Richard Gere on Obama disappointment

Hollywood's most famous Buddhist on Obama's "insane" wars, the coming collapse of China and his new "Arbitrage"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 15, 2012 4:30PM (EDT)

Richard Gere has been in terrific movies and he’s been an A-list Hollywood leading man, but the peculiar curse of his career is that he’s rarely or never done both at the same time. I suppose that accounts for the fact that across four-plus decades and 40-odd movie roles, Gere has never been nominated for an Oscar and was often portrayed, at least in his youth, as a lightweight pretty boy – as if the character he played in Paul Schrader’s underrated “American Gigolo” in 1980 were actually him. It’s difficult, frankly, to pick a role in Gere’s long career that plausibly might have won him a statuette; both “Gigolo” and “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” were too sleazy for the Academy, and Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” was way too arty. Billy Flynn in “Chicago”? I guess that’s the one.

Younger people, admittedly, are most likely to know Gere for three things: Playing the business-suited shark who falls for a hooker in “Pretty Woman” (since that’s one of those movies that everybody in the world has seen), his friendship with the Dalai Lama and his many years of activism on the plight of Tibet, and a scurrilous urban legend that I won’t dignify by repeating. But Gere has always been an understated and underappreciated actor, with a theatrical background in both drama and musicals – he did “Grease” in the West End and “Bent” on Broadway – whose urbane manner and handsome visage have classed up more than his share of mediocre-to-awful movies. (His judgment, or that of his agents, has admittedly been questionable at times: Bruce Beresford’s 1985 “King David” is absolutely one of the worst pictures ever made, and was never likely to be otherwise.)

As often happens with Hollywood stars – and yes, this is still easier for men than women – Gere has started to take on more varied and interesting roles as he’s aged out of the leading-man demographic. In the last decade he’s done outstanding work in quite a few smaller films, from “The Mothman Prophecies” to “The Hoax” to “I’m Not There” to the little-seen cop drama “Brooklyn’s Finest,” one of the grittiest dramatic roles of his career. Now, in writer-director Nicholas Jarecki’s twisty, downbeat and compelling financial thriller “Arbitrage,” Gere sinks his teeth into an even meatier character, a dealmaking, womanizing Wall Street tycoon – conceived, he says, as a blend of Bernie Madoff, Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton – who threatens to drag his entire family down with his imploding company.

“Arbitrage” makes an impressive debut for Jarecki, with a cast that includes Susan Sarandon as the pampered wife of Gere’s Robert Miller, willowy rising star Brit Marling as his brilliant daughter and chosen heir, Nate Parker as a young African-American man with a mysterious connection to Miller’s past, and Tim Roth as a bitter, unscrupulous New York cop who seizes the opportunity to bring Miller down. I recently met Gere in Manhattan over coffee – or, in his case, green tea – for a conversation about “Arbitrage,” his career, his current view of the Tibet-China situation and, of course, the 2012 election. He lives not far away, in the horse country of northern Westchester County, where he and his wife, actress Carey Lowell, own a luxury inn and yoga retreat.

Richard, I can’t help it, I’m going to ask you about politics. Are you playing a role in this fall’s election at all?

I don’t perceive a specific role, but I certainly would not hesitate to express my views. Look, our government is thoroughly dysfunctional, and everyone knows that. I’ve talked to top guys in both parties, and everyone acknowledges that nothing can happen the way business as usual is now. So someone has to start leading and articulating how these two different ideas can work together. And it seems to me that this one side that is screaming about fiscal responsibility can work very well with this other side that is saying we have a responsibility to take care of each other. Put those two together, I mean, you have a win-win. It’s not a problem. So we have to find a way to get past the kind of tribal flag-waving of protecting our own, and our own ideas. The idea is to make things work, to make us successful, to make us better than we were.

Well, that’s almost exactly the pitch that got Obama elected four years ago. That makes it sound as if you think he’s failed to set the tone.

I think it would be foolish to say he has satisfied everybody. I think in general I’m more in line (with) where he is coming from, sure. But on specific things -- you know, we still have soldiers out there dying in wars that are not winnable. It’s insane.

"Arbitrage" is certainly a movie with some present-tense political significance. But more than that it’s a big and beefy dramatic role with a lot to chew on, which is great to see.

Yeah, I guess it’s one of the first pictures like that I’ve made in a while. “Brooklyn’s Finest” was the last one, two or three years ago.

I liked that a lot too, actually. That’s one of your best performances, at least before this one – the dirty cop close to retirement. It just didn’t get that much play for whatever reason.

