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PopEntertainment.com > Feature Interviews - Actors > Features Interviews F to J > Richard Gere

RICHARD GERE

 THE SEASON FOR GETTING SPIRITUAL

by Brad Balfour

Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: November 29, 2005.

Because Richard Gere has spent years alternating between being a cinematic sex symbol (Chicago, Pretty Woman) and Tibetan Buddhist devotee, he had a unique experience to enhance his role as Saul Naumann, the college professor who encourages his young daughter Eliza to both become a spelling bee champion and Kaballistic acolyte in Bee Season – a complex and challenging film about both family and spirituality.

It must've been a pleasure to work on such a spiritual movie.

The ideas were really stimulating. It was mysterious and there was darkness. It's dangerous territory to be playing in; we talked a lot about the responsibility of doing this [story] in a serious, responsible way. Even inserting things in the script, we said, "Look this is dangerous territory. This is nothing to play with, because it isn't. This is serious stuff."

Kabbalah is very much in the media with celebrities like Madonna sporting red bracelets and now this movie.

I don't know. I don't have any friends who practice it so you would have a better idea than me. I don't even think about it.

There are lots of bonds between Kabbalah and Buddhism, will you continue to look into Kabbalah?

I'm perfectly fine with Buddhism (laughs), but 'm particularly taken by this idea of Tikkun Olam.  I don't know if you know the magazine, Tikkun but its founder Michael Lerner is someone I talked to quite a bit when I was practicing this. And we were writing how to actually describe Tikkun Olam and the origin of this concept, this idea of fixing of healing is an important – I think – part of any genuine spiritual approach. But there is a sense of… there is wholeness. In Buddhism, what we call Buddha Nature – tathagatagarba – but in that sense it's not that is has to be fixed or healed. It has to be revealed, it's been layered over – this sense of oneness, the community of interconnectedness of experiential relationship with emptiness – with Simhanada – of something that's just been clouded over with ignorance and negative mindsets. You'd probably describe Kabbalah better than I would and how it relates to something like that but Kabbalah is very much about this idea of fixing of things that have been damaged. From a Buddhist point of view, things have been damaged because ignorance has intoxicated the mind. So there is a hardcore belief in a self, and when you have a hardcore belief in a self you also have a hardcore belief in the other self, and that creates separation, dualism, and that's the source of all of our pain and suffering, it mushrooms from there.

Besides going to synagogue what else did you do to immerse yourself in Judaism?

I talked to a lot of writers, rabbis, thinkers and spokespersons, some that I knew before and some that I met during the process of making this film. In the book, this character is really a cantor, and he's so hardcore Jewish. The decision was made to make this a little more universal, so he's a religion professor at Berkeley who specializes in Kabbalah, more specifically in Abraham Abulafia – a 12th century Jewish mystic. But you can't become an expert on anything in three or four months. What you can do is learn enough to find how it stimulates sympathy with what you have learned in your own life. I found certain aspects of this guy, Abulafia, and the approach of Kabbalah were similar enough to my training in Tibetan Buddhism, which is 30 years of practice, that it kind of hotwired into my own truths of exploration in Buddhism.

What was the challenge of playing such a character?

Oh, the challenges. It's very easy to play certain characters in a caricature way, and I didn't want this guy to be so obviously overbearing that you can just go, Oh yeah, boy, this is a controlling motherfucker isn't he? [laughs] and kind of write him off. I wanted to find a way that was subtle enough that you could take a ride with him and give him the benefit of the doubt for as long as possible. And realize that he also was caught up in his own ignorance, like everyone else is, and at the same time is definitely a controlling guy. There is a moment that's really important to me when he's talking to his daughter and he's starting to give her the real stuff. He trusts her enough and feels she's got it enough that he starts to give her real teachings, and he pulls out the book of his translation work that he's done on Abulafia. And he says to her that he thinks she really can achieve "shiffa." I think the most honest he is in the whole movie is when he says "I can't do it myself. I wanted to more than anything in the world, my whole life was pointed in that direction but I can't do it. You can." It's a really honest admission from a guy who turns on all the kids that he teaches at university, and everyone thinks he's smart, he's got it all, he's the real deal, but in the end he's an "academic." She instinctively goes there, spontaneously.

What drew you to this character?

There are two things I've got to be drawn by, basically the script when every piece of serious work has a letter to the universe somehow. And the letter to the universe from this was mysterious and all encompassing and generous and very much about this yearning that I think we all have, that all beings have, to reconnect, to fix but there is a larger universe, a less restricting one.

A less restricted universe?

That's all embracing, that rejects nothing. The boundaries are pretty strict here in all ways. I think you see that in children or start to. They get jumpy from feeling minimized constantly, that all growing up is making them smaller, when the instinct is to get larger, encompass the entire universe, which is possible. You can expand your mind and your heart to the size of the universe. You can expand your mind and heart at the speed of light, in all directions. But everything in our culture and our basic ignorance that is intoxicated it, has conspired to minimize the possibilities. So anyhow, the yearning is for the larger self, not the smaller one, and that that is the essential quality I found in this.

When he turns on his son Aaron [Max Minghella] for choosing his own religious direction, he shows a hypocrisy that's natural in human beings.

I think what you say is true, but it's more complex than that. Here's a son who lied to him about what he was doing – now for good reason, because [the father] is a controlling influence. If he had just told him the truth, he wasn't guaranteed he was going to get the answer that he would have wanted. There were a lot of lies… he got a call in the middle of all these problems with his wife to find that his son has run away to be a Hare Krishna and has been doing it for the last three months or whatever. So of course he got angry.

You think he got angry because of his lying...

