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“This is one of the great moments of my life, being here with you tonight,” actor Richard Gere told a room filled with friends and fans on Wednesday night as the Film Society of Lincoln Center celebrated his career with a tribute dinner and conversation at Lincoln Center’s Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse. (Last week, FSLC feted actor-writer-director Ethan Hawke similarly.)
Much of the hour-long conversation, which was moderated by Kent Jones, director of the FSLC-sponsored New York Film Festival, focused on Oren Moverman‘s Time Out of Mind, a dramatic feature in which Gere plays a homeless man living on the streets of New York that is currently screening at the NYFF (and still seeking a U.S. distributor).
Gere made it abundantly clear that Time Out of Mind is one of the projects of which he is proudest in an illustrious career that has spanned nearly 40 years and encompasses classics such as Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Pretty Woman (1990), Primal Fear (1996), Unfaithful (2002), Chicago (2002) and Arbitrage (2012).
The 65-year-old revealed that the script first came to him 15 years ago in a very different form. “I bought the script and I was gonna direct it myself,” said Gere. But, he remembers concluding, “it didn’t work. I didn’t quite know how to bring it out,” so he set it aside. Then, a couple of years ago, he ran into Moverman, who had co-written the 2007 Todd Haynes film I’m Not There, in which Gere had appeared, and he mentioned the story to the Israeli-born filmmaker. Moverman said he wanted to take a stab at it and, Gere reported, “He wrote a brilliant script and also decided to direct it, which made me really happy because I could just focus on this really complex character.”
The Moverman version, Gere emphasized, was “less about why [George, the man he portrays] is homeless,” which the actor appreciated because, he said, “It doesn’t interest me why. Just the fact is enough.” It “demands of the audience to let go of their normal expectations for storytelling” and “plays essentially like a silent movie,” he explained. “The movie is asking, ‘What is it to be a human being?'” (The picture also stars Ben Vereen, Kyra Sedgwick, Jena Malone, some professional movie extras and other extras played by real people from New York homeless shelters.)
Gere found the experience of playing George to be rewarding as an actor but disheartening as a member of the human race. He was invited by Moverman — who “loves actors” and with whom he shared “a special affinity” — to give “a very improvisatory performance” that would be captured by telephoto lenses from far away so that he could move about on the streets, dressed as his character, without calling attention to himself. Gere also acknowledged, half-jokingly, that “what probably really helped was I was right in the middle of a divorce [from Carey Lowell, whom he married in 2002], so the emotions were right on the surface.”
But because Gere was able to pass as a real homeless person, he also got to see how homeless people are treated by other members of society — and what he found was greatly disheartening. Speaking of scenes that were shot of him panhandling in New York’s Astor Place, he noted, “I’ve been down there a million times, usually rushing through to try not to be recognized. But as the character I was freaked out because no one would even make eye contact with me.” He reasoned, “It’s that black hole of failure that they can see from two blocks away.”
Gere also paid tribute to two acting teachers, the late Doris Abramson of the University of Massachusetts and the still-active Wynn Handman of the American Place Theatre. And he spoke of having enjoyed magical moments on the stage, but ultimately concluding that he is much more suited for film acting. “I get bored after just two months” of playing the same character in a show, confessed Gere.
Among those in attendance at the event were Moverman; Time Out of Mind producer Caroline Kaplan; Gere’s WME agent Andrew Finklestein (the one-time assistant of Gere’s agent of more than 30 years, the late Ed Limato); FSLC’s 2014 Filmmaker in Residence Lisandro Alonso; and FSLC director Lesli Klainberg.
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