Richard Gere: Shifting Geres
I don’t know about you, but my eyes kind of glaze over when I think about reading an interview with Richard Gere. He’s an activist and I assume he’s going to spend 90% of the article talking about his causes. Plus, Gere has a reputation for being guarded, so I’m not expecting him to say anything really interesting. As it turns out, when Gere sat down for the cover story of the November 1997 issue of Movieline magazine, he did have a lot to say about Buddhism. But he also tells some interesting stories about his career up to that point.
Forty-eight-year-old Richard Gere is a guy from upstate New York who came from a normal, middle-class family, won a gymnastic scholarship to the University of Massachusetts, dropped out of college after two years to become an actor, performed onstage for a few years, then moved into films and became a star. He dazzled us in Looking for Mr. Goodbar in 1977, and followed that with Days of Heaven (1978), Yanks (1979) and American Gigolo (1980). He won the Theatre World-Award for his role as a homosexual prisoner at the Dachau concentration camp in the Broadway play Bent, then made the blockbuster hit An Officer and a Gentleman. After that came a series of unsuccessful efforts–Breathless (1983), The Cotton Club (1984) and King David (1985) among them–which left one wondering if he had lost his appeal. Then Gere played a corrupt police officer to critical acclaim in Mike Figgis’s canny thriller Internal Affairs and the tide seemed to change. Everything changed with Pretty Woman; that huge hit put Gere back on top. In the last few years, Gere was praised for his performance in Primal Fear and was also instrumental in getting HBO to do And the Band Played On, dealing with the AIDS crisis.
Gere has been noted for dating beautiful women, on the one hand, and for being a follower of the Dalai Lama on the other. Back in the early ’80s, he was introduced to the Dalai Lama and began to study Tibetan Buddhism. At the Academy Awards in ’93, he made a plea to the world on behalf of the Tibetans in their struggle against Chinese oppression. He founded the Tibet House in New York and established the Gere Foundation to fund causes and charities he believes in.
Gere apparently has a great deal of energy, since he’s able to work all day and talk with me late at night, without taking the time to eat, sip coffee, or even drink a bottle of Evian water. What he does not have energy for is probing into his private life. He’s willing to spend the time to promote his films–Red Corner and The Jackal are both out this Fall at the same time–and to speak out about the issues that concern him. But when you’ve got world health, peace and happiness on your mind, you apparently don’t want to devote time to gossip about why your marriage with Cindy Crawford didn’t work out.
LAWRENCE GROBEL: Will Red Corner annoy the Chinese government?
RICHARD GERE: [Laughs] Oh yeah, of course.
Q: Was it the condemnation of the Chinese judicial system that interested you about the story?
A: It was the first thing that captured my imagination. There’s a line in the movie, “I will not be silent anymore.” It takes a long time to teach a society to not feel they have to be silent. I’ll tell you how effective that closed Chinese system is: we’re eight years away from Tienanmen Square. This was a major popular movement, and the situation now is that there are no dissidents left. They were either killed, or they’re in jail, or they split.
Q: At 1993’s Academy Awards ceremony you called for the end of Chinese oppression of Tibet. What were the ramifications?
A: I’m banned [from the Oscars]. Banished.
Q: If the Academy invited you back to present an award, would you speak out again?
A: Oh yeah. Absolutely. It was a totally positive thing. It made the Tibetans feel so good, that someone would speak about them to the world.
Q: Didn’t the Chinese invite you to their Academy Awards?
A: That’s true. It’s a very bizarre irony. A few months after I was banished I got a call from the Film Institute in China to come and be a part of their Academy Awards, called the Golden Rooster Awards. I thought it was a joke or a lame attempt to intimidate me. I checked it out with the State Department and found out it was real. I said I’d go if I could go to Tibet also. There was a drama back and forth about that, but finally they allowed it. In the end I just showed up, did some press conferences. I said the stuff I’ve been saying for years about Tibet and China. I saw quite a bit of China and a lot of Tibet, and have not been invited back again. I don’t know why they allowed me in that time. Very peculiar.
Q: Have you ever discussed your concerns with President Clinton?
