Cowboys & Interviews: Harrison Ford Isn’t Riding Into the Sunset Just Yet

By  · Published on July 29th, 2011

It’s the kind of day in Montana that makes postcards jealous. The weather is pristine, the mountains hold everyone in their arms, and I’m sitting across from one of my heroes.

When I first met Harrison Ford, it was on another envious postcard day in New Mexico where Cowboys & Aliens had set up shop by renting out God’s soundstage. He was energetic as he told the movie writers there about giving helicopter rides to members of the cast and crew, and just as spirited as he said his goodbyes by powdering sand into the air in a gator speeding toward an alien spacecraft.

Today, he’s more subdued. Thoughtful. He takes his seat at the roundtable like an elder statesman, and I half expect him to start telling us about what it was like back in his day, but he smiles in a mix of politeness and standoffishness instead. He’s ready to talk, but even the most professional among us seems to have a lump in his or her throat.

The kid having fun on set is gone, and I’m now seeing a man who has seen everything.

We like to think of Harrison Ford as Han Solo or Indiana Jones, but the truth is that those years are long behind him (and the fourth Indiana Jones may have been the most clear indication of that). In a way, Ford has escaped those characters by delivering a slate of memorable roles in the 1990s. He embodied Jack Ryan, gave a rebirth to Linus from Sabrina and Dr. Richard Kimble from The Fugitive, and kicked people off his plane to protect his family. He has fewer symbolic roles in the 2000s, but it’s not like he needs them. He’s one of the few actors that has created so many iconic personae, that everyone has their own version of who Ford is.

Now, with Jon Favreau’s latest film, he wants to sell you on Woodrow Dolarhyde, a Civil War Colonel who is now the wealthiest man in a sleepy little hamlet surrounded by steppe. “I wanted him to represent the reality of the western experience,” Ford explains. “He’s the richest man in town. He’s the most powerful man in town. He’s arrogant. He’s contentious. There’s no sign of Mrs. Dolarhyde; she must have fled a long time ago.”

He delivers that last line with a sly smirk, and the entire table lets out a laugh that probably echoes after traveling miles away to the mountainside.

“You don’t want to hit it too hard, because it’s a movie about cowboys and aliens, but if it can be there and it can have a real emotional reality, that’s the pleasure of going to a movie.”

In the film, Dolarhyde has a broken (if not non-existent) relationship with his son Percy (played by Paul Dano). The emotional beats are definitely there on the surface, even as aliens fire blasters down on an unsuspecting group of settlers. Amidst the genre tropes of a John Ford Western and a horror sci-fi flick, this character arc holds the center of the entire story.

“You have to attend to both the myth of the west and the reality of the west. You have to talk about relationships because this is about going and getting back our kin, getting back our people who have been snatched away,” Ford says. “And what does that mean to a guy who treats his kid like shit anyway? Does it mean that he recognizes that this is unfinished business? That this is bad business and that he’s got another chance at it?”

For Ford himself, this is another shot at saddling up for the genre. His sole other Western credit on the big screen is the decidedly more comedic The Frisco Kid, but he also appeared as two different characters in two different episodes of the television show Gunsmoke in 1972–1973 (the same year he’d make a big impact in American Graffiti and begin his partnership with George Lucas). Although he enjoyed being out in the open, it was really the way that Favreau captured that openness that mattered more to him.

Harrison Ford in an episode of Gunsmoke

“At a certain point, there was talk about doing this thing in 3D, and it was rejected as you can see. But I’m glad that it didn’t turn out to be a 3D movie because that sense of place is really important. It goes a long way toward explaining people’s need to depend on themselves and crunch up against each other to see who had the most capacity to affect the situation they found themselves in. It was a tough world and an empty place, and you had to depend on yourself and the people around you. I think that’s expressed in the anamorphic scale of the way the movie was shot. There’s something real important about that, and it’s the iconography of the Western. You have all that space, and you can still see other people’s faces.”

Thinking about the scope of the film seems a full day’s ride away from Ford’s initial reaction to the script, though. He told his agent he wanted to be “in a movie that people wanted to go see, one that appeals to what’s left of the movie audience.” So, he was handed the script to Cowboys & Aliens. He got 30 pages into it and didn’t see anything in it for him. It was only after meeting with Favreau and writers Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman that he grew to like the work in progress. When he worked with Daniel Craig to give Dolarhyde some more room to grow, it helped seal the deal.

“I began to see an opportunity to play a different kind of character than I’m used to,” Ford claims. “To enjoy the pleasures of having a character where you don’t have to have anybody like you. It’s a chance to really attempt to bring in some texture to the piece.”

It certainly is a new kind of role for Ford – the kind of role Walter Brennan might feel more comfortable in – but it suits that rugged elder statesman sensibility just fine. There’s a maturity to his trademark gruffness. After all, this is the same man who said, “I know,” as Han Solo when Leia said that she loved him. He embodied Han Solo and (even after embodying several other iconic figures) he still has a bit of that character in him. He’s just 34 years older.

And that older version of Han Solo is staying grounded in the Western. In addition to buying the horses that he and Craig rode during Cowboys & Aliens, Ford is setting himself up to play an aging Wyatt Earp in the film Black Hats which will most likely see the scenic vistas of New York City instead of the sweeping brush of the wild, wild west. One Western has aliens. The other has New Yorkers. Go figure.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch on that warm day in Montana, seated with a handful of reporters ten feet away from a herd of cattle, Harrison Ford delves into a new kind of character that sits at the intersection of a lot of his other work. After all, what is Indiana Jones if not a cowboy heading out to find treasure? What is Han Solo if not an alien-fighter? Dolarhyde is both something brand new and something he’s seen before. Regardless, he brings over four decades of experience to crafting this staunch man we’re allowed to dislike.

“The process is the same always,” Ford says of acting. “It’s creating behavior to help tell the story, understanding the utility of the character to the story overall and then efficiently attending to all that and try and bring as much life and texture and reality to the situation. It might not be real for an audience if they didn’t recognize human behavior and emotions in that context.”

Then he says something that digs right into the heart of his career and the lifeblood of why he’s such an exalted fan favorite. It’s a sentiment that washes away all of the talk about technique and the subtext that can be found in a film where men with Stetsons and Colt .45s fight beings from beyond this earth. It sifts through all the dirt and sand to leave a single kernel of gold.

“I love making movies, and I love being part of good movies.”

Simple? Yes. But it’s true, and we all love watching Ford in the movies he loves to make. On the outside, Ford is an intimidating presence, and decades of film fandom lives inside of him, but when you get down to it, that love is really all that matters. Sitting across from a film legend seated in front of azure blue skies and towering mountainsides as he shares that sentiment is a moment you wish you could capture and pass down to the next generation of kin.

It’s the kind of day that makes postcards jealous.

You can hear part of this interview blended together with interviews from Jon Favreau, Olivia Wilde and Daniel Craig in a special feature on this week’s Reject Radio.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.