Screen legend Harrison Ford began his career just as the western ceased to be the dominant genre in Hollywood. Prior to starring Universal/Dreamworks’ upcoming film based on the Platinum Studios comic, “Cowboys & Aliens,” his only previous work in the genre was “The Frisco Kid.” The actor told CBR News and other journalists at a recent press day in Montana that his involvement with director Jon Favreau’s latest film came from a more basic desire than appearing in a cowboy hat. “I told my agent I wanted to be in a movie one of these days that people want to go see,” he deadpanned. “You know, that appeals to what’s left of the movie audience.”
His agent sent him an earlier draft of the film and the actor admitted he was baffled by it. “I said, ‘I don’t think there’s anything in this for me,'” Ford continued. “[My agent] said, ‘I thought you wanted to be in a movie that people are going to go see?'” Taking up the challenge, Ford finished the script. Coming around to the ambitious mixture of genres, he took a meeting with Favreau. “[I] was impressed by what he had to say and his collegial spirit,” said Ford of their initial encounter. He also met with writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci and actor Daniel Craig. “He was very generous about sharing a little bit more space for [my] character and I began to see an opportunity to play a different kind character than I played before.”
That character is Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde, a hardened Civil War vet who ruthlessly protects his cattle interests in the New Mexico frontier. While not a complete villain, he would certainly be set as the opponent of Craig’s Jake Lonergan… if not for the alien incursion. For Ford, it also meant handing off the pressure of the leading role to someone else and enjoying “the pleasures of the character part where you don’t have to have anybody like you… [also] to bring some texture to the piece.”
In building that texture, Ford involved himself in reshaping Dolarhyde. “In the original script there was a lot more about his military career and his suitability to lead this party because he has a strategic understanding of warfare,” the actor recalled. “I think we rightly sloughed off a little bit more of that and had a little bit more of his relationship — or his lack of — with [his] son and how he treated people.” The character, when audiences first meet him, is more a disappointed and angry man than the vile black hat originally conceived. Over the course of the film, the character also becomes more fleshed out than the usual broad villain. “I thought it was very cleverly kind of parsed out so that you didn’t sit down and have a chat about where he comes from and what he’s like and why he’s the way he is,” Ford added. “But we see it in behavior in situations that the audience gets to participate in rather than listen to, which is a key for me to good screenwriting.”
He credits the writers and Favreau with an openness to suggestions. “[They] were wonderfully collaborative and engaged,” Ford said. “We knew where the choke points were coming up ahead of us and I think we probably talked about them every day.”
Ford also appreciated their choice to play the concept straighter than the title might suggest. “‘Cowboys and Aliens’ is kind of a good joke but the minute you sit down and the lights go out, you gotta get way past that and start getting into something else,” he explained. “Because that [could be a] poor version of ‘Men in Black’… you gotta attend to both the myth of the West and the reality of the West.”
Getting back to the character, the actor explained how he hoped Dolarhyde presented more of that reality to the audience. “He’s the richest man in town. He’s the most powerful man in town. He’s arrogant. He’s contentious. There’s no sign of Mrs. Dolarhyde; she must have fled a long time ago. And his son has…” Ford considered his words. “He’s a reflection of [Dolarhyde’s] inadequacy as a father.”
Those characteristics become more important as the plot, which involves a number of the townsfolk — including Dolarhyde’s son — getting abducted by the marauding aliens. “What does that mean to a guy who treats his kid like shit anyway? Does it mean that he recognizes that this is unfinished business?” Ford asked. Having no easy answer made it more compelling for Ford, who added, “It’s complicated and it was interesting.”
Asked if the film evoked a sense of nostalgia as it owes as much to the sci-fi/action films of the 1980s as it does the westerns of the ’60s and ’70s, the actor quipped, “Nope! I’m in it for the money.”
Ford also expressed relief in Favreau’s decision not to shoot the film in 3D. “That sense of place is really important,” he explained. “It was a tough world and an empty place. You had to depend on yourself and the people around you and I think that’s expressed in the anamorphic scale of the way the movie was shot.” To the actor, those basic photographic staples of the genre could easily be lost in 3D. “And that’s the iconography of the western,” he added. “You had all that space and you still can still see into people’s faces.”
As our time with Ford wrapped up, he was asked if he learned anything new about acting through playing Dolarhyde. “It’s like you learn to play the violin when you’re eight years-old and then you just keep practicing, you know? You just want to keep your chops,” he answered. “The process is the same always… [you’re] trying to bring as much life and texture and reality to a situation that, you know, might not be real for an audience if they didn’t recognize human behavior and human emotions in that context.” So for Ford, acting might be old hat, but for audiences, “Cowboys & Aliens” might be a fresh experience.
“Cowboys & Aliens” is now playing.