The Lucy Kellaway Interview: Richard Gere

Richard Gere is hovering in the corridor at Claridge’s outside the room where I’ve been waiting. I get up to say hello, but with a small flick of the hand he holds me back. “I need to clear my palate between interviews,” he says.

The word “palate” strikes me as slightly ominous, as if the Hollywood star likes to take bites out of his interviewers, but I wait while Gere continues to prowl around in the hallway. I look down at my notes. Extraordinary beauty, I’ve written. Suave opacity. Epitome of Hollywood? Dalai Lama. Giorgio Armani. Cindy Crawford. Mad advertisement in The Times. Ageing. Bob Dylan. Gerbil.

Palate cleansed, Gere makes his entrance. He moves like a panther across the patterned carpet, relaxed and smiling.

He is a bit smaller than you’d have thought from that scene at the end of An Officer and a Gentleman when, clad in pristine white uniform, he swoops up Debra Winger and carries her out of the factory. And his famously beautiful face strikes me as oddly bland. Writing this a day later, I close my eyes and can’t see it at all.

We sit on upright chairs facing each other in a large room entirely empty except for a PR, who sits like a wallflower at the edge. I’m more struck than ever by the idea of the interview as a dysfunctional parlour game in which I try, by whatever means I can find, to get the other person, if not to reveal his soul, then to say anything of note, while he tries to publicise his film and otherwise keep his own counsel.

The clock starts. We have 50 minutes.

I begin, sticking to the rules, with Gere’s new film, Arbitrage. In it he plays a hedge fund king who has just lost $400m in a Russian copper mine and committed fraud to plug the hole in his balance sheet. The movie opens with him being interviewed by the real-life CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo and talking fluently about “quants” and “derivative structuring”. Gere utters the words with slick assurance, but does he have any idea what they actually mean?

“Not a clue!” the actor replies. He leans forward confidentially and informs me that none of the bankers he talked to had the first idea either. “I’m watching their eyes because I want to see their mental process. Literally, I don’t think they knew what they were! It’s all a bluff, but I think most of the financial world is a bluff.”

I’m watching Gere’s eyes too. They are deep brown holes behind his wire-rimmed glasses that are staring straight at me, yet giving nothing away.

So did he conclude bankers are despicable? The actor shakes his head.

“It’s more despicable of us to allow them to have the power. This is a very subtle game they play. It’s with the security of you and your family. And that touches you very deep, right? That’s an emotional place. Immediately, from their side, they’ve played a magic trick on you that I’m the deity. And from our side, it’s, God, I wish there was someone that I could trust. It’s very symbiotic ... ”

It is sweltering in the room, and I’m feeling the strain. Gere has snatched an early lead in the parlour game, holding forth at great length and with great conviction in an entirely unquotable manner. He takes off his jacket to reveal a cornflower-blue linen shirt that is quite uncrumpled and fits perfectly.

I try to regain control by saying that the problem with his otherwise excellent performance is that he’s too good-looking. The real-life heroes and villains of high finance – think George Soros, Bernie Madoff, Warren Buffett – tend to be on the plainer side. Only Arki Busson bucks the trend.

“Arki! I know him,” exclaims Gere. “He’s a friend of mine.”

From careful reading of the cuttings I’ve learnt that both men shared an interest in the actress Uma Thurman; I’m about to mention her, when Gere comes up with a better counterexample to my ugly financier thesis – Jamie Dimon.

He tells me that he sees the handsome JPMorgan chief as the perfect model for his character – a highly talented man, decent in parts, yet who does bad things. “When I saw him testify when they had lost $8bn or whatever, the confidence and the hubris and the sense of, also, mea culpa. The guy was so engaging. He wants the camera on him. Supremely confident, even with a loss, a good gambler.”

'Arbitrage', 2013: back as a hedge fund king, with Susan Sarandon as his wife

I point out that the JPMorgan banker, unlike the character in Arbitrage, didn’t kill his mistress in a road accident and then lie about it. Gere waves his hand, as if it were perfectly possible that Dimon had done just that: “I don’t know his interior life at all. Frankly, I’m not interested.”

When the film opened in the US a couple of months ago, Gere had some of the best reviews he’s ever had. Some suggested he might finally get the Oscar nomination he never got for his big roles in An Officer and a Gentleman, Pretty Woman or Chicago. Yet once again, the actor – who my colleague Nigel Andrews once described as possessing “lacquered grace and feline self-awareness” – was passed over.

I ask whether he was disappointed. To this utterly predictable question, Gere has the perfect answer down pat: he was, but not for himself.

“I thought it could have been good for the film, because it’s a small film, if it had gotten that extra attention.”

Instead of winning Oscars, Gere has recently started collecting lifetime awards; at each ceremony he sits down to watch edited highlights of his life on screen.

“To me, I’m watching myself grow up. It’s moving. I see a young guy. I was 26 when we started shooting Days of Heaven, so it’s a 26-year-old guy to a 63-year-old guy and, of course, there’s enormous change there – but in some ways, no change.”

I, too, have been watching the archive. In particular I’ve been glued to the scene from American Gigolo from 1980 in which Gere, a male prostitute, is moving around his bedroom half-dressed, selecting shirts and ties, singing along to Marvin Gaye. For male sexuality and narcissism, nothing on screen has come close, before or since.

'American Gigolo', 1980: redefining screen narcissism as an Armani-sporting male prostitute

Gere seems slightly baffled by my response to the film. “The way I looked was constructed. I worked out to look like that. We did a haircut to look like that. I had make-up to look like that. It was – believe me – constructed.”

