Richard Gere on playing a homeless man in NYC: "I could see people from two blocks away" decide to avoid me

Almost no one recognized the Hollywood star as a dirty and disoriented man while shooting "Time Out of Mind"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 8, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Richard Gere (George) in Oren Moverman’s "Time Out of Mind." (Allison Rosa/IFC Films)
Richard Gere (George) in Oren Moverman’s "Time Out of Mind." (Allison Rosa/IFC Films)

Both Richard Gere and writer-director Oren Moverman understood the inherent risk involved in making “Time Out of Mind,” the low-budget, almost experimental indie film in which Gere roamed the streets of lower Manhattan as a homeless man, going virtually undetected by passersby. (More on that later.) “I really liked how dangerous it seemed from the get-go,” says Moverman, previously the director of “The Messenger” and “Rampart” and a co-writer of the Brian Wilson biopic “Love & Mercy” and Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There.” He says he even liked the disbelief he encountered when he told people, “‘We're gonna make a movie about a homeless guy and Richard Gere is gonna play him.’ Their reactions told me that there was something good to explore here, because it was so quickly dismissed by everyone.”

If your immediate reaction falls into that ballpark: Oh, this can only be patronizing, do-gooder liberalism, or a naked play for the Oscar nomination that the 66-year-old Gere has never gotten in his four decades as a movie star, all I can tell you is to see the film. You may or may not like it – Moverman observes that it may frustrate people who want a certain thing from a Richard Gere movie, or for that matter those who want a more familiar standard of entertainment – but it will not be what you expect. Gere plays a man called George, who gets kicked out of an apartment where he has been squatting and finds himself homeless on the streets for the first time. But there is almost no back-story about George’s past, and very little in the way of normal plot exposition or resolution. We almost always see George in long shot and through panes of glass or other surfaces – from the perspective of the city as it moves around him and does its best to ignore him, as Moverman puts it.

As Moverman and Gere developed the script (working from an original story by Jeffrey Caine that Gere had purchased), the director came to see that this movie was not about telling a story or creating a narrative in the usual sense. “The process is the narrative, and the state of being homeless is actually the plot,” Moverman says. “There's no need for big dramatic twists and plot bullets. There is just a need to go through the process in order to understand the perspective of the homeless person, and also the perspective of the people who are ignoring this person. We are putting him in the center of a movie, and so we are asking what that means in terms of our connection. How much engagement do we have to invest in? It’s actually hard work to care, to know something about the life of a homeless person. So the visual world of the film, and even the sound world of the film, has these layers that give us a certain kind of distance. If we want to, we can get through those barriers.”

Not everyone wants to do that, of course, and Moverman says he has no problem with that. “This movie is going to manipulate you, in a way, because movies are manipulative. But it’s not going to manipulate you in the way you’re used to. You can make a choice about engaging with this movie. When I introduce the film, I tell the audience to keep their cellphones on, to answer calls, to send texts and send emails and do whatever you want. Because this is the movie you will see when you look up from your phone. And you really don't have to! It will take you through an experience and hopefully you can get something out of that experience that opens up a thought, an idea, a dialogue or a conversation of some sort. But it's not an issue movie and it's not about solutions to homelessness. It's really about engagement and creating possibilities for compassion.”

With all that said, it certainly is possible that Gere’s memorable performance as George – one that is far more physical than verbal, and that pushes the star’s legendary charm in unexpected directions – will put him in line for his first Oscar nod. George is never a cliché of homelessness, and neither the actor nor the film ever makes the expected or automatic choices. George is not a sane and normal guy who’s had a run of bad luck, and he’s also not a smelly, terrifying person who yells at pedestrians. He borders on being functional but is increasingly disoriented. He knows something is wrong with him but isn’t sure what. He yearns for things but is only dimly aware of what they might be. Interactions with the city’s homelessness bureaucracy leave him increasingly confused, and his existence increasingly boils itself down, as Gere told me, to two simple truths: He’s hungry and he’s tired.

I sat down with Richard Gere in a conference room at IFC Films in New York while he ate a salad. He had just flown in from London and was, he admitted, hungry and tired, although not on the same existential level as George. An aide made Gere put on a bib because he was on his way to a TV interview shortly, and she feared olive oil splatters on his shirt. “This is humiliating,” mumbled the onetime star of “Pretty Woman” and “American Gigolo.” “At least it doesn’t have a lobster on it.”

Richard, we both know some people will feel skeptical about this project. But I have to say, when you see the film the level of commitment and integrity is really obvious, from both you and Oren.

Well, it wouldn't have happened at all if Oren and I hadn't been on the same wavelength. And also [cinematographer] Bobby Bukowski, who shot it. There was so much that we couldn't have planned for. We didn't have the time and we didn't have the money -- and anyway we chose not to. We wanted to make it so alive. There are some semi-miraculous shots that happened by accident, that if we had tried to plan them would never have worked. I just knew where Bobby was, and where the light was. He knew where I would be moving next. Something special was happening, almost every day.

Well, the most obvious thing about the way the film is shot is that we are always viewing George from a distance, or through panes of glass, or both at once.

Yes. Or through a lot of glass, multiple planes of reflection at the same time.

It’s like the film is constantly reminding us that we generally choose not to look at someone like George directly. We choose to remove ourselves from him.

The metaphor was working for us. There was a photographer called Saul Leiter -- I was aware of him, but I didn't know the body of his work. He was doing color stuff in the '50s and '60s when everybody was trying to be Robert Frank and Cartier-Bresson. He was doing this color stuff with reflections, where there’s a lot of stuff going on in the frame. You're not quite sure where you're supposed to be looking. You have to spend time with it and find the narrative in there. He wasn't presenting it to you. That's the inspiration for how this was shot.

When George is still, there are planes of reflection playing off his face almost all the time. Movement, cars, people. Bobby would even carry glass with him so we could add other elements close to the camera, and have other layers of reflections informing the frame. I think we had two lenses in total, and they were both very long zoom lenses, 600mm and 900mm. And almost the whole time it was at full extension, so in photographic terms it was stacking up an enormous amount of energy.

Maybe I thought about this subconsciously while I was watching the film, but what struck me later is that all that distance and refraction and reflection also had a lot to do with George’s internal state, and the way you're presenting his psychology.

Yeah. I mean, the original screenplay that this came from, that I bought, attempted to give a lot of back-story. And I had no interest in the back-story. We saw him and who he was -- I won't even tell you what it was -- we saw who he was, we saw the fall, we saw everything happen. And to me it was so boring. It gave everything away. Ultimately, the narrative is not important. About three-quarters of the way through the film, we give a bit of back-story. But George may be lying in what he says, the way we all lie. Who knows? It's not the issue.

I think we wanted to distill a human being into very simple drives. He's able to articulate this, and he says it several times: “Look, I'm hungry and I'm tired. I don't know what you’re asking for, with all these forms and things. It's just that I'm hungry and I'm tired.” He's aware of that. He's not as aware of his central issue, which is the commonality we all have: the yearning to belong, the yearning for connection. We see him drawn to the apartment where his daughter [played by Jena Malone] is and the bar where she works, we have a couple of inarticulate scenes in the laundromat where neither of them really says what they're feeling. They don't really engage at the simplest and most direct level of yearning. There are layers of pain and mistrust and betrayal that keep all of us so far away from saying simple things of love and belonging. Tribal, family stuff. That to me is where the movie is. I'm happy if people forget that it's homeless stuff at all by the end of the movie, and just connect to that simplest level of the yearning for connection.

I don’t think any of us is entirely conscious of the forces that are driving us, and even fully normal and functional people can have neuroses they don’t really notice. But you're dealing with a character where that stuff is ramped up pretty high. George is somewhat aware that he has mental health issues, maybe. But not aware enough.

I don't think he's really aware of it. There's one moment, when he first goes to Bellevue, where the guy's asking him a question, and he doesn't even literally respond to the question. He says, "Look, it's been a long time since I had a job. I'm older now, I don't know if I could." And that wasn't what the guy was asking! He's aware of being out of it.

Once or twice he says something pretty clear, like, "I'm fucked up in the head." It’s like he has moments of lucidity.

Yeah, he knows that something happened, I forget now how he describes it. Oren told me, when he started the editing process, "You know, you're doing this peculiar thing where you're kind of holding your head together. It's like the top of it's going to come off and you're holding it down." When I saw the first cut, I was very aware of that. There was a gesture that George was doing that I was unconscious about. It was this thing of, he's gonna leak out somehow if he doesn't hold his head together. He's aware of that. He's aware that there's an unraveling process.

We don't do this in a highly dramatic way, because he doesn't act out. That's not his thing. But I think we see a deterioration where even things that appear to be happening in the real world may be a fiction of his mental process. Oren brought that possibility to the project early on, and I kind of went, "Hmm -- does that track?" And it pretty much does. If you see it again, keep that in the back of your mind. If you really are paying attention, you see him start to lose whatever connection he does have to reality.

As an actor, how do you play someone who is more or less functional but increasingly disoriented? I'm so grateful you didn't go toward the guy who is basically together and normal but just out of luck, or toward the guy who is scaring people and screaming about aliens and the CIA. Because most homeless people fall somewhere in between, and so does George.

The decision that we made was that we watch him go through the process of losing the apartment, and see him on the street for the first time. He's a damaged guy, he's been in a fight or something when we first see him. I don't think he remembers what happened. He got fucked up on drugs or drink, he got into a fight. He doesn't even know what day it is. He's disoriented, but we fit him in immediately: Yeah, he's a drunk. I like presenting that. We fill in stories about people constantly, based on very little information. We think, oh, I know that guy.

I could feel that viscerally when I was playing this guy on the street. How New York was reacting to me on very little information, mostly visual information. I didn't go to any huge extremes physically with this guy. He has kind of a shitty haircut and a couple days' growth of beard. The clothes were certainly not upper-class clothes, but it wasn't like you'd think this is a smelly, horrible guy. It wasn't like that, but even with those minimal cues -- holding a plastic bag -- I could see people from two blocks away make a decision. Whether they were conscious of it or not, they were like: I know that guy. And they filled in all the other things that one needs to know to have a reaction. They decided, OK, this guy's gonna be asking me for money, and I don't really want to give him any money. In fact I don't want to make any contact with him, but I feel guilty about that. Maybe he really needs something, but why should he make me feel guilty? So fuck him. Fuck him. Why should I give him my money?

As soon as I relaxed and got comfortable, I could see it. The very first time we did it is actually in the film. We were out in Astor Place, and that was the first test to see if this would even work with me out in the streets. I could see people go through these reactions and it was so dissociative. It had nothing to do with me, it was all visual cues. And the context being so bizarre, it wouldn't occur to anyone, "Oh, that's Richard Gere," because the context is all wrong. We know things by context.

Is it literally true that no one recognized you on the street while you were doing this? That didn't happen once?

No way. Not on the street. I had two people in Grand Central Station recognize me, within about two hours. A man and a woman, they were both African-American. They walked by me and were like, "Hey, Rich." I think the feeling was like: Oh, tough times! He hasn't made a movie in a while. [Laughter.] From a black perspective, maybe it's like, well, you're up and then you’re down.

Well, you play with the Richard Gere image here, in a big way. You have had this image over the years, for better or for worse, and you have so often played the good-looking guy with great clothes and a perfect haircut. You have often played a man who is very attractive to women. George still thinks he is that guy.

He still wants to be that guy, yeah.

And he is grievously mistaken. That scene where he tries to come on to the nurse in the E.R. at Bellevue who has taken an interest in him and is trying to help him? That is just heartbreaking.

That's one of my favorite scenes. It's like a little one-act play, it's so dense. George is thinking, well, it's worked before. "Women have always been very kind to me," he says to her. I'm not a bad guy to live with, I have good habits. He's, like, giving his résumé to her! But it's genuine. He's at the end of his tether and that stuff doesn't work anymore.

It's interesting with this guy that he's not angry. I never felt any anger with him, and it was peculiar. Some things maybe could have gone more in that direction, but it didn't feel right, it didn't feel honest. Maybe this is my own prejudice, but when I saw the early cuts I started to see this guy as a monk. In another culture, he could be sitting on the sidewalk with a begging bowl. No anger -- if it comes it comes, if it doesn't, that's OK too. He's in the moment, in a peculiar way, and I think that was associated with the lack of anger and the lack of entitlement. I don't get the sense that he's blaming anyone else, or that he feels entitled or misunderstood. He gets frustrated with all the questions, because from his point of view the questions don't answer anything. They don't touch him. He's in a place of acceptance. I'm hungry and I'm tired, and he's distilled it into those simple facts.

How much time did you spend interacting with actual homeless people?

Enough. It wasn't weeks and weeks hanging out. There was one man in particular who informed me of what the movie should be. There was a book about four or five years ago that got some attention, there was an article about him in the New York Times. When I was trying to figure out where I wanted the script to go, I read this article about this guy, the Cadillac Man. He had written a book called "Land of the Lost Souls," and I got the book and read it, and I thought, "Well, that's it. That's how to do this movie." There was no self-pity, no sense of dramaturgy. This is what happened, it's just straightforward. No self-consciousness about how it feels. You read the book and you're like, “Oh my God, what this guy has been through!” But there was no sense from his side that it was tragic. You know, in filmic terms it was neorealist, although neorealism tends to be somewhat operatic. But in the sense of: This is just life. We're going to present this guy's life. The minutiae of his life are important, and we were not trying to structure reality in a dramaturgical sense.

So I met Cadillac Man and I talked to him. That was important to me. He's still on the streets. I'm still in contact with him, but he is of the personality type that is really on the streets. At the same time, he's functional. He gives talks, he has written his book, he has a place in our reality structure. That's not always the case. He was important to me, and going to the shelters early on was important to me. There's a group called Coalition for the Homeless, and the major scene at the end of the film is shot in their offices. I've been involved with them for a decade. These were all important things to me, and the interactions I had on the street were important in that they made me feel authentic, that I knew what I was talking about, that the choices that were being made were appropriate to the world that I had witnessed.

A lot of things could have gone wrong with this premise, and I'm sure you knew that going in. Oren says he liked the challenge that people almost universally had a negative reaction, and assumed that a movie where Richard Gere plays a homeless man could only be patronizing and pedantic.

Yeah, but that was never the movie we wanted to make. The first script was not a bad script, but it was more in the movie-of-the-week mode. Again, it had back-story, and it had a much more normal drift. It was very understandable, and in this kind of story, that's death, to find it all understandable. There was a court case in the second half of the script, with bad guys and good guys. I had no interest in any of that. That's how Oren and I got together. We knew each other from working with Todd Haynes on "I'm Not There," and we both wanted to come from this place of being authentic and honest.

I mean, no one wanted to finance this. We had to cut 15 or 20 pages from the script to get it finished -- and as it was, we only had 21 days. So we did this exercise of going through the script and saying, "Let's take out everything we've seen before." We were pretty vigilant up to that point, and then we said, "Now let's be super-vigilant. Everything that would be in a normal movie or on television, let's take it out." Those 15 or 20 pages were gone overnight, and what we wound up with is much better as a result.

“Time Out of Mind” is now playing in New York, with wider national release to follow. It will also be available on demand from cable, satellite and online providers beginning Sept. 18.


Richard Gere Talks Playing a Beggar at Karlovy Vary Film Festival

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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