“This could change your life, but you can’t fuck up. If you really do this and you listen and you bring your best self to it, it’ll change your life.” – Richard Gere’s advice to director Nicholas Jarecki on making his narrative feature directorial debut with Arbitrage
When I think of Richard Gere, I picture the intense early ’80s Richard Gere – Days of Heaven and American Gigolo and An Officer and a Gentleman – pacing back and forth across the screen like a cat in a zoo cage, brains and emotions wheeling, pent up and waiting to snap. Subconsciously, I sort of expected that version of the actor as I was escorted into his suite for an interview recently, but the man who stood to shake my hand and offer me a seat on the couch was… casual. He looked handsome and fit in jeans and a denim-colored button-front shirt. His tan face has a few more lines, but he’s still got the trademark full head of hair even if it’s now silver. The eyes are now behind spectacles, but they’re still piercing and they could still cut you in half. Yes, this was definitely Richard Gere, but he was unexpectedly relaxed and comfortable. And why shouldn’t he be? After more than 30 years in an unforgiving industry that swallows as quickly as it can chew, Gere has endured and thrived. There have been highs and lows, but here is a man with nothing left to prove and he has the luxury of supporting a film that’s getting him some of the better notices of his career.
The film is Arbitrage and Gere stars as a Robert Miller, a Wall Streeter whose professional and personal lives have both hit serious speed bumps, each threatening to unravel the other. With a fuse burning at both ends, Miller juggles a series of lies in an increasingly dangerous effort to get things back on track.
Arbitrage opened last week in limited theatrical release and on VOD. I spoke with Mr. Gere on Sunday.
Craig Kennedy: Let’s start with Arbitrage first and if we have time maybe we can talk about your career more generally. What particularly drew you to the role of Robert Miller?
Richard Gere: The first time I read the script actually was on a plane. It was one of the few times I was in L.A. and I was heading back to New York. It wasn’t just the character. It was the script. This was the first read and it was a beautifully written, smart, character-driven piece which is extremely rare. And they apparently had enough money that they could make a go of it at that time. Beyond that obviously is the character who was very interesting to me. Robert Miller is someone who has a compromised side, but I had no interest in painting him as a villain in that black and white kind of villain way. He seemed very deeply human to me with all the flaws and all the problems and with that, kind of, lack of empathy that some of us have.
CK: He’s a timely character, too, because obviously Wall Street is something on everyone’s mind right now.
RG: That was the other thing. It speaks to our times. I mean, how many scripts do you read that actually speak to our world?
CK: By the same token, it’s difficult for an audience not to go in with a certain set of expectations of the character. You sort of expect him to be the black and white villain.
RG: Madoff. You expect him to be Bernie Madoff.
CK: Or Gordon Gekko. But he’s not just a monster. He’s a human being and if people are honest with themselves, they might see a lot of themselves in him.
RG: I think that’s what’s happening. You know, I get people who are kind of angry with me in a way because they end up pulling for this guy to get out of trouble. At the same time they know he’s a very flawed human being, but I think that’s the trick of an actor. We make all of our characters human enough that we can all see ourselves in them and they are a reflection of that in a way. I mean, I don’t think there’s anything this guy does that is outside of the realm of what we would do. We might make other choices, but we would be tempted and we could make the wrong choice.
CK: It’s really more a matter of the degree or scale of Robert’s bad choices that separates him a little bit.
RG: Yeah. Absolutely.
CK: You’ve worked with some of the great directors of our time – Malick, Schlesinger, Altman, Coppola, Kurosawa – What gave you the confidence to work with a relative newcomer like Nicholas Jareki?
RG: The only other time I worked… well that’s not true. The one time I choose to remember (laughs) that I worked with a first time director – and he wasn’t totally a first time director, he’d done a TV movie – was Rob Marshall on Chicago and that ended up being one of the top experiences of my life, as an actor as well as, kind of, a man. It was great. It was just a great experience all the way around; everything about it.
CK: What made it great? Was it Rob or was it the unique challenge of doing a musical?
RG: It was Rob. He’s just a quality guy and when a quality guy runs a ship and it’s a fun project anyhow, the experience itself is way beyond what happens with the product in the end.
CK: So what was it about Nick that made you think he could deliver?
