When I arrived at a Toronto hotel last week to interview Harrison Ford, there was plenty of drama off-stage. His publicists were in a dither because the selection of herbal teas they'd ordered for him 30 minutes earlier still hadn't arrived, despite several increasingly exasperated phone calls to ever-higher-ups in the room-service chain.
The journalists in the holding room were in a snit because the U.S. handlers on Ford's new film, Extraordinary Measures , had sent out a stern letter full of interview don'ts: no cell-phone cameras, no personal or faith-based questions, and - our favourite - no asking, "What is the plot of your movie?" Plus, a list of celebrity-couple earnings had just been published, with Ford and his fiancée Calista Flockhart ( Brothers & Sisters ) at No. 2, right behind Beyoncé and Jay-Z.
A few months ago, I'd asked Diane Keaton about Ford, and she'd said nice things. They'd just finished filming a comedy, Morning Glory (due out this summer), in which they play duelling anchors on a fading morning show. "He's fun to work with because I'm all yackety-yack, while he's methodical and thoughtful and has that beautiful voice," she said. "He has a dry sense of humour. Very dry. He's very attractive, too. Completely, still attractive, very masculine. I'd be looking at his face, going, 'Huh.'" Though Keaton's a nervous flier, she had travelled on Ford's jet - which he piloted - from New York to L.A., and found him "enormously reassuring," she said. "He opened me up to the possibility that if you knew more, you could feel safe in the air. And he was a regular guy, despite the fact that he earned more money last year than any other actor. I didn't bring that up, but I wanted to."
Just before I headed into Ford's chamber, a waiter showed up bearing an elaborate, baffling display of eight teensy dishes of unidentified loose tea leaves. Seething silently, his publicist motioned for him to wait while she punched room service's number into her phone.
At first, Ford kept reminding me of someone, and for a while I thought it was Harrison Ford. This happens with celebrities sometimes, especially really famous ones - you're so accustomed to seeing them on screen that when you meet them, the human seems like a fifth-generation Xerox of the icon, paler and slightly out of focus. But soon it hit me. At 67, Ford reminded me of any number of gruff dads from my youth, who disdained conversation about anything "arty" in favour of engineering or business. He had the same curt, cut-the-crap manner, the same impassive bulk that somehow demands deference. His salt-and-sand hair was neatly clipped; his steel-rimmed glasses were spotless; his black shirt, pants and leather brogues looked expensive but unfussy. Unlike most actors, who fidget or yammer, Ford sat as still as a block of wood and spoke in a slow, low monotone that I had to lean forward to hear.
Ford is reaching an age where playing larger-than-life heroes is no longer feasible. And except for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , his career wasn't exactly on fire in the Aughts. K-19: the Widowmaker was a financial disappointment, the buddy-cop comedy Hollywood Homicide fell flat, and Crossing Over and Firewall were unmemorable.
On Extraordinary Measures , he served as producer as well as star, and helped develop it for six long years. It's inspired by the true story - a departure for Ford - of John Crowley (Brendan Fraser), a father of two children with a rare, life-threatening genetic disorder. Fed up with the inadequacies of conventional medical research, Crowley devoted his life and savings to finding doctors and funding a cure. Ford's character, the irascible, iconoclastic research scientist, Dr. Robert Stonehill, is a fictional composite.
I asked a question (admittedly vague) about Ford's history of playing "men of action" and his decision to become a producer. "Well, I haven't played a guy who stays home and sleeps, no," he scoffed. Then - in shocking defiance of his handlers' letter - he launched into a long, detailed recitation of his movie's plot. I tried to reassure him that I'd seen it, but he wouldn't be interrupted. Soon I realized he was purposely eating up precious minutes of our interview, to keep my feeble questions at bay.
Everything I asked, he batted back. Does he ever feel burdened by his audience's expectations? "No," he said. "From the beginning, I've understood that you're best known for the things that are the most commercially successful. I always thought that the key to shelf life was utility. To be able to use what I can bring in a variety of characters and genres."
I said he and Fraser had good chemistry. "I always point out to people who use that word that chemistry is script," he replied "Chemistry is not casting. Chemistry is playing what's written. I think people have to work well together. You have to understand what this person thinks about that other person, and how that person works. But I don't understand what chemistry really means."
Eventually I got it: Ford wasn't being cantankerous. He simply isn't "arty."
"We as actors are taught to believe in the 'truth' of a character. I think that's all crap," he said. "'My character would never do that?' Well, wait a second, there's somebody over there who can figure out how to make that happen. If you stand outside the story and try to fight it, this is just basic inefficiency."
He's unafraid to be irreverent about a lot of Hollywood product - "It's a rare thing to walk out of a theatre and feel you didn't just piss away two hours on some kinetic enterprise that you could get at home on a Wii game," he said - or to admit that if he hadn't produced Extraordinary Measures , "my part would have gone to John Malkovich or somebody." The thrills he gets from filmmaking are practical ones. "I still love being on a set and I still feel useful on set," he said. "I love the problem-solving aspects of it. It's still fun on a day-to-day basis and I still want to work."
For the first time, his face softened. "I like to make stuff, so if I see a nice pile of material, I want to make something out of it," he said, referring to his well-known carpentry. Gruff dads everywhere would approve.
As I was leaving, I nearly crashed into a chastened food-service manager, who was rushing in with a new tea tray laden with industrial-sized tins, "so Mr. Ford can see the labels," she said. I hope that, at least, made him smile.