‘I never engineered a career … I just have always done whatever I wanted’

Pretty Woman star Richard Gere has been drawn to more offbeat roles in his latter years. Geoffrey Macnab hears about his latest and gets a fascinating overview of the star’s life in the movies

Great reviews: Richard Gere, as Norman Oppenheimer, has been praised for his new movie role
Great reviews: Richard Gere, as Norman Oppenheimer, has been praised for his new movie role

Richard Gere isn’t Jewish himself but you wouldn’t know that when you watch him in Joseph Cedar’s new film, Norman: The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall Of A New York Fixer. He plays Norman Oppenheimer, a small-time hustler and political strategist who befriends a low-ranking Israeli politician.

Time passes and the politician’s career takes off – and so does that of Norman, at least for a while, as he becomes the politician’s American intermediary. Gere has received exceptional reviews for the film. The New York Times recently wrote he “had never been better”, while the LA Times described him as “impeccable”.

The needy Norman is a long way removed from the American Gigolo-type roles that made Gere so famous.

“The character was completely unique. I had no idea what I would do with it. That was probably the attraction. I didn’t have a clue how I would play this guy,” Gere reflects.

“We spent about eight months, nine months trying to figure this guy out. Joseph [Cedars] made a point of making me aware of and feel the bedrock of where he is coming from – and a lot of that is 2000 years of Jewish history.”

As most profiles of Gere remind us, he’s a descendant of the Mayflower pilgrims. Nonetheless, it wasn’t that much of a stretch to imagine himself into the shoes of Norman Oppenheimer.

“Well, I’ve lived in New York since I was 21. The Jewish experience is something that if you live in New York, it’s in your face all the time. You just take it for granted.”

If you live in New York, he adds, you are almost bound to have “a Jewish sense of humour”.

To the outsider, it seems as if Gere is in the Indian summer of his career. As he grows older (he’s now 67) he no longer has to worry about being a heart-throb and starring in movies like Pretty Woman and An Officer And A Gentleman. He can take much more offbeat roles. We’ve seen him in recent years as a homeless man, eking out a perilous existence, in Time Out Of Mind (2014); as a Donald Trump-like hedge fund magnate in Arbitrage (2012); a wealthy but guilt-ridden old man in The Benefactor (2015), and as a smug and self-satisfied politician in The Dinner (2017). Put it to him that it must be liberating to escape the straitjacket of movie stardom and he responds in an indignant fashion.

“My career has never been thought out,” he insists. “I never engineered a career. I just have always done whatever I wanted. You’re restricted by what you’re offered… but the incredible list of brilliant directors and actors and writers I’ve worked with, you know I’m kind of amazed myself that I’ve been able to ride this career this long with such good people.”

Gere has a point. Look through his filmography and you don’t find any superhero movies, franchises or even sequels.

He was worked with major directors from Richard Brooks to John Schlesinger, from Terrence Malick to Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola and Mike Figgis. Yes, there were the romcoms with Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride) and the monster box office hit An Officer And A Gentleman, but there has never been any hint that he has appeared in films simply to further his career.

If you want to know what made Gere such an electrifying screen presence early in his career, watch him as Diane Keaton’s charismatic but abusive lover in Richard Brooks’ Looking For Mr Goodbar (1977.) He’s a restless, prowling figure and you can’t take your eyes off him.

Gere credits Brooks (director of In Cold Blood, Elmer Gantry and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof) with teaching him about movie acting. “He was a drill sergeant. My memory was that he was incredibly physical, agile.”

Brooks had written the script for Looking For Mr Goodbar but refused to show it to the actors until shortly before shooting began.

“I went over to his house at the appointed time and I was ushered into a room with a tea table and one straight back chair. The script was placed on the tea table. He said ‘you have half an hour’.” Gere started reading and discovered that Brooks had “blacked out everything that wasn’t my character. All I ever saw was what I was in”.

The director warned him that if “you don’t do something new in every scene, [Brooks] is not going to be in the movie”. It’s advice that Gere took to heart as he made sure that he stole every scene in which he appeared. A year after Looking For Mr Goodbar, Gere appeared in arguably the greatest film he has ever made, Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven (1978). In the film, set in 1916, he plays a factory worker who flees to rural Texas after killing a man. He works as a farm labourer and pretends that his girlfriend (Brooke Adams) is his sister.

The film is famous for its “magic hour” cinematography of dawns and dusks and the use of natural light by its director of photography, Nestor Almendros.

As for the famous scene when the locusts ravaged the crops, that was filmed backwards. “The locusts (scene) was really funny. You’ve probably heard the story before but we shot it all in reverse. There was a helicopter that dropped kind of nutshells, bean pods, and we walked backwards, there was a tractor that was moving backwards, we had all kinds of visual tricks that we did – and when we reversed the film, it looked as if the things (the locusts) were coming out of the ground.”

Gere is as serious about his politics and humanitarian work as he is about his craft as an actor. Ask him if he thinks movies can help bring about social or political change and he gives an earnest answer.

When he agreed to play the homeless man in Time Out Of Mind (which he also produced), he set out not just to make the best movie he could but also to provide practical assistance for people in the same plight as the character he played. He told the UK distributors that it was “really important for me that this movie helps the local homeless groups and is engaged with the local community at the level of funding and taking responsibility for homeless people.” He went to Glasgow, Dublin and London to attend fundraising screenings for local homeless groups.

Gere suggests that a film like Arbitrage (in which he played the master of the universe-like financier) also had an impact, albeit in a very different way. It provided audiences with an insight into bankers at a time when the financial crisis of 2008 was still fresh in everyone’s minds. “It’s not enough to say bankers are bad, greedy people. They’re human beings also. What is it about them that we can relate to and see in ourselves?”

This prompts a final reflection before the publicist brings the interview to an end. “That’s kind of our objective in making movies,” Gere muses, “(asking) what is the universal human predicament?”

It’s a very high-minded definition of the purpose of film making that’s easy to scoff at coming from the star of Pretty Woman but, to his credit, Gere clearly means it. It has never been just about popcorn and box office receipts for him. He still believes in the power of cinema to provoke debate and effect social change – and if it can entertain as well, all the better.