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Why Harrison Ford Wanted to Play John Thornton in ‘The Call of the Wild’

Joining legends like Charlton Heston and Clarke Gable, who have played the role of John Thornton in “The Call of the Wild,” Harrison Ford now stands next to a CGI-enhanced version of the dog named Buck in the latest adaptation of Jack London’s classic 1903 novel.

“I thought the film has a lot to say about human characters as well as animal characters,” Ford told Variety on the red carpet at the film’s premiere outside Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre.

“While the book does not have very much history for John Thornton, we were able to weave in a human story that parallels Buck’s story, and the events of the film bring these two characters — Buck to his destiny, [while] Thornton has an opportunity to gain humanity in Buck’s eyes because of their close relationship. And he gets the courage from Buck to face parts of his life that he didn’t have the courage to face prior to this relationship,” Ford continued. “So there’s a nice roundness to the drama.”

Though “The Call of the Wild” has been adapted numerous times, Ford didn’t pick a favorite film adaptation or gush over his love for the book, explaining, “I didn’t look at other versions of the film because I wanted to have my own independent idea of it.”

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But the actor showed his commitment to the role in other ways — “True fact, the beard was Harrison Ford’s idea,” exec producer Michael Green shared.

In another change from previous adaptations, the production team relied on technological advancements to bring Buck to life. Motion-capture star Terry Notary portrayed the St. Bernard/Scotch Shepherd in this film, directed by Chris Sanders. Notary said he was thrilled to get the chance to act opposite his longtime hero.

“When I was eight years old, I watched ‘Star Wars,’ and he was the coolest dude ever,” Notary admitted. “It was the big brother you wanted to have. He was the protector, the hero, the funny guy, the handsome guy. The one who gets the girl. I mean, he’s a pretty cool dude.”

“You want to have a beer with the dude,” he continued. “I got to have some whiskey with him. … We just had a nice little snifter of whiskey and we talked about acting.”

Using performance-capture technology, the actor performed in scenes next to Ford, learning how to embody Buck in body and spirit.

“When they said they wanted me to play Buck, I was like, ‘Wow, I have to really figure out how dogs relate to human beings on a deep level.’ You know, they’re truly connected to humans, for eons, they’re our best friends, really. And there’s no filter when they look into your soul. There’s no fear of seeing you [or] letting you see them,” Notary explained. “It was really about trying to be present for [Ford] and really let him forget that I was a human, and be a dog and dissolve into it. And when we did, it was magic.”

The admiration was mutual for Ford. “Terry Notary does a great tennis ball, a lot better,” Ford joked. “I mean, that was really great. Part of the pleasure of this thing.”

At the film’s after-party at the Hard Rock Cafe across the street, Ford celebrated with the film’s cast — which includes Omar Sy, Cara Gee and Karen Gillan — and entertained well-wishers (including many of his youngest fans) for nearly an hour, congratulating him on successfully chiseling his name alongside the legends who’ve already played the part.

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