Guys who are a bit of a mess are just more fun.
“Those roles are easier to play,” says Richard Gere, sipping a glass of water at a restaurant in Sag Harbor, N.Y., where he spends the summer and is doing the junket for his new film, Arbitrage (in theaters Sept. 14). “There are so many more colors. As actors, we’re a bit of showoffs emotionally. You have to have a bit of that ability, and those characters kind of call on that. It’s much harder to play closer to normal and likable and a good citizen and keep that interesting for two hours. That’s really hard. That’s super-hard.”
Of course, as he says this, it starts becoming unclear whom he’s talking about, since the thieving, scheming financier he plays in his latest movie is actually rather likable. As the film’s director, Nicholas Jarecki, tells me by phone later on, “I watch the movie, and I root for him.”
Which is precisely the point, Gere goes on to say. He wanted his hedge-fund magnate to be as un–Bernie Madoff–like as possible, even though he cheats his clients, two-times his wife, and eventually winds up in an incredibly baroque cover story to keep his world from coming apart. “Bernie Madoff is not that interesting because he’s a sociopath,” Gere says. “He’s crazy. What’s more interesting is people who make immoral choices and compromises, like we all do. We felt that that could resonate much more if we could recognize ourselves in this guy.”
The former Herb Ritts pinup boy has made a career of playing men who just don’t know how to do the right thing.
For the past three decades, Gere has been a movie star in the real, pre-Us Weekly sense. Yet he has never saved the world from terrorists (à la Tom Cruise) or killed off a race of invading aliens (see: Will Smith). Instead, he’s been something chillier and more complicated: The morally compromised lawyer in Primal Fear. The pathologically screwed-up cop in Internal Affairs. The husband in Unfaithful who comes off sweet as a pussycat until his back is up against the wall and he snaps, leading to a choice that would be totally shocking were it not an Adrian Lyne film.
So how does Gere—a pretty likable person himself with no real trace of narcissism or duplicitousness—morph so easily into these characters?
It’s hard to say. For the past 10 years he’s been happily married to Carey Lowell. He’s become the most famous meditator west of the Dalai Lama (with whom he’s been photographed numerous times). People who work with him have almost nothing to report but good stuff.
Says Jarecki: “He’s had a lot of time to work out his demons, and I think he’s worked them out. He’s a great guy and very generous in spirit. Was it always that way? I don’t know. I would assume he’s drawing on personal experience like anyone else. You have to put all that in the pot to build the character, but I can’t get into the particulars of that. I don’t psychologize him.”
Gere himself has also come around to the viewpoint that there’s no such thing as evil, only shades of gray. We make bad choices, he thinks, but not because we’re inherently bad people. That philosophy guides him as an actor. “I don’t think there’s innate evil in anybody,” he says. “And you don’t play evil. You play a character.”
He pauses. “But I do think there’s darkness.”