One of the biggest male screen attractions since the explosion of his career in the late 70’s and an international sex symbol, Richard Gere, who often inhabits the role of the seductive lover in his movies, tells me when I meet him at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills that he is puzzled by the fact that he is still in demand.
“Honestly, I have no clue,” the 63-year-old wonders, squinting his eyes. “I’m amazed at my age that these kind of parts are still coming to me. This is the fifth decade I’ve been an actor on film, 6th decade as an actor altogether, and I still have no idea what people see in my performances.”
Raised in upstate New York, the son of an insurance broker father and a homemaker mother began his acting career in theatre in the early 70’s before making his film debut in Report To the Commissioner in 1975, which he followed with lead roles in Days of Heaven and Bloodbrothers (1978). Gaining notoriety for shedding his clothes onscreen, Gere was catapulted to stardom with American Gigolo (1980), in which he played a cocky male prostitute.
After a long ebb in his career during the 80’s, when many of his movies flopped commercially and critically, Gere roared back in Pretty Woman (1990), reclaiming his superstardom. But more importantly, the sulky young bad-boy narcissist had transformed into an elegant silver-haired advocate of Buddhism, Tibetan culture and progressive political causes.
“My life is Golden; I don’t have any problems,” he impassioned. “The world is filled with problems and we need to care about them. We need to speak up and talk about it constantly. I was very happy when Hillary Clinton, who just recently had meetings in China, brought up Tibet. She brought up the self immolations inside Tibet. That’s very important to me.”
Gere’s political activism is not confined to Tibet and its people’s struggle for independence from China, he has also dabbled with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While visiting that troubled part of the world, he met with the entire spectrum of political affiliations from Islamic Jihad to the Israeli settlers, but his efforts to spread peace there were in vain.
“I think about this all the time. It’s never outside my thoughts, but this is something that can chew you up and spit you out,” he laments, nodding his head solemnly.
His suggested solution to that ancient conflict is Buddhism. “There are quite a few Buddhist teachers that I’m sponsoring to come into Israel and the West Bank. On that level, this takes a long time, but you can’t see this kind of change. It’s nothing you can put your finger on or can write an article about, but it has an effect on the atmosphere and if you can change the atmosphere, people can be their best selves. It’s hard to be ourselves when we’re under pressure, correct?” he smiles, nodding his head.
A couple of years ago, the veteran actor took a break from his quest to heal the conflict-infected parts of the world when he received from his agent a script, titled Arbitrage, about a troubled hedge fund manager, Robert Miller, who, desperate to complete the sale of his trading empire, makes an error that forces him to turn to an unlikely person for help from.
“I was flying from LA to New York. I said ‘What’s it about?’ he said ‘You don’t have to know anything, just read it.’ So I read it on the plane and the first thing I did when I got off in New York was call my agent saying this is a terrific script.”
There was a snag though. The director, Nicholas Jarecki, who penned Arbitrage, had never made a movie before. But after learning more about the young director from his agent, Gere decided to invite him to his home in Bedford.
“It’s like a first date in a way,” Gere quips, pointing at the director who is sitting at the back of the room. “We talked about the script and he asked me about these scenes with the girl, and I said ‘Well, I think maybe we could find some other things there. I think there is some tension, there’s some odd things there that maybe we can find.’ and we ended up doing improvisations. He put on a skirt and a dress with a bra; he was very cute,” he laughs.
Playing around with the scenes with the director helped Gere to unravel the moral ambivalence of his character, who had to lie to his family about his illegal practices and conceal his extramarital affair in order to save his business deal. And eventually he decided to base it on former president, Bill Clinton, who was faced with similar moral dilemmas during his presidency.
“I had no interest in playing a really dark bad guy, and I had no interest in playing him like Bernie Madoff because he’s not. Madoff was a sociopath by everyone’s account and I didn’t think it’s that interesting to tell you the truth. I thought it was more interesting to play someone who we could recognise as us and I think that’s one of the reasons people are taking a voyage with him, kind of wanting him to succeed, at the same time you know he’s made some really bad decisions.
“Clinton is someone who was not emotionally developed when he was a President of the United States. He had a lot to learn yet but with extraordinary intelligence, charisma, an alpha personality. I think those were the qualities that I did want to bring to this.”
Like Clinton, Robert Miller was stuck in the middle of the triangle of three strong women: his wife, who expects fidelity, his daughter, who preaches morality, and his young lover, who demands exclusivity. The star of Chicago confesses that he feels comfortable working with the fair sex.
“Look, I grew up with 3 sisters and a brother and they’re very strong women. My wife is a very strong, very independent woman, so I prefer this. I think this is the Clintonian side that still wants that woman acceptance, that woman thing, whatever that is,” he laughs, throwing his hands in the air.
Gere, who rejected Oliver Stone’s offer to play the role of iconic stock trader Gordon Gekko in Wall Street in 1988, enjoyed inhabiting Robert Miller so much that he regards it as one of the best parts he has ever played. Though he insists that this was not a role he had been seeking out.
“I’m not looking for anything in particular,” he stresses. “I think there were times in my life where I felt like whatever I was looking for never seems to work out for whatever reason. But I am continually surprised that a script comes to me like this. It’s beautifully written and it’s on a subject that’s never handled with this kind of intelligence and depth beyond just exploration of the financial deals. It resonates much broader and deeper.”
But then he revealed that the selling point of this film was that it was shot near home in New York, where he spends most his time with his wife, actress Carey Lowell, and 12-year-old son Homer.
In spite of a thinning silver hair and a bulging stomach, the once sex icon, sporting a blue shirt and jeans, hasn’t lost his charm. And in spite of not having any projects in the pipeline, he still exudes confidence, content and happiness. His high spirit dims and turns into deep solemness only when human tragedies are invoked, which attests to his genuine concerns for others. Contrary to previous reports about his vanity and arrogance, I sense nothing but a gentle, gregarious and down to earth human-being.