Contrary to a hard-to-source quote that’s long been floating around online, Harrison Ford insists he never said that he “outgrew” Han Solo. And as he sat in a Beverly Hills hotel suite in November for his Rolling Stone cover-story interview on The Force Awakens, it quickly became clear that rumors of his hostility towards the character – and the franchise that helped launch his career – have been greatly exaggerated. Or maybe he was just in a good mood that day. Here’s Ford’s full interview:
Are you as surprised as anyone that you ended up playing Han Solo again?
I was, um, delighted that they came up with a script and a director that created an ambition to be part of it. They found a way to make it interesting for me and, I’m confident, for the audience [as well]. J.J. Abrams is a director that I’ve admired for a long time, from the very first scripts he wrote — including Regarding Henry, which I was in. The product has matched and exceeded my expectations.
Over the years you had expressed mixed feeling about this particular part. You said you had outgrown it, you wouldn’t return to it, etc.
I don’t think I, no … I didn’t say I outgrew it. What I said was I thought we ought to kill him. And that was because I didn’t have the imagination to recognize the potential in the future for the character. I was only going to do three of them; I wanted to use the character to supply some bass notes, some gravitas that I thought would be a useful — an emotional utility for the audience’s investment. I thought to continue to be the wise-cracking cynic was not perhaps … You know, it was a suggestion. It got picked up by the press because I had the fundamental ignorance to fucking say it out loud.
Right. You were never trapped in this role.
It gave me enormous opportunities. The success that attended this film gave me the chance, just by my attachment to that success — it gave me enormous opportunities. It gave me a life, a career that has sustained me with work, put food on the table…
Fuel in the planes?
Right as Lucas was finishing the first movie, he was asked why he cast you: “He was the best actor for the part. Harrison is handsome, dashing, and sullen, with an underlying current of sensual hostility.”
Jesus, I didn’t know he liked me that much. Well, I like him that much, too. In the words of Donald Trump, “Whatever!”
The story goes that Lucas didn’t want to use anyone from American Graffiti, so the casting director for Star Wars engineered a situation where you would be there …
No, he didn’t engineer [anything]. I’ll tell you what really happened: Dean Tavoularis [production designer for The Godfather and other films] had designed an elaborate portico entrance for Francis Coppola’s offices at Goldwyn Studios. The guy who was supposed to install it turned out not to be available. Dean called me and said, “Can you do me a favor and install this? The millwork’s all there, and you just have to finish it.” I said, “Yeah, I can use the work, thanks. But I’m only going to do it at night, when there’s no people around. First of all, I don’t want people walking down the middle of the hall while I’m trying to fucking hang doors, and I don’t want to cross-contaminate – this is Francis’ office. I love being a carpenter, I love being an actor … I’m just not going to confuse the two.”
“I didn’t say I outgrew [the role]. What I said was I thought we ought to kill him. It got picked up by the press because I had the fundamental ignorance to fucking say it out loud.”
You didn’t want him to do see you doing that…
I don’t care, but it would be better if I didn’t. Just a glib judgment. So I came in and I worked for a couple days, and I was working late. You know, finishing up the last of it, when George Lucas came in with Richard Dreyfuss. They had borrowed Francis’ office to do some preliminary meetings and casting. Nobody arranged for me to be there late, when people were coming in. It just happened.
George walked in, and I said, “Hi, how are you doing?” I spent a few minutes chatting with them, and that was it. That was it. Later, Fred Roos did ask me if I would read with the people that they were testing. Actors that were coming in for all of the parts. I read with more than a hundred actors; the story that I know is that there were two threesomes that they narrowed it down to, and I was in one of them. I had no idea that that was a potential situation. They asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said, “Sure, why not?” You know who the other choice was?
Yeah. Chris Walken.
I have a little bit of trouble picturing that.
Oh! Not me, man. Plus, he can dance. I can’t dance worth a shit!
The sense is somewhat that Roos was trying to engineer you into the part.
Well, maybe by bringing me in to read, yeah.
And you probably had a sense of that script, and that story, better than anyone at that point …
Well, I had to explain it to the people because they just gave them a couple of pages. They wouldn’t tell them what the story was. So I would say, “As far as I understand, this is what this is about. I didn’t read the whole script, but they told me what it was.”
At the time you actually defended Han Solo against the idea he was a two-dimensional character.
I didn’t think of it in terms of whether he was two-dimensional or three-dimensional; I saw the utility for the character in the telling of the story overall. I saw that there was a callow youth, there was a beautiful princess, there was a wise old warrior that was going to be Alec Guinness. My character was both useful in advancing of the story, but also useful to the audience in providing a more contemporary reference: He was the cynic. And so that’s a good starting point. I recognized that this was not science fiction, in my mind. This was a fairy tale. It was like a Grimm fairy tale.
There is a story that they put you in the first costume and it was pretty much the same — but had a giant Peter Pan collar.
It did, in robin’s egg blue. I said “Is this just pasted on? Take it the fuck off and I’ll deal with it.” George wasn’t there but I said, this can’t be right.
It was the first in a number of steps that you took to actually shape this character, which is the way you like to work.
Well, they want you to be comfortable with what you are doing — they want you to be able to make a contribution, I think. Many times previous to this I had been told, as a young actor, to just shut up and say the lines. And I had always said, “Yeah, well, I will do that, but what about this?” My experience had been that there were often times when people did relate to the suggestions I was making and had an idea on top of that idea. Just because you can type this shit doesn’t mean that is the way it is going to be the best expression. That is typing, now let’s see what the next step is: How does this finally feel in the mouth, how does this hang in the air, what does this mean in respect of what other people are bringing? What is really there in front of our faces?
“I recognized that this was not science fiction, in my mind. This was a fairy tale. It was like a Grimm fairy tale.”
You were in your mid-thirties when you did the first Star Wars movie —
Apparently. I was informed by my experience.
Mark and Carrie were much younger and less experienced, which obviously played into the dynamic very well.
And they still are, fuckers.
By age 34 or 35, had you assumed that —
That this was going to work out?
Had you kind of written off the possibility… because that is late in life to have this spectacular success you ended up having?
No I had been a carpenter for some period of time but I always found that it was helping me when I went on an audition. I went in the clothes I was in and I had to get back. I had a life.
So you didn’t have that desperate —
I packed my tools at [Harold and Maude screenwriter] Colin Higgins’ house and put them in the big box, took it home and put it in the garage. I went off to make Star Wars and they were still there when I got back. If I needed them, they were there.
Did you have concerns very early on that this role might trap you in a certain way?
No. It trapped me into paying my bills and putting food on the table. I thought, “Shit, this is a great opportunity. Now get busy.” Which I did.
You know, Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner was wearing a recorder during the whole day of shooting the “I love you/ I know” sccne, and the transcripts of your conversation with him have been released.
[horrified] Are you kidding?
LucasFilm itself released it.
Never seen it. Never knew it existed.
It’s fascinating because it shows the two of you working out that entire scene. Not just that moment but things for Lando to say – you guys re-wrote that whole scene. Was that an exceptional degree of contribution or is that kind of how it went?
I don’t think I’m going to comment on that. I’ll just say what when the opportunity is there for a collaborative atmosphere, I am all for it.
What was your relationship like back then with Mark and Carrie?
I like them both very much. I thought they were great at what they were doing, they were friends and colleagues. We had separate lives in different places, had separate paths. You know it wasn’t like, “One for all and all for one, let’s get together on Saturday and have a potluck supper.” It was, “You be good and see you around campus.” I mean they had said when they signed us that they wanted to make three movies and here’s the deal, we are not going to hire you unless you sign for all three. I said, “Well, okay.”
I thought you never did sign —
I never did.
Did you consider not going back for the third one?
No, because, I went away and did an “Indiana Jones” movie before the third one, didn’t I? I think I did.
Yes, you did.
And I did other things, so: Why not, yeah, sure. It is what I do.
For someone so private, to have two dramatic accidents in the last year and a half and have the world kind of know your business — was that irritating to you?
I didn’t really think about that. I was more concerned about my family and what I was putting them through. Even the first one [when a door in the Millennium Falcon fell on his leg], which was relatively minor, comparatively speaking — I mean, I shut down the movie for a couple months with serious implications and consequences here. Then there’s the business of healing and the investment my family had in getting me through it. The changes that were brought in their lives, and then to have it happen again – I mean, I was recovered. I was playing tennis. I came from a great mountain bike ride. I fell off five times, and I got back on the bike. I was back, and then, look at this beautiful day. Let’s go out; let me take a couple turns around the patch in this beautiful, shiny airplane. And then that flight was really tough.
People think you must be superhuman or something with the recovery.
Believe me, I am not. But I am somehow extraordinarily lucky, for a guy with shitty luck. I have people around me that sustain me. That’s enough.
J.J. said that after the first incident, you came back to the set after three months and you were sprinting around, and it made him feel bad about himself.
I hope so. Clearly my intention.
Did you see any irony or humor in the fact that after all these years the door of the Millennium Falcon actually injures you?
Irony requires a certain amount of distance. At the moment, I didn’t have the distance to be. But I do see the irony in it, yeah.
Are you surprised that George Lucas actually sold Lucasfilm and let Star Wars go?
Kinda. But he had just committed to a new life and a new relationship, a new story, so I was very happy for him.
What did you make of George then, and what do you make of him now?
I suppose you can just simply say that I love him. You know, he’s a bit of a mystery, old George. I mean, he’s got a head so crammed full of ideas and thoughts and ambitions, and yet at his heart he’s simply a father, a husband, a mentor, business man, an entrepreneur, a creative genius — just a guy. You know, he’s a street racer and he’s a leader of a huge, huge commercial enterprise. And he’s my friend.
What are the virtues and the limits of escapism?
I think escapism is fine in two-hour doses, I think, but I don’t think about it much as escapism. When I think about the potential of the movie I think about: You go into a dark room with a bunch of strangers and a good sound system, and you have an opportunity to come out seeing a recognition of your common humanity. Maybe it’s escapism, maybe it sticks to you a little bit. Maybe that’s why you go back, and that’s why stories are important. They’re helping us interpret the world we live in. They help us to have the courage to deal with the complexity of our lives.
Even in these movies?
Not “even these.” You put those words in my mouth. My highest ambition is to be an assistant storyteller, to know what it is and my place in the story, to understand the mechanics of it, and to hit my mark.
Not that anyone would want you to or that you should, but do you think about the prospect of retirement?
I retire every time I’m done with a movie. Then I go back. You know, I enjoy sleep. But I love to work; it’s fun for me. As long as it continues to be fun and I’m tolerated by the people around me, I will do it. I always thought about, “What a great job that would be.” And they need old people too, to tell the full range of stories. When I’m ready to opt out I’ll opt out, but …
Do you think about legacy at all?
Do you subscribe to the Woody Allen thing – “Some people want to live in the hearts and minds of men, but I’d rather live on in my apartment.”
[laughing hard] Yes. I can’t understate my gratitude for the life I’ve had, but in every life you’ll find a reason to appreciate the opportunity, and you’ll have a running tab on the costs of pursuing your dream. But you don’t open the books necessarily for anybody that wants to come by and make their assay of it. That’s yours.
I think you’ve managed to escape being completely known as a person by the public, which is hard to achieve in your position.
Just an observation.
You once said, “I’m totally out of my mind, but I’m trained to be reserved.”
[Laughs] I was representing being forthcoming without giving any information. Assuming the affect of confession.
“I packed my tools, put them in the big box, and put it in the garage. I went off to make Star Wars and they were still there when I got back. If I needed them, they were there.”
Hamill recalls that blue screen used to drive you guys nuts, and he remembers you taking a saw to Millennium Falcon. Do do you have any memory of that?
Yeah, I sort of vaguely remember something — the sound! It attracted a small crowd of people with their mouths hanging open. I can’t remember what the deal was, something about wanting to go home.
You had J.J. Abrams directing you in a role that you helped create all these years ago, and you both had ideas about how you should be playing it. How did that work?
Not how I should be playing it, but on a moment-to-moment basis, an idea. And sometimes, J.J. had a better idea than I did. Sometimes he would recognize the virtue of an idea that was slightly different that the idea he had. But nine times out of 10, he was dead on with it. You know, you try to massage words, and it doesn’t feel right in your mouth. You try a couple other things, and then you say, “You know what? You’re right. You got it. Okay.” And “Chewie, we’re home” is manifestly better than, “We’re home, Chewie.” Manifestly better than a couple of the other options that I tried.
Did it strike any nostalgia to be back doing all of this stuff?
I don’t do nostalgia. It just doesn’t occur to me. I’m living in the moment, and I don’t have that gene.
Did you have to sit down and think, “What has Han Solo been doing for these last 30 years?”
Is that never how your process works? You don’t have to fill in stuff that’s not there?
Yes, of course you do that. But sometimes it’s a mystery. Sometimes it’s muddying the waters. Sometimes it’s in the script. And, you know, if I’ve never played a CIA guy before, I go and do research. But I have walked a mile in these shoes before. And when I put on the shoes, the path was familiar.
Carrie said in the 1980s, kind of sadly, “To the day we die, we’ll still be Luke and Han and Leia.”
That’s not my concept. To the day I die, I’ll still be Harrison Ford, or, more likely, Harry Ford.
You dropped Harry when you went to Hollywood?
No, I dropped Harry when I went to college, because Harrison was the name on the records. It was always Harrison Ford, I didn’t make that up. But they wanted me to change my name when I was under contract at Columbia. I said, “Fuck you!” So I thought about it and came back the next day and said, “Okay, I’ll be Kurt Affair.”
“We’re good with Harrison.”
They said, “All right, all right, never mind.”
They somehow got you to go to Comic-Con twice in the last few years. Did seeing the fans go nuts reveal something about the intensity of the response to your work?
No, I thought the intensity could well continue without me. I didn’t think it required my attendance. I thought it was vouch-safed by the utility of the product in their lives, with or without me.
“The utility of the product.” You know, that sounds so unromantic, but when you say it like that … It’s being of use.
It’s all I’ve ever thought about, is being useful. On the set, in the work I do with Conservation International, with mending … and in an airplane, it becomes even more simple and compelling. “What is the task right at hand, right this minute?” Even when the engine quits.