There’s a great moment in the first series of The Trip in which Steve Coogan does a pitch-prefect impression of Richard Gere. He starts with the enigmatic smile, then moves onto the squint, the thousand-yard-stare and Gere’s ability to imbue a scene with subtext by laughing “as if he’s remembering something from the past”.
It’s a playful send-up of the way Gere manages to pull off – as Coogan puts it – “listening in an interesting way” while appearing to have forgotten his lines. Though largely flattering, one can imagine it might be a little awkward if the pair ever met – say on the set of a movie that takes place, like The Trip, over multiple courses of ridiculously intricate gourmet food in a ridiculously fancy restaurant.
That just happens to be the exact scenario of The Dinner, a new film starring Gere and Coogan. Fans of The Trip, however, will be disappointed to learn that while making it there was no meta-moment of behind-the-scenes tension – largely because Gere was unaware of Coogan’s work on the show. “He mentioned something about it at one point,” says Gere, “but I guess I didn’t care enough to ask him about doing it. I’ll have to look it up.” Ouch.
On the line from Los Angeles to promote the movie, the veteran movie star is, of course, full of praise for Coogan’s performance in The Dinner. The film itself is a chamber piece about a glad-handing politician (played by Gere) who convenes his nearest and dearest at a posh restaurant to discuss a moral dilemma involving their kids that has potentially huge ramifications for all their futures. Coogan – whom Gere had seen in Philomena – plays Gere’s brother, a history teacher with mental health issues and a fractious relationship with his older, more successful sibling.
“He’s very brave and goes into some very dark territory – not just emotionally, but psychologically as well,” says Gere of Coogan’s tricky role, which is a world away from Alan Partridge and his pseudo-autobiographical work for Michael Winterbottom. “You think he’s initially the truth-teller in our story and then the film shifts and you realise that he has some really serious problems and the movie starts to take on another point of view.”
It’s an intriguing film and marks Gere’s latest collaboration with indie director Oren Moverman. They first met when Moverman scripted Todd Haynes’s leftfield Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, which cast Gere as one of the many incarnations of the music legend (Gere and Dylan are friends in real life but what Dylan thought of his performance has, apparently, “never come up”). They worked together again on last year’s Time Out of Mind in which Gere did some fine work playing a homeless man in New York. In some respects, the new film plays like a companion piece, albeit one told from the perspective of characters who are at the opposite end of the economic spectrum.
“Yeah, I was curious about that when I read the script, but this was actually in the works before Time Out of Mind,” Gere says. “Oren is always interested in people in extremis; he’s interested in society, how people fit into society and the responsibility of culture and society to the individual. The Dinner is about that. Who are we responsible to and on what level? Are we here just to protect our closest family, or even just our kids? Or do we teach them responsibility for our actions? So you have this argument coming from four different points of view.”
In the film, Rebecca Hall and Laura Linney play Gere and Coogan’s respective wives and fellow diners. Gere describes them collectively as “race horses” – necessary, he says, for powering through the dialogue-heavy script when money and time were both very tight. “You need people who know what they’re doing,” he says.
Linney’s presence, though, brings to mind her first collaboration with Gere on Primal Fear back in 1996. The legal thriller is remembered now mainly for launching the career of Edward Norton and I’m curious if Gere – as a former hotshot actor himself (watch him raring to go opposite Diane Keaton in 1977’s Looking for Mr Goodbar) – can always spot that sort of talent and hunger in younger actors. “I think you can tell when an actor has something special,” he says. “It’s pretty obvious.”
Maybe so, but when I ask if he saw something special in Charlie Plummer, the 18-year-old who plays his nephew in The Dinner, and whose career is about to go stratospheric as the star of Ridley Scott’s forthcoming All the Money in the World, he doesn’t seem to know who I’m talking about.
“Charlie Plummer?” says Gere. “I don’t know who that is.”
“Charlie Plummer,” I say cautiously, fearing I’ve made a mistake. “The young actor who plays your nephew in the film.” And around whom the entire movie revolves (I don’t say this last part).
“Oh, the young actor,” says Gere, scrambling. “I don’t have any scenes with him.”
“He’s a wonderful young actor,” he adds, somewhat unconvincingly, just as I’m about to ask if he’s actually seen his own movie. “But I didn’t work with him. I didn’t have any personal experience with him.”
The publicist jumps in on the call to wrap things up. We finish by talking about his career, which really got going with Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, went stratospheric with American Gigolo, An Officer and a Gentleman and later Pretty Woman, and which has settled of late into an interesting groove of low-budget passion projects. Did he ever have much of a plan for his career?
“Maybe my agent had a plan, but I never did,” laughs Gere. “That’s probably why you see it going in so many directions. Which I like. It makes it more interesting for me to discover my life, my career, whatever I do, as it’s happening. It’s always filled with surprises. I’ve been extremely fortunate that way.” n
The Dinner is on general release from 8 December