If I have to explain to you who Richard Gere is, you might be a lost cause. Certainly one of the most significant American acting talents of the 1980s and ’90s (but still a major player into the 2000s, if we’re being honest), Gere was the handsome, brooding guy that every woman wanted and every man wanted to be. After a brief run in theater, Gere made his first big splash in film as the unstable Tony in 1977’s LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, followed the next year as the lead in Terrence Malick’s unforgettable DAYS OF HEAVEN.
But it was in the 1980s where Gere hit his stride as a genuine movie star in such films as AMERICAN GIGOLO, AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, the unvalued remake of Godard’s BREATHLESS, and Francis Ford Coppola’s THE COTTEN CLUB. In the 1990s, he continued his run of both major Hollywood films and a few off-the-beaten-path choices, moving from INTERNAL AFFAIRS for director Mike Figgis and Garry Marshall’s PRETTY WOMAN to Akira Kurosawa’s RHAPSODY IN AUGUST and Jon Amiel’s SOMMERSBY. One of my favorites from this time in Gere’s career is 1996’s PRIMAL FEAR, opposite then-newcomer Edward Norton, in his film debut. But also check out his more introspective work in works like AUTUMN IN NEW YORK, directed by Joan Chen, or Mark Rydell’s INTERSECTION. But he still found time to work with Marshall and PRETTY WOMAN co-star Julia Roberts in RUNAWAY BRIDE.
Gere continued to take chances, working with such greats as Robert Altman in DR. T AND THE WOMEN, Rob Marshall in the gutsy, surreal take on the Oscar-winning musical CHICAGO, and Todd Haynes in the Bob Dylan thesis I’M NOT THERE. But look at his work in UNFAITHFUL. Ten years earlier, he might have been the object of a married woman’s affection, but as the bitter jilted husband, he’s exceptional. Or in the moving SHALL WE DANCE, in which he uses ballroom dancing as a way to spice up his sagging marriage. He continues to seek out new and interesting directors to work with on such films as THE HOAX, THE HUNTING PARTY, and TIME OUT OF MIND, with filmmaker Oren Moverman, whom Gere just worked with again for THE DINNER, which is released next month.
I chatted with Gere recently about his new film NORMAN (subtitled “The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer”), in which he plays Norman Oppenheimer, a schlub of a man desperate to be a New York insider who can connect powerful people for a small fee. He’s not a con man in the traditional sense, since he’s not attempting to cheat anyone out of money or goods; he just manipulates the truth about his contacts, friends, and other connections. But one day, Norman bets on the right horse and strikes up a friendship with a rising star in the Israeli government (Lior Ashkenazi), who ends up becoming Prime Minister and values Norman as a close friend, making Norman suddenly a powerful person in the New York Jewish community that once shunned him. It’s a fantastic performance from Gere and a hell of a film from writer-director Joseph Cedar, who desperately wanted Gere for this uncharacteristic role. The film is currently playing in a limited release now and opens wider this Friday, April 21. With that, please enjoy my brief chat with the great Richard Gere…
Richard Gere: Hi Steve, it’s Richard.
Capone: Hi Richard, how are you?
Capone: Watching this very bizarre film, how did Norman Oppenheimer enter your life, and what was it about him that hooked you into his plight and his personality?
RG: I’m still laughing because you called it “this a very bizarre film,” and it is. It’s a very bizarre film. Have you met Joseph [Cedar, writer-director]?
Capone: Not yet.
RG: Joseph is a dear friend of mine. Joseph is a very intense Israeli. He has a terrific sense of humor, but he’s very intense, and you wouldn’t expect a bizarre movie like this coming out of this guy with this kind of humor and wackiness. I think it’s what drew me to it. I had met Joseph a few times before we worked on this, and I had seen his movie BEAUFORT and admired that. So we talked about this, I saw his other movie…what was it called?
Capone: FOOTNOTES is the one I’ve seen.
RG: Yes, and obviously it’s a wonderful film. He sent me this script, and clearly if you could have anyone in the world do this part that’s in that script, I don’t think you’d come to me first. I said to him. “Why me? I could name probably a dozen wonderful New York Jewish actors who could do amazing things with this part.” He said “I know, but I don’t want that. I want something else.” And clearly the job was to get that right and to be that character, but I think he was looking for probably something that was unexpected emotionally, and maybe more universal and less claustrophobic in a way, but we had a lot of time. We had eight or nine months to work on this before we started shooting, and we really looked at it from every angle, and obviously I had a lot of questions. “Who is this guy?” And I asked all those questions that good actors are supposed to ask, and I realized the questions and the answers were irrelevant.
Capone: I was going to say, I don’t think I could answer that question even having seen the film. “Who is this guy?” Signing on to play Norman is signing on to play three or four different people, because in any given situation, he has to become a different version of Norman. Would you agree with that?