 I said it was more complex than one [thing] or the other. All these things are more complex than one thing and that's part of the trick of doing a movie like this. You can't let it ever be, "Oh, I get it. It's that." It's like life; we're a myriad of conflicting forces—all of us. The direction has to tell that; our storytelling has to tell it; the actors have to be telling that too. Yeah it's "that", but also "that" and "that."

What was in the discussion?

I was moved by the movie when I saw the early cuts. It was working on that level, I couldn't tell you why, but when it got to the end of the movie and this little girl, Eliza [Flora Cross] made the decision she made, I found it incredibly moving. I couldn't tell you exactly why it was moving to me – not consciously. It was a mysterious, spontaneous reaction to it. And if the movie works for some people – and I'm sure there'll be people that it doesn't work at all and just leaves them cold--it's because it taps into a non-conceptual, emotional space that is generally, again, leading us into that space of that yearning without telling us exactly what we're supposed to feel. I don't think there's any music in this movie that gives you that emotional cues that most movies do, "oh I'm supposed to be feeling this here or, Oh! I'm supposed to be feeling that there." It's much more complex playing, the same way Abulafia is a complex way of playing with the structures of the mind to disorient from the known, and from the habitual. That's one of the good things about this and probably one of the reasons it won't be a hugely commercial movie. Even if it is successful, it's never gonna be one of those type of movies. You got to be on the wavelength with it. Some people are, some aren't. It's not good or bad, it's just…you know, some people, you know, like an intense chocolate and some people don't.

You certainly had some difficult moments with Juliette [Binoche] as his wife, Miriam. That must have taken a lot of preparation?

Yes, Juliette is a wonderful actress and I was so happy she was making this movie. We had known each other for some time, but not well. A very difficult part to play, it was all internalized. She...the way Juliette works is she's, she's…in a way, she apologized to me, she said, "this is not going to be easy for you." She's pretty much the character all the time. She immersed herself in this character. She became remote to me. The relationship on screen was more or less the relationship we had off. It was a bit disconnected. You know, that's just the way it was.

Is that an advantage or a disadvantage in a movie this complex; but what about working with the kids?

Well, Max [Minghella] is not a newcomer. It's his first movie but he's hardly a newcomer. He was born into the sea of movies and theatre; it's in his DNA most likely [his father is Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella]. And he's smart; you know he's observant and self-critical. He knows when it's good and knows when it's bad. He's monitoring himself… but he's always trying, he's always working. He has a great natural sense of self-editing. His bullshit-barometer is very acute, which is really important for an actor.

And Flora?

Flora… we were just talking about this because the approach… I'm kind of instinctively doing this because I've been doing this for so long, but design a performance. I know what the shape of a performance needs to be; I know how to pull the pieces out to do this on this day and this on another day. I can organize it that way. Max is very much that way as well, he's instinctive yet it's not yet become spontaneous with him. His mind will work that way. Flora is day to day, it's like, "I come to play. I want to see what's required of me." She works hard, she would have someone, the nigh before and the morning of, go over her lines with her and she'd be prepared. It wasn't like the design of a performance; I don't know if she ever understood what was happening in the process. But she inhabited fully each day, and that's a different approach. It means you have to have a really good director to do that and you have trust the people you with.

So, working with these two directors, Scott McGhee and David Siegel…

Which was fine, and I said both those counts as great. I loved working with those kids. 

How did you work with them?

They had a similar feel to me of how to rehearse. Rehearsal, to me, is not about, "okay, let's get the script out and make decisions about what we're going to do." That to me leads to bad filmmaking. All of it is much more mysterious and creative than that. And the most important thing is to feel confident, comfortable and trusting. So just spending easy time together,you talk a little bit about the script, maybe read a few things. Not getting too heavy, not getting overly dramatic. Just start to throw out things, look through magazines, talk about wardrobe on each other, easy, light stuff. The creative process starts to use that anyhow. And we start to move it in a certain direction.

How was that compromised by Juliette's standoffishness?

No, that's different. It's not standoffishness about doing the work, it's that she felt it was necessary not to be connected to me personally. Like, we wouldn't have dinner afterwards. The process of the work was totally open, totally open. Just to be cool about that.

How did you interact in terms of fixing your place in these things?

Well, you just do it. It feels right or it doesn't. David Scott and I would talk, a lot, but there's a certain point when you realize you're on a certain wavelength. There's no point. You don't have to talk. Sometimes it would be, "Should we got a little further?" Or, you know, "I'm gonna lay out in this scene. I think we've done enough of that. I'm gonna just be moving in this scene, I don't need to be focused on…just let me move through the frame." Those were the kind of discussions we had.

Have you kept on your violin lessons?

Whew, one of the most frustrating things I've ever done in my life. One of the joys of being an actor is that you're always learning new things.  And I've been doing this since I was 19, so there's been a lot of new things I have learned for each part. I always assumed that I can do it. I had this enormous hubris that I could actually pull off playing the violin in three months[laughter]. I really had convinced myself it was possible and had wonderful teachers and I worked really hard. And I was really horrible, and it was really painful to the point where my family said, "Please stop." We went on vacation and I dragged my violin with us, and they said, "You're ruining our vacation, please stop."

Is this the first time you played a Jewish character?

I guess it is; actually I just played another one. I cut all my hair off, but I had kind of a Jew-Fro [laughs]. I had a perm, dark hair playing Clifford Irving – I just finished that one, The Hoax.  We just had a wonderful time on this movie. Lasse Hallstöm directed it. And I'm doing a new one, The Flock, with director Andrew Lau, who is – I don't know if you know his work, Infernal Affairs – we’re starting shooting in just two weeks in Albuquerque.

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Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: November 29, 2005.

Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: November 29, 2005.