By Garry Maddox, Sydney Morning Herald
Around the time of American Gigolo, An Officer and a Gentleman, Pretty Woman and Primal Fear – the heady ’80s and ’90s – Richard Gere was just about the biggest star in Hollywood. Dashing, charming, sexy, great hair.
But while he has slipped from the spotlight at the age of 67, it is not so much about a declining number of roles for ageing heartthrobs. After all, Liam Neeson, Denzel Washington, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford and many other actors over 60 are still making big movies. And as Gere’s roles in Arbitrage (2012) and The Second Best Exotic Hotel (2015) showed, he still looks the part.
But Gere’s passionate support for Tibet has cost him Hollywood studio movies. His last was the romance Nights in Rodanthe almost a decade ago.
This outspoken activism goes back to the time Gere presented best art director at the Academy Awards in 1993. A Buddhist and long-time supporter of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled leader, he criticised China’s occupation of Tibet and its “horrendous, horrendous human rights situation” – prompting the furious awards producer to ban him from future Oscars.
That proved prophetic when Chicago won six Oscars including best picture in 2003. Despite winning a Golden Globe for playing a smooth talking lawyer in the film, Gere was not among the four actors from the musical who were nominated.
In 2007, he called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics. And Gere still supports the Tibetan cause through two foundations – the International Campaign for Tibet and The Gere Foundation. All this activism has had him banned for life from China.
With Hollywood furiously chasing Chinese audiences and investment, Gere may as well wear a T-shirt to meetings saying “Persona Non Grata”. Which roughly translates as “If you want your movie to work in China, don’t cast me”.
“There are definitely movies that I can’t be in because the Chinese will say ‘Not with him’,” Gere told The Hollywood Reporter last month. “I recently had an episode where someone said they could not finance a film with me because it would upset the Chinese.”
There were also consequences when he starred as an American businessman wrongly accused of murder in China in the 1997 thriller Red Corner. “Everyone was happy with the film,” Gere said. “Out of nowhere, I get calls saying ‘We don’t want you doing press.’
“MGM wanted to make an overall deal with the Chinese. China told them, ‘If you release this film, we’re not buying it.’ And so, they dumped it.”
Gere also ran into flak on an independent – non-studio – film that was not intended for Chinese release.
“There was something I was going to do with a Chinese director, and two weeks before we were going to shoot, he called saying, ‘Sorry, I can’t do it’,” Gere told the magazine. “We had a secret phone call on a protected line. If I had worked with this director, he, his family would never have been allowed to leave the country again, and he would never work.”
But after that candid interview made headlines around the world, Gere seems to be stepping back from being quite so outspoken.
“I haven’t read that article but the feedback I’m getting is maybe the emphasis wasn’t completely accurate,” he tells Fairfax Media from New York. “What I kept telling this reporter was, yeah, of course the Chinese Communist Party is not particularly happy with me.
“But for movies that are seen in China, there’s clearly a quota system of foreign films that are allowed there and the choice of those films is very much in the hands of the exhibitors.
“If there are only so many foreign films that are allowed in, the exhibitors are going to want the blockbuster films – the Star Wars, the Avatars, the big action, violent movies. I don’t make those movies and I don’t have an interest in making them so in reality it has no effect on my life or my career.”
So Hollywood’s studios haven’t blacklisted – or should that be redlisted – him?
“That’s completely overstating it,” Gere says. “I suppose on some level it’s true but I think the worst part of that is that, even without the Chinese making a demand that way, the world edits themselves before that happens …
“We see it everywhere. China doesn’t even have to say these things. Everyone pre-edits themselves as to their behaviour, thinking that they’re going to miss out on the financial opportunity there. So the real villain here is greed on all sides.”
Instead of a splashy big budget movie, Gere is back in cinemas with a strong character role in the independent drama Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer. He plays a mysterious Jewish hustler, Norman Oppenheimer, who is forever spinning out fantasies about his personal connections to broker deals.