A: I met with the president before he was elected. He was really interested in Tibet and in AIDS, all my issues. China was top priority with him. Based on that I spoke for him at rallies. As soon as he was elected those weren’t issues that he cared about. He told the American people that he would make AIDS an A-1 priority, that he would create a Manhattan Project. He didn’t do anything.
Q: Who do you have a respect for in politics today?
A: Patrick Moynihan comes to mind. I think he’s genuine, and he’s always been fighting difficult fights. He’s also been very helpful in the Tibetan situation. The presidents? Jimmy Carter was a genuine guy, probably not a great president, but incredibly courageous, much more than Clinton. Carter actually had principles and wasn’t afraid to talk about them and try to bring out the best in America.
Q: Have you ever been approached by anyone to run for office?
A: No. [Laughs]
Q: Do you think a practicing Buddhist could ever become president of the U.S.?
A: The way the country is now, practically the only ones who are fit to become president are ex-junkies, actors, musicians–people who have done it all and don’t care about it any more and are no longer subject to all this temptation. We have pretty low-level people who end up ruling us.
Q: How skeptical a person are you?
A: I’m a realist, but I think I give people a break much more than I did when I was younger.
Q: You’ve opposed U.S. involvement in E1 Salvador and the Chinese occupation of Tibet; you’ve supported the cultural preservation of Tibet, gay-rights causes, and AIDS research. Can you talk about how your consciousness was raised in each of these areas?
A: I had basic skepticism about U.S. governmental policies in the Third World. We have funded extremely right-wing fascist governments–my tax dollars, your tax dollars. When I narrated a documentary on El Salvador called Witness to War, which ended up winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject), I saw firsthand how totally corrupt our embassy system is. I went to an Air Force base in Honduras and they recognized me; I was signing autographs. Next day we go to the embassy in the capital and I said to our ambassador, “The military presence here is very oppressive.” And he said, “What military presence?” I mentioned the air base and he said, “We have no air base.” I told him I was there, that I had signed autographs, that they took photos of me. He was silent for a while, then said, “We maintain the fiction.” I found that at every embassy in that area.
Q: Let’s talk about movies. Do you think that film is the art form of our times?
A: Film is generally soporific now. When I was younger there were movies that had to be seen–it was unthinkable to miss certain directors’ new films. You felt part of a movement, a brotherhood. I don’t even feel compelled to go to the movies anymore. I’d rather have dinner with my girlfriend than go watch a movie.
Q: What films have you liked over the last couple years?
A: The English Patient. And a film called Before the Rain.
Q: What movies did you like as a kid?
A: I liked war movies and muscle movies like Hercules. Greek myths were interesting to me.
Q: Speaking of war, how did you deal with the draft?
A: That’s a long story. I was a conscientious objector, genuinely so. I wrote my essay, went to my minister and my school principal. It was all rejected and they asked me to come in for my physical. I decided there was no way I was going to go to war. I went through the whole scam thing. The big thing then was to have a tattoo–FUCK YOU–along the side of your hand from the wrist to the pinky. And there was the gay stuff, “I’m gay, I can’t possibly do da, da, da …” Anything to get out at that point. I was eligible the first year of the lottery and I had a high-probability number. I got my notice and they still wouldn’t give me a deferment, so I split. I just went off to be an actor. Then they started bothering my parents and their neighbors, looking for me. So I came back and … I don’t know if I should tell the rest.
Q: Why not now? They’re not going to get you anymore.
A: I just worry about my parents. At that point I had had some psychological problems that were documented. It’s unclear in my mind whether they were really psychological problems or something I had trumped up to get out. I showed up for a final physical and showed all this stuff, and the letters essentially said this kid should not go. So they gave me a 1-Y and sent me home.
Q: OK, back to the movies. Do you like your new film The Jackal?
A: I’m not sure what it is yet, because I haven’t seen it. It was an oddball script with a lot of possibilities. At worst it’s probably one of those yeomanly movies like Air Force One. It could be a little more.
Q: Does your costar Bruce Willis owe you for turning down Die Hard years ago?
A: I just wasn’t interested in the whole thing–I haven’t made many decisions to do mass-market movies. I don’t maintain a graph of where I am in terms of box office.
Q: Didn’t you also turn down Michael Douglas’s role in Wall Street?
