Hollywood veteran Harrison Ford will return to the big screen this week with the non-Indiana Jones related drama, Extraordinary Measures. The veteran actor takes on the tedious task of playing a medical researcher who’s trying to save the lives of two young children. In a race against time, he teams up with a desperate father (Brendan Fraser) to come up with a cure for a rare genetic disorder. The film is based on the true story of parents John and Aileen Crowley, that was chronicled in the popular Geeta Anand book “The Cure.”
Harrison Ford isn’t known for being a huge fan of the press, but he came out to show support for his latest project in spite of his reservations. Extraordinary Measures is an inspirational film about maintaining hope in the face of adversity. When we spoke to the actor he discussed his decision to take on the project, as well as the extensive research he did to further understand the character. After playing so many larger than life heroes, we learned that Ford puts just as much effort into his smaller roles as he does the epic ones…
After coming off the franchise hit Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, what made you hop on board to do this film?
Harrison Ford: My production partners Michael Shamberg, his partner Stacey Sher, Carla Shamberg (Michael’s wife) and I were looking for material to develop for movies that I could be in. We came across this material in the Wall Street Journal, read the follow-up by Geeta Anand and felt that there was a gem of a good idea for a good movie in there. Something different to what I’m normally involved in. A chance to build an interesting part for myself in that story. We started tying to find a screen writer that could capture what we were looking for and we hit Robert Nelson Jacobs. There was a wonderful collaborative atmosphere here involving Michael and all of the other production partners who have developed a couple stories in the past that were stories of real humanity and people doing positive things. Erin Brockovich, and World Trade Center being two of them.
How did you create the character in your mind? He was fiction but his work and the story is based on fact.
HF: He’s a composite of other contributors to the science about this enzyme therapy, and through the process we had the opportunity to make him up out of those things that tell this story. We wanted to create both ally and antagonist for John. We wanted John to reach out to this awkward guy out of desperation. Dr. Robert Stonehill is a difficult character. I didn’t want to do the conventional scientist. When I met scientists I found them to be as various as any other group of people. That’s always my ambition, to create a character out of what will help tell the story. I’ve never been an actor to say my character wouldn’t do that because you should do that in order to help tell the story. We had the opportunity to cast him in a way we wanted. Robert hit on a structure of their relationship that was intricate and satisfying and came at the end of the film to their eventual alliance. I found it a very interesting character to play. My ambition from the very beginning was to make a good part for myself. Something different from what I’ve been doing. That’s how we got there.
I was struck by how much of Stonehill’s work was on whiteboards and notebooks, not computers the way we might imagine a scientist working today. Was that the reality that you found? How did that approach serve the character?
HF: Yeah. That’s what I saw when I went out there. I saw a group of guys sitting around a table and just talking about the science. That was the form of it. Stonehill is also an academic researcher. He’s use to working alone. He’s pretty use to being in charge of his life and being the captain of his own ship. He’s underfunded and left pretty much alone. He’s absolute faith in his science and of the things that we hit upon to attack the relationship with Crowley was his great passion for his belief. We tried a lot of ways in the bar scene where we first meet to set the hook. What we ended up believing is that a desperate man would seek out somebody who had that kind of passion and conviction that Stonehill had. I think the science is laid out in a very good way. We hit upon a way to articulate the reality of the science.
How hard was it retraining the film from promoting a political agenda? To me, it didn’t feel political at all.
HF: I think we’re all against creating a polemic, a bully pulpit to proclaim our point of view about these things. I think we want to present the reality of the situation and let the audience decide for themselves. I think that’s why we didn’t take an easy swipe at the pharmaceutical industry. We portrayed it in the way it really is. We wanted to concentrate on the kids and on the relationships, the human relationships and not get into that level of detail.
Did you visit with any children?
HF: No I didn’t. I met with John’s children, but I didn’t go any further than that. My character is a research scientist, he’s a medical doctor, but he doesn’t see patients as we say in the film. His interest in the diseases is on a cellular level. It’s an intellectual puzzle for him. He’s not comfortable with meeting sick people so I didn’t do that. Instead I spent my research time working with scientists trying to figure out how to get science, which is something you practice in your head out unto the screen. Figure out ways that we could all accomplish the description of the science in away that wouldn’t slow the movie down. We sort of phrase it out. We give the audience credit for some intelligence and didn’t sit them down to give them a lecture. We phrased out what was necessary. I was looking for the reality of the character that I had planned. I went to the University of Nebraska, I visited with other scientists that John Crowley led us to in the biomedical company that he now runs. I was on a totally different vector than Brendan Fraser.
What did Brendan bring to the table?
HF: What Brendan brought from the very first time we read through the material together, [and we talked about it] was an authenticity. He didn’t attempt an imitation of John Crowley, he just reached into his own experience and his own emotions and understood. And because he understood and because he felt he’s had a lot of experience, he’s had a lot of opportunities to work with good people in the past and he’s learned how to do it really well. I had a great time working with him. I had fun. It was excellent.
Have you felt any inspiration to give back to this community?
HF: I approach this from a different point of view. John is still involved in the pharmaceutical industry. John is still doing research. The benefits of his research are now available, the enzyme therapy that we talk about developing in the film now, when administered to infants, allows them to live pretty normal. John’s job is to make further therapies and he’s very involved in charities that benefit kids. To be quite honest, I have children. I have other concerns, I have other focuses. I really feel very sympathetic and I would love to be able to help, but I don’t see this as the opportunity, having done this film, for me to suddenly leap on a soap box and begin to talk about the pharmaceutical industry or the desperate plight of sick children. I do what I can in my world.
How have your priorities changed?
HF: My work has always been important to me. The reason I do it, continue to do it is because it’s so much fun for me. I love my work. That is what keeps me in the game. You’re quite right, I don’t mind playing the older characters. I find it interesting. They’re parts I couldn’t have gotten when I was 30-years-old. It continues to interest me in the same way that it always did.
What do you see as the next progression in your career in taking on projects that push you a little bit differently?
HF: I think I’ve always done that from the very beginning. I see what luck and success I’ve had as an opportunity to twist it up and do something different, so I’ve always sought out different genres and different kinds of characters. The next thing I think I’m going to do is a thriller. Very different kind of character. I have a comedy coming out in July. I continue to develop somethings for myself and also take advantage of good parts as they come along.
Extraordinary Measures hits theaters on January 22, 2010.