Richard Gere: Shifting Geres
Q: When you first went to Hollywood, you’ve said that everyone was doing coke and that it was an aggressive career drug.
A: The quote’s a little bit off, but yeah, I used it.
Q: Did it ever become a problem?
A: I wouldn’t say a problem. You couldn’t do high-level work, like working in the theater, and be doing coke. No way. You just don’t have the energy. [But] addiction’s never been a problem for me. I liked the high in coke, but I recognized that it was something that ultimately could kill you.
Q: What about other drugs–psychedelics, marijuana?
A: Marijuana was never my thing. I liked mushrooms. But I’ve been really boring for about 17 years. When I turned 30 I noticed the energy drain. I would do mushrooms now–in a good omelette in Bali.
Q: Did Terrence Malick, your director on Days of Heaven, impress you?
A: I didn’t care then about movies. I had an attitude about films that they were for jack-offs who only wanted to make money. But after seeing Badlands I thought, I’d like to work with this guy.
Q: And were you satisfied with Days of Heaven?
A: It was a difficult shoot. We were all very young, green. It was extremely cold weather–Alberta, Canada. I can’t say it was the happiest experience I ever had. We did feel that we were doing something special, that it was original and maybe important.
Q: How significant was Looking for Mr. Goodbar for you?
A: It was just another acting role. I was doing theater. I’d done Days of Heaven and there were rumors around that this kid could act and I was offered this job. It was a great job. I was nobody then and Diane Keaton was very generous in calling me after seeing a screening and saying, “You were terrific in the film. You’re going to be happy with it.”
Q: American Gigolo was threatening to many men who saw it, wasn’t it?
A: It was peculiar that it could strike a nerve like that. The best sense that I could make of it was that I was playing the female role–normally that character is played by a woman. What was threatening was that here was a guy who could fuck your wife and your girlfriend.
Q: Did a pissed-off truck driver try to run you off the road after seeing you in that movie?
A: I can’t remember the details now, but I don’t even think he recognized me. He just saw a guy in a convertible and was pissed. I doubt he knew I was the guy in the movie.
Q: Was Internal Affairs, like American Gigolo, also threatening to men?
A: I do remember driving cross-country in some rednecky part of the country, and I went into a hardware store and a guy came up to me incensed. And I said, “Man, I’m an actor. It was the character, not me.”
Q: You were surprised that reviewers didn’t pick up on the fact that this was a very homoerotic movie. Why did you think it was?
A: It was really obvious when I saw the film, the dynamic of men. Women were there, but they seemed to be very peripheral. The real animus was between guys. In many ways it was sensual, tactile, the way locker rooms are tactile. But because this was about life and death it took on an erotic tone. We didn’t intend to make that, but when you look at the film, that’s what the images are telling us.
Q: What’s the strangest role you’ve ever been asked to play?
A: One I did on Broadway, an Alan Bennett play called Habeas Corpus. I played a cockney tit-fitter. I fit these falsies that had been sent away for by Jean March. She was flat, and her sister was Rachel Roberts who had this wonderful set of breasts. So I come to the door, and Rachel Roberts answers it, and I assume these magnificent breasts are the ones she sent away for and I started adjusting them. We had this crazy slapstick couple of scenes. It was great fun.
Q: How much fun was An Officer and a Gentleman?
A: The first thing I think of is that [Akira] Kurosawa said it was one of his 10 favorite films. [Laughs] Bernardo Bertolucci said to me, “You know, Richard, I like the movie very much. But it’s very fascist.” “What do you mean?” I asked. He said, “The ending, when the army comes in the factory and the workers applaud.”
Q: And you were the “army.”
A: Right. [Laughs]
Q: Did you reject that role four times?
Q: Did Jeffrey Katzenberg really get down on his knees, begging you to say yes?
A: No. Jeffrey doesn’t beg, Jeffrey is just persistent. He knows what’s right. Look, the last film in the world that I thought would be successful was Pretty Woman. But Jeffrey knew. I said to him, “There’s no part here, it’s ridiculous.” “No,” he said, “You’ve got to do this movie.”
Q: You threatened to walk off the picture if anyone asked you to dye your hair. Why?