A: How do you know that stuff? I never talk about it.
Q: You’ve been subject to harsh gossip over the years. What have you learned about how the media reports things?
A: I think it’s really healthy to know that none of it is real. None of it is true. The whole thing is illusive. Reality is all illusive, even on a mundane level. Newspapers do not tell the truth. They may tell a little bit of it, but not the truth.
Q: Do you think all is illusion?
A: All. All of it. That doesn’t mean it’s not there. We believe illusions. And illusions are projections of our minds. It just means that it’s not real from its own side. It’s only real according to cause and conditions. Interdependently, but not independent. From that sense, it doesn’t exist.
Q: If we don’t exist, I don’t know where to go with this interview.
Q: You put that advertisement in The Times of London denying the speculation about your marriage and sexuality. You obviously felt frustrated by what the press was reporting.
A: That’s all a complicated situation–some of it legal, some not. I’m not going to get into that. Any kind of response one makes is probably for the worse. Essentially I don’t care. I never really cared. There’s a wonderful Zen story: a young student comes to see a Zen master for instruction. The student has a girlfriend in the village, but he leaves her to go up the mountain to sit with the master. The police go up the mountain to see the master and say, “Roshi, there’s this girl in the village who said you attacked her.” He says, “She did?” So he’s convicted of this crime and sentenced to exile. Twenty years later the police come and say, “Roshi, we’re terribly sorry, the girl came to us and said she had been jealous of her boyfriend spending so much time with you and that she lied.” And he looks up and says, “She did?”
Q: So patience is the key?
A: As you get older you can’t take it very seriously. It’s hard for me to do these interviews over and over because it’s all bullshit. You know you’re asking essentially bullshit questions, I’m giving you bullshit answers, but I’m doing it because there’s a movie opening and the studio expects me to do it. It’s part of the game and da, da, da.
Q: A writer in Esquire noted that you seem to have modeled your career on Greta Garbo–like her, you prefer silence; like her, you have an image largely defined by sexual ambiguity.
A: This was basically a moron.
Q: Why are actors abnormal?
A: Because the job in many ways conspires to keep them emotionally retarded.
Q: How do actors keep from being bitter and cynical?
A: How does anyone?
Q: The Brazilian painter Sylvia Martins once said you were the most ambitious person she’d ever met. That you were Sean Penn before Sean Penn was.
A: She’s an old friend of mine. She said that [quote] was a total bullshit statement. Total bullshit. Totally made-up.
Q: Do you consider yourself ambitious?
A: Yeah, I don’t think anyone becomes successful without being ambitious. But I think I’m a pretty tempered person.
Q: How would you assess your career?
A: [Long pause] There’s so many different roads, so many paths taken. I didn’t know at first what I was going to do. I was going to be a musician or I was going to teach philosophy. I was extremely shy, and life was a torture because I was shy. Acting was a good outlet for that, because it got me involved with life, with other people.
Q: Are you shy still?
Q: Is acting your chosen way towards enlightenment?
A: It was a beginning, an opening. My reasons for being an actor are quite different now than they were then. It was more of a need then. I don’t take it less seriously now, but I’m more interested in the environment of doing the work. There are 150 people on a movie, and that’s a lot of energy and an incredible shifting dynamic, and everything that I do affects this dynamic. And I want everyone to be happy. So it’s a wonderful opportunity–because we all visualize the movie, and build it, make it happen together. That dynamic is what I enjoy now more than anything else.
Q: Are you happy on the films you’ve been doing?
A: Yeah. There have only been a couple of films that I’ve had to grit my teeth to do. Final Analysis I didn’t like at all. It pretended to be about codependency between the authoritative figure and the subservient figure, doctor/patient, and an almost Bergman-esque shifting of faces. But the director couldn’t do it. We didn’t play it. It didn’t happen.
Q: You got fired off The Lords of Flatbush early on. What happened?
A: I don’t know. It was really devastating. It wasn’t very nicely done. An actor’s rejection is not like anything else. When an actor gets rejected, it’s the whole package–they don’t like the way you look, the way you talk, the way you smell.You get it on all levels. It’s really hard.
Q: Did it make you cry?
A: Yeah, sure.
Q: Do you cry often?
A: I cry every chance I get.