LATE last year Richard Gere was in Europe, touring film festivals and picking up lifetime achievement awards in San Sebastián and Zurich. It’s not as if he doesn’t appreciate the thought; it’s just that he’s a little worried about the subtext to these decorations.
“It’s a little premature,” he says, wryly. “These are the dinosaur awards; you have to be a certain age and they start giving you this stuff.”
Gere has been walking this earth for 63 years, with no sign of imminent extinction. He’s still your mum’s favourite movie star, with an impressive shaggy head of silver fox hair that makes your dad grit his teeth. The soft button-brown eyes are now behind steel-rimmed bifocals, but he can still rock jeans and a casual shirt. He laughs when you take in his dress-down Friday threads. “Early on, I used to be on the best-dressed list because of the characters I play. I’d be in a tuxedo movie, but a T-shirt and running pants is basically my world. I live very simply in the country, and that’s who I am.”
He’s a great advert for yoga and vegetarianism, although slightly humanised by the fact he also loves a good glass of wine. Not red: that zonks him out, but he says he can tell if a film is expected to do well by the quality of the booze served at the premiere. At home, however, life is not all Montrachet and Yquem. He has a nice story about the time he tried to impress his wife with an expensive chardonnay, only to outrage her when she discovered he’d spent £180 on one bottle. “She turned the car around and I had to go back into the shop,” he recalls wryly. “And I had to tell them that my wife wouldn’t let me buy the wine.”
It’s a long time since Gere had to check the price tag on something, but he still remembers the days when he was starting out and struggled to scrape together enough to buy a sandwich. Yet over the past three decades, he has watched contemporaries like Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson rise and fall, while Gere remains a movie star in the real, pre-Grazia sense, despite never once bothering save the world from aliens, or rescue his wife or daughter from Albanians like Harrison Ford or Liam Neeson.
Instead, he’s been attracted to more chilly, complicated guys like the conman of The Hoax, the all-singing, all-dancing shyster lawyer of Chicago and the husband in Unfaithful who loves his wife but also bumps off her lover. “In real life, almost nobody is all good or all bad,” he says. “I’ve never met anyone evil beyond redemption. Nobody is one-sided. I’ve even seen the Dalai Lama apologise for yelling at someone. A good script will reflect that people are complicated.”
His latest film, Arbitrage, is in this vein and has earned him some of the best reviews of his life. Gere plays an über-wealthy hedge fund executive who is a mix of wonderboy and weasel, frantically trying to juggle a complicated life that includes a wife, a mistress and a ballooning debt that he has tried to conceal with a massive fraud.
Gere had few contacts on Wall Street so he prepared by walking the floors of the New York Stock Exchange, quizzing high fliers about their wives, their families, what they loved, what they worried about, what they’d had for breakfast. Crooked types like Bernie Madoff were an influence but ultimately he drew from politicians who failed to live up to expectations: the charm and flexible ethics of Clinton, the magnetism of a Kennedy.
“Ted Kennedy was one of the most responsible senators we’ve ever had,” he says. “The best people in Washington working on human rights stuff, health stuff and civil rights stuff were trained in his office, came through the stuff he was pushing and working on his entire life. But he made one horrible decision: Chappaquiddick.” Gere is by inclination a Democrat himself, who voted for Obama in the last election and yet, Zen-like, he tries to appreciate a spectrum of personal and political beliefs. During the last electoral campaign he got a chance to quiz a Republican politician about the party resistance to taxation. “We were standing in a billionaire’s house and asked this very powerful Republican, ‘Do you think giving up $10 million in taxes will change his life’. And this Republican said, ‘No, it wouldn’t, but I think his concern was that the money would be squandered.’ I agree with some of that vigilance, even in terms of entitlements.”
Gere’s emphasis on care with money and self-sufficiency seems to come from his 81-year-old father, who grew up poor but managed to put himself through university. Gere was born in 1949 and raised in New York. By then his father, Homer, worked in insurance and his mother, Doris, raised their five children. “I was a shy kid,” he says, and his first ambition wasn’t acting but to become an Olympic gymnast.
Watching the London 2012 Olympics, his son marvelled at an athlete’s dexterity on a pommel horse, prompting Gere to fetch a picture of himself twisting through a routine more than 50 years earlier.
At university, he finally abandoned the horizontal bars for a vertical ascent through acting. In 1973, he played Danny Zuko in Grease in New York, then London.
By the 1980s he was a movie star, in spite of himself. When he made An Officer and a Gentleman, it was because he needed the money, and he fought against the final sequence where he arrives in full uniform and scoops up Debra Winger from the production line and carries her off. “I knew it was the wrong ending,” he says. But he gave it a go anyway. “And when I saw it on film, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.”
