An actor and a gentleman

Fri, Mar 1, 2013, 00:00

From his breakout role as Grease’s Danny Zuko in the West End 40 years ago, Richard Gere has been the consummate actor in every role – the odd bad guy, sure, but mostly the romantic lead. “I happen to really, really like women,” he tells TARA BRADY

There’s a moment in Arbitrage, the crazily taut new Wall Street thriller from writer-director Nicholas Jarecki, when murky hero Robert Miller (Richard Gere) refers to himself as a “patriarch”.

Another actor might have enunciated the word with moustache-twirling élan. Miller, we realise early in the film, is a hedge-fund manager attempting to offload his greatly overvalued company before anyone notices that the books have been cooked to a crisp.

“Patriarch”, in the circumstances, ought to sound like another villainous flaw in a character motivated by shady, one-per-cent capitalism.

Gere, however, is far too astute to play the role to pantomime effect. Many have noted a relationship between the 1980s-style tycoon at the heart of Pretty Woman and Arbitrage’s grand scale huckster. But watching Miller shuffle between his dowager wife (Susan Sarandon), French mistress (Laetitia Casta, replete with Lauren Hutton-esque diastema) and financial wunderkind daughter (Brit Marling), another Gere role entirely comes to mind, namely American Gigolo’s Julian Kaye.

Gere, accordingly, sounds out the word patriarch in Arbitrage as a needy cry for affirmation.

“I’ve thought about this,” he says. “They are both very charming characters that have a lot of personal talent. Julian was a very twodimensional character. There is no centre to him. In classic movie terms, he was a woman’s role. He was a female character. This character is an alpha male, but like most of those alpha males, there is something unfinished about him. There is something dominating which surely masks some kind of insecurity. And ultimately he’s very dependent on all the women around him.”

In a film jollied along by sleight of hand and reversals of fortune, the biggest surprise is that Gere’s performance takes us in too. Miller (whom Gere has frequently likened to Bill Clinton) may be a swindling, philandering, whiskey-swilling suit who spends much of the film covering up an involvement in a fatal car crash, yet Gere never allows us to forget his human frailties or charms.

“Just one more chance,” sings Billie Holiday on the soundtrack; we’re with her.

“This is the kind of film we used to make in the 1970s a lot,” says Gere, who came out of semi-retirement for Arbitrage.

“They were socially conscious films with great central characters the kind that spoke to the moment about relationships, about emotions, about language. Now that’s a rarity. These guys are demonised right now; years ago, they were deified. The reality has to be somewhere in between. They represent the good and the bad in all of us.”

Richard Tiffany Gere was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Mayflower descendants Doris Ann and Homer George. Acting, he recalls, was not in the genes.

“I was from a different planet,” he laughs. “I just enjoyed acting. I remember my mother early on – it was a big family, an Irish family – would take us to the movies. I enjoyed it. I saw it and understood it was a way of communicating to the world.”

Irish?

“Well I think so. I am definitely Anglo-Saxon. And I am sure there is Irish blood there. I remember my grandfather – he was a farmer in Pennsylvania – and he’d dance Irish jigs a little bit. I’m still hoping to find an O’Gere out there.”

Today, Gere, a well-preserved 63-year-old, is back in London, the city where his career began in earnest with a 1973 West-End engagement as Grease’s Danny Zuko. Returning to the US he soon found work in a series of seminal post-classical Hollywood pictures: Looking for Mr Goodbar, Days of Heaven and American Gigolo.

His earliest film work coincides with one of Hollywood’s most heavily mythologised eras. Does he remember it as a “golden age”?

“Oh yeah,” he says. “It was great. We were all beginning. We worked cheaply. We were doing things that interested us and we had an audience. And in the 1970s, that approach was embraced by the studios: they wanted a piece of this. We went through a great transitional period. What kind of films can we make? What kind of films should we make?”

Gere quickly established himself as a director’s actor. He has, over the course of four decades in showbusiness, worked with Robert Altman, Todd Haynes, Francis Ford Coppola, Akira Kurosawa and Terrence Malick among others.

Does he subscribe to auteur theory I wonder?

“It’s hard for me to say,” says Gere. “All of the people you’re mentioning are friends. If you want to put them in a category, that’s cool. I can see it. But they’re all individuals. They make very different movies. They’re all challenging.

“Thank God they’re challenging. That’s how they make something special.”

Against these screen credits, Arbitrage marks a directorial debut for Nicholas Jarecki, younger brother of film-makers Andrew Jarecki (Capturing the Friedmans) and Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight).

Intrigued by the quality and possibilities of the script, Gere invited Jarecki to his hotel room for a meeting. Within months, they were shooting.

“It was a great script but you never know how these things are going to turn out,” recalls Gere. “I met him. I asked a lot of questions. I pushed a lot of buttons. We improvised a lot of things.

“I said the only thing that’s going to change your life is if you make a good film. So, don’t give up, don’t compromise. It wasn’t until the American premiere that I realised this is one of those movies that turned out even better than I thought. The ensemble was superb. Everyone continued to find new things. Nick turned out to be a much better director than anyone could have expected.”

Something similar might be said about Gere whose career has certainly been eventful. A proper, old-school movie star – he takes care to use my name and pay compliments – Gere has mastered both the comeback (see Internal Affairs, Primal Fear or The Hoax) and the risky venture (Jim McBride’s dazzling, daft Breathless).

He is a long-time practising Buddhist – he once taught Lisa Simpson that desire is suffering – and one of the original celebrity campaigners for human rights in Tibet, ecological causes, the protection of tribal lands, and Aids awareness.

During the early 1990s, his four-year marriage to Cindy Crawford made him one of the most photographed men on the planet. These days, he lives quietly in upstate New York with Carey Lowell, his wife of 10 years, and their son, Homer.

Arbitrage is his first film in four years. Is that a reflection of changing priorities, I wonder, or of the quality of projects on offer?

“I think everyone is saddened by the lack of good scripts. And even this one, which is excellent, is independently financed, shot in 31 days. It was not easy to get this done at all. But there’s another reason. I had the same agent since I was 21. He was the only agent I had until he died two years ago.

“My new guy knows everything that’s going on. He has that kind of energy. He is my connection to the world. But I am going through this period which is almost like a marriage break up.”

Does he still go to the cinema?

“I don’t go as much as I used to. I remember going to the movies every single day and not thinking very much about it. But once you have kids, the films you watch tend to be animated.”

Gere received a Golden Globe nomination for his work on Arbitrage. Amazingly, he has never been shortlisted for an Academy Award.One suspects this might be down to the actor’s predilection for romantic comedy and drama.

As one of only a few “serious” actors unafraid to grace traditional women’s pictures, Gere has starred in An Officer and a Gentleman, Pretty Woman, Nights in Rodanthe and Shall We Dance?

He knows there’s a prevailing prejudice against such material, but he doesn’t care.

“I happen to really, really like women,” he laughs. “I like to spend time around them. So I am very happy to be in these movies. I’d be crazy, otherwise.”

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