The actor-activist talks about his latest film, the financial thriller Arbitrage, and his human rights work.
Actor-activist Richard Gere
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Richard Gere to this program. The talented actor and tireless human rights advocate stars in a new film out now called “Arbitrage.” The movie is the story of a troubled hedge fund manager and also stars Susan Sarandon and Tim Roth, so here now a scene from “Arbitrage.”
Tavis: I have been so anxious to talk to you. Thank you for coming.
Richard Gere: No, it’s a great pleasure.
Tavis: Oh, we’ve done some radio before, but never on television.
Gere: We did, I think it was actually on International AIDS Day.
Tavis: It was indeed. So I’m glad to have you in the studio.
Gere: Thanks a lot.
Tavis: There’s so much to talk about with regard to this film, because there’s so many human dynamics and issues at work in this project. I think at the center of the movie, as I see it, at least, is the struggle that so many human beings have between power and humanity. Are you willing to give up the power to hold on to your humanity? Would that be an accurate description?
Gere: Yeah. I’m happy with that, but I think there’s a sub -
Gere: – concept of that, is that we – I don’t know about you, but I don’t meet many people that are evil. I meet human beings who are flawed, who are mentally ill and have enormous problems, but I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who was a totally dark energy that had no humanity or sense of love or affection for anything in their life. That’s very rare.
But I think that as human beings we tend to compartmentalize, and we have a selective morality based on the situation we’re in.
And I think that’s a very modern thing. It’s a problem we have and that we cheat on our taxes and maybe we have a mistress on the side, but in this other area we’re totally honest and straightforward and have a moral point of view that is consistent, and we think that’s okay.
But the moral decisions we make in one part of our life resonate through everything, and I think that’s a lot of what we’re talking about in this film as well.
Tavis: The characters are not the same, I want to be clear about that, but I was fascinated to go back through your corpus of work and I think I knew this, but I had forgotten it. You famously turned down the Gordon Gekko character, Michael Douglas played that.
Gere: Everyone asks me about that. First of all, no one could have done this better than Michael.
Tavis: Yeah, he played, yeah.
Gere: Nobody. And I don’t even remember the circumstances, (laughter) so I don’t want to go there with this.
Tavis: No, I’m only raising that because you didn’t do the Gordon Gekko character but you did do this one. What made you want to do this particular character? That’s the only thing I wanted to ask you about that, not about “Wall Street.”
Gere: It came out of nowhere, the script, and it was actually given to me before I got on a plane. I was in L.A., and very rare that I come to L.A. I live in New York. I read it on the plane and was kind of floored by the quality of the writing, and not just as a movie, but how it understood people.
Ultimately, the framework and the fabric of the reality of this movie is the financial world and power and money, but you can’t really sustain a movie about that. It has to be about people and their relationships and how the choices people make resonate through every aspect of their lives and relationships.
So that’s what struck me, is the maturity of all the characters in this piece feel rich and textured and real to me in a way that it’s rare in the movies today to see. Besides the fact that obviously it was talking about something that’s meaningful to all of us in the world today.
Tavis: Let’s talk more about what the movie is about. We kind of jumped into this, and the audience, I’m sure, is like, okay, give me a little bit more on what the film is about.
Gere: You do that. I hate doing that.
Tavis: Oh, come on.
Gere: You do it. You saw the movie. Go ahead.
Tavis: Well, you play a character here who has gotten himself in a situation and has to decide how he gets rid of this company.
Gere: Well, he’s a big shot.
Tavis: He’s a big shot.
Gere: He’s multi-hundreds of millions of dollars in the fund that he runs, and as it opens up, we know there’s a problem. We find out what the problem is, but he has a lot of ticking clocks on him. One is he wants to sell his company, but he can’t sell the company unless he fixes a problem that he has.
Gere: Then another problem emerges. So these three issues, ticking clocks, are all fighting against him, so he has these several rocks and a hard place for the whole movie.
Tavis: Yeah. See, you’re pretty good at that.
Gere: Thank you. I never did it before.
Tavis: You did it very well.
Gere: Actually, I think that’s the first time I (unintelligible).
Tavis: You did that quite well. So I’m sure one of the things that comes to mind, and it came to mind for me until I saw the movie, obviously, you see something like this, you think Bernie Madoff. But my sense is, in terms of how you decided to play the character, that you didn’t want to really go there.
You wanted this character to have some – how might I put this – a complexity. You wanted to be textured and layered and not to be so dark.
Gere: We made this film a year and a half ago, and Bernie Madoff was the elephant in every room if you talked about the financial world and the issues of people who do these kind of magical, mysterious things with money that most of us don’t know anything about.
I’ve done the movie now and talked to everyone – I still don’t understand (laughter) a lot of these financial products that are sold out there that got us into such trouble. I think very few people really do. There’s insurance on the insurance of the insurance, that if you lose – that if you win or lose, you still get the insurance. It’s insane.
Bernie was the elephant in that room. This movie is not about him, but he was someone that was going to resonate somehow a year and a half ago. So we actually had it in a scene. I said, “Well, let’s talk about him if he’s going to be part of the discussion.”
So the scene that I did with Maria Bartiromo, we talked about Madoff. As we worked on the film and finished it, Bernie was not that interesting. To begin with he wasn’t that interesting because he’s a sociopath. It’s one note. More interesting are the people around someone like that, who must have known something. It was way too good to be true.
But as long as their money was flowing, they weren’t going to blow the whistle. That’s more interesting, and I think that’s the territory we ended up in here with someone who’s more human. I don’t think there’s anything this guy does that we might have made the wrong decision ourselves.
The scale of it is extraordinary. We’re talking about billions of dollars, $400 million that he lost in this one transaction. The car, the townhouse, the stuff