Richard Gere, who has played gigolos, billionaires, and cops, is now playing a homeless man in Time Out of Mind, which opens the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival tonight (July 3).

Richard Gere in Time Out of Mind

It’s a far cry from Pretty Woman.  At 65, Gere, who also produced Time Out of Mind, talked to David D’Arcy about his four decades of making movies and about his new film, shot in the streets and shelters of New York.

Screen: Sidney Lumet, who directed you in Power in 1986, said that you were a fine under-used actor, and that as you got older the parts you got would be more interesting, because you would stop being a sex symbol.

Gere: Sidney was just jealous.

Screen: Ok. But the parts were interesting back then when you started – American Gigolo, An Officer and a Gentleman, Days of Heaven. This began early for you.

Gere:  I don’t know how careers happen, and I have great humility about it. Even in my acting class, I probably wasn’t the best actor. There were a lot of great actors around. I’ve been fortunate. The early pictures that I did, they were all characters to me. I haven’t done a movie where I didn’t think there was a character somewhere, that I didn’t have to prepare for, create a life for. It was all work for me at the very beginning. 

Screen: Time Out of Mind is different from any of those roles. How did that happen? 

Gere: It was a pretty slow burn. The project came to me about twelve years ago. It was a script that  wasn’t finished -  it hadn’t found itself, but it had two great characters. And it had a world that it was suggesting.  I could feel it but I couldn’t articulate what I wanted to do with the character and the movie. I ended up buying the rights to it. There was a book by Cadillac Man, called The Land of Lost Souls, by a man my age who was living on the streets of New York, and he wrote this very raw book.  No sentimentality whatsoever about his life on the streets, and that was it. You just felt immersed in a non-artful representation of being in a life. Then, when Oren and I met, I was able to articulate what I was thinking about because I read this book.

Screen: And preparing?

Gere: It was going to the shelters. You can’t live in New York and not have an experience with the homeless.  It was a long process for me of getting to know these people.

Screen: In American Gigolo, were you researching the role in the way you were researching Time Out of Mind? Were you just applying life experience?

Gere: You’ve just set up a golf ball and asked me to hit it. (laughs) I don’t speak five languages. So this guy throws out five languages, and he’s comfortable in any situation. Today I’m not comfortable, and certainly as a kid, when I did that movie, I wasn’t comfortable in any situation. And I remember when Paul Schrader brought it to me. The decision had to be made fairly quickly.  I had maybe two and half weeks to prepare for shooting at that point. 

Paul was very taken with Bertolucci’s movies, and hired a guy Nando Scarfiotti to design the movie. He was Bertolucci’s designer and Visconti’s art director. Much of the schematic of the visuals of it were right out of The Conformist. The Italian clothes were Giorgio Armani. I didn’t know anything about clothes. To me it was a process of feeling what this was. Schrader was taking me to gay clubs. I was talking to guys who were hustlers. 

Research to me is very rarely specific. It’s not ‘how do you exactly do that?’ Research gives me cues to enter another human being. And the creative process takes over. And the more you do know, the more welcoming that process is to you.  It’s very rare that there’s something that I specifically saw or researched that I bring into a movie. It just opens up the possibilities, and there’s a certain comfort level where the mysterious process happens.

Screen: It’s said that you turned down the role of Gordon Gecko in Wall Street. But you did play a powerful lawyer in Pretty Woman, and you played a Wall Street mogul in Arbitrage. Is there anything that draws you to this kind of character?

Gere: Penis envy

Screen: You’ve acted on stage, and the performance that had the greatest impact was Bent, set in Nazi Germany, where you played a gay character on Broadway, a risky move.

Gere: This was 35 years ago. I know, because I remember meeting the writer and the director on my 30th birthday, and I’m 65.  The whole second act of the play takes place in Dachau. Two gay guys, all they do is move rocks from one side of the stage to the other. And they never get to look at each other.  They can only look forward. They just move across the stage.  It’s totally meaningless labor in the camps. But you see two men fall in love, in this hour of this second act of this play.

There was a lovemaking scene where there was a 30-second break, and they could put the rocks down and stand still, but they couldn’t look at each other.  And they get each other off by talking each other off, in whispers.  It’s one of the most moving things that I’ve ever done as an actor. David Dukes was my acting partner in that. 