More than anything, American Gigolo was a paean to those loose, unstructured Armani jackets which looked so good on Gere’s toned body – but less so on the tens of thousands of ordinary young men who slavishly followed him. When I tell him I hold him responsible for this particularly terrible fashion, the actor laughs.

“I’m sorry. I apologise. I don’t know where that jacket is. I think I gave it back to Giorgio for an exhibition of Armani in London.”

I say I had an American boyfriend back then who owned such a jacket that did not become him.

“This is obsessive,” Gere says, turning to the wallflower. “The eyes are unblinking. This is serious stuff. There are deep wounds about this.”

The wallflower laughs. And Gere, pleased with his joke, goes on addressing her.

“Are you seeing this? This is scaring me. I’ve not been scared before. Thank God you’re here,” he says.

I laugh too, but mainly out of surprise. From the hamminess of his performance, one would never guess what he did for a living.

Sidney Lumet once said of Gere that as he got older he would be less defined by his looks and would be given more interesting roles to play. I start formulating a question about the benefits of ageing, but Gere cuts me off.

“Actually, I’m younger,” he states.

The 63-year-old’s brown eyes bore into mine. He doesn’t appear to be joking.

“I’m younger than I once was,” he repeats. “Internally. Less self-conscious. Less insecure.”

These days he is as carefree as a child, he says, before following this claim up with an assertion that could only come from a weary adult: “I’m just a guy doing a job, OK? You’re doing your job. I’m doing my job. I have no illusions beyond that.”

Gere may have no illusions about himself, but others have plenty about him. Since he played a homosexual in Bent on Broadway in 1980, people have wondered (without any foundation) about his sexual orientation. Indeed, in the early 1990s he was the subject of one of Hollywood’s most outrageous and enduring myths – that he was admitted to the Cedars-Sinai Hospital in LA with a gerbil stuck in his rectal canal.

“I don’t know where that came from,” he sighs. “And I don’t care. So stupid. Childish.”

With Cindy Crawford in 1991; they divorced in 1995, just months after stating in a newspaper ad that they were 'seriously committed' to each other

Some other things they say about him are more soundly based in fact. The weirdest of them all is the story of the dissolution of his marriage to Cindy Crawford. Three years into the marriage of two of the world’s most beautiful people, the couple placed a full-page ad in The Times in which they declared: “We are heterosexual and monogamous and take our commitment to each other very seriously.” Shortly afterwards they got divorced. Even by the mad standards of Hollywood marriages, this struck me as odd. What possessed him?

“I don’t know,” he says flatly. “It’s so long ago. I don’t care.”

The ad went on to list the causes that they supported, including Tibetan independence, for which he has continued to fight. Indeed Gere, more than most Hollywood stars who dabble with spiritualism, has stuck with Buddhism for more than three decades. He was the original Buddhist hunk – before Orlando Bloom or Sarah Jessica Parker or any of the rest got interested.

I wonder what it is about Buddhism that makes it so irresistible to actors. Gere thinks for a bit and starts on another long reply, composed in short sentences, each of which makes perfect sense, though together are somewhat baffling.

“This is an exploration,” he begins. “When we look at our minds, we’re like explorers with machetes going through a jungle. You go out there and it’s sweaty and it’s difficult. It gets more profound all the time. The more you explore, the more you go through the jungle with a machete. You find more things. You find the ruins of cultures way, way back in the jungle and it’s like there’s magic in there, but there’s real stuff, too.”

Again I have to intervene to ask something more specific. Will his good friend the Dalai Lama (who Gere sees several times a year) be watching Arbitrage? He says he won’t. His Holiness doesn’t really get acting. Indeed, when they first met about 30 years ago, the Dalai Lama tried to get the film star to explain it to him.

“He asked, when you’re angry, are you really angry? And I gave him some kind of actor answer like, well, if you’re really feeling it, of course it’s better acting. And he just looked at me for a long time and he started laughing. Hysterically. From a Buddhist point of view, emotions are not real. As an actor, I manufacture emotions. They’re a sense of play. But real life is the same. We’re just not aware of it.”

Nonsense, I say. Some emotions are real.

“They appear to be real because we believe in the movie of our life that they come out of. In the ultimate sense … ”

As time is running out, I cut this short and ask instead about his life now. For the past 12 years he has been married to Carey Lowell, an ex-model and former Bond girl. They lead a quiet life in Westchester County, New York, with their 13-year-old son, and Gere, happy in the role of ordinary dad, coaches the boy’s baseball team. It all sounds idyllic apart from one thing. The couple run a hotel – which has always struck me as a fail-safe way of losing both money and sleep.

“I don’t run it,” Gere corrects me. “I just built it. This was one of two that were not burned down by the Brits, so we bought it and rebuilt it. I like making things beautiful. We have someone else to run it.”

He turns to the wallflower and says: “Do you believe how she sidestepped that whole important story? I’m struck with that.”

I protest that I said I had read him telling that same story about the Dalai Lama and acting before.

“Then take it to another level! But you said, no, I’m not going to do that. I’d rather talk about a hotel. About washing-up! Come on. You’re going to kill yourself later about that one.”

At this point another PR woman comes in and says my time is up. I protest that I have only had 40 minutes rather than 50, but she doesn’t budge.

“I’m pulling the plug on this one,” Gere says embarking on another of his strange, extended jokes. “This is a nightmare. It’s the longest interview I’ve ever done. The Financial Times should pay me $100,000!”

We say our goodbyes, but before I’ve even reached the lift he has proved himself right. I am kicking myself for not pursuing the strand about emotions not being real. Not in a tiresome philosophical sense, but specifically about the unreal emotions of this veteran Hollywood star.

It is too late to go back and ask: Richard Gere is cleaning his palate for the next in line.

‘Arbitrage’ is on general release in the UK

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