Best of 2013 (Behind the Scenes): How Harrison Ford revealed his true 'character' in '42'

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Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Harrison Ford is Harrison Ford because he made the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs, raced Nazis for lost treasure, and got the best of vengeful terrorists no matter the odds. Ford has been a movie star of the brightest magnitude for nearly 40 years, and not unlike Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood, he is most popular when he plays a version of his most heroic action-adventure characters. But this year, Ford went in another direction. In 42, the story of Jackie Robinson, he put on a fat-suit, wore a dowdy bow-tie, hid behind some facial prosthetics, and traded his iconic voice for a scholarly growl to play Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ executive who expedited the integration of Major League Baseball.

You might think someone of Ford’s pedigree can land any role he wants, but even at the height of his stardom, character roles like Rickey were not frequently available to him. “When I would occasionally suggest blurring the edges of the movie-star personality, it was often rejected,” says Ford. “If I wanted to wear a mustache or a beard, they’d say, ‘No, no, no, we paid for the face. We want to see you.’ But I was always anxious to play characters. That’s why when I was offered the first Jack Ryan movie, I said I think the script is great, but I’d rather play the Russian guy [ultimately played by Sean Connery] than Jack Ryan. They said, ‘Oh, no, no, no.'”

Not much had changed when 42‘s writer and director Brian Helgeland was casting Rickey, the supporting character in his modestly-budgeted sports film. “Branch Rickey is such a particular character, almost a 19th-century character out of Dickens or something” says Helgeland. “So in my head, I thought I need to have a character actor to pull this off. I thought, nothing against Harrison Ford but I don’t need a movie star. I have my leading man; I have Chadwick Boseman, who’s the star of the movie and I didn’t want him opposite another leading man.”

Helgeland conveyed to Ford’s agent that he just didn’t think the actor was right for the part and politely declined a meeting with Ford to talk about it. “I was very anxious to play the part because I really connected with the character and I think the story is really important,” says Ford. “I loved the language of the guy, I loved his style. So I set out to wear Brian down. I tried a couple of other avenues to approach him, and he eventually agreed [to meet].”

In person, Ford won over the filmmaker with his enthusiasm and commitment to not being Harrison Ford for this role. He tried out the vocal delivery he’d been working on for Rickey and expressed a willingness to subject himself to a dramatic makeover. “His whole notion was to disappear into the part and be a character actor, which I thought was kind of amazing,” says Helgeland. “He didn’t want to be the lead. He wanted to serve the story. He was so confident that he could do it, so we agreed right there basically.”

“I guess the fact that I paid for lunch is what finally did it,” Ford says.

Ford then threw himself into researching Rickey’s life. He listened and re-listened to Rickey audio recordings that were dug up from the Baseball Hall of Fame, and his initial impression of Rickey’s voice was fine-tuned with the help of a voice coach. “Brian has captured very well I think the nature of his speech,” says Ford, referring to an odd cadence that often emphasized words in an unusual manner. “He had kind of an archaic delivery, borne of his upbringing — his rural roots — and the fact that he was a lay preacher. He was a very powerful businessman as well, and he was very well-aware of himself and used himself and his personality in ways both to get what he wanted and to express himself.”

His diligence paid off. When the first trailer for the movie was released, few even recognized Ford’s voiceover until he finally appeared on-screen, wrapped in a fat suit and subtly hidden behind a prosthetic nose and makeup. (They even filled in the famous scar on his chin!)

The first time Ford got completely made up as Rickey — who was actually younger in 1947, 65, than Ford is today, 71 — Helgeland couldn’t believe the resemblance. “He kind of stepped out and he was standing there looking at me, and I said, in a positive way, ‘No one’s going to recognize Harrison Ford under all that,'” says the director. “And he said, ‘Oh Harrison Ford, I think we’ve seen enough of that guy,’ which is in a nutshell what he felt. I think as an actor he wanted to get free of that movie-star persona a little bit so that he could explore something else.”

Ford worked closely with costume designer Caroline Harris, looking at old photos of Rickey at spring training and hand-picking specific hats and classic clothes for his performance. When he arrived in Georgia mid-production to film, he and longtime makeup collaborator Bill Corso streamlined the process to minimize the amount of time Ford had to spend in the chair each morning. They got it down to about 45 minutes, a feat considering all the layers, plastic adhesives, and wig that needed to be applied each day.

The physical transformation was complete, and Ford’s voice had won over Helgeland long ago. But putting together a convincing performance was an entirely different matter. Since Ford had been working on another movie, Helgeland had never had the opportunity to rehearse with him as Rickey. Looming on Ford’s second day of shooting was the crucial final scene between Rickey and Robinson, when the older man tells the player, “You let me love baseball again.”

“I’ll be dead honest, I was really nervous,” admits Helgeland. “Because we’re going to find out right now and there’s nothing we can do about it if it’s not working. And we did the first blocking rehearsal on the set, and about halfway through that, you could just tell that he had nailed it. I knew then that it was going to all work. He had it down.”

Critics agreed. “Harrison Ford seems to have reinvented himself as an actor,” wrote EW’s Owen Gleiberman. TIME magazine delighted in seeing Ford “projecting more energy and enthusiasm than he has shown in a film since he was engaged in hand-to-hand combat on Air Force One some 15 years ago.”

For generations of movie fans who grew up rooting for Ford to save the world, it’s a wonderful irony that playing a stodgy aging suit reminded us why we loved the actor in the first place. He might be one of the greatest movie stars in Hollywood history, but in his heart, he’s still just Harrison, a working actor, craving a good role to sink his teeth into.

“When the whole thing happened with Jackie Robinson, Rickey had already had a career that would’ve landed him in the Hall of Fame,” Helgeland says. “He had invented the minor league scouting system. He had won the World Series with the Cardinals two times in the 1930s. He was already a legend, but at the end of his professional life, he decided to take on his greatest challenge. Oddly, in a similar way, Harrison decided, ‘I’m going to turn myself into a character actor,’ with nothing to prove basically. I’m the only director who ever did a Harrison Ford movie who got a character actor instead of a movie star, which I’m very happy for.”

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