Films like Yanks and American Gigolo confirmed him as a pin-up, and becoming a sex symbol is something he admits he may never understand. His agent was furious when Gere smouldered topless on the cover of Rolling Stone. For 40 years, this was the legendary Ed Limato, whose other discoveries included Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfeiffer, and apparently he gave Gere hell, telling him he was “a better actor than a hunk”.
The hunkiness aspect to Gere’s career has lasted far longer than either of them estimated, rooted in a time before celebrity image became an obsession. Gere admits that as one of the first of the movie mega-stars, he struggled. “I don’t know any actor who goes through this in order to be famous,” he offers. “To make money, and meet girls – that would be the top of the list.” He grins. “Actually it would be girls, above money. I did find the attention very difficult and it took me a while to figure it out.”
Gere has evolved into a bankable global film star, but nowadays that means his presence helps get a movie made – not that he will make serious money. Arbitrage’s modest budget had to be pulled together, piecemeal. “You used to make movies like this and get paid very well,” he says, lightly. “Now you make movies like this but you don’t get paid very well.”
The other surprise is that he has never been nominated for an Oscar. He didn’t get a nomination this time either, but he says this only got to him once, for Chicago. “Everyone else got nominated,” he says. And they did: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah, Renée Zellweger and John C Reilly all landed nominations in the run-up to the 2003 Oscars. “It was kind of like not getting picked on the baseball team when you’re a kid.”
This hasn’t affected his film choices, although lately he’s been making fewer films anyway. Arbitrage is his first in four years. “I’m very careful about who I work with. I don’t want to spend six months with someone I don’t respect or like.”
It’s interesting to speculate whether Gere will still be making movies ten years hence. He could graduate to the status of a Christopher Plummer, now a handsome éminence grise, who got more appreciation once there was less distracting talk of key films like the Sound of Music.
Like Plummer, Gere seems to have staying power, although he denies being ambitious. “I don’t know that I ever had huge goals,” he says. “I enjoy working. I like to be challenged by roles, and working with people I respect.” He’s a little pleased that recently he turned down quite a good script “with a director of the moment” even though it was chewy and interesting.
He doesn’t nurse any secret ambition to conquer the stage either and he rarely makes films outside New York because he prefers staying at his ranch-style home in Bedford, Connecticut. Three years ago he set up a boutique hotel nearby, with yoga classes and meditation spaces, and has been known to play the role of bellboy when they are short-staffed, carrying guests’ luggage to their rooms. He draws the line at running up breakfasts though. “I can boil an egg but that’s about it.”
Gere and Carey Lowell, the former Bond girl of Licence to Kill, got together shortly after the break-up of his four-year marriage to supermodel Cindy Crawford in 1995. He has a stepdaughter, Hannah, and a son, Homer, and as he says, they like a simple life.
Unlike some stars, he doesn’t seem to find that conflicts much with his wealth. Recently he sold off a collection of 107 guitars, because Lowell complained they took up space. “I don’t know how I ended up with that many, but every one had a story,” he sighs. Up for auction were Gibson and Fender guitars once owned by blues legend Albert King and Jamaican reggae musician Peter Tosh. The $1m raised was donated to humanitarian causes including HIV research, disaster relief in India and, of course, Tibet.
His devotion to Buddhism and his campaign on behalf of the Dalai Lama to free Tibet from decades of Chinese occupation are well known. At a concert in New York, held six weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, he courageously remarked that invading and bombing Afghanistan might not pave the way to a more peaceful and stable world. Then he was booed; now he looks prescient. He also continues to press China on the issue of a free Tibet, calling the Communist regime “brutish and thuggish”, which got him banned from the Chinese mainland.
Gere runs deep. He is a bit esoteric at times, but thoughtful and, if he doesn’t like a question, he pulls a face reminiscent of a patient schoolteacher who has been disappointed by a favourite pupil. He doesn’t enjoy personal inquiries much, and that doesn’t just apply to journalists. For seven years, he coached his son’s little league baseball team, and one of the aspects he enjoyed most was the regular guyness of the role. “In all that time,” he slightly marvels, “no-one asked for an autograph or a picture.”
I think Gere could have been even bigger as a film star, but people mistook his looks for vanity, when in fact he’s done some excellent work playing people who would scarcely attract admiring glances and imbuing them with his ambivalent glamour.
It’s a career that prospered almost in spite of himself because he has always walked away from blockbusters without a backward glance. He turned down Die Hard and the role of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, and he really, really didn’t want to do Pretty Woman, the highest-grossing film of 1990. “I was quite an intense guy back then, and it wasn’t that easy for me to be lighthearted in a film. Julia [Roberts] had already been cast and came to see me in New York when I was still undecided.”
It was Roberts, then an untested, coltish 20-year-old, who managed to change his mind. “While I was on the phone, she wrote me a note and passed it across. It said, ‘Please do this movie.’” He crinkles up helplessly. “How could I say no?” n
• Arbitrage is released 1 March (www.arbitrage-film.com)