I forget the kid who wrote that, it was kind of a great story, I thought. From a first-time screenwriter [Michael C. Martin] who really just decided, “I’m going to write a screenplay.” It was terrific, very, very special. But, yeah it’s interesting: Going back to “Arbitrage,” this was a script that one expected to see, and hoped to see -- a script of this quality, focused on something that’s happening in our world, but it’s about people. We made a lot of these movies in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Then it kind of stopped. So this was a rarity.

Right. You’re saying you would have expected to see more films like this coming out of the financial crisis of 2008, films that tried to tackle it on a human level, a dramatic level.

Yeah. And you see the ones that were made -- and some very good ones were made -- but they were made on extremely limited budgets, and focused very much on the deal. It was about the mechanics of the world. This one is a story of people. I think you feel the flesh and blood of everyone in the story. It was very mature writing on Nick’s part.

It is a very compelling script. I can see all kinds of political and social reasons why you would have been drawn to this story. But one of the attractions must have been getting to work with those actors. It’s a terrific cast.

Well, there was no cast when I came on board! Actually, I think Susan [Sarandon] was on before. She was the given. Susan and I have known each other for a long time, and we worked well together on “Shall We Dance?” a few years ago. But as the cast kind of emerged, one of the things I said to Nick early on was that I like to have a lot of time, especially with film. I know this is your first movie, let’s spend a lot of time just sitting around talking getting to know each other. Bring the actors in, we’ll read a little bit, go to the park, go to a museum, have lunch. Just ease into this and the textures will start to emerge in an organic way. So we built it in to our schedule, there was a lot of time for that. So as each actor came in, we really spent weeks on that. I think the richness that came out of that helped all of us, and I think mostly Nick, feel comfortable and confident in what we were doing.

Obviously the relationship between you and Susan is critical in the film, and it’s great to see you two together again. But even more central to the film is your relationship with two younger actors, who you’d probably never met before. I thought you and Brit Marling, who plays your daughter, had a remarkable connection.

Yeah, I loved her. I loved her. You know, I think she felt the same way. I’d seen this movie of hers, “Another Earth,” before Nick did. He just heard about her by reputation. He thought she was terrific in that and would bring something to this. We found out later that she was a [financial] trader as a kid. Brit and I spent time together, improvising quite a bit. When you see the film, I think you do get the sense that these people have a deep connection. I don’t think you get a sense of, these are two actors who are just thrown together to shoot a scene. There’s a lot of trust there, there’s a lot of vulnerability. We’re able to hurt each other. And that doesn’t come easily.

Then there’s Nate Parker, who is really a terrific young actor.

Well, Nate came in quite late in the process, and just hit it totally out of the park.

He’s in “Red Hook Summer,” Spike Lee’s new film, playing a very difficult and conflicted character, a character the audience doesn’t want to like at first.

I haven’t seen him in that yet. He’s also a wonderful writer. He sent me a script he had written and it’s very strong. He’s a remarkable young man.

This is a movie about a family and a father-daughter relationship that’s also about work. Normally that would be the father-son relationship, but in this case it’s Brit’s character who understands what you do and believes in it. We haven’t seen that on screen very often.

No, and you also see that I’ve evaluated my son and my daughter, and I’m pretty clear on who’s the one who is going to take over my business. And, not to give anything away, but I think in the end she’s not going to leave the business. And I also don’t think Susan is leaving her marriage. To me these people are like the Clintons. You have to pay your dues, you have to rope-a-dope, take your blows, and we’ll heal this thing and stay together.

Well, one of the things you’re passing along to her is the morally ambiguous, morally murky nature of the whole business, which maybe she has been protected from until now.

Yeah, I mean, people like this spin their stories to their advantage all the time. When I am telling this story to my daughter, about how this happened [how Miller blew all his investors’ money on a bad deal], I’m telling the truth, but I’m certainly spinning it: I was being vigilant, I was being a good manager. But I was also enjoying playing the ponies, you know? These guys enjoy being on the edge of losing -- they are that Chekhovian gambler. Ultimately, you want the thrill of losing; it’s kind of where they are moving. You can really see that in the testimony of Jamie Dimon [the CEO of JPMorgan Chase], when he was before Congress. He’s the center of attention, he’s highly respected, capable, not crazy – not quite a Madoff, but enjoying that edge. It’s like, put me in the worst possible situation and I’m going to get out of it. That’s where he lives. That’s a really exciting place to be.

Yeah, I think Jamie Dimon sounds like the perfect point of reference for Robert Miller. You just mentioned Bernie Madoff, and I have to say that for the first 10 minutes of the movie I was wondering whether this was basically the Madoff story. But in the end that isn’t quite right.