It’s a lonely life in the shadows until Norman gets lucky: a minor Israeli politician (Lior Ashkenazi) he once helped surprisingly becomes prime minister. The fixer suddenly becomes caught up in a net of political intrigue that includes his nephew (Michael Sheen), a rabbi (Steve Buscemi), an official with the Israeli Justice System (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and a successful businessman (Harris Yulin).
At least initially, the relentlessly pushy Norman is an unlikeable character.
“Ohhhh, come on,” Gere says. “He’s very likable.” He laughs.
“He’s certainly annoying but I think he’s a warm-hearted guy. That’s one of the things I discovered in trying to figure him out.
“I assumed that he reacts to humiliations and defeats much like we would: he gets angry and secretly plots revenge. But he doesn’t do that.
“He’s quite an extraordinary character in taking these sometimes very tough body blows and absorbs them and turns them into forward motion without any anger. I thought that was really something unique and completely lovable about him.”
Norman is very much part of Jewish life in New York but Gere believes similar characters exist everywhere.
“I live in New York and certainly I’ve met hundreds of Normans in different cultures,” he says. “I remember when we played the Miami Film Festival, it was all Latinos there.
“I asked them afterwards what they felt about it and they all embraced Norman as their own. I think every culture has their Norman.”
While the movie has resonances with real life in the US – an unlikely politician rises to power then is surrounded by opportunists – it was not made to reflect contemporary politics.
“When we made the movie, Trump seemed to be an impossibility,” Gere says. “He’s just such an outlier. In years from now we’ll think how did that ever happen? What a strange event.
“But certainly around politics, around the movie business, around I’d assume anything that has power and money associated with it, there’s an outward circle – a boundary – that Normans are trying to penetrate.”
To transform into Norman, Gere tucked himself into a camel hair coat and flat cap and made his ears stick out.
“We had one day where Joseph Cedar, the writer-director, said he wanted to change my face to get this sense of Norman,” he says. “I said ‘OK, let’s play’ so he fooled around with eyebrows and moustaches and having my hairline back. I thought they all looked ridiculous and he didn’t disagree with me.”
They struck on a look based on a movie poster featuring a friend, Indian actor Aamir Khan, in a goofball role.
“I was just joking and said ‘why don’t I do this?’ and stuck my ears out,” Gere says. “And Joseph and Oren Moverman, the producer, went ‘that’s it’.”
At least the way he tells it, the so-called “Sexiest Man Alive” in 1999 seems to have no trouble with ageing.
“The reality is everyone gets older,” he says. “What’s the big deal? Everybody.”
Gere doesn’t need to work for financial reasons – one newspaper estimated his fortune at $US250 million during the drawn-out divorce from second wife Carey Lowell that was finalised last year – but has shot two other independent movies recently.
In The Dinner, directed by Moverman, he plays a politician facing a family drama during an upmarket meal; and in Three Christs, directed by Red Corner‘s Jon Avnet, he plays a doctor treating three paranoid schizophrenic patients who all believe they are Jesus Christ.
When it comes to the type of movies he watches, Gere seems to have disconnected with mainstream Hollywood.
“I don’t see too many of the big films,” he says. “I certainly liked Avatar. That was a great movie. That’s not the movies I make so I’m not particularly involved in that kind of stuff.
“There are probably more independent films made now than ever because the studios aren’t making that kind of film any more. Frankly I made three movies last year – all of them interesting. And ones that I would have made if the studio had financed them but they don’t. So we make them independently.”
Despite his firmly held beliefs, Gere says Buddhism doesn’t influence the types of roles he chooses.
“I can’t say that I filter choices through Buddhism,” Gere says. “I don’t think I’ve ever done something even from the very beginning that I didn’t think was meaningful in some way.
“The first thing has to be that it touches me personally and I have to have some relationship – even more than that, fall in love – with a script, a part, a story. But I also feel it has to be meaningful on some level.”