There’s no small irony, not to mention amusement, about Harrison Ford’s recent transition from Star Wars grouch to affirmative force.
“It’s true: all of it,” Ford’s space buccaneer Han Solo assures incredulous younger characters in the most recent trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, confirming tales of momentous galactic battles decades earlier.
Solo was the cynical smartass in the original Star Wars trilogy from 1977 to ’83, albeit a heroic one. Off-screen Ford has long been coolly dismissive of his character and the Star Wars phenomenon itself, at one point even asking series creator George Lucas to kill off Solo in the science fantasy series.
But as the Dec. 18 worldwide release of The Force Awakens looms, Ford is finding himself almost as excited as the millions of Star Wars fans for his return to a franchise that he left after Return of the Jedi in 1983.
Emphasis on “almost.” True to form, Ford isn’t making it easy for any interviewer who tries to paint him as being anything more than an industrious Star Wars actor.
“You’d describe me as being caught up in it?” Ford asks me over the line from Los Angeles, his eyebrows audibly raised. “You would? In what way?”
Well, how about those good-natured appearances on recent late-night talk shows, including the Halloween visit to Jimmy Kimmell where Ford, dressed as a hotdog, assured his host: “Trust me ... you will not be disappointed at all” about The Force Awakens.
This sounded like enthusiasm, especially from Ford, who is one of the only people in the world so far to have seen the secrecy-shrouded film, which receives its world premiere Monday night in Hollywood.
I remind Ford that this is a far cry from the verbal slam he gave me in our first interview in New York in 1998. I had asked him about the then-simmering fan debate about the “Greedo shoots first” incident (you can Google it) in the special edition release of Star Wars: A New Hope, after Lucas tweaked a significant Solo scene.
“You know, you are probably the only guy who cares about this,” he told me, dismissing the topic. (Let the obvious be stated: I’m most assuredly not the only guy who cares about Greedo’s intentions regarding Solo.)
Ford chuckles and allows that maybe, just maybe, he’s let a little more love for Star Wars into his heart.
“Listen, I’ve always been gratified by the customer support, the fan support, of Star Wars. And the opportunities that its success have made available to me. So I’ve not really been resistant to expressing my enthusiasm for the films. But maybe I’m just a little bit more gracious than I used to be.”
Gracious, yes. That’s a good word for it. He’s also grateful for a career now stretching a half-century, beginning with a bit part in the 1966 crime drama Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round.
Since then he’s appeared in dozens of hit films, creating other iconic characters besides Han Solo. Two other fan favourites, swashbuckling archeologist Indiana Jones and replicant fighter Rick Deckard, are due to get their own new sequels, in a planned Indiana Jones 5 and an in-production Blade Runner 2.
“The film business has been very, very good to me,” Ford, 73, reflects.
“It’s been the luck of my career that I grew up and came out of Star Wars into a world of a golden age of moviemaking. Star Wars very much underpinned that and brought an enthusiasm back to the audience for the movie experience.
“It was great to be of the age I was — mid-30s, 40s, all the way through my mid-50s — when the business was flourishing. There were a lot of good directors and good parts available to me, because of the kind of movies that we were making and the kind of movies that the industry was making.”
He modestly doesn’t see himself as a marquee star or a leading man, although he of course is one. Trailers and other promotions for The Force Awakens suggest that Han Solo is a big part of the film, directed by Star Trek’s J.J. Abrams, with possibly more screen time for him than for other returning players: Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia (now General Leia) and Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker.
“I was always ambitious to be a character actor,” Ford says.
“I didn’t ever aspire to be a leading man. I didn’t even register the distinction until a certain point.”
He almost didn’t get to be either type of actor in The Force Awakens. His leg was shattered on the film’s London set in the summer of 2014, shortly after he reported for duty. The hydraulic door on his famed Millennium Falcon spacecraft slammed down on him. While everybody freaked out, Ford calmly asked for a cellphone to summon a helicopter ambulance.
Earlier this year, Ford cheated death and broke more bones after the engine failed on the vintage Second World War fighter plane he was piloting and he was forced to crash-land on a Santa Monica golf course.
He has recovered from all his injuries — he’s like the trucks in the car ads boasting “Ford Built Tough” — and he’s appreciative of inquiries as to his general health.
“It’s been a tough year, but I’m doing very well, thank you. I’m grateful, thank you.”
He often sounds like a pessimist, but in reality Ford is an optimist. He looks forward to one day seeing a man or woman walk on Mars, a real-life space adventure: “I’m interested in what happens to a society that comes together with a vision of what might be.”
Ford is also happy, really, to be playing Han Solo as older man.
“It’s a really unique opportunity to revisit a character 25 years later and not pretend to be playing — and not to have to play him as though there was no gap in between. So the genius of this is that we acknowledge the passing of time and we’re still interested and invested in those characters because of the support they have from the story and the support that they give to the story. Something I have always been interested in is creating characters that are alloyed to the story.”
Indiana Jones and Rick Deckard get to similarly age in their respective sequels, too, so Ford won’t have to darken his still luxuriant but now grey locks. Ford is looking forward to going before the camera soon for Canada’s Denis Villeneuve, director of Blade Runner 2.
The actor is coy about whether Deckard will be revealed to be a robotic replicant himself, as series creator Ridley Scott has indicated.
“Who cares? But I think it’s fantastic that people care enough to think about it,” Ford says.
Yes, make no mistake, Ford is as wily and irascible as ever when he doesn’t wish to talk about something.
He won’t be drawn into revealing any of the top-secret plot for The Force Awakens, not even to knock down wild-eyed fan-boy conjecture that the evil Kylo Ren, a Darth Vader wannabe played by Adam Driver, is actually Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker behind the mask.
“No, let’s keep that one going!” Ford chuckles, before launching into a defence of the CIA-level lockdown over plot details.
“Here’s the thing. The business of moviemaking is to preserve the opportunity for the audience to come into a theatre without expectation and to be presented with an experience that they get to have an emotional relationship to.
“Why would I or anybody in my business want to predispose the audience with any kind of information about what’s in the movie? Don’t do that! Just resist the impulse to do that. It’s very easy. Watch this!”
He’s also more than OK with plans by Lucasfilm parent Disney to continue the Star Wars franchise past the current Episode VII that The Force Awakens represents, although he’s cagey about his own future involvement with the franchise.
“Personally? I see no problem with further sequels, depending on the success of the film and what the sequel is about, and how it’s done.”
Will Han Solo appear in future Star Wars films?
“I’m sorry, I think we have a bad connection,” Ford jokes, dodging the question.
Now that really sounds like the Harrison Ford of old.