No, it isn’t, but when we made the movie we were working off of these really iconic resonances, and there were two for me. When I read the script I said, “This is Bernie Madoff and Ted Kennedy.” And then I said, “Wow, that’s really Shakespearean-sized drama, big stuff.” So that was always on my mind. You know, we actually had dialogue about Madoff in the scene with Maria Bartiromo. We said, OK, that’s the elephant in the room here, why don’t we just talk about it? In the later cuts it was taken out because the world had moved on. It wasn’t that relevant to our story. And again, I think these other guys like Dimon, who are not sociopaths, are more interesting anyhow.

Both in your career as an actor and in your humanitarian endeavors you’ve been around a lot of money people. I certainly would not expect you to name names, but were there actual people you were able to draw upon when creating this character?

Not consciously, no. The one I was probably using, because it was specific to this movie, was Nick Jarecki’s father, who is a trader. I assume there’s going to be a lot of that relationship in there, so I was really paying attention to the time that I spent with him. Emotionally, I think I got a lot from his father, who was head of the psychology department at Yale before he became a trader. Really interesting guy, but not typical, not a slim, razor-edged guy. This guy was much more like Jamie Dimon, and I had never heard of Jamie Dimon before I played the part. But as soon as he arrived on the scene we could go, “Well, that’s what we are doing.”

I think there is a tendency, when you are playing guys like this, to play the archetype and not play the person. So it was really helpful just to hang out in the offices and see how guys get through the day. You know, spend four or five or six hours just watching: They drink tea, they drink coffee, they’ve got pictures of their kids on the desk. How much computer time is it? How do they deal with their secretaries? Just make it breathe with real people, with life. We all worked hard not just to play the stereotype.

How clearly did you understand the character’s justifications to himself? I mean, he’s doing things that are definitely unethical and in some cases illegal. How does he understand that behavior?

To be honest, there’s a lot of it that I didn’t understand – the mechanics of the deals, the actual hedging. It’s like the -- what’s the thing now that no one can explain quite what it is? The insurance on the insurance? No one can explain that, or make sense of it. I mean, other than the fact that it makes someone money. But there are intricacies of these deals that I don’t get at all. I pretend that I do, but I don’t really. [Laughter.] But that doesn’t matter to me. I knew enough that I could improvise a lot of that stuff, explaining it to my daughter, because it’s in emotional terms. It’s getting to that point of, “You work for me – everyone works for me. I’m God. More money than God. I’m bigger than God.” I mean, that’s the feeling of it, which is way more important than the mechanics of a deal.

You seem very relaxed at this stage of your life, working when you want to work, doing a whole variety of different things, political causes and humanitarian issues and your own businesses. Is it more fun now than when you were, you know, pretty much the biggest star in Hollywood?

Look, I’m 63 years old. I would hope I’m more comfortable in my skin now than I was when I was 27. What a wasted life, if I’m not! I think there’s a lot less anxiety now, that’s for sure. I think my ability to get in and out of characters is much more spontaneous now. I don’t have to live in the skin of a character to play him. So that helps. As a young actor, you really just burrow in, you hold on to these characters, and that’s not particularly healthy. I don’t think I get as deep as I did before, but getting in and out seems to be easier. The more you do it the easier it gets, like anything.

Let me swing back to politics before we stop. You must feel like nobody in either party wants to touch the relationship between Tibet and China, which you’ve been talking and thinking about for so long. In the context of our generally uneasy relationship with the Chinese, that one has just been swept under the rug.

Well, you’d be surprised about how many privately have strong feelings about it. But we’ve also been not successful in coming up with a game plan of how to do something about it. We’re still trying to figure out what can be done. The reality is now -- my thinking is that the plight of the Chinese people is very similar to the plight of the Tibetan people. The Communist Party, up to this point, has been very successful in telling the Chinese people -- 1.3 billion people – that the Tibetan story is a different story than theirs, and that the Tibetans are animals who want to destroy China. It’s not the case, and I think more and more ground-level Chinese, not just intellectuals, but also village people, ordinary people, are understanding that the Tibetan will for freedom and expression is the same as theirs. They are starting to rise up. There is no question in my mind that the Communist Party is on its way out. Whether it’s 10 years, 15, 20 years, it is definitely on its way out. As soon as you see villages rising up and demonstrating, fearlessly, you know it’s over soon.

"Arbitrage" is now playing in theaters nationwide, and is also available on-demand from cable and satellite providers.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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