Harrison Ford keeps the focus on ’42’ in a ‘Star Wars’-free conversation

“I’m talking to Harrison Ford.”

It is impossible for someone raised when I was as a movie fan to sit across from the man who played Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and Rick Deckard in the span of three years and not spend most of that conversation screaming that one thing inside my head, over and over and over.

“I’m talking to Harrison Ford.”

For me, it was the one-two punch of “Witness” and “The Mosquito Coast” that finally made me feel that there was no more essential or interesting American movie star. Those two collaborations with Peter Weir tapped into what it is that makes his earlier iconic hero roles so compelling. There is an anger, an intelligence that regards others with a healthy suspicion, an emotional distance… all of that is layered in there under his comic timing and his exceptional sense of physical comedy. He makes attitude look easy when he plays a big swaggering lead, but when he plays human beings with weaknesses, Ford started to look like a guy who would go raw and real and make choices that no one else made. That’s what I look for most in any actor. I want to see them making choices that surprise and illuminate and that make me respond on an involuntary level, and watching him navigate the tricky moral waters of “Witness” or give voice to the cracked paternal logic of “The Mosquito Coast,” he felt to me like a guy who dug deep.

“I’m talking to Harrison Ford.”

Sitting down with him demands that you come ready to have a real conversation. He does not seem to suffer inanity well, and he’s notoriously curt when it comes to gushing fandom. Right now, the temptation is to walk into that room and ask him about the return to “Star Wars,” but since any logical human being can tell you before that event happens that Ford isn’t going to give anyone anything they can really use regarding “Star Wars.” There’s no script that he’s read. And even once he has, he’s not going to suddenly decide to tell you everything. He’s not sitting there thinking, “I’m going to tell someone the entire plot synopsis for the movie, and I’m only going to tell that one person. I don’t know who, but when they walk in the room, I”ll recognize them, and I’ll open up and spill it all.” Beyond that, Ford doesn’t want to have that conversation, and if you know anything about him, you know that. You know he doesn’t want to be asked if there’s another Indiana Jones film coming. You know that. I don’t want the mantra I’m repeating in my head to suddenly be, “I’m pissing off Harrison Ford,” so I’m going to do my best as an interviewer not to piss him off intentionally.

I don’t think Ford’s going to yell at anyone or hit a reporter for asking a tactless question about a corporate franchise that he’s not going to answer, but I’d rather spent the short time I sit across from him actually talking about the work he does in Brian Helgeland’s “42” as Branch Rickey, the baseball owner who hired Jackie Robinson to help break the professional color line in the sport. He’s in full-blown Spencer Tracy uber-coot mode in the film, and it’s a character performance with a snarling vocal choice that isn’t like anything else he’s done. Talking to him about those decisions, about his research, and about the reason he wanted to play this part… that’s what I wanted to at least try to do.

“I’m talking to Harrison Ford.”

In the end, I feel like I didn’t quite land my final thought with him. I think the use of movie star clout is interesting. It’s like spending power. If you’re rich and you use your money to educate kids and feed hungry people and indulge weird and funny whims, I like that use of it. If you use your money primarily to buy designer drugs and you traffic in human beings, that’s what I would call a bad use of it. There are people who spend their star power in very cool and interesting ways, and there are people who squander it and basically spit on the audience that supports them. I really wandered if it is by landing Harrison Ford that Helgeland is then allowed to make a film that has been a very tough sell on the studio level for decades now. Spike Lee’s got to be pissed that this movie is happening without him attached, but something about this package, this version, made sense to Legendary and Warner. Having Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey gives you a lot of latitude in casting the lead role and really spending to get the period detail right, and in asking him about this idea, I feel like I may have ended up irritating him.

I had Allen, my five-year-old, with me for the day, and he certainly knew who we were there to see. This was the day before he met The Rock, which struck him as a much bigger deal. When we walked into the room with Ford, Allen said hello, shook Ford’s hand, and took his seat just off-camera, playing quietly with his toy while we talked. He didn’t seem excited or overwhelmed. When I asked him about it on the way home, he was more vocal about it, but he told me, “I didn’t want to bother him.” That vibe comes off of Ford so clearly, and it is so foundational to who he is onscreen, that even a five-year-old can read it when he walks into a room. That’s why it feels like such a big deal to sit down with him, even for a short five-minute chat. He remains, always, one of our icons.

“42” opens everywhere this Friday.