RENAISSANCE MAN: The actor and activist gets real about politics, movies and marriage
Interview BY JOHANNA SCHNELLER
Photograph BY MARY ELLEN MARK
Photo Editor Jennifer Crandall
Richard Gere: Sex and the single guy
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Onscreen, Richard Gere is the snake from the garden of Eden turned into man: charming, insistent, insidious, whispering wickedly into women's ears, even when he's the good guy. With role after role ‑ Looking for Mr. Goodbar, American Gigolo, An Officer and a Gentleman, Pretty Woman, Internal Affairs, Primal Fear ‑ he has become an icon of elegantly bad behavior, almost frighteningly handsome, with a slope‑shouldered insouciance.
In person, Gere's body is compact, full of compressed, unreleased energy, like a popcorn kernel half popped. He still dresses the hound, in boots, black jeans and a tight T‑shirt; his voice, as scratchy as beard burn, still wraps itself around aging hipsterisms ‑ "The guy had to split the country," he'll say, or, "I have to get turned on by a situation. " His famously prolific love life ended temporarily when he married übermodel Cindy Crawford in 1991. (They divorced in 1995.) His current relationship, with model and actress Carey Lowell, is less public.
"The way women respond to Richard on the street is sensational," says actress Kate Capshaw, who, before she married Steven Spielberg, was a companion of Gere's at events in Los Angeles and New York. "Everywhere he went there were swooning, gawking, giggling women celebrating his charisma. And he got as much of a kick out of it as they did. Brad Pitt has the same effect now. The women actually forget that someone's watching them; they're just, hee-hee-hee-hee-hee."
But behind the big desk in his Lower Manhattan office, rich with paintings, photographs, original Craftsman furniture and shelves full of books he has actually read, Gere, now 48, radiates a deeper vibe. Wire‑rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose, his silver hair turning molten in the last of the afternoon light, he resembles nothing so much as a political‑science professor running for office. A serious candidate. Most telling is his snuffly little laugh, equal parts amusement, disdain and challenge. "If that's what you want to think," the laugh says, "go right ahead." It's the sound of a lifetime of being underestimated.
"People think Richard is just a pretty face. He's too damn pretty, that's his problem," says Michael Caton‑Jones, who directed Gere, along with Bruce Willis and Sidney Poitier, in this month's film The Jackal. (Willis plays an enigmatic assassin; Gere is a reformed IRA terrorist who helps Poitier track Willis down.) "Don't hate Richard because he's beautiful," Caton‑Jones continues. "He can be very funny; he can be cerebral. We had deep conversations, alternated with, 'Whoa, who's that chick?' With Richard, those are not mutually exclusive conversations. And if people misunderstand that, he sees no reason why he should explain himself to anyone."
The transformation of Gere from Rebel Without Pants (he was known to conduct interviews in his underwear) to Celebrity Statesman was completed at the 1993 Academy Awards when Gere delivered an impassioned plea against China's human‑rights abuses in Tibet ‑ a cause Gere has supported since he became a Tibetan Buddhist more than 20 years ago. It was a speech from the heart, but not from the TelePrompTer. Incensed Oscar officials have never invited him back. And he doesn't care. He keeps busy with frequent, extended visits to the Tibetan community in northern India and by monitoring the New York‑based Gere Foundation, which funnels millions of dollars annually to Tibetan causes, AIDS work, human‑rights organizations and other groups that engage his imagination (he approves every donation).
In addition to The Jackal, this fall has already seen the release of Pilgrim, a luxe book of Gere's photographs of Tibetans (Gere is donating his share of the $75 cover price ‑ about $6 per book ‑to Tibetan charities), and the movie Red Corner, from director Jon Avnet, in which Gere plays an entertainment lawyer forced to take on the brutal, arcane Chinese judicial system. The meticulously researched film was denied permission to shoot in China, so Beijing was re‑created on a back lot in California, complete with native Chinese actors and some disturbingly authentic props.
Chinese actress Bai Ling plays Gere's court‑appointed attorney; offscreen, they talked about her fear of becoming a persona non grata in real life back home. "Buddhism has made Richard so generous, a light comes out of him," she says. "Acting with him became truth. All Chinese people want someone to speak for them the way this story does. I don't want to be a coward. Richard helped me say that whatever comes, I'll live with this."
About halfway through our interview, Gere gets hungry and we head around the corner in Greenwich Village to a fine Italian restaurant ‑ which has opened just for him. Along the way, we pass a homeless man, whom Gere hails by name. "Hey, Richard," the man says, "if you give me $20, I won't bother you for a week."
Gere laughs. "Last time I gave you $20," he says, "you said you'd never bother me again." The guy shrugs, grins and holds out his hand. "OK," Gere says, "but I'm going away this week, so I'm only going to give you $10."