A: That’s true. I think I said if anyone mentioned that again I’d walk off. I don’t mind doing it if it’s right for the piece, but in that one it made no sense.
Q: Will you be working with Julia Roberts again in Manhattan Ghost Story and in an update of To Catch a Thief?
A: The last one I don’t even know about. Thanks, I’ll call my agent. There’s one that we almost did together and then both said no, which wasn’t either of the ones you’ve mentioned. I’m sure she and I will find something else, because we like each other and play well together.
Q: What was your take on the intrigue surrounding The Cotton Club?
A: It was the most insane carnival sideshow I’ve ever been a part of. And ever wish to be a part of. There’s a few of us who were there from the very beginning to the end who know the whole story. I’m not even talking about the murders and all that stuff–just making the movie. It was so bizarre that no one would believe it. On some level it would be dangerous for me to even talk about it. [Nervous laugh] There’s three of us–[producer Robert] Evans, me, and [director Francis] Coppola–who can look at each other and go …. [Shrug]
Q: Didn’t you get caught pissing on a New York sidewalk during the making of that movie?
A: Yeah, I had reason to be pissing! [Laughs] I was peeing in an alley late at night and a cop came up to me and said, “I’m going to have to give you a summons, Mr. Gere. And by the way, if you need any security, here’s my card.”
Q: If you had a chance to remake The Cotton Club, would you?
Q: What about King David?
A: That I would do again, better.
Q: Did King David make you aware that you’re better served in a contemporary background?
A: Not at all. We were clear in our heads about the kind of movie we were making, but we hadn’t figured out how to do it yet. And it ended up being conventional, which was a waste of time.
Q: Some say that your best characters, like the media consultant you played in Power, the cop in Internal Affairs and the lawyer in Primal Fear, are narcissistic and venal. Ever give that any thought?
A: No. I don’t want to. I probably play good villains because I’m not really villainous, so I try to find some original way of doing it. It’s much harder to play a good person. Playing normal and being interesting is the hardest thing in the world. Henry Fonda did it all the time. You’ve got to be transparent. You can’t tart it up. You can’t hide behind it. You’ve got to be totally open. It’s much easier playing a retarded guy with a limp.
Q: What went wrong with Mr. Jones?
A: You’re assuming there’s something wrong with it.
Q: You yourself said: “When you fail at this level, with everyone watching, it can hurt real bad.”
A: I’ve made failures, but I don’t consider that a failure. I didn’t think I was talking about that film when I said that. Maybe I’m losing my memory. I think that film would have been better served if it was a straight character piece. [But] it had larger ambitions. [The character I played] was representing America. The ’60s were the manic time, and the ’80s were the depressed time. The manic-depression of America was the subtextual gestalt, but we couldn’t make that work.
Q: When you work, do you separate from the character at the end of the day?
A: More than I used to. When I was younger, I’d get off being able to stay in character. But you also have to, to feel confident that you know what you’re doing, that you’ve got that character by the tail. As you continue acting, you realize you don’t have to do that. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. I’ve always had fun exploring my characters, and if I liked something about them I’d embrace it and bring it into my own personality. That’s one of the cliched joys of being an actor–that you get to try a lot of different parts on yourself. Some you like and you say, Yeah, I want to use that, that will be me from now on.
Q: Would you ever want to see your family members become actors?
A: No actor encourages family members to do it. It’s not a healthy environment. Few people survive. Few people make a living.
Q: Mark Rydell, who directed you in Intersection, said you seem to be at peace with yourself. Are you?
Q: Rydell also called you the Gable for the ’90s.
A: [Facetiously] That’s probably true.
Q: What kind of meditation do you do now?
A: It’s hard to explain. It’s a little esoteric for Movieline.
Q: Have you ever sat zazen?
Q: Do you do yoga as well?
A: Just started to. Tai chi does the same–I do the tai chi warm-up before I go into meditation.
Q: Does a lot of grief come out through meditation?
A: In the initial stages. People are overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that comes up, which normally you’re not conscious of.
Q: Is the goal to clear your mind?
A: The goal would be transcendence. Clearing your mind is essentially making it useful to do the real work.
Q: Did you read Zen books when you were a teenager?
