Oldguard Harrison Ford, 71, is star of Ender's Game

The many themes in Ender's Game, starring Harrison Ford (above) and Asa Butterfield, fail to cohere.

If you imagine the actors who play your favourite heroes to be just like them off screen, Harrison Ford will not disappoint.

The star of the hit Star Wars and Indiana Jones films is, in fact, almost as famous for his action-man exploits in real life - whether he is flying a helicopter to rescue stranded hikers, ferrying medical volunteers to Haiti on his plane, or confronting the Indonesian forestry minister for a documentary about illegal logging.

When it comes to meeting the press, though, the downside of this is that Hans Solo and Indiana Jones are not the easiest interviewees.

The 71-year-old is famously prickly with journalists, who quickly realise that the gruffness he brought to those iconic roles was not entirely an act.

There is a modicum of dread, therefore, when Life! and other press arrive at a Los Angeles hotel to talk to the actor about his new movie, the science-fiction thriller Ender's Game, which opened in Singapore on Thursday.

It is compounded by the fact that one of the four reporters at the table together with Life! is a bit of science-fiction geek, and clearly overawed at the prospect of meeting the pilot of the Millennium Falcon.

As it happens, Ford appears to have woken up on the slightly less grumpy side of the bed today and is almost amiable as he talks about his new film, which topped the American box office with US$28 million (S$35 million) in takings when it debuted last weekend. The star walks into the hotel suite in Beverly Hills looking decades younger than his years, his impeccably tailored grey suit and spectacles lending him a gravitas undercut only by the metallic glint of the stud in his left ear.

He starts off the interview in autopilot mode, with a long, rehearsed spiel about the film, which is based on author Orson Scott Card's classic 1985 story about a boy genius tasked with leading mankind's fight against invading aliens.

It is a treat for diehard Stars Wars fans, who get to see the actor behind the reluctant rebel Hans Solo from the first three films of the mega franchise - Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return Of The Jedi (1983) - in one of the few science- fiction roles he has done since.

This is not lost on the fanboy at the table, who starts gushing that as a "sci-fi icon", Ford must get such movie offers all the time.

The actor immediately pours cold water on that, while also flatly shutting down an attempt to fish for details about his rumoured involvement in a new Star Wars sequel.

"There's no job description for icon," he says, scoldingly. "Icon is something that's imposed from the outside."

Disregard that then, the reporter stammers, but Ford - who proves to be rather persnickety about questions, parsing each carefully before coming back with precise, often pedantic answers - has a point to make.

"No, no, I don't want to disregard that, I want to say that I'm not an icon, there's no way to go to work as an icon. I'm an actor, I'm an assistant storyteller, I'm interested in all genres and different kinds of opportunities, not just science-fiction."

Although he has starred in some of the most important films in the genre - including the android dystopian classic Blade Runner (1982) - he points out that "out of the 50, 60 movies that I've made, only three or four of them are accurately described as science fiction".

His career, in fact, has seen him run the gamut of action heroes. Apart from Star Wars, there was another hugely successful franchise - the Indiana Jones movies (1981 to 2008), which saw him play a swashbuckling archaeologist - as well as a string of hit action thrillers including The Fugitive (1993), which earned him a Golden Globe nomination; the Tom Clancy novel-inspired Patriot Games (1992) and Clear And Present Danger (1994); and Air Force One (1997).

In addition, Ford has done dramas such as Witness, the 1985 film that got him a Best Actor Oscar nomination, and What Lies Beneath (2000), with the occasional comedy such as Working Girl (1988) and Six Days, Seven Nights (1998).

It has all added up to one of the most profitable acting resumes in Hollywood, with more than US$3.6 billion earned at the US box office over the years, making him the fourth biggest actor of all time after Tom Hanks, Eddie Murphy and Morgan Freeman.

When Life! asks what he makes of the dearth of younger movie stars of his stature today, he says this is more the result of the industry's changing economics than a lack of talent.

"There are as many talented young people today as there ever were. There are probably fewer opportunities because films are not as important to the culture as they were in maybe the 1970s and 1980s, when I was working, and which was the heyday of the movie business in many ways.

"And now there are many options in people's lives: video games, sitting at home and watching the really intelligent work being done on cable television, and other things."

When it is put to him that there are also fewer Harrison Fords these days because the old "star system" has declined, with studios focusing on promoting big franchises rather than individual actors, he says: "Well, thank God. Because (the system) produced, well, talk about genetically engineered vegetables."

Nevertheless, he believes that the most successful performers are often the ones who can show themselves to be "useful", his favourite word when analysing his own track record.

"The guys who worked the most were the people who had a real sense of themselves and who had a real utility, who understood how to be useful to the process."

Ford - whose acting career foundered for almost a decade, forcing him to moonlight as a carpenter and stagehand till his big break in Star Wars at age 35 - says this is why he continues to have a career in his 70s, even though his salad days are now over.

"I have a different utility now than I had before. I'm not as likely to get the role of a leading man in a film, but I have the opportunity to play character parts like Branch Rickey, to disappear in that and, you know, not have to be Harrison Ford, in order to be useful in the telling of the story," he says, referring to his unrecognisable turn in this year's sports biopic 42, in which he donned prosthetics and padded clothing to play the executive who signs the first African-American to Major League Baseball.

This utilitarian philosophy extends to the financial criteria for his projects. He has been frank about this in previous interviews, explaining that he rarely does independent movies because he is "in it for the money".

Today, he adds that in addition to looking for new types of characters and ambitious, powerful stories, "I'm looking for work close to home, for a limited period of time, when it's appropriate to my family schedule and a fair day's pay".

That schedule revolves largely around his 48-year-old wife and former Ally McBeal actress Calista Flockhart, and their 13-year-old son Liam, with whom he lives in Los Angeles. Ford also has four adult children and three teenage grandchildren from his two previous marriages.

In his private life, the actor is rather less calculating about his time and is well known for his charitable and volunteer work, especially his stints as a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot near his ranch in Wyoming, where he has saved several lost or distressed hikers.

An ardent environmental activist, he toured Indonesia recently to film part of a climate-change documentary that will air on US television next April, speaking to activists and government officials, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Growing more animated when he talks about this, the star cannot resist correcting this reporter who tells him Singapore is directly affected by Indonesia's forest fires.

The rest of the world is directly affected, too, he says pointedly. "It's had a direct impact on us all. Indonesia's the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases because of the deforestation, the clearing of standing forests, the drying up of peatland."

Things took a turn during his visit, though, when the actor confronted Indonesian Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan about illegal logging during an on-camera interview.

He was later threatened with deportation - not by the government, he clarifies, but as a "response of one minister to my impatience with his failure to answer the questions and make himself responsible for things that had happened under his administration".

Ford acknowledges that logging is "a very complicated problem" because of Indonesia's geographic and demographic make-up and the governance challenges it poses.

"I didn't go there to place blame, I went there to try and focus on solutions."

His environmental activism is, thus, clearly an extension of Ford's "usefulness" dictum for his acting career.

"To me, a career is a process of constant reinvention of your utility, a constant demonstration of your willingness to do something different.

"And I think if you understand that, if that's your ambition, finally, you will find ways to be useful."

stlife@sph.com.sg

Ender's Game opened in Singapore on Thursday.


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