RG: I’m very careful about who I work with. I don’t want to spend 3, 4, 5, 6 months with someone I don’t respect or I don’t like. The thing with Nick was I trusted that he knew this world. He’d written the script. I knew enough about his background before I met him that I thought “Ok, he’s written about something that he knows. I wonder if can actually make a movie.” So, we got together and talked a couple of times in depth, not just about script, but I wanted to get a sense of him. I mean, he’s a kid in many ways. He’s very young, he’s in his early 30s and he’s a little manic. I would think he doesn’t sleep more than four hours a night. Now, I’ll probably hear from him and he’ll say “No, I sleep nine hours a night,” but he’s a personality that… he’s wired. And it’s good wired. It’s not destructive wired. It’s fun and in the realm of creativity. In the end, I just looked at him and trusted that he was not going to allow himself to fail, that he would do everything in his power to succeed because this was so meaningful to him. I said, “Look, this could change your life, but you can’t fuck up. If you really do this and you listen and you bring your best self to it, it’ll change your life.”
CK: If he’d blown it, you probably wouldn’t be sitting here right now talking about it.
RG: I wouldn’t. I don’t push movies that I don’t like. I think it’s a really good movie. It’s really, in almost all ways, what we set out to do and probably in a few ways a little beyond what I even knew was there. This is the beginning of, I think, a really extraordinary career for Nick. I’m really excited for him.
CK: I don’t know how much working with someone who is just starting his career causes you to reflect back on your own, but you’ve had your share of ups and downs. In the late ’70s and early ’80s your career quickly reached heights that maybe even you yourself couldn’t have expected, but then later in the decade it cooled off a little bit. Looking back, how did you handle a situation like that where maybe you’re not sure it’s going to come back?
RG: I never freaked out about it. My life is incredibly full and I don’t kid myself. This is my job, it’s not my life. I’m very clear about that and I’ve been clear about that from the beginning. I like this job a lot, but it’s not everything. So, I made a choice then, and I’ve talked about this before, that if I wanted to have this career I had to make some conscious choices for it to get on track and I did and they worked out. They weren’t obvious at all, but Internal Affairs and Pretty Woman were like back to back at that point in my career. Both were small movies and both could’ve disappeared and not made a blip, but they did work out.
CK: Neither of those were necessarily expected to be huge, but suddenly you’re back in business again. What about a movie where you thought you gave a particularly good performance or you felt the movie itself was excellent but it didn’t find an audience?
RG: Lasse Hallstrom’s The Hoax was one that I always feel a bit sad that it got away. That was a really good movie. Lasse felt it too. He couldn’t have made a better movie. I couldn’t have done the part better than I did it. Maybe someone else could’ve, but that’s the best I could do and for whatever reason it just didn’t happen out there.
CK: It must be frustrating that success or failure in this business doesn’t necessarily depend on quality, but on other, sort of, mysterious things that are beyond any one person’s control.
RG: There’s such a mysterious alchemy of what works, what’s successful and what makes an impact. But again, I’ve been through this so many times that I don’t blow my brains out about it.
CK: One of my favorite moments in Arbitrage is where, after spending most of the film on the ropes, your character finally gets a meeting with his nemesis and, in spite of seeming to be on very shaky ground, your character really sticks it to him with the confidence and intensity you’ve often displayed in characters throughout your career. It’s the Richard Gere we expect.
RG: At that point, he’s figured out that Mayfield wants him. He’s in the catbird seat. All of this was, “he was just working me.” Miller’s not impotent anymore. He’s on familiar territory. “This is where I work my best. I’ve got an edge.” And Mayfield is ok with it because he was beaten with panache, a kind of boy’s club panache.
CK: And he’s been burned by the best.
RG: Yeah. Mayfield’ll get him. He’ll maybe burn him back some day, but it’s in the club.
CK: You’ve been asked I’m sure a number of times about the enigmatic ending where your character whispers something in the ear of his daughter played by Brit Marling. More interesting I think than what he said is how she reacts. There’s a coldness to her and I was left with the sense that whatever else he may have gained or lost in the film, his daughter maybe didn’t see him as the hero she once did and that’s a little sad.
RG: That was a totally unscripted moment. My only response to that is, “Look at the Clintons.” Don’t think people are predictable or that situations are predictable the way they unfold. Who would’ve ever thought they’d be where they are right now?
CK: Seemingly happier than ever in spite of everything.
RG: Yeah. The whole family. And that Clinton would be thought of the way he’s thought of in the world right now.
CK: I assume you saw his convention speech?
RG: Sure. The guy is brilliant. The guy is absolutely brilliant.
CK: He’s still at the top of his game.
RG: Absolutely and with the same boyish, impish kind of stuff which is the currency that really makes it work for him.