A: I read every Zen book I could find. I grew up a Protestant, and there was something Protestant about Zen. It’s very direct. It’s a soft-spoken, man-of-few-words kind of religion. And very approachable–the early stages, anyhow. The Tibet stuff is more complicated and foreboding and not easy to jump into.
Q: What has Buddhism done for you that Freudian therapy couldn’t do?
A: Essentially Freudian therapy only deals with the first noble truth: the truth of suffering. It doesn’t have a sense of transcendence.
Q: Have you been in analysis?
A: Not psychoanalysis. I’ve done therapy.
Q: Would people involved in the practice you’re involved in also benefit from therapy?
Q: How often do you see the Dalai Lama?
A: Maybe 3 to 10 times a year.
Q: What is it about these men that makes them special?
A: They don’t want anything. All they want is for you to be happy. They’re like spiritual cows–they have to be milked. Their job is to offer their teachings, to give you a way, a path, a system, an encouragement that you don’t have to live in any kind of suffering whatsoever.
Q: The Dalai Lama said you are starting sincere practice of Buddhist dharma. As opposed to insincere practice?
A: I was very moved to hear him say that. It’s a great thing that a teacher would say that. Coming from His Holiness you feel very humble.
Q: Do you say to yourself, “I’m not as sincere as I should be?”
A: Oh yeah, of course. I make no pretense about being a highly developed person. I’m a beginner, and for many lifetimes I’ll be a beginner. Our culture is too young.
Q: Do you believe in the concept of God as creator?
A: No. That’s what I was taught growing up, but it doesn’t make any sense. There’s no basis for it. It begs the question: who created the Creator?
Q: How close did you come to dying of salmonella poisoning when you were visiting the Dalai Lama in India?
A: Really close. I ate some bad yogurt. The symptoms were like yellow fever. I had a 105 degree temperature for a week. I was dehydrating. But I lucked out because I found a doctor who was able to prescribe the right antibiotic, and four days later I was able to get on a plane to London.
Q: What do you think happens when you die?
A: What happens when you live? [Laughs] Logically there can be no difference. It’s consciousness, which doesn’t come out of nowhere and it doesn’t go nowhere. We experience certain things while we’re in this body–we can see things, hear, taste, touch, smell, and think things. There are other kinds of bodies, we’re told, which can experience consciousness in a different way. A dream body, for instance. So let’s say death is like dream body.
Q: Is that something to fear?
A: What’s to fear is to be afraid of it. It, in itself, is nothing to fear.
Q: What do your parents think of your involvement with Tibetan Buddhism?
A: They’re kind of amazed at how I evolved. They don’t quite know where I came from.
Q: They haven’t gotten into it?
A: No, I can’t say that they really have.
Q: Your father was an insurance agent–what did you think of that business?
A: He thought of it as a quasi-religious vocation. He thought he was securing the welfare and happiness of his neighbors. And he took it on as a mission, he was there day or night, for people and their problems.
Q: Do you look like either of your parents?
A: I’m starting to look like me. I see my father a lot–as you get older your body starts to look like your father, and you look and you say, “You old fuck.”
Q: What do you feel most guilty about from your childhood?
A: When I was 10 I hired a kid next door to cut the grass for me and for some reason I didn’t give the kid the nickel.
Q: Let’s finish with some lighter questions. What’s on the mantel of your fireplace?
A: A lantern that was my grandfather’s. He was a farmer in Pennsylvania and he would light this lantern at 4 a.m. to go to the barn and milk the cows.
Q: Is that your most treasured possession?
A: That, and some of my guitars I really like. My horse I like a lot.
Q: Whose clothes do you like?
A: This is my uniform: black jeans and a T-shirt, boots.
Q: What sweet do you most crave?
A: Chocolate ice cream is the only addiction I have.
Q. What makes you laugh?
A: “Seinfeld.” Carey Lowell is actually one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.
Q: Is she your girlfriend?
A: She’s a friend of mine. A wonderful person.
Q: Now to the gossip columns for the big ending to this illusionary interview: is it true that you once worked as a busboy and walked up to a table where Robert De Niro was sitting and told him you were going to be as famous as he was?
A: Absolutely no.
Lawrence Grobel interviewed Harrison Ford for the July ’97 issue of Movieline.