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Richard Gere, who turns 63 on Friday, has never been nominated for an Oscar. Considering that his credits include such modern-day classics as Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Pretty Woman (1990), Primal Fear (1996), Unfaithful (2002) and the best picture Oscar winner Chicago (2002), that fact is somewhat surprising. But consider this: For each of the films listed, at least one of his co-stars was nominated for – and in two cases won – an Oscar. That suggests that Gere is a guy who has always brought out the best in those around him, while making his own work look so effortless that people assume it must be.
STORY: ‘Arbitrage’ to Open San Sebastian Film Festival
That injustice could finally be remedied this year, because it’s not inconceivable that the Academy could nominate Gere for best actor Oscar for his work in Nicholas Jarecki‘s directorial debut Arbitrage, in which he plays a hedge fund manager who is part pre-infamy Bernie Madoff and part post-Chappaquiddick Teddy Kennedy. It’s his best performance in years – and, in fact, is one of the very best of his distinguished career. The film, which premiered in January at Sundance, will be released by Roadside Attractions in select theaters Sept. 14.
Late last week, I talked with Gere about the long personal and professional journey he’s been on: his early breaks like Days of Heaven; his decision to turn down the part in Wall Street that proved to be an Oscar winner for Michael Douglas; why he initially didn’t think he was the right fit for Pretty Women; and how he surprised even himself with his tap-dancing in Chicago. (For our full conversation, check out the video at the top of the page.)
Gere was born Aug. 31, 1949 in Philadelphia to an insurance agent and a homemaker. Growing up in Syracuse, New York, he liked to perform for fun, but was even more passionate about gymnastics and music. He now recognizes “many parallels” between his childhood interests and his adulthood profession. Talking of his early interest in gymnastics, he says, “A routine on the pommel horse is maybe a minute long, and it usually has a high degree of difficulty associated with it. It has to look effortless. And, in movie terms, it’s a one-minute take. There’s a certain sense, before you approach the apparatus, of clearing your head, shaking off whatever nerves there are, and preparing for the moment where you engage the apparatus. To me, that’s like preparing for ‘Action!’ and a one-minute, two-minute scene in a movie. And there’s a dismount, and that’s the end of the scene, and it’s a ‘Cut!’ So emotionally, and even physically, there’s a sense that you’re preparing for this one or two minutes, which is about the length of a scene in a movie, or a shot. But a sense of ease — it’s got to feel easy; it’s got to feel natural; it can’t feel strained; it’s got to feel in the realm of being human… If it feels like it’s a trick, it doesn’t touch you.”
Gere regards two moments in his life as his “big breaks,” moments after which he knew his life would never be the same. The first came in 1971, when he was a sophomore in college and was offered his first opportunity to act professionally. “I got a phone call in my dorm room, when I was going to the University of Massachusetts, that I was asked to be at the Provincetown Playhouse (on Cape Cod), which was a summer stock repertory theater — a quite wonderful theater and wonderful experience. I almost now still feel that rush of energy of, ‘Oh, my life is going in that direction. If I want it to, I can follow this out. The universe is taking me there.'” The second came just four years later, when the enigmatic young director Terrence Malick, who was coming off his acclaimed directorial debut with 1973’s Badlands, asked Gere to play the lead in his next film. “After months and months and months of auditions with different readings, with different actors, trying to get ‘Who are these three actors going to be in this movie, Days of Heaven?’ he called me up and said, ‘Let’s do it! Let’s jump in and do this.’ Again, I had this rush of, ‘Oh. Well that’s the direction.'”
As it turned out, Days of Heaven would, like many a Malick film, would take years to be completed and released. In the meantime, Gere appeared a few times on TV and in two forgettable films, followed by a third film that put him on everyone’s radar: Richard Brooks‘s sexually-frank, 1977 drama Looking for Mr. Goodbar, opposite Diane Keaton. That film, followed by Days of Heaven a year later, and John Schlesinger‘s war flick Yanks the year after that, established Gere as an actor with real chops. Then, two films released shortly thereafter — Paul Schrader‘s American Gigolo (1980) and Taylor Hackford‘s An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) — solidified him as not only a sex symbol but also a genuine movie star, which changed the course of his life.
VIDEO: Sneak Peak of Richard Gere in ‘Arbitrage’
Discussing his childhood, Gere told me, “I didn’t want to be the center of attention. I never have.” But people who become movie stars have little say in the matter and learn to adapt to their unusual circumstances — or fail trying. Gere reflects, “I don’t think it’s ever easy for anyone because it’s uncharted. And, even if there was a chart, you wouldn’t know what the chart meant until you went through it anyhow. It was a peculiar time. I had done a lot of work in regional theaters, and in New York, and in London, and then was able to make movies, which I was happy to do. And I came back from shooting Yanks … and I had three movies that were playing at the same time in New York — and they were three good movies, so it was a big deal. … It was very difficult, and it took me a while to figure it out, but it was a really useful challenge.” He elaborates, “It presents mirrors to you, and you probably never would see yourself in that light otherwise. So, in that sense, I’m very thankful to have survived it — survived the problem aspect of that — and to have learned some of those lessons along the way. Life is challenges. If there aren’t any lessons learned, what’s the point? And the bigger the challenges, the deeper the lessons are.”