As we walk away, Gere tells me, "I used to give him books ‑ philosophy, literature. I thought, he'll read this book, change his life." He smiles a what‑ a‑jerk‑I‑am smile. "Finally one day he said, 'Richard, I appreciate it, but I can't read that stuff.'
'Red Corner' was denied the chance to shoot in China; in addition, you personally have not been allowed in. How many times have you tried?
Maybe 50 times. I've applied for visas everywhere. Through Moscow, through Mongolia, Europe, Canada, Hong Kong. I've tried going from cultural minister to cultural minister; I've tried political connections. It's impossible. They don't even bother to give a reason. But I like the fact that it's controversial and that the Chinese behave the way I say they behave, which is paranoid and insecure and childish. And afraid of people telling the truth.
At a pivotal point in 'Red Corner,' your co‑star Bai Ling says, "I no longer wish to be silent." Do you think she's in trouble back in China now?
Oh, yeah. She's in a lot of danger.
Actual physical danger?
Her family is; she is. No question about it. She's here (in the United States) now. It will be extremely difficult for her to go back. I think one of her decisions in doing this movie was to do it full out. Her whole generation is on the edge of expressing themselves. They've wanted to since they were children. And they're all struggling with: Should I do it or shouldn't I? The crux is usually not about them; it's about their families. Which is the usual totalitarian trick. They threaten your grandmother, your parents, your brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. Very real threats.
If she becomes famous here, will her family be safer?
The more it's said that her family's in danger, the less likely the Chinese will do whatever they do. I think it's important to say this: I'm proud that we have almost all Chinese actors, from Shanghai and Beijing, in Red Corner. And you feel it; they're different. Us American actors, we were going, whoa. Really powerful and sensitive, textured work. They have some kind of self‑preservation radar. There were things they would do in a scene and things they would not do. It mostly had to do with what was in the same frame with them. We have footage of executions in the movie. Real footage that we had smuggled out. [The Chinese authorities] tape their own executions.
Moviegoers will see real executions on tape?
[Nods] My character watches it as I'm being readied for interrogation. At least one of the actors asked that he not be in the same shot as this execution footage. It was clear that this would mean big trouble for him. That happened a few times. Really terrific actors, adults, who you think would be past that ‑ they've grown up so much with the real threat, the reality that people come and take you away in the middle of the night and shoot you.
How do you keep from being anti‑Chinese?
You have to be spiritually, philosophically clear that you're not hating people, you're hating a system. You're hating ignorance, essentially. The Dalai Lama has been very clear from the beginning that this is a nonviolent movement: "We will not have that here."
In the early '80s, in Nicaragua, I met a Salvadoran doctor whose patients had all kinds of mutilations ‑ breasts cut off, fingers cut off, post‑traumatic stress disorder. They'd all been tortured by the Salvadoran guards, who were supported by the U.S. I said to him, "Will you ever be able to forgive us?" He looked away, thought for a second and said, "If we couldn't forgive, what was the point of the revolution?"
I couldn't tell you how many Tibetans have said to me, "This is much larger than me. " I don't know that we have people like His Holiness [the Dalai Lama], or Nelson Mandela, people that committed. I can't imagine Clinton willingly going to jail for 20 years over a principle, and then come out filled with forgiveness, with the understanding that in dealing with a larger concept, his self‑sacrifice is really very small.
You're a guy who lives by his beliefs: You practice Buddhism, you give away a lot of money. And yet you, more than any other celebrity, are dogged by persistent, nasty rumors. Why?
You can explain everything by karma. Whatever happens to me is the fruit of some previous action of mine.
My God, what did you do?
I don't know. But it's a great tool for learning. If what's being said is true, and it's negative, change your life. If it's totally untrue, it has no effect on me.
Most of the rumors are about sex. Do you think that you pose a sexual threat to some people?
I don't know. I just do my job.
You don't have an opinion about it?
You can't see what you represent to other people. You can't. The magician sees the trick, not the magic.
There was a period in your life when you chose sexually charged roles, in 'Looking for Mr. Goodbar,' 'American Gigolo'...
What 25‑year‑old is not interested in exploring sexuality?
But you did it publicly.
Well, that's my job. Anything I do is public. Why shouldn't I make movies about what I'm actually going through? Just don't assume the actor is the character. My characters were constructs. It wasn't like I walked in off the street and that's who I was at the time.
But you did cultivate a bad‑boy reputation for a while there.
I think it's probably true of all actors, in the beginning, that the instinct to act is that you really want to be somebody else. So you give yourself totally to it. And you've got to do the 24‑hour‑a‑day thing where you are the character, you're intoxicated with him, and it does become your obvious, surface self much more. There's a certain power that comes from that. But there's also a certain limitation to it.
Why did you want to be someone else?
I think most actors go into acting because there's a lot of self‑loathing and confusion. The usual. Any impulse to be someone else is a distrust of who you are.
