FILMS

The reluctant star

For Harrison Ford, acting is craft, not art

Brian D. Johnson July 15 1991
FILMS

The reluctant star

For Harrison Ford, acting is craft, not art

Brian D. Johnson July 15 1991

The reluctant star

FILMS

For Harrison Ford, acting is craft, not art

Harrison Ford is known as a tough interview, a movie star who submits to media scrutiny with the grim stoicism of someone undergoing root-canal work. And as he sat down with Maclean’s in a Manhattan hotel room one morning recently to talk about his new movie, Regarding Henry, he seemed apprehensive. He began by clarifying his reputation. “I’m not crazy about doing interviews,” Ford conceded, “but I don’t hate them. I don’t hate the people who ask me the questions. And I don’t mind promoting the films that I do.” What the 49year-old actor does dislike, however, is the whole business of being famous. “I have an aversion to celebrity,” he said. “I have an argument with the place celebrity has in this country and in this culture. There’s just too much celebrity babble out there.”

Ford does not look, talk or act like a movie star. Shunning the Hollywood scene, he lives with his family on an 800-acre ranch in Wyoming. He says that he cannot remember the last time he saw a movie. But as an actor who supported his career with carpentry before becoming the biggest box-office star of the 1980s, he has an obvious love for his profession, which he modestly describes as “piece-

work” and “craft.” Veteran film-maker Mike Nichols, who directed him in Regarding Henry and Working Girl (1988), told Maclean’s that Ford is “one of the relatively rare actors who doesn’t bitch about having to act. He accepts that it’s a perfectly honorable thing for a man to do, especially if he lives the rest of his life in a quiet and generous way.” Added Nichols: “The main thing about him is this unique combination of intelligence and decency. As an actor, he’s a good carpenter—builds his base and planes his edges and does very good work.”

That work includes heroic leads in three of the Top 10 movie hits of all time: Star Wars and two of the three Indiana Jones adventures. Ford has also displayed an impressive range in more serious roles, from the hunted detective who finds asylum among Amish farmers in Witness (1985) to the haunted prosecutor charged with murder in last year’s Presumed Innocent. Now, in a summer movie season dominated by action heroes—in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Terminator 2: Judgment Day—the Indiana Jones of summers past is appearing in a quiet family drama, as a mildmannered amnesiac.

Regarding Henry is as unassuming as its title. Ford portrays Henry, a high-powered

Manhattan lawyer who suffers a severe brain injury and is transformed from a selfish workaholic into a kind and gentle homebody. The script fulfils the most basic requirement of a Hollywood movie: it is about a character who changes—who really changes. Although the narrative’s two-chord simplicity is too cutely contrived, Regarding Henry has charm. It is a movie of refined humor and honest emotion. And Ford’s performance is irresistible. He goes further than he has ever gone in revealing depths of vulnerability. His skewed features are shadowed with guilt and fear, with sheepish innocence, childlike hope and wounded pride. Like the autistic patient played by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and the encephalitis victim played by Robert De Niro in Awakenings, Henry is a lovable naif.

Directed by Nichols with customary flair, Regarding Henry opens with a rapid sequence establishing that the pre-injury Henry is as despicable as he is successful. He lies to a jury. He is rude to his secretary, cold to his wife and cruel to his daughter. He is a man in a terrible hurry. Early in the story, Henry is the innocent victim of a shooting that leaves his speech, movement and memory paralysed. With the help of a jive-talking black physiotherapist— played by Bill Nunn in the movie’s one cringingly off-key performance—Henry gets back on his feet. Returning home to a world he cannot remember, he becomes a better husband, a better father and a better human being than he was before. Making the best of a passive role, Annette Bening plays Henry’s nurturing wife, Sarah. And 12-year-old newcomer Mikki Allen is unflinchingly real as his daughter, Rachel.

But the movie belongs to Ford. And its 1990s ethos—familial love defeats personal

ambition—seems to reflect the actor’s own priorities. With his second wife, screenwriter Melissa Mathison (E.T. The Extraterrestrial), he has a four-year-old son and an 11-month-old daughter. Said Nichols: “At every point, Harrison has resolutely turned away from himself, towards family, towards services and the things he thinks deserve his attention.”

Ford showed up for the Maclean ’s interview conservatively dressed in a jacket and tie, slacks and loafers. He removed his horn-rimmed glasses, fastidiously cleaned them with a hotel napkin, then put them on the table where they remained for the rest of the interview. And for an hour, over several cups of black coffee, Ford wrestled with the uncomfortable task of talking about himself. He is an intense, nervous presence. As he talked, his carpenter’s hands were constantly busy, absently squaring the glass surface of the hotel coffee table.

In person and on screen, Ford has a talent for occupying the moment—for being there. In Regarding Henry, as his character struggles to communicate, the fear in his eyes is palpable.

