For a man who lives on a desert ranch and spends much of his time on horseback (when he’s not flying private planes), Harrison Ford has made surprisingly few westerns. In fact, his new movie Cowboys & Aliens is his first since the little-seen comedy cowboy flick The Frisco Kid back in 1979. But one could argue that, throughout his career, Ford has been playing the western hero: what are Han Solo and Indiana Jones if not gun-toting mavericks transposed to a different time and place?
‘I didn’t think about the western element when I was playing those characters,’ Ford says. ‘But I’m sure it was there. I grew up with the lowest known form of western: Saturday matinees, Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger. I played cowboys and Indians, like most kids in those days.’ In his pre-Star Wars career, Ford often found himself playing second fiddle to these same matinee idols. ‘Westerns were being done quite a bit on television when I was first in Hollywood,’ he remembers, ‘so I was stuffed into them by the studios I was under contract to. But I didn’t go looking for them. I wanted to be useful in all kinds of parts and genres. I never anticipated being a leading man. I thought I’d be playing character roles, and that means you don’t think so much about the genre and more about the part.’
And in the years since The Frisco Kid, those parts simply never came up? ‘Those few westerns that were being made were developed by actor-directors for themselves. I just didn’t see a project that interested me.’
So what was it about Cowboys & Aliens that made him want to get back in the saddle? ‘First of all, Daniel Craig was involved, and I have great respect for his acting chops and his integrity,’ Ford says. ‘I liked [director] Jon Favreau, he had a genuine willingness to collaborate. There was still work to be done on the script and everyone was very generous about soliciting my input. It was shooting in Santa Fe, an hour away, not in Romania. And of course I liked the character, I thought he’d be interesting and challenging to play.’
The character of Woodrow Dolarhyde, the gruff, ill-tempered cattleman in Cowboys & Aliens, is Ford’s least likeable part since What Lies Beneath a decade ago. Was it a role he felt he could sink his teeth into? ‘It was. He’s cruel, but unpredictable. You don’t know where the character’s going, which I thought was interesting. And although he’s on a path of redemption, the movie often doesn’t allow the audience to feel better about him. You feel you’re witnessing an emotional reality.’
It’s clearly an integral task for Ford to ground a film – however fantastical – in some kind of believable emotional context. ‘That’s what the audience relates to. They may be entertained by other elements, but I think the real language of film is emotion, and it’s got to be focused and genuine. There may have been times when I wasn’t as attentive to it as I might have been, but it’s always been my understanding of how to be effective as a storyteller.’
Cowboys & Aliens also gave Ford the chance to work with a director with an acting background: something, he says, that can make a big difference. ‘Jon has a particularly apt way of dealing with actors,’ he explains. ‘He casts guys who know their craft, then he has the wisdom not to talk to them about acting.’ So you like a director who keeps his hands off? ‘I like clarity of purpose. Sidney Pollack, for example, was always talking about acting. I loved him dearly and thought he was an incredible director, but he did sometimes drive me mad! Roman Polanski, too, had done some acting in the past. He would say, “Harrison, you enter the room like this, you do this, you go over here…” and finally I said, “Roman, I’m not going to do a bad Roman Polanski imitation. Or a good one. Let me figure it out!” ’
But even though he tends to restrict himself to one or two movies a year, Ford has no plans to ride off into the sunset any time soon. ‘I’m one of those people who need to work,’ he says. ‘I like to keep my craft skills focused and sharp. It’s like the violin. If you don’t play, next time you pick it up you start squeaking.’
And his next movie? Rumour has it that another western is on the way, but that’s only half true. ‘It’s a project I’m developing called Black Hats, which focuses on the later years of Wyatt Earp,’ Ford says. ‘When we first meet him he’s working as a private detective for a divorce lawyer in LA, peeping through windows on cheating husbands. But the work finally leads him to the widow of Wild Bill Hickok, and he has to try to help her son who is in trouble with gangsters. It’s set in the early days of Prohibition, so I wouldn’t describe it as a western.’ So once again, Ford is dragging his square-jawed leading man persona out of the desert and into a different, less predictable world. And once again, the hero is going to Hollywood.