What did you loathe about yourself?
[Laughs darkly] You're into borderline questions here. You are someone I met 10 minutes ago, and now you want to get into the deep, dark questions about my being? It's just universal stuff. It's hormonal; it's in society itself. Things aren't as they appear to be. They're not as you're told they are. And that tension creates a lot of anxiety.
Do you think that, in 1997, people still fear sexual expression?
I don't know. That was a long time ago that I did those movies; I think it ran its course. People don't want to see it anymore. It's curious, there was fairly little actual sex in American Gigolo. It's quite a chaste little film. It's more the idea of it, the job description. That character, a hooker, is traditionally played by a woman. I think men did get really bent, and challenged, and threatened, that I played a traditionally female role. But I could identify with that character. He wanted to be more than he is. From my point of view, it was a Sammy Glick story more than a sexual story. To me it's about power, dominance, all those things. If you mix them with sex, yes, it becomes incredibly threatening.
Did being married change you?
You know what it made me realize? I really was good at it. Which surprised me. All the fear that I had was about loss ‑ loss of self, loss of identity, loss of individuality, loss of freedom. In fact, the things I gave up, I gave up willingly. And I never felt better in myself. That doesn't mean the marriage was any good. But making the commitments, and living up to them, I felt great about it. And it does conserve energy, for sure. It defines things clearly. The marriage vow is essentially the same as a celibacy vow.
That usually happens much later in a marriage.
[Soberly] I'm talking about the nature of a vow, of making a real, serious commitment. Essentially, I was never more of a monk ‑ meaning focused and clear ‑ than when I was married. Although we clearly had a sexual relationship. But the level of commitment for me was just the same as if I had made a vow to be a monk.
Because it's a vow to cut out all other women?
Because it's vowing to spiritualize everything. That's the way I saw it. To become selfless within that commitment. In many ways, I did some of my best work creatively when I was married. Although I was miserable. But the focusing of energy was curious.
It was miserable?
[Hedging] No, no. Masterful. That's what I said.
I'm a little confused about something. Isn't the end result of Buddhist practice to become a monk?
No. Being a monk is a strategy. There's nothing that's inherently higher about being a monk than anything else. In fact, it's easier, because you can harness internal energies, chakras, more easily if you're not in a sexual relationship. But it's impossible for me. Impossible. I've never been strong enough to say, "I'm going to be celibate for the rest of my life." That would be a joke.
Have you ever tried?
For short periods, yeah.
For how long?
No‑no‑no, I'm not going to answer that. I think it's more interesting to learn how to transform those energies anyhow. In a committed relationship with a partner who's working on the same spiritual track as you, you can use sexual energy in a powerful way.
Would a lover of yours now have to be a Buddhist?
I don't want to get too far into this; this is all private stuff. But the person I am with now does practice. We have a practice every morning together. There's no question that it's made intimacy much more profound, on all levels, having that hour together in the morning.
Let's go back a bit. What was going on in your life when you found Buddhism?
I was in my early 20s. I was living in New York; I was not particularly happy. I was aware of the suffering around me and the suffering inside me. If you're in New York and you have no money, you see a lot of suffering. And not just physical suffering, kind of an all‑pervasive suffering of ignorant living.
Living like an animal. Just letting the body run the game. And the darker emotions.
How did your suffering manifest itself?
You can call it unhappiness, frustration, sadness, alienation. All the things people go through. I was searching. I wanted out. I was a philosophy major at school, so I felt comfortable with challenging the nature of things. The approach to Buddhism requires that you go into an inquiry. That you really, with great courage, challenge everything. And that fit me perfectly.
Now that you two are close, what do you call the Dalai Lama to his face?
You once said that meeting him was like falling in love.
It was like falling in love, but it wasn't like getting hit over the head. I don't know what one's fantasies would be ‑ that you walk into the room and he looks deep into your eyes and you're zapped and you're never the same again? It wasn't like that. It was being aware on many levels that he had been through this infinite times, with millions of kinds of people. He used what I do for a living to give a teaching.
All his conversations are teachings?
He can't do other than teachings. Someone of that level, that's what they're here for. [His eyes fill with tears. He stops speaking for a minute.] I think that's the falling in love, that you so totally trust the moment with him. There's nothing in it for him, nothing.
Why does thinking of that make you cry?
Oh, just the incredibly open heart of that. That's why I got involved with Buddhism; that's why I was searching. Intuitively feeling that the universe was about that generosity, about that lack of ego. And never really having felt it. Never having that reinforced in a strong enough way, that the universe does vibrate with love.
So how do you reconcile that with ‑
I gotta get some water. Do you want some water? [He buzzes his assistant.] Jen, could you get us some water? Thanks.
I was just about to say, how do you reconcile that with Hollywood success?
Success is fine. Succeeding is fine. There's nothing that says you are more holy if you are poor and destitute.