RG: Absolutely. He’s there for the other. Certainly he's a hustler, he’s a fixer, he’s moldable, bendable, and it’s hard to find his center. I think to see his apartment and to see the pictures of his family—if he has them—wouldn’t have made us understand this character more. It probably would have made us understand him less to have more detail, and I think you would get him in a non-conceptual way—the way we chose to present him in the movie. His home is the synagogue. His kitchen is in the basement of the synagogue. He carries his office with him. He carries his clothes with him. He’s reptilian in that way, a turtle. He carries everything with him. If he needs an office, as you see, he goes into a Starbucks or a Staples or a department store, especially the way communications are now. He’s got his phone with him. He’s got his earphones.
Capone: The sequence towards the end with Hank Azaria is maybe one of the greatest moments of self awareness and self reflectiveness that I’ve ever seen in a film, because when Norman sees himself in that guy, he panics and is horrified. Tell me about that sequence and what you wanted to convey there?
RG: You are a very interesting man, because I have to tell you frankly, reading the script, and we had a very small budget, we had 30 days to shoot this film that looked like a big film. That was one of the things I said “Do we really need that other character?” And he kept insisting. I know the producers were saying the same thing. “Do we need that guy?” But when we played it, I knew it was important. When we actually did the scene on the street, then I realized when I saw the first cut how important it was. It’s the first mirror the guy has looked in, and it was bizarre to play the scene and have that recognition and to feel that same way. I was repelled by him [laughs], and in a flash, I realized I was repelled by myself. Then very quickly, I adjust. Literally two seconds later, we’re arm in arm walking down the street talking like we’re brothers. It’s a very, very bizarre scene. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie.
Capone: The scenes with you and Lior Ashkenazi, who plays the Prime Minister, are exquisite. You get a sense Norman hasn’t had a lot of luck in his life, and that relationship just happens to be the one time he bets on the right horse. And of course he still finds a way to turn a win into a loss. What do you think it is that drives him?
RG: He wants to be essential, and I think we all can feel that. We want to be essential to what’s happening. We don’t want to be peripheral and dump-able. Nobody wants to be dumped. We want to be a part of it. If we don't want to be part of it, we want to leave on our own. We don’t want to be thrown out. It’s a deep yearning to belong. It’s 2,000 years of Jewish history here, in one sense. The other sense is a deeply human yearning we all have for connection. It’s an extremely complex character. He has no interest, and I felt no interest playing him, in being the alpha of any scene. He doesn’t need to be known, he doesn’t need to be Prime Minister. It’s to be close to the Prime Minister, to be close to the cool kids, whether it’s a business guy, a politician, or whatever. Be included in the club of the cool kids
There’s an incredible lack of anger in this guy, and there’s also a clear sense that I had playing him that he really didn’t want anything bad to happen to anybody. That these ideas, schemes that he was coming up with ultimately he hoped would work and everybody would be happy. There’s no Iago in him. I think he would be appalled if anyone got hurt by something he did, so I think that’s why he’s so appalled at the thought that his friend might be hurt by something he did, especially. Look, I’ve done hundreds of interviews and I still don’t understand him [laughs]. I think you have to feel him, so that’s why I think we pulled away as much of the real detail as possible. You feel a human being there. In a way, it’s looking at a silent movie with Charlie Chaplin. You kind of feel it. There’s a goofiness there, but there’s a tenderness there also. Now as Joseph keeps reminding me when I talk about him, Norman wants his 7 percent. Let’s be clear about that. It’s going to be a money issue. “I want my 7 percent, but this is going to be a scheme that’s good for everybody.”
Capone: While I have you, just one las thing. I’m in Chicago right now. I actually graduated from Northwestern University, so Garry Marshall was a constant presence at the school while I was there. Obviously, you have a connection to him. You made a couple of memorable movies with him. I know you talked about him a bit when he passed, but I would love to hear your best Garry Marshall story.
RG: [long pause] Well, I have hundreds of them. He was the sweetest, most generous, authentic person I think I’ve ever met. You see someone in a movie situation and you know who they are because of the pressure we’re all working under. There’s no place to hide, and and we have to be vulnerable with each other. But I remember, we were trying to figure out what to do with PRETTY WOMAN. Julia and I were rehearsing and trying to figure out how to do the first scenes in the hotel, and we both were fumbling around. We were both were wandering around the room and trying to figure out these characters and what we were going to bring to it. At one point, Garry said, “Alright, alright, alright. In this picture, one of you moves and the other one doesn’t. And in this picture, Julia moves. Richard, you stay still!” And that’s the way we did it.
Capone: That’s right. Richard, thank you so much. Best of luck with this. I can’t wait to see how people respond to it.
RG: Just so you know, I didn’t know either how people were going to react to it. I knew in New York probably how they would react to it. We played Telluride, Toronto, screened in New York obviously. We were also in Miami with a Latino audience. They got it. So I think there’s something universal about this guy that’s not specific to Jews or New York, how he communicates. Everyone in any culture has a Norman.
Capone: I believe that. Richard, thank you very much.