Asked where it comes from, Ford said: “I could turn it on right now. If I acknowledged the importance of this moment, the potential for making a total and utter fool of myself, I could let that take over.”

Acting, Ford says, comes easily to him. And although he significantly stretched his range by portraying a brain-damaged character in Regarding Henry, he maintains that it was not as hard as it looks. “From the research I did,” said Ford, “it seemed that people in these situations are struggling to keep up all the time. So they fixate on what’s really happening. They don’t have extra time for thinking about telephone calls they have to make. And that’s very easy to play. You just show up and listen, which is half of acting anyway.”

Regarding Henry is based on an original screenplay by Hollywood screenwriter Jeffrey

Abrams, who is only 24. The film-makers reinforced the script with extensive research into neurological cases, including one involving a brain-damaged lawyer. But the movie is obviously not “a case history of a head injury,” said Ford. “It is about family and relationships and trust—and earning a second chance.” Asked if he has ever undergone a profound upheaval in his own life, Ford hesitated: “No— well, I suppose there have been events in my life that were occasions for serious and important reflections. But they’re not things I want to talk about.” Like Henry, he was not always a good father, Ford added. “It’s something that I regret, something that is very common when babies have babies,” he said. “We’re talking about the children of my first marriage, who are now 25 and 22.1 was scratching to make a living as a carpenter, because my acting career was not paying well enough. I’ve learned a lot since then—not just about being a father, but about being a human being.”

Tentatively, Ford described his new approach to fatherhood. “I’ve learned that you

have to give them their space, that they are bom with an aspect and a personality that cannot change, that you have to give them

enough space to____ Oh, this is absurd,” he

said, suddenly embarrassed to be holding forth about life. “I could have started at any other point and said something equally banal and given it the weight of the only thing I said about it, and then I’d be as sorry about what I just said as—never mind. Ask me my favorite color.” Ford was bom and raised in Chicago’s middle-class suburbs, the son of an Irish-Catholic advertising executive and a Russian-Jewish housewife. He shrugs off his childhood as “happy, normal, uneventful—middle class.” As a boy, he wanted to be a coal man, he recalled. “They used to dump a big pile of coal in front of my house. And a guy would show up with a wheelbarrow and spend all day transferring the

coal to a bin behind the building. He could see the result of his labor.” Added Ford: “My dad got all dressed up, went to work, came home, sat at the dinner table and bitched like crazy about those bastards at work. The coal man, you know he didn’t go home at night and tell his wife how unco-operative the coal was.”

A philosophy major at Ripon College in Wisconsin, Ford flunked out in 1964, shortly before graduation. It was there that he began his acting career, in campus theatre, and met fellow student Mary Marquardt, whom he married the year he left Ripon. His movie career was slow to ignite. After playing bit parts in films and on television for several years, he drew attention as a drag racer in American Graffiti (1973). Star Wars (1977) made him a star. And now Ford commands as much as $10 million a picture.

The actor plays adventure heroes with a remarkable lack of ego. He is attracted to action roles that offer “an emotional reality more complicated than revenge,” he said. “What bothers me is blood lust. But I can’t criticize other people’s movies, because I haven’t seen them. I haven’t seen a Predator ox a Terminator.” In fact, Ford says that he does not go to movies, period. At first, that was to avoid imitating others, then it became a habit, he said. “This sounds odd—it’s the first time I’m about to say it—but I think it’s because movies have very little to do with my life.” Ford insists that unlike, say, Madonna, he has no interest in being an icon. “I’m in a service occupation. She’s not,” he said. “I’m an assistant storyteller. It's like being a waiter or a gas-station attendant, but I’m waiting on six million people a week, if I’m lucky.” He added: “The big rule is still the same. If you’re an object of fashion, by definition you will be out of fashion when someone else comes along. When they put that much passion into ordaining you a superstar, then every law of the physics of the situation demands that they put an equal amount of energy into dragging your ass down again when they’re done with you.”

As the conversation shifted to political fashions, the actor became circumspect. The previous day, Manhattan had hosted a victory parade for the troops returning from the Persian Gulf. “I was appalled,” said Ford. “I’m very sorry that this act of war has been the occasion for the stimulation of pride in this country the likes of which I haven’t seen for many years.” Avoiding partisan politics, Ford prefers to work behind the scenes, funding causes ranging from conservation to child care. He stays out of celebrity scrimmages. “People line up umpteen celebrities on both sides of an issue,” he said, “and whoever’s got more and bigger— and more credible—stars, the more powerful their argument. Well, that’s just bullshit, and I want no part of it.” Despite his aversion to “celebrity babble,” Ford finds himself talking anyway, venturing opinions against his better judgment, revealing as much by what he holds back as by what he says. And in his drive to remain stubbornly ordinary in the face of stardom, he has crafted an uncommon heroism.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON