Planes roar into the air from Santa Monica Airport as the early-morning sun blasts off the tarmac. Behind a private hangar door that’s slightly ajar, Harrison Ford breaks into a familiar crooked smile as he walks between a long-range, green-and-white Cessna Citation jet and a Bell Helicopter.
That famous scar on his chin now has a much larger rival cutting across the right side of his forehead, and he’s limping slightly. Both injuries came from the crash landing Ford survived last March when his World War II-era training fighter suffered engine failure and fell out of the sky.
“I’ve been flying for 20 years, and it was a very rare thing to happen,” he says. “It was a mechanical issue. No fault of the maintenance or anybody else.” He shrugs. It didn’t keep him grounded long. “I got back in the helicopter first, because my foot was still in the cast, my toes were hanging out. It was the easiest aircraft to get into [that I’d still] be capable, and safe, to fly.”
How did it feel to lift off again? “Fun,” Ford says, flashing his eyebrows like you-know-who. “Fun.”
For millions of Star Wars fans, it has never been enough that he played Han Solo. We have wanted Harrison Ford to be Han Solo.
The character came to mean so much to so many of us that we yearned for at least part of him to be real. Few people can attest to being pure-hearted heroes like Luke Skywalker, but we’ve all got a little Solo in us: We’re reluctant do-gooders, at best. Like the Millennium Falcon pilot, we may be cynics, scoundrels, and scruffy-looking, but (hopefully) we’re still lovable.
That’s why it stung so much when Ford showed scant affection for the smuggler — and even smacked him around a bit — over the years. He repeatedly said he wished Solo had been killed off in Return of the Jedi to give the final film in the original trilogy emotional gravity. He told NBC’s Today back then, “I was glad to see that costume for the last time.”
The 73-year-old star has softened significantly now that the planet is beside itself awaiting his return in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. “I was glad that the character was still alive for me to play in this new iteration,” he says.
If you spend any time with Ford, one simple reason for his long-standing discomfort with the role starts to reveal itself. Here is the hard truth that some, and Ford himself, may find difficult to accept:
Harrison Ford is totally Han Solo.
First of all, there’s the flyboy thing. Even Ford (grudgingly) admits there’s a lot of real pilot in Solo. “Oh, I suppose there’s a kind of pride in the mastery of a machine,” he allows.
The actor may be as proud of his various aircraft as any fictional galactic pilot, but he doesn’t boast like Solo. That’s one area where they do part company. As he walks around a restored 1929 biplane, giving a quick tour of his gigantic toybox, he insists he doesn’t have a favorite.
“I love the one I’m with,” he says of his various vessels. “I also have five kids, and I don’t have a favorite kid. Don’t have a favorite ice cream, or a favorite movie.” Ford then spots a metal toy plane in the corner that Liam, his now-teenage son with wife Calista Flockhart, used to ride around on when he was little. “Maybe that one there,” he deadpans.
Ford does play favorites when it comes to his two most iconic characters. He has made no secret about preferring Indiana Jones to Han Solo, and he’s ready to put the fedora back on and jump into action for Indy 5 any time Steven Spielberg and the gang at Lucasfilm decide to get the ball rolling (so to speak.)
“Oh, yeah. Yeah, I’d love to do another Indiana Jones,” he says, sitting at a round picnic table in the back of the hangar. “A character that has a history and a potential, kind of a rollicking good movie ride for the audience, Steven Spielberg as a director — what’s not to like?”
All those things, minus Spielberg, also apply to Star Wars, but maybe the whip-cracking archaeologist is more fun to play because he’s so different. Familiarity breeds contempt. Maybe there’s simply more of Ford in Solo, his first major film role, than he’d like to admit.
No doubt, the actor would scowl at this theory, but the similarities pile up.
Exhibit A: Everybody assumes Ford and Solo are both loners, but they’re far from it. Solo — despite his isolating name — is a gadfly who knows everyone and has been everywhere. Ford may project a gruff exterior, but he makes friends fast, especially if you know your way around the sky.
Just before he was confirmed as part of The Force Awakens’ cast, Ford showed up in London and was photographed chatting with a helicopter pilot in Grosvenor Square. “I’d run into him outside of the American embassy — there was a helicopter sitting in the middle of this park,” he says. “He’s the representative for Bell Helicopter, and that’s the kind I have, and he had been former head of London’s National Health Service helicopter ambulance service.”
Exhibit B: Ford and Solo aren’t just good at making friends, they’re resourceful. On the second day of shooting The Force Awakens, a door from the Millennium Falcon slammed down on Ford’s leg, breaking it. While director J.J. Abrams and others tried to pry the massive chunk of metal off the wounded actor, Ford started thinking ahead. “I knew that my leg was likely broken, and I didn’t know what other injuries there were,” he says. “I was mostly concerned about the long ambulance ride to London.” The accident happened at Pinewood Studios, about 20 miles outside the city. “I asked them to bring my cell phone over.”
While Abrams strained his back trying to move the door, Ford called his buddy from the park with the air ambulance. He arranged his own medevac to the hospital. Darth Vader might call that… destiny. “Pretty much is, yeah,” Ford says.
Exhibit C: Ford doesn’t get all misty-eyed about Star Wars, another trait he shares with Solo. “He was always the cynical member of the original characters,” Ford says. “While we were invited to engage on the questions of some pretty arcane mysteries — the Force and the mythology that surrounds it — he was the guy who said, ‘What? Huh? Come on.’ ” It’s what made the interplay between the characters work, he says. “There was a callow youth, a beautiful princess, a wise old warrior, and there was a smart-ass.”