We would do matinees, and there would be the 70 and 80 year old blue-haired ladies right up front,  while we’re getting each other off onstage.  There was not a performance without people crying. It wasn’t two gay guys any more. It was two human beings in great need of love and affection. And we all can relate to that. And that’s what our movie is, Time Out of Mind, that yearning that we all have to love, to be able to love, to touch, to be part of something real and undeniable. 

Screen: Does the Dalai Lama watch your films?

Gere: No. If he had, he would have said something. But it’s so NOT what we talk about.

But the first time I met him, it was in Dharamsala, India, in 1981 or 1982, it was monsoon season and it was before His Holiness got the Nobel Peace Prize, where everything changed in the whole Tibetan world. After that, it was harder to just hang with him. I waited in the monsoon for two weeks to see him. I was brought in, I was nervous.

As anyone who meets someone like that, you think that he’s just going to zap you and you’re going to be enlightened and all of your suffering’s going to be taken away. Of course that doesn’t happen. He came in. He was very charming and very relaxed. He was talking to his brother, basically saying, ‘who is this guy?’ So he’s told, ‘he’s an American actor, he makes movies, he’s had some Buddhist training before.’

So he says, ‘my brother tells me you’re an actor. Tell me, when you do this acting, when you’re crying, are you really crying? When you’re laughing, are you really laughing?  When you’re angry, are you really angry?’ It just threw me back on myself. I didn’t know what to say, so I gave an actor’s answer. I said, ‘well, yes, it’s more meaningful if you’re really feeling it. You give truth to the part.’ And he looked at me as if I was the biggest idiot in the world. He just started laughing hysterically.

Obviously, it’s stuck with me since then, the absurdity of me, as an actor, knowing that I am , through my own work, making emotions. They’re real, they have to be real, or the storytelling doesn’t work.  But I make them happen. They don’t happen without me.  In real life, or in what we think our real lives are, we do the same thing. We make emotion, according to the story we’re telling. And they aren’t any more real than the movies that I’m making. It’s all a story. All of it.

There’s an old Jewish saying, that God created men and women, because he liked stories. We’re built to tell stories.

Richard Gere on…

begging in the streets in time Out of Mind, with the camera in the distance

On Astor Place, in rush hour. We couldn’t control New York. We were committed to the aesthetics of that. I approached from about a block away, with my hat on, in a costume, with all of my own issues of being a movie star, standing on a street corner. Then I realized, I’m not invisible, I’m a black hole. I’m a darkness that people can be sucked into, a deep level of fear. I was very passive, and than I started mumbling, ‘spare change, can you help me out?’  45 minutes we did this shot, and no one paid any attention to me.  It was one of the most profound experiences of my life, of dissolving me as a human being, dissolving me as an actor. I’m still shook by it, to tell you the truth.

Making independent films

These are movies that would have been made in the studios. These were the movies that we were making in the ‘70’s, 80’s, 90’s. The studios aren’t some boogeyman, but the business model of making movies has radically changed. Those more challenging movies were part of the 15 to 30 movies that a studio would make. Those are now in the independent world. You’ll see. Time Out of Mind is not a normal movie. It’s a very challenging movie – for us to make, but also for the audience to see.

We shot for 21 days. This in the old days would have been 45 days, 48 days, when it was in the studio system. There was one guy in a studio who would go, ‘yeah, I wanna make this movie,” and he would sign the check.

European influences

I’m from a small town in New York State, and I went to the University of Massachusetts in 1967. I saw all the New Wave stuff, all the Ingmar Bergmans. I was intoxicated with that. Those still are the jump-off point. With Oren, a lot of the references we talked about, for our film, were the neo-realists, and how that worked.

It was a different time, but what were the essential qualities that made hem so emotional, so real, so un-theatrical, but at the same time being operatic?   It was a really peculiar trick. De Sica was good at that, Rossellini was. Antonioni, and more recently Bertolucci, but that’s already forty years ago.

Just knowing Kurosawa was one of the greatest things in my life. Herzog was one of my absolute favorites. I have a feeling that I’ll make one with Herzog before I stop and before he stops.

And Fassbinder.  The first time I went to Cannes, it was with Days of Heaven. I said, ‘I’ll go, but I want to meet Herzog and Fassbinder.’ The night I got there, I’m riding around Cannes, and there was this rather large man with a scruffy short beard on the side of the road, and I said, ‘that’s Rainer Fassbinder. Stop the car.’

And I said, ‘Rainer?’ And he said, ‘Richard?’  We ended up drinking for about four days together. We almost made a movie of Bent together. He was quite a good friend for a while.