But success so often involves crushing others.
It does. That's the problem. [His assistant comes in with water.] Jennifer here, on the other hand, is the only person who would take this job. [To Jennifer] Is there a sandwich or something? Or maybe we'll go out. Did you phone the restaurant? Are they open? [She replies, "They say they're open for you. " He turns back to me.] So, what were you saying?
How do you reconcile your beliefs with your business?
In my practice. The same way my monk friends would say that their years in prison were the best years of their lives, because they were able to do extraordinary practice, to keep themselves from feeling anger, hatred, violence. I'm dealing with something different. I'm dealing with: Yeah, I'm pumped up about who I am, or where I've been. I'm jealous, I'm greedy. I have to be aware of it all the time, and do my best not to act on it. I may be one of the big actors, but I'm the smallest one in the room.
You couldn't make any progress if you didn't realize that you were the lowest one in the room. I had no problem prostrating to my teachers at all. Not at all. I think they were amazed at how easily this celebrity was on the program.
So you're literally on your knees before them?
To do a full prostration, you're on your belly. If you are literally able to put your body on the ground, you start to think of yourself as not better than anybody else. Not better than the ant crawling on the ground. Besides the fact that it just feels good to let go. Literally feels good.
Do you ever worry about erasing your edges to the point where you, I don't know, disappear?
[Snorts] The mind ‑ this is the small sense of mind now ‑ doesn't like change at all. Doesn't want to give up anything. It's insidious and cruel and faithless and perverse. The constant vigilance it takes can be exhausting, monitoring the f‑‑‑er. But it has to be done.
How do you keep from getting arrogant about your own enlightened humility?
Your heart just opens. You just say, fine, I'll prostrate to him, I'll prostrate to her, I'll wash your feet.
You can wash my feet.
OK. Are they dirty?
I don't care.
Let's see... [Laughs]
What do your parents think of your practice?
They're very cool about it. They have responded to the positive things they've seen come out in me. They see the more expansive side of my nature. And also they see me being happy. And I think they're proud of my being involved in causes that in some way help people. That makes me feel great.
Were you raised to be a spiritual person?
Yeah. That's my grandfather right there [points to photo on wall]. Funny you would ask. And my mother and father are in that color picture there. That was taken at my place in the country a year ago. My mother and father are very wonderful, warm, religious people. Protestants. Apparently my father was quite close to becoming a minister himself and was always very involved with the church. My sense of ethics and morality came very clearly from them. My grandfather was a farmer; that's his farm right there. My father's whole childhood was about animals and the earth; he was tuned to think that way. My father sold insurance, but it wasn't a job to him. It was a deep, spiritual vocation. He genuinely believed he was securing the welfare of his neighbors. [Picks up a photo from his desk] There's my sister and me. I must have been about a year old. She's three years older. Then I have a sister five years younger than me, a brother three more years younger, and then there's a jump of 10 years to my youngest sister.
Your mom was having kids for a long time.
Yeah, and started early.
How old was she when you were born?
She was 23, 24.
It's pretty amazing that your parents are still together.
Well, they fought and they had issues, but they did stay together. They did stay together. I don't know about you, in your life, but I don't know anyone who stays together. It's so hard. But they just started so early. I remember haying a very clear vision of my mother when I was in her womb. I found it so funny, being there in her womb, because I realized how young she was. She was just a girl. Just a girl.
You remember being in her womb?
Who knows if it's a memory or a projection or whatever, but the feeling was true.
Let's talk about your book of photographs. Many of them have a real ghost‑town quality. Why did you blur the faces?
It's funny, His Holiness saw these pictures when they were at the Menil Collection in Houston, the first show that I had, and he didn't understand what they were. He thought it was a mistake. In fact, he called me over and whispered that to me. I said, "That's the way I want it to be." He thought that was so crazy. I think, in general, in my photographs, I don't want to give the sense that there is a decisive moment. Just the opposite. I want to show the implied reality, which is transitory. Always in motion. I want the indecisive moment. The trick of it is to be clear what you want to have moving in the frame. You've got to compose it knowing where the motion is going.
When did you start taking photographs?
I actually found some stuff that I shot when I was 8 or 9 years old. Which, curiously, looks a lot like what I'm shooting now. [Laughs] I was really surprised. Pictures of Boy Scouts that I had taken at camp with a Brownie camera looked like pictures I'd taken in Tibet. Just different uniforms. I remember brooding over: Should I put the mountain on that side of the frame? How much space should I leave for the sky? Essentially the same process I go through now.
Were you finally able to convince His Holiness of your worth as a photographer?
I don't know. I think when he sees the book he'll probably get it more. You feel the heart of it. And it's all the same heart. It's a universe unto itself. .
Johanna Schneller interviewed Tim Robbins for the June issue of 'US.'