My first conversation with Harrison Ford was an in-person chat in 1990, timed to the release of “Presumed Innocent.” As I recall, he answered every question politely — but with extremely brief sound bites.
For decades, the Chicago native has been famously taciturn when dealing with the media — though I think in some cases, e.g., a legendarily uncomfortable, multi-segment appearance on “Late Night With David Letterman” in 1982 to promote “Blade Runner,” Ford’s deadpan humor was misinterpreted as disdain for the host and the whole PR process.
Cut to 2020, and on the phone I ask Ford why he was drawn to his new movie, “The Call of the Wild.” Three and a half minutes later, he’s still talking, and comfortable to the point of dropping a couple of f-bombs.
What a chatterbox! I finally have to cut him off so we can move on.
Ford is the star and narrator of “The Call of the Wild,” which opens Thursday. It’s the latest in a long line of adaptations of Jack London’s legendary short novel about the adventures of a sled dog named Buck during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush, from a 1923 silent film by Hal Roach to a 1935 movie starring Clark Gable to a 1972 Charlton Heston film to various TV projects.
This time around, the oversized St. Bernard/Scotch Collie is a pure CGI creation, as are the breathtaking western Canada settings.
Ford’s John Thornton is a crusty and reclusive old-timer with a tragic back story. At first John’s narration seems like a matter-of-fact telling of Buck’s adventures — but as John and Buck keep crossing paths and their respective stories become deeply intertwined, we learn more about John.
“I read the book when I was in high school, as all of us did,” said Ford. “I found the book to be powerful and really interesting … as a city boy growing up in Chicago, it sort of stretched my ‘ken.’ And my Barbie too, but that’s another story.”
Ba dum bum.
“When I read the script, there was powerful potential in it. I knew it was going to be CGI. … The one thing I wanted to explore and develop further was the history of John Thornton. In the book … we don’t know where he comes from. His only utility is to attend to the Buck story. But I thought it would be more emotionally powerful to develop a context in which each character led the other to their destiny. I thought that would be interesting for me.
“I’m always looking for something different from what I’ve lately done. I’ve always been interested in family films because they’re passed on from generation to generation, and I’m introduced to new generations.
“The other character in the film that’s of great interest to me is nature. The presence of nature is palpable, even though it’s expressed and created by computers.”
So, if there were no actual dogs on the set, was Ford acting with a tennis ball on a stick or some other prop standing in for Buck?
“No, it was worse than that,” jokes Ford. “It was actually a guy named Terry Notary. I was blessed to have Terry to work with. He’s an actor, he’s a former Cirque du Soleil gymnast. He moved like a dog. He was able to give reference to the animation. He was spectacular. When I was relating to him, he was playing Buck for me.”
Of course, Ford’s experience with acting in films that feature post-production special effects dates back to the 1970s — and though he appreciates the technology, he says it can be too much of a good thing:
“One of the dangers of CGI … is creating spectacle [in which] you lose human scale. You want people to feel what they might feel in reality.”
Is that something that gets lost in certain mega-budget movies these days?
“I see it over and over again, man,” says Ford. “There’s too many f---—- airplanes in the sky in the dogfight … too many bad guys coming over the ridge. And you just lose anything within your experience you can relate to, and you say, ‘Oh, they did that with the computer.’ That didn’t happen with this movie.”
Even with all the CGI in “The Call of the Wild,” you can’t fake everything. The 77-year-old Ford is playing a character who throws and takes a punch or two, does a lot of hiking and running, and plunges into an icy river for a bath. Was it physically challenging?
“Nah, it was a piece of cake, it was fun,” says Ford. “There was nothing daunting or difficult about it. … That’s the fun of this game for me, all that kinda stuff.”
And is it still fun, after all this time?
“S--- man, I’m too old to be here if it ain’t fun. … I’m in it for the fun of it. I’m in it for the emotional exercise and the fun of being around creative people.”
Before we say goodbye, I tell Ford about a recent report from Robert Feder that Maine Township High School is celebrating its 60th year of broadcasting, dating back to Dec. 20, 1959 — when the first student voice to be heard on the station was that of one Harry Ford, class of 1960.
Ford laughs with delight and says:
“God Almighty. That was long ago, in a world far, far away.”