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The mid-to-late ‘80s were a bumpy time for Gere, personally and professionally. He was associated with enough flops — most famously Francis Ford Coppola‘s 1984 film The Cotton Club — that many began to count him out. But his career came roaring back to life thanks to a project that even he didn’t think he was right for, but that has since become the one with which he is most closely associated: Garry Marshall‘s Pretty Woman, in which he starred opposite newcomer Julia Roberts in 1990. Gere explains, “I never thought that I would be able to do a film like that. I didn’t think that I had the skill set for that. I’m a pretty intense guy, and, at that point,probably more intense than I am right now, and, you know, it wasn’t particularly easy for me to be that light-hearted, basically.”
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But Gere says that working with Marshall (“who everyone adores, and he’s on the top of my list”) and Roberts (“she was delicious, and delightful, and everything everyone thought”) made for a “great experience.” Most gratifying for him is the movie’s long afterlife: “Look, there’s some magic in that movie that speaks to everybody wherever I go — I’m in a rich country, I’m a poor country; I’m talking to a white-collared person, I’m talking to a blue-collared person; I’m talking to someone in a Slavic language, I’m speaking to them in Swahili; it doesn’t matter. There’s something in the center of that movie that speaks to people in a very positive way, moves them in a positive way; they feel better about themselves, better about life and their possibilities. … I don’t think anyone had a sense that this would resonate through generations of people. No. No way.”
Still, the movie on which Gere had the most fun, he says, came more than a decade later when he starred in Rob Marshall‘s movie musical Chicago in 2002. Gere had started in musical theater years earlier, but this film was still far removed from his experience. He says, “I hadn’t sung on film before, although I did musicals; I’m comfortable singing, although I’m not that comfortable singing this kind of Broadway singing — I was in rock bands and blues bands. … And I told Rob, I said, ‘Look, you know I don’t tap dance?’ And he said, ‘I know.You’ll learn.’ … So there was a sense of confidence it, and I had a great teacher, and we worked all the time” for more than five months. Gere recalls, “When I saw the film — his cut — I said, ‘Is that what I did?!’… He said, ‘That’s all you, man.’ Obviously, he cut the best of what I did into a routine. But, all in all, it just was a production filled with joy, and confidence, and giving.”
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Chicago earned Gere a Golden Globe Award for best actor in a musical or comedy, and so many were surprised when it failed to earn him an Oscar nomination, as well.
Over the decade since Chicago, Gere has focused primarily on small indie films. The best of them include Richard Shepard‘s The Hunting Party (2007); Todd Haynes‘s I’m Not There (2007); Lasse Hallstrom‘s Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009); and Hallstrom’s The Hoax (2006), in which Gere played Clifford Irving, who tried to pass off a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes as the real thing. Gere calls the film “the great lost movie that people have not seen; that’s one of the very best movies that I’ve made, certainly one of the group that I’m most proud of.”
Then, last year, Jarecki presented Gere with an original screenplay. He’d written the lead character with Gere in mind. And, after a meeting at a bed-and-breakfast that Gere and his wife own, the director convinced the actor, who is 29 years his senior, to take a chance on him. It was a gamble that has already paid off — Gere collected some of the best reviews of his career when the film debuted at Sundance for his performance as a slick Wall Street operator.
The general public’s attitudes toward such high-powered financial types has certainly changed since Oliver Stone‘s Wall Street twenty-five years ago. Stone created the slithery Gordon Gekko, a Reagan-era hero who proudly proclaimed that “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” Interestingly, Gere was approached to play that part, but turned it down; it ultimately went to Douglas, who — you guessed it — won the best actor Oscar for his efforts. Gere recalls,”This was a long time ago. Oliver and I did talk about it. This character was embryonic at that point, and I just wasn’t sure where it was going; he hadn’t finished the script. And, for whatever reason, (I) went in another direction. Beyond that, I don’t remember the details.”
Of Arbitrage, Gere says, “Wall Street was certainly a precursor of this; there’s no question about that.” So, too, was the Madoff scandal — indeed, Gere wears a Madoff-style overcoat throughout the film. But, he emphasizes, his character, Robert Miller, is “much more like (JP Morgan chairman and CEO) Jamie Dimon than Madoff. Madoff was a sociopath.” The implication is that Miller is not a sociopath, but rather a guy who is willing to do and say whatever is necessary to advance his own interests. That is something that Miller does not only in his corporate offices, but also in his dealings with his wife (Oscar winner Susan Sarandon) and daughter (Brit Marling), as well as his mistress (Laetitia Casta). Gere likens the Miller family’s complex relationship at the end of the film — spoiler alert — to a certain former first family: “It’s the Clintons, to me. She’s not going anywhere. The daughter’s not going anywhere. He’s gotta rope-a-dope — he’s gotta take his punishment. You know? But no one’s going anywhere. They don’t want to give up what they have.”
I ask Gere if it’s particularly challenging for an actor to play a character who is himself conducting a performance in his own life. That’s been true of a number of the characters he’s played – in Pretty Woman, The Hoax and now Arbitrage. He laughs and says, “It’s actually one of the easier things. Actors are meant to lie. We lie. We pretend we are someone else and we have to be really good at it. Our tools are our own emotions. We learn early on that if we don’t use who we are, we’re not believable … it doesn’t work.” He continues, “So we tend to scavenge, kind of … you find these bits and pieces that are meaningful, and you know if you can bring them up and use them within the storytelling that they’ll have a power to them because they’re human, they’re not just words; they’re coming from some place, and they have a power — innate power – because they are a part of our experience. And our individual, real experiences are universal.”
“But,” he reiterates, “actors are meant to lie, so the more layers of lying you can fold into a character, ironically, the more solid ground you’re on.”
If that is, in fact, the case, then I can only conclude that Gere is one heck of a liar.
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