We don't need another hero

In his latest film, Harrison Ford turns his good-guy image on its head. But, as he tells Sarah Gristwood, all is not lost - there's another Indiana Jones on the way
Click to follow

Harrison Ford should let his control slip a bit more often. This is the Venice Film Festival, he's been answering questions all day about his new thriller What Lies Beneath, and while he still suffers fools with a kind of steely calm, it's becoming increasingly obvious that he regards most of the world that way. This, however, is good news.

Harrison Ford should let his control slip a bit more often. This is the Venice Film Festival, he's been answering questions all day about his new thriller What Lies Beneath, and while he still suffers fools with a kind of steely calm, it's becoming increasingly obvious that he regards most of the world that way. This, however, is good news.

Irritation is the spur; he's speaking out with unaccustomed freedom, almost like a man who enjoys the sound of his own voice. Admittedly, he continues to carry himself like schoolmaster, when Form 4b are showing rather poorly. But I've interviewed Ford many times and seen him so snarlingly self-conscious as to make the whole business impracticable. The level of his deep voice used to rise and fall with his comfort level, as if someone were fiddling with the radio knob. That odd effect has gone away.

You don't have to like Ford - if you did, he'd probably be affronted at your temerity. But it's not hard to believe him when he says "I'm more at ease with things today, more secure in who I am and what I've accomplished."

He has - to be fair - always been realistic about the price of fame, acknowledging the "known symbiotic relationship" between performer and press, and that the highest grossing star of all time was never going to be left in decent privacy. "They can't put your face up there 15ft high for 25 years and you not expect to have some celebrity come to you. But I don't expect anyone's sympathy, nor even do I beg for your understanding." Ford often takes refuge in a deliberate pedantry of phrase. "It's simply the deal with the Devil I've made." So he's casting us journalists as Satan? Possibly.

He has always called himself a craftsman ("privileged to work with artists"). His audiences have always been "my customers", and the film a product "now available for consumption". It made you think of the pride that apes humility. But today, he is ready to expound on his "craft approach", as if wanting to be taken seriously no longer felt dangerous.

"The basic skill of an actor is in fact empathy and that's maybe not a skill, it's a disposition. "I am an assistant story-teller. I enjoy feeling useful to a team effort. It's my way of finding a use for myself - a utility in this world." That could ring rather depressingly. But Ford doesn't mean it that way.

"What I'm ambitious for is to not get caught ac-ting." He utters the word distastefully. "To behave. To be something. To really feel and not to let people see the process - or to let them stand back and admire it, because I think that does finally get in the way." He concludes with the satisfaction of a man who has covered the blackboard with equations and draws a triumphant chalk line under the final total.

"The process is reinvented every time there are new personalities involved. Some directors are very unhappy hearing me describe this as a collaborative process, but it is. Even in casting, the director is asking the actors for their experience, their knowledge of themselves if not of others."

Which brings us to What Lies Beneath, which offers Ford a particular opportunity to take his long-established image and juggle with it, to the advantage of the movie. "What I saw here was an opportunity to play a character different to what the audience's expectation was. To take their crude experience of me - of my iconography, if you will - and turn it on its ear at an appropriate juncture in the film, to be useful to the process of telling the story."

"Useful" is big in Ford's vocabulary. But to explore the advance Ford makes in this psychological chiller does - please, Sir - present particular difficulties. It's a "something nasty in the house" tale about which it would be unfair to give too much away. "You can say that this is a troubled marriage, that what lies beneath that is not what you see on the surface. That my character has been unfaithful. You can describe the kind of man who does this sort of thing, a prideful, ego-driven man whose relationship with his father was unsatisfactory, who is still looking for approbation."

So far it is already something of a departure for Ford. For a man who hates the word "hero", he has played more of them than any actor in modern cinema history.

"I think that playing a hero or a bad guy is a really bad idea. I don't play characters that don't have some kind of flaw." But there is that physiognomy. What Wolfgang Petersen, casting him as the President in Air Force One, called his "moral authority". And yes, he has himself preferred to be the righteous side of the story.

"I'm not usually interested in playing 'the villain' of the piece," he said to me once. "I'm not interested in 19 amusing ways to kill people. I like to be part of a positive statement. I couldn't give a shit less about people who are just bad. I'm interested in is creating a situatio that makes people understand they are part of the human community with all its many responsibilities.

"There comes a point," he admits now, "where you've exhausted your opportunities playing good guys. I've been around long enough, I think I'm entitled to explore a bit." What Lies Beneath is also unusual for Ford in that Michelle Pfeiffer as his wife plays a larger part in the story. He is being asked how it feels to play a supporting role - albeit rather mischievously.

"There was no movie without the character that I play, and that's not the definition of a supporting actor. I do the same job, get the same check, and have a few more days off than she does.

"I don't count lines. I don't care about that. What I care about is that when I take on a film, I'm like a fireman who's committed to a 24-hour shift and I want to go and put out a big fire, I don't want to go and put out a trashy little fire in a waste basket. I want to do a complete job. Work hard and work well. The process of my career has lead me to be a leading man. It was never my ambition, I never thought about it. I thought I was going to be a character actor but I had the luck to stumble into being a leading man, and much as there is luck involved, it's somewhat limiting, to a degree."

Time for a change, possibly. Ford celebrated his 58th birthday recently and has always said there would come a time for the character roles, the nasties. Change and Ford, though, have not always got along. It's as if, after his famously serendipitous late break into screen success, he was reluctant to risk it in any way, or perhaps reluctant to back away from the pact he made to be what we wanted him to be.

His passionate conviction has always made him convincing in what do - sorry - have to be called hero roles. When he has stepped outside them, the results have - until now - been less happy. Action - "physical acting" - suits Ford, more than speech ("yammering on"). If the physical roles ever were to dry up, he might not find it easy.

For now, though, he hardly needs to worry. There are stories he may play a submarine captain in an action spectacular, K-19, to be directed by Kathryn Bigelow. He's also planning another Indiana Jones film, subject to a suitable script. No qualms about the decade-long gap since the last one? "People know what they are asking for and they've been asking for another one with great regularity." No qualms about Indy approaching 60?

"There is no barrier to Indiana Jones growing older. It's not an age-based character. We can't bang him up as much as we used to, maybe." Yes, he feels just fine about producing the necessary physicality. "I can pretend to have the capacities as well as I pretended before." But his voice is rising, finally.

'What Lies Beneath' is out on 20 Oct