was having more of a free hand to do that part of the draw of producing?
HF: Truth be told, I usually have the opportunity to influence the things that I’m involved in. Every once in a while, I take something on—like, I’ve got a comedy coming out in July that arrived full-born, whole-cloth, and I had nothing to do with the production of that. But normally, I’m involved early enough and have the opportunity to be a collaborator more often than a hired gun. Sometimes you’re in early enough, that you are, in fact, guiding the project. Sometimes there are other people involved. It’s different in every case. It’s a business thing.
AVC: Your Extraordinary Measures character is an irascible man who doesn’t cooperate well with other people, or care about much but the science. If you were portraying a real person, you might be accused of exaggerating him, treating him unfairly. Was that an influence at all in deciding to make him a composite?
HF: It’s the opportunity. I rarely play a real person, because I don’t think I’m a good imitator. Everything’s a matter of degree, though, and the requirements of the film overall sort of describe the degree to which you’ll take a character.
AVC: One of the most interesting things you’ve said in past interviews is that it’s vitally important for an actor to maintain enough freedom in his life to still do ordinary things, and have ordinary experiences, because staying in touch with reality influences what you can bring to a character. Given your level of fame, are you still in a place where you can have those ordinary experiences?
HF: You know, I think you develop the capacity to slough off those parts of the experience that are not normal and take the normal part of it as your take-away. It’s rare that I go someplace where I’m not noticed, but maybe the real part is how I got there, and what I did after that. I think what I was talking about is that anonymity is the great gift in life, and that for the actor and the anthropologist, to be able to observe without affecting the circumstances they find themselves in is the ideal. Sometimes you get to know people well enough that they go back to being who they really are. And that depends on time, and the nature of the person that you’re dealing with. The corollary to that is that people, when you’re representing or talking about something that’s really important to them, give you extraordinary access to their experience, are very willing to give you their time and their energy in pursuit of an ambition to tell their story.
AVC: So how did ordinary experience fold into creating this character?
HF: Ordinary experience? I have the ordinary experience of having the blender bottom come off in my room upstairs. I have the ordinary experience of being anonymous when I’m in an airplane talking to air-traffic control, and they don’t know who they’re talking to. I have a lot of common experiences. What’s important is to be able to see yourself, I think, as having commonality with other people and not determine, because of your good luck, that everybody is less significant, less interesting, less important than you are.
AVC: Because of your background in carpentry, people tend to equate your acting with carpentry, as if it was a constructed, intellectual, bloodless process. Do you see it that way?
HF: I see it that way on the preparation stage, and then I see it as reactive, visceral, in the performance stage. I do my homework, and I do build things from the ground up, and I do prepare myself for the experience that I have. But I’m very free in performance, which I think is your responsibility, to bring yourself to what is actually happening and react to the other unexpected things that another actor might do. But I think you always have to know what the ambition of the scene is, what the purpose of that scene is in the telling of the story overall, so that you’re there to support the story.
AVC: How does the director factor into you making those decisions? What’s your ideal relationship like with a director?
HF: I want to be able to give and take, and I can’t name what it is: respect, energy, investment in the task, focus, humor, intelligence.
AVC: Does the dynamic change in a situation like this, where you helped pick the director?
HF: Once you pick him, you give him the shiny badge, and then you—unless you think he’s breaking the law himself—you give him the respect that’s necessary for him to guide the process.
AVC: Does that become any more difficult as a perfectionist producer?
HF: No. That’s what I’m talking about. The producer’s the one that deputizes the director after he hires him.
AVC: Is producing itself gratifying for you? Could you see yourself—
HF: Not unless there’s something… I wouldn’t do it. It’s too much of a real job, too much of an office job for me unless I’m making something for myself.
AVC: How does building a character like this, someone constructed from real people and operating in the real world, compare to playing a fantasy character?
HF: The job is the same, to make a character out of those things that help tell the story, support the story with believable behavior and a character that has a thematic wholeness. Not just bits and pieces that don’t attend to each other, don’t glue together.
AVC: Is that what makes it satisfying as an actor, having all the parts of your character come together to have an effect on the story?
HF: No, there’s no independent satisfaction without the success of the film itself. The feel that you have done the best you can to support the film.
AVC: Do you mean the financial, critical, or popular success, or do you just mean the aesthetic final product?
HF: No, I’m talking about the aesthetic success.
AVC: So if you’re happy with the final product, it doesn’t matter as much what it does out in the world?
HF: It doesn’t matter as much, maybe, but it always matters. It’s an effort at communication, and if you don’t communicate, then that’s not the best result of your efforts. And I always feel responsible for taking the money.