Richard Gere: “We Have to Create Societies Where the Bad Guys Aren’t at the Top.”

Courtesy of San Francisco International Film Festival
Richard Gere

The actor contrasts being invisible, playing a homeless man on the streets of Manhattan, with being stalked as an actor in a southern Italian town.

Richard Gere knows how to woo over an audience. He made his second grand entrance to Sicily (the first time was with the Dalai Llama in 1996) at the Taormina Film Festival to pick up a Taormina Arte Award and teach a masterclass.

“Italy is my favorite place on the planet,” he told the gushing crowd. He recounted his first trip to Rome after winning a David Di Donatello best foreign actor award for Days of Heaven in 1979, and fondly recalled brushing shoulders with Fellini’s muse Giulietta Masina backstage, who he called “one of the great, great actresses of all time.”

The Italian love was mutual. Grandmothers traveled from all over Sicily to catch a glimpse of the actor, and patiently waited for over an hour for him to arrive on stage. Hundreds of fans packed the auditorium and filled the aisles, obstructing all fire exits. Cameramen effectively blocked off anyone’s view of the stage, causing much hissing and yelling during Gere’s rather calm talk.

The actor focused his chat on the changing dynamics of the film business. “I just made four movies back to back,” he said. “All of these movies, in the 70s when I started making movies, would have been made by studios.”

He went on to explain that back then all the large studios, whether Warner Bros., Paramount or Fox, were all making difficult films that had an independent feel to them. “The studios don't make these movies anymore. So now the independent route is the only one that could make those kind of movies. And of course, no one’s getting paid. We used to get paid.”

Gere’s masterclass swiftly turned to politics. He was eager to discuss his upcoming film Time Out of Mind, which opens September 9 in the U.S. and sees him play a homeless man.

“The whole world is very aware of the problems of displaced people, and people running away from conflict, people running away from poverty. In Sicily you are in the epicenter of the problem,” he said. “It’s one of the issues that I wanted to tackle with Time Out of Mind. It isn't just homeless people but displaced people, people looking for a home, people looking for a sense of security.

“And it begs the question, what is our responsibility towards people?” he asked. “Even from a selfish point of view, we should be providing homes and security to people who need it. It makes us more secure for other people to feel secure, for other people to not feel damaged. Those of us who have more should be giving more back. Europe is getting very serious about this. I think the U.S. should do more to help people out in these situations.”

Once the masterclass opened up to the audience, the Q&A instantly turned to failed flirtation attempts by women in the crowd with the 65-year old actor. He affectionately recalled a press trip to the Balkans when one journalist thanked him on behalf of three generations of the women in her family.

Later on, journalists lined up to wait hours at the Hotel Timeo to listen to Gere speak more in depth on his experience playing a homeless man.

“You know, I use the term invisible because it’s the easiest thing to say, but it’s actually a black hole because it’s not just that people don't see you, they are actively not wanting to come near you,” he said. “What they see is their own fear. And the fear is they’re going to be sucked into failure, sucked into misery, sucked into a kind of deeper, darker nightmare. But it’s all a projection of their minds.”

The stark contrast between the overwhelming attention he was receiving in Taormina compared to being invisible on the streets of New York was not lost on the actor. “In a different situation, people are all over me. They want to hear what I have to say. They want to take my picture,” he said.

“I’m the same person, I had a costume on. My hair was different,” he said, remarking that he even used nail clippers to cut his hair for the role. “I was standing on a corner and no one wanted to come near me. And this is the way it is in the world. Everything is relative. People tend to deal with the surface of things. The surface of things is totally unreliable. We take the surface of things to be the truth and we have to stop that.”

He also expanded on his comments about America needing to step up to the plate with bridging the gap between rich and poor. “But it’s not just about America,” he expanded. “In China," (where Gere is banned, having been a strong campaigner for the rights of Tibetan people for over 30 years) "it’s probably the worst of that right now."

Gere remarked that his son recently asked him if he was a Marxist. He responded, “No, I’m probably more of a socialist. We have to create societies where the bad guys aren’t at the top.”

“If we want security, we have to create a world where everyone has the minimum, in terms of food, shelter, opportunities, healthcare, all these things, 99% of the problems go away, right there.”

The actor said he believed that all of these issues should come to the forefront as America neared its next presidential election and that the U.S. should start adapting to the outside world.

“My whole thing is we’re deeply interconnected,” he said. “Remember when the car industry fell apart in the U.S? It was because everyone was out of step with the world. Why were Americans buying Japanese and European cars? Because they are better cars suited to the environment. And I just don't mean the natural environment but the economic environment, the political environment, the aesthetic environment.”

Gere concluded that to not understand the changing world could destroy America as it did the U.S. motor industry.

“We have a lot to offer from our perspective," he said. "But, we are interconnected. We have to listen to people. We have to listen to other cultures. We have to look at the root causes of things.”