Harrison Ford has come a long way since playing his career-launching Han Solo character in the original Star Wars trilogy. His latest movie, Extraordinary Measures, has no lightsabers, whips (a la Indiana Jones), or guns, and he doesn’t play a hero, cop, or fugitive. The film is based on the true story of John and Aileen Crowley (portrayed by Brendan Fraser and Keri Russell) who believed so strongly in researcher Dr. Robert Stonehill to find a cure for Pompe disease — a rare genetic disease both their children have — that they put forth their life savings to fund his work. Ford portrays the grumpy, anti-establishment Dr. Stonehill, and though the character is based on a real person, the veteran actor had a lot of input in how the role was played.
“I don’t play a real character…I represent the contributions of a bunch of different scientists and researchers,” he says. “The character is an invention [and] the personality of the character is an invention. Exactly what he does in the film are the contributions of a number of different people.”
When speaking about the real Dr. Stonehill, Ford has nothing but praise and admiration for him and his work. He also points out how devoted he is to the research.
“His interest in the disease is an intellectual one. He’s interested in solving a problem which for him exists on a cellular level,” he says. “He works alone, lives alone, he fishes alone. He’s frustrated by the lack of funding and lack of interest in what he’s doing. He’s been doing this for a long time and it’s his life’s focus and passion.”
Pompe disease is a sometimes fatal neuromuscular disorder that disables its patients’ muscles and organs. Ford, who is also a producer on Extraordinary Measures, had no idea what the rare disease was before making the film.
“It’s a [genetic] disease that affects 400,000 in the developed world. It’s rare. It requires both parents to be a carrier of the gene. I didn’t know anything about it,” he admits.
He’s quick to point out that the movie is not about the disease or medical research, but about the family and the relationship between Dr. Stonehill and John Crowley.
“That was not the purpose [to become an advocate for medical research]. The ambition was to tell a story of a persistent and effective man who took on great challenges and accomplished great things,” he says.
For the part, Ford needed to learn the language of the science so that he didn’t appear to not know what he was talking about. The real-life John Crowley introduced him to scientists in the bio-medical community who helped him become familiar with the issues and the nomenclature.
“It’s the language of the film,” he states. “You want it to seem like it’s your first language and not something you’re struggling to learn. Besides the fact I had to project the reality of understanding what I was talking about, as a producer, I was part of the process of making the decisions on how to dramatize the science and tease out the steps that we might follow.”
Ford is aware that people see him mainly in hero roles such as Han Solo or Indiana Jones and that gives him more reason to take on characters like Dr. Stonehill.
“The fact that I’m known for something seems to me to present opportunity and obligation to become known for something else. That’s what actors do — play different kinds of characters in different kinds of films. If you don’t do that you end up doing the same thing over and over again which is no damn fun at all,” he says.
As for his Canadian co-star Brendan Fraser, Ford says it was a pleasure to work with him as both actor and producer, and that he is very pleased with his performance.
“Brendan brought a real emotional relationship to the material and understood it, felt it, had good ideas about it,” he says.
With a fifth Indiana Jones film in the works and another film coming out this year he doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.
“I love the work. I like being useful. I like the opportunity to confront different kinds of questions and work through the puzzle of deciding how to give them an expression. I like all of the problem-solving aspects of filmmaking. All of that is fun for me. Without it I look at a box of tools that are getting dull.”
Extraordinary Measures is in theatres January 22. To find out more about the Crowley family and Pompe disease visit their site.