By Nadine Schiff-Rosen | August 5, 2013 | People
Harrison Ford with Gary Oldman in a scene from Paranoia, a thriller about corporate espionage, set for release on August 16.
The City of Brotherly Love captured a Hollywood star last year when, with cameras rolling, Harrison Ford was arrested outside the Beasley Building at 12th and Walnut. In town to shoot the espionage thriller Paranoia, scheduled to be released on August 16, Ford sported classy threads, dark glasses, and a buzz cut to give his character, the CEO of a high-tech company, some corporate gravitas.
"Paranoia is not simply a film about corporate corruption,” Ford explains in his laconic but persuasive tone. “It’s a film about avarice, both on the side of the corporation and the innocent who gets himself caught up in it—a kind of blind ambition story. It’s about a young man [played by Liam Hemsworth], very much a creature of today, who finds himself drawn into a world in which he is used and abused. It’s both his naïveté and his ambition that get him into the situation that he’s in.
“What I really like,” he continues, “is that there are two villains in the piece: the one that I play and the one that my old nemesis Gary Oldman plays. I was really drawn to the material because I had so much fun working with Gary on Air Force One and I wanted to work with him again.”
It’s been more than 25 years since the now 70-year-old film icon made a movie in Philadelphia. For playing the role of Detective John Book in Witness, a romantic thriller set in the city and in the Amish countryside, Ford received his only Oscar nomination.
“Last time I shot in Philadelphia,” he says, “I spent a lot of time researching the story and the police. That was quite a while ago, but I learned about the city from the police point of view.” He looks off into the distance, and after what seems a long time he adds, “But all that is in the past.”
While corruption may be the theme of his new film, in real life Ford spends much of his time these days fighting avarice and environmental devastation. He is vice chair of the board of directors of Conservation International, an organization dedicated to bringing humanity into balance with earth’s biodiversity, but he never thought he would play a part on the national political stage.
“I had never been involved with politics in any way,” Ford says. “But over 20 years ago I got a call from a woman who worked for President Clinton in the White House.” He laughs. “That had never happened before. I was at my place in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and I was told that the president and Mrs. Clinton were going to be visiting and that they’d like to have dinner with me. So I said, ‘Great. Where do they want to go?’ And the White House said, ‘Well, your house, of course.’ So I asked if I could invite some people. And they said, ‘Sure.’”
Ford admits he had a moment of panic before jumping into action. “I thought, How can I dignify and use this opportunity in support of something that I believe in?” Immediately he got on the phone to his friends and neighbors in Jackson Hole, whom he describes as regular people who also happen to be environmental titans with far-reaching connections.
“I invited some of the early members of the board of Conservation International: Peter Seligmann, the founder, and James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank. Queen Noor of Jordan lives down the road, and she later became a CI board member. And I called up Roger Altman, who had been deputy secretary of the Treasury for Bill Clinton. Together with the Clintons, we had a wonderful conversation on the issues of conservation.”
It turned out to be an auspicious evening. One of the principles that the group came up with is what Conservation International now calls “direct connection”—the link between international conservation and America’s economic and national security. “We set out to bring this rationale to members of Congress,” Ford explains, “that it was vital that funding for international conservation continue, because when there’s an ecological disaster—failure of food crops, failure of food sources, cutting down too much of the forest—very often it becomes a national security issue.
The big idea is that nature can sustain the human population; we can avert critical conflicts that could potentially result in terrorism or warfare. “What makes direct connection so palpable and powerful now,” he says, “is that people are seeing this geometric progression of the failure of nature to be able to support people in places where it’s been abused. Whereas they thought it would take years to develop, the environmental crisis has become a problem for their own children. Now they are seeing it in their economic face.”
Flash-forward to a chilly evening in New York this past May, in a galaxy far away from Jackson Hole, when Ford the superstar activist took the stage at the 16th annual Conservation International dinner as a guest of honor, along with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
After an introductory lovefest, Clinton told the crowd a story of being in Cape Town last summer and walking into her hotel. “Out from behind a big potted plant,” she said with a laugh, “emerges Harrison with, you know, moss growing out of his head. But there he was, to hand me a position paper on the oceans.” For a riveting 45 minutes in the ballroom of The Plaza Hotel, Clinton and Ford conversed on such topics as the melting of the polar ice caps, the potentially devastating effect of dams on the Mekong River, and the poaching of African elephants.
At one point Ford, in his familiar slightly befuddled manner, realized that his microphone wasn’t working. “Show business,” he said with charming self-deprecation, “it still baffles me.” Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. After nearly five decades in the business, Ford is best known for blockbuster franchise roles such as Indiana Jones, Jack Ryan, and Han Solo. In fact, rumors abound that he will reprise the part of the mercenary starship pilot in the next installment of the Star Wars series. Yet there is no doubt this superstar is eager for his audiences to understand that, just as his characters often are, we are in a race against time when it comes to the environment.
Many actors his age have settled into retirement, but Ford, as ruggedly handsome as ever, continues to play the leading man with ease. “I’m very happy to still be working,” he says. “When I imagined being an actor, I thought, Well, there are as many jobs for older people as there are for younger people. If you didn’t want to retire, you could work for as long as you were useful to the telling of a story. So I’m not worried about getting older. I’m fine with it. The kinds of roles that I’m playing now are as satisfying and interesting as anything I’ve done.”
Then and now, Ford represents the ordinary man who, through grit, hard work, and a bit of luck, triumphs over extraordinary circumstances—our quintessential American hero, on and off the screen.
Photography by Jeff Gale/Jeff Crawford