CK: He’s kind of an actor himself, isn’t he?
RG: Yeah! Very studied, but it’s got a spontaneity to it, a boyish kind of twinkle. You know, the drawl will come out of him at the right moment and that crooked finger pointed out at the right moment. I mean, it all works. He’s brilliant.
CK: And he comes across as natural. Is that something you shoot for as an actor?
RG: I think he believes what he’s doing. He’s just brilliant at communicating. He uses all those tools that an orator should have and he’s brilliant. I’ve seen him close up in many situations all over the world. The guy is brilliant. You can do impressions of him and sort of do the stuff that he does, but it’ll always come off as an impression.
CK: What role was your biggest challenge as an actor?
RG: (pause) Probably Pretty Woman. To be that, kind of… I don’t know how to describe it. Whatever that character was. You described me as intense. That was a pretty intense time of my life and to be that open and available…
CK: I think you’ve used the word “light hearted” to describe that movie…
RG: Yes. Light hearted. That wasn’t particularly easy. It wasn’t what I set out to do. It was a hard territory. Light comedy, I guess that’s the issue. Charming light comedy was not something that was my stock and trade for sure.
CK: What gave you the confidence that you could pull it off?
RG: Oh, Garry Marshall. At that stuff, he’s a genius. He’s the Bill Clinton of that stuff. He can’t make a false move. It’ll go this way or that way a little bit, but that’s where he lives is that world.
CK: So, was it his confidence in you that you could do it that convinced you?
RG: Yeah, but I didn’t come in there going, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” It’s much more subtle than that. I knew what was required. It’s just that I’d never done it before. It had a first time quality to it which probably worked really well for that movie. I didn’t know what the clichés were of doing that kind of thing. So, there were probably some other things that mysteriously got into that, in the spontaneity of all of it. Julia, beginning her career, didn’t know who she was yet. She wasn’t “Julia Roberts” yet. She was just this young actress from Georgia. And Garry just kind of embraces everyone. He’s just a big teddy bear. You know, there was a line he’d written and I didn’t think it was funny or I probably didn’t know how to deliver it right, and I said, “Give me something else” and he gave me three other joke lines. I’d try one and it would work or it didn’t and we’d try another. There was really kind of a joyous sense of play around it. It was light hearted. What’s in the movie is the way we made the movie.
CK: Pretty Woman maybe endures exactly because of that joyousness but also because it was atypical or put together from unexpected elements. So many movies have tried to replicate it since…
RG: You can’t. We couldn’t. We tried it afterwards [Marshall, Gere and Roberts later made Runaway Bride together] and you can’t.
CK: Putting yourself in roles that aren’t necessarily in your wheelhouse seems to pay off. Have you ever considered doing a flat out comedy?
RG: I actually have. There’s one script that I have some kind of bizarre obsession with. It’s a goofball – I hope it’s smart, I think it’s smart – a smart, goofball movie. I don’t know if this is the time to get it on or not. I’ll still probably try sometime in the next year. Maybe if this movie does really well I can pull that out and say “Let’s try this.”
CK: Let’s get back to directing for a minute. We talked about how you’ve worked with the best and you’ve also worked with first timers. What is it in your opinion that makes a good one?
RG: I don’t think there’s a hard and fast answer to that because the directors you mentioned before were all different. They were all radically different. I think you’ve got to be able to communicate… well that’s not even true. I was thinking with Kurosawa we couldn’t speak the same language and he wasn’t used to talking to actors. I was going to say “communicating with actors,” but that’s not what he did. I think you’ve just got to be true to yourself. 99 percent of creativity is confidence and comfort level. The comfort to say, “Ok, all the systems are open.” As soon as you shut down, systems start to close up, the emotions close up, ideas close up and tension starts to come in. But a comfortable, open, confident situation, to me, is the basis to all good work. So, however a director creates the environment for that, whichever is appropriate to them, it’s going to work for everybody else.
CK: Is it a matter of making the actors feel comfortable taking chances?
RG: Of course. If I feel that I have to edit myself because I don’t trust the other people, of course I’m not going to go as far. But it’s on all levels, this sense of comfort and confidence. In my experience, it’s the only way good work happens. I know people who don’t feel that way, who feel just the opposite. They’ve got to have tension. There’s got to be a problem. There’s got to be some crazy thing. They’ve got to be yelling at somebody or someone’s got to be yelling at them. That gets their blood moving. That doesn’t work with me at all.
Craig Kennedy writes for Living in Cinema. In fact, he runs the joint.