Harrison Ford: Reluctant "Icon"

The legendary screen hero resists iconic status, but his film collaborators put it to good use

By Scott Huver
|  Thursday, Oct 31, 2013  |  Updated 2:23 PM PDT
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Harrison Ford in "Ender's Game"

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Being labelled an "icon" means nothing to Harrison Ford.

So says the "Indiana Jones," Star Wars," "Blade Runner," Witness" and now "Ender's Game" actor, despite having the title attached to his screen persona for the better part of the last quarter century.

“I don't understand what it means to anybody, actually. It seems like a word of convenience, and it seems to attend to the huge success of a certain kinds of movies that I did," says Ford of the descriptor. "I don't know what an icon does except stand in a corner and quietly accepting everyone's attention. I like to work, so there's no utility in being an icon.”

If the 71-year-old actor himself is recalcitrant when it comes to embracing the icon label, his cinematic collaborators on his latest film “Ender’s Game” – the big screen adaptation of the Orson Scott Card novel – had no qualms about using his singular movie star stature in the service of their storytelling.

“Both myself and Asa Butterfield had a moment when Harrison Ford walked on the set, and my inner 12-year-old and his literal 12-year-old were a little intimidated,” admits director Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi”), who had to find the right dynamic between his young star and the veteran actor.

“But this was good. This was awesome. Because we used it – I even spoke with Harrison about it – and we shot the film in sequence, partly because our little Asa grew two inches during the course of shooting, and partly because he grew emotionally through the course of that film," says Hood. "And Harrison very much used that slight intimidation from the beginning. Not in any way unkindly – he just kept him a little bit at a distance, and the intimidation of Asa Butterfield to icon actor Harrison Ford was perfect for Ender Wiggin to Colonel Graff."

“When I first met Harrison a lot of people worried I was a bit nervous,” admits Butterfield. “I mean Han Solo, Indiana Jones, he was one of my idols in a way. I was such a huge fan of 'Star Wars.' So to be able to work with him alone, be in a room with him, it was amazing – and at such a young age as well…Because there was so many young actors on set, I think of Harrison as the man that really brought the best out of us."

“It doesn't matter to me whether I go back to outer space or not; the job's the same, and I don't have any sort of genre preferences,” says Ford of tackling a new science fiction project with franchise potential. “I'm looking for a good story, good character, whether earthbound or not…I actually read the script before I read the book, and I thought it was an interesting subject that I hadn't seen in film. I saw an interesting character that was responsible for supporting some questions about responsibility and the military and about relationships between young people and old people and a lot of things that intrigued me. And when I met with the filmmakers, I had a sense that they were very ambitious and focused on making a film that I thought would be useful to a young audience.”

Ford, whose last film in the sci-fi genre was “Cowboys & Aliens” in 2011, has considered opinions about working alongside increasingly eye-popping special effects. “Obviously, the techniques to create the visual elements have changed enormously,” he says. “When we were making 'Star Wars,' they were putting together spaceships out of plastic model kits of cars and boats and trains and gluing them all together, and putting them on a stick and flying them past the camera. And it worked. It worked. It was fine. Add a little music, and you believe that big spaceship coming over your head.”

But with a film like “Ender’s Game,” which features its own array of dazzling space effects, he believes that a balance between spectacle and storytelling has to be struck. “The capacity to create effects in the computer has made the job both easier but it has also introduced the complexity that you can, with a few more key strokes, generate such a busy canvas that the eye doesn't know where to go,” he says. “You lose human scale on an event, and you're just wowed by the kinetics and the visualization."

Ford says that his feelings when he first sets foot on a movie set haven’t altered significantly since he made his first credited feature film debut 40 years ago in George Lucas’ “American Graffiti.” “I think it's roughly the same,” he says. “The excitement of every day is the challenge that you haven't anticipated, the problems you haven't solved; the opportunity to work with creative people in all branches of the service, from the grips and the cinematographer, to the director and the writer; to meet the challenges of getting the story on paper and making the character useful to the telling of the story overall. And it's a job I love. It's challenging and it's exciting. And hopefully, it's useful.”

 "Ender's Game" opens in theaters Oct. 3.

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