Ford is definitely that last one. Asked if he watched the Force Awakens trailer debut along with the rest of the world during halftime on Monday Night Football, he answers: “I was trying to watch the damn football game!” Only grudgingly does he admit that everything stopped for a moment at his home with Flockhart and their son while it aired. But just for a moment. “We were in the middle of preparing dinner and doing homework, and…” He shrugs. “Just watching it over our shoulder.”
In that trailer, the know-it-all who once sneered at “hokey religions and ancient weapons” gravely informs John Boyega’s Finn and Daisy Ridley’s Rey: “It’s true. All of it. The dark side. The Jedi. They’re real.” Ford gets why that strikes a nerve. Is Solo still the smart-ass, or has he become the wise old warrior?
“No, there’s not an abandoning of the character,” Ford says, more earnestly than you’d expect from Mr. I-Guess-We-Watched-The-Trailer. “He does not aspire to the position of Obi-‘Ben’ Kenobi, nor do I aspire to be some New Age Alec Guinness. His development is consistent with the character, and there are emotional elements which have occasioned his growth.”
Fear not, though. Solo hasn’t grown that much. He seems to still have money issues, for starters. “We spend a lot more time [in the movie] on his failure to master basic skills, like accounting,” Ford says, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together. “And accounting for his own behavior. There’s a lot of the rogue still left in Solo. Some things don’t change.”
Thoughts on Young Han Solo
The latest wave of Star Wars films has put renewed focus on Solo’s past — not just what transpired between these trilogies but what’s depicted in comic books, novels, and even a planned spin-off movie focused on Solo before we met him in that Mos Eisley cantina.
But getting Ford to talk about that goes like this:
Has Lucasfilm talked to you about their young Han Solo film slated for 2018?
Ford leans back and smiles. “I think they’re probably talking to the young Han Solo.”
What advice would you give to the actor they cast to help him get inside Solo’s head?
“I would say, ‘Talk to your director. Watch the movies. And welcome aboard. Make it your own.’”
How do you feel about someone else picking up the blaster?
“I never thought about it.”
Seriously, though. You’ve worked as a craftsman, a carpenter, as well as an actor. It’s natural to feel proprietary about something you’ve helped build, isn’t it?
“I got other things to worry about. I got shoes at the cobbler that need to get picked up. I got to go get a bike fixed,” he says, gesturing to a row of motorcycles along the back wall of the hangar. “You know, I got a lot of things to think about.”
This is exactly the kind of thing that used to drive Princess Leia nuts.
Truth be told, it’s a bit of a pose. If you ask Ford what the captain of the Millennium Falcon has been doing for three decades, it’s clear the actor has been thinking about Solo more than he likes to let on.
“Well, he’s been living with me — out back, in the shack,” he says. And Ford has come to some conclusions about what’s become of the rascal. “[Thirty-two] years is going to put some rings on the tree, some experience in the bank. You might make an elaborate conjecture [about who Solo is now], but I think we answer that question in the film. It’s best left answered there.”
Part of Ford’s playfulness is pretending he’s not playing along. After all, Han Solo just fronts at being cold-hearted. Deep down, he’s a softie. (Even though both the actor and character would hate being called that.)
When Oscar Isaac, who co-stars as hotshot X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron, tried to tap Ford’s pilot experience for insight into the character, Ford broke the news to him rather harshly that (spoiler alert) Star Wars is fake.
“I said, ‘Just make s–t up!’” Ford says, getting suddenly animated. “I mean, it’s a movie, man. It’s space. You don’t fly in space the way you do in an atmosphere.” But then, he recalls having the same questions back when he first entered the Star Wars universe four decades ago.
“I don’t know any more than George [Lucas] knew how to fly the Millennium Falcon when I first got in. ‘How do you fly this, George?’” Ford says, breaking into a nasally, mumbling impersonation of the Star Wars creator. “‘Well, I don’t know, you just flip switches, and, errrr…’” Ford rolls his eyes and pretends to randomly spin invisible dials on the tabletop. “’Ooookay!’”
Tormenting Lucas about Star Wars has been Ford’s pastime ever since the first film, where he famously pointed out the difficulty of the filmmaker’s galactic jargon. Ford laughs when reminded of this quote: “You can type this s–t, George, but you can’t say it.”
“Well, you try and say, ‘It takes a few minutes for the navicomputer to calculate the coordinates,’” Ford says, rattling off the line with ease that contradicts his complaint a little. “Move your mouth, George, while you’re typing! It’ll help!”
Ford stresses that his teasing attitude is not disrespect for the fans. At San Diego Comic-Con this summer, Ford choked up addressing a room of 6,000 stomping, cheering fans gathered for the Star Wars presentation. “Well, it was touching,” he says now. “I don’t know how one could not be moved by that.”
He understands the escape, the wonder that these films, and his character, inspire in audiences. That’s why he doesn’t feel ownership of it.
“It’s not mine, it’s theirs,” he says. “I just work here.” So when diehards fight about who shot first — Greedo or Han — what’s his opinion? He shakes his head and spreads his arms with a smile. “Knock yourself out,” he says. “Have fun with it.”
We just have to face this: He’s never going to geek out with us. Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, who has known Ford since 1980, says that during Ford’s first day on set of The Force Awakens, the crew and cast fell into an awed hush as he walked on stage. What they didn’t know was how he felt.
“It could have felt silly, but it didn’t,” Ford says, but shrugs (again) when asked for more. “I’m not terribly nostalgic. I’m very practical about what I do and how I do it… another day at the office.”
And this is perhaps Ford’s most profound Solo-ism. Adults may weep at the sight of him saying, “Chewie, we’re home”; thousands may gather to cheer his return; and a whole world of fans may declare loudly and unequivocally, “We love you!” But Ford’s response will always be a polite, grateful, and stoic, “I know.”
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