Ford's utility is his driving force

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  • In command: Harrison Ford works with young co-star Asa Butterfield in Ender’s Game.

Harrison Ford never set out to be a leading man, so you could argue that he failed rather dismally. Han Solo and Indiana Jones come to mind to begin with, and you can throw in any number of other leading roles – Blade Runner‘s Rick Deckard, The Fugitive‘s Richard Kimble … Maybe, at 71, he’s letting up a little. But the way he sees it, his goal as an actor is to be useful, and that’s all it’s ever been.

It’s how he talks about his role in Ender’s Game, a big-budget science fiction movie based on the 1985 novel by Orson Scott Card. It has humankind in peril from a race of insect-like alien invaders that have already attacked twice. A new strategy has been devised to defeat them. Children are in charge of the military decisions, because they are seen as more tactically sophisticated and original.

Young candidates (older in the film than they are in the book) receive training in a gruelling battle school before the best are prepared for command. Ford plays Colonel Hyrum Graff, who spots the potential in a young man called Ender (Asa Butterfield), at first glance an unlikely candidate for leadership. What Graff realises, Ford says, is that Ender ”is a young man whose primary capacity, whose genuine talent, is empathy”. This makes him particularly good at understanding the enemy – but it also makes his life and world view rather more complicated.

This movie shouldn’t be seen as ”Harrison Ford back in space”. Ford says when he read the script, he saw in Graff ”a character who was useful to the telling of the story”.

”And I recognised the emotional context as a good exercise for an audience. You look at a science-fiction film and you might suppose that it’s a kinetic experience for 15-year-old boys. And it’s certainly not that. There’s food for thought here for all manner of audiences.”

It might have action sequences and zero-gravity moments, but Ender’s Game can be understood in many ways, Ford says. ”I think that’s the genius and the value of science fiction. You can take things that are part of the fabric of our everyday lives and transfer it to a different context, to the future, and all of a sudden you look at it in a slightly different way. You’re free of your point of view, your prejudice, yesterday’s newspaper. And you look at it again and consider what the real issue is.”

Ford is a serious man with a dry sense of humour that often emerges when dealing with the demands of promotion and publicity. Sometimes, he’s been portrayed in the media as grumpy and unco-operative in interviews or at fan events: he’s been said to resemble the character he played with gusto in the 2010 comedy Morning Glory, a self-important, high-achieving news journalist who resents being bumped on to morning TV. But more often than not, it seems he’s simply seeing the absurd side of things. He can drop self-deprecating lines about his age: he speaks of his action movie scenes in the recent The Expendables 3 as ”flapping my gums”.

And he’s very clear about what he wants from his work. When he takes a role, he says, ”I want something different to what I’ve done before; I want a character whose utility I understand in the story overall; I want an opportunity to be part of a positive process with people who are ambitious to get a good product out there to the audience”.

”I love the business, the process of collaborative storytelling. I’m looking for character parts to play that I know I didn’t have the opportunity to play before, because I was identified as a leading man.”

I ask Ford about the word ”utility”, which he uses several times. ”It’s what I’ve always been interested in,” he says. ”In being useful to different genres, different directors, different processes and different stories. And that’s what always has sustained my interest and my passion.”

It’s something that people in the industry don’t always understand or know what to do with, he says.

”There is a tendency with a certain degree of success to fixate on the success, rather than the utility.”

Ford’s leading-man career, as it happens, was slow to take off. He describes the late French director Jacques Demy as the first person to have faith in him. Demy (The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg) came to Los Angeles to make his first US movie, Model Shop (1969), and he cast the unknown Ford in the lead. But the studio told him to forget Ford, because he had no future in the business, and insisted on Gary Lockwood (2001: A Space Odyssey) instead.

In the 1960s, Ford made fleeting appearances in television shows such as Ironside and Mod Squad, and had small or uncredited movie roles. Francis Ford Coppola used him in brief scenes in The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. George Lucas cast him in American Graffiti as an out-of-town hot rod driver who takes on the locals. And, in 1977, when Ford was 35, Lucas set him on his way in Star Wars – as the ultimate debonair space cowboy, Han Solo – and Steven Spielberg gave him a hat and a bullwhip for the first Indiana Jones movie. He wasn’t the first choice for either role, but he made them absolutely his own.

Ford might have found shooting Blade Runner gruelling – he has made no bones about saying so – but he has exactly the right weary, dogged intensity the role demands, in a movie that seems to get better with age. He gives strong, contrasting performances for Peter Weir in The Mosquito Coast and Witness, both films that deal with alienation from the modern world. In the former, he’s a flawed, overpowering idealist; in the latter, an introspective loner. He can be a man of action by trade, but he can also be the ordinary guy forced into action by circumstances, as he was in Frantic (searching for his missing wife in Paris) and The Fugitive (running for his life).

He has had just one Oscar nomination, for Witness, and has racked up a few Golden Globe nominations, but no wins. He’s now starting to accumulate lifetime achievement awards, a category he talks about with some bemusement – who are you competing against, he likes to ask.

When Ford speaks about the notion of utility, he talks about a film called 42, which was released earlier this year: it is about Jackie Robinson, the legendary baseball star who was the first African-American to play in the major league.

Ford plays the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, who signed Robinson in 1947: he’s barely recognisable as a bulky, crusty, pragmatic authority figure who is determined to work for change.

”For me, it represented an opportunity that was resisted, because the director, a wonderful director and writer, Brian Helgeland, wanted a character actor, and didn’t know that it was my intention or within the range of my capacity to be a character actor,” Ford says.

”But this is what I had always hoped for, and always thought I was going to be. And it would have been to no advantage to a story about Jackie Robinson to have an identifiable Harrison Ford in that role. I wanted that opportunity and I’ve always loved that challenge.”

There might be an Indiana Jones 5 and a new Star Wars instalment on their way, but Ford seems in no doubt there are plenty of other cinematic ways to be useful.

Ender’s Game opens on December 5.

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