Oh, act your age
HARRISON FORD LOOKS troubled. He has been politely fielding questions over breakfast at his Santa Monica hotel suite when the subject turns to a certain swashbuckling archaeologist. Outside, the Pacific Ocean is bathed in brilliant sunshine. But when asked about the status of the much-touted fourth Indiana Jones movie, it's as if a cloud has drifted into the room. 'Dark gloom,' he replies with a scowl.
Quite what it is about the prospect of donning the fedora and bullwhip once again that fills him with dread Ford doesn't say, but it surely can't have anything to do with subjecting his 63-year-old body to the rigours of an adventure film, judging by his athletic performance in the upcoming Firewall.
Admittedly, there are a few fight scenes where Ford appears to be gasping for breath a little too convincingly. The ageing star says that, although action sequences aren't getting any easier, they aren't getting any harder, either.
'It's all smoke and mirrors, isn't it?' Ford says. 'It's one little piece at a time and it's like choreographing a dance. I enjoy it as part of the storytelling process, but I also enjoy the physical work that's involved.' He insists that he's required to do little more than 'stretch and put the pads in the right place' to prepare for such roles. Surely it must be harder than that?
'Well if it is, I've protected myself from that knowledge. But, no, it's not much harder than that. I'm not a great workout person. I do a little bit every once in a while but that doesn't last very long. The only thing I do consistently is play tennis.'
Firewall marks Ford's return to the screen after almost three years. (His last feature film was the critically panned 2003 box-office flop Hollywood Homicide.) In Firewall, shot on location in Vancouver, Ford plays an IT security expert who's forced to rob the bank he works for to pay a ransom to a gang of geeky but violent crooks (led by a menacing Paul Bettany) who are holding his wife (Virginia Madsen) and children hostage.
Altough Ford is back in familiar territory in Richard Loncraine's slick thriller - playing the honest everyman forced to battle villains threatening the lives of his family - he rejects any suggestion that the film marks a return to the sort of role that helped make him one of the world's most highly paid actors, commanding US$20 million per picture. 'I do all different kinds of films and genres,' Ford says curtly. 'I see this is as a thriller, but I didn't see it as a return to anything. I saw it as an opportunity. I just thought the script had great potential. The story had the opportunity for an emotionally engaging experience for the audience.'
Although Ford begs to differ, it's hard not to see Firewall as a more conventional vehicle for him. Starting with the forgettable Six Days Seven Nights in 1998, Ford's recent curriculum vitae has been characterised by a wilful determination to be cast against type, playing everything from an adulterous, murdering doctor in What Lies Beneath to a Russian submarine commander in the cold war drama K-19: The Widowmaker.
This period in Ford's career also coincided with upheaval in his personal life. Fiercely protective of his privacy, Ford was once renowned for eschewing the bright lights of Los Angeles in favour of the peace and quiet of his 800-acre ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. But all that changed with his separation from second wife Melissa Mathison in 2001.
Not only did he start dating a woman 23 years his junior (Ally McBeal's Calista Flockhart), but he began sporting an earring and frequenting the nightclubs and luxury hotels of Hollywood. Photos of Ford partying hard began appearing in supermarket tabloids. Almost overnight, he'd become the oldest swinger in town, sparking feverish speculation that he was having a severe mid-life crisis.
Although his profile in the scandal sheets has risen, Ford is adamant that he's just as vigilant about his privacy as ever, and speaks witheringly of the public appetite for tittle-tattle about the rich and famous. 'It's a great shame that so much time and energy is spent on the private lives of people and that the culture is so lacking in better things to do,' he says. 'It all stems from an obsession with success and that most people feel they don't have any effect over their lives. They suspect, often wrongly, that celebrities or people who are successful have more control.'
Ford professes to be baffled by the phenomenon of celebrity. 'I never have figured out the human animal can recognise and categorise different faces, and scientists haven't yet either, but I don't understand how people recognise me. If I'm sitting in a car at a stop sign suddenly someone will recognise me. I think that if you put yourself up on the screen 35 feet wide for a period of time it becomes one of those animal things.'
What's left of his privacy, Ford plans to hang on to. 'After this amount of time, anything they don't know, I hold dear,' he says.
The attention hasn't left him any less enthusiastic about his craft, however. Although he's been on something of a self-enforced sabbatical for the past two years, Firewall is the first in a series of projects (including the next Indiana Jones) that Ford has in the works.
Is he as passionate about acting now as he was when he first started? 'Probably more so,' he says. 'I know a little bit more now about the process and I know a little bit more about filming. I think I'm more fascinated by filmmaking than by acting. But I want to do more filmmaking from the point of view of an actor.'
Ford is also adamant that he still has plenty to learn, even after a career that has spanned five decades and which has included starring roles in four of the 10 highest-grossing movies of all time - the first three Star Wars movies and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
'I think you learn things every time you work. I hope that I'll have the good sense to quit when I'm not learning anything - so, yes, you learn from people you've met before, you learn from circumstance and you learn from trial and error. You keep going.'
There's no chance of Ford calling it a day any time soon either. 'One of the things I always thought was great when I started out was that, given that there's a part, there's no barrier to age,' he says. 'As long as you can walk and talk there's probably a utility for you somewhere and that seemed interesting to me.'
The pending reprisal of his Indiana Jones role aside, Ford says his age limits the roles he is offered. 'There are also fewer opportunities for men as we get older,' he says. 'I'm not playing parts that Keanu Reeves is playing. I don't play the parts I used to play. I play parts that are more age-appropriate.
'I don't ever talk about the films I've turned down. But I think that it's a fact of life that most commercial films are populated by characters that are closer in age to the audience and by that I mean the bulk of the audience than where I am. It's a reality. I'm not worried about that reality because I can't change it. It doesn't make me nervous or confused about what to do. I just look for parts that I think are appropriate for my age or something like my age.'
Ford's next film is expected to be a thriller set on an international space station, followed by a historical drama centring on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, but he says he hopes the future will bring a comedy role or two. 'I'd like to do more comedy, but I look for a particular kind of comedy which I don't find all that often,' he says. 'Smart, witty comedy, rather than fart jokes.'
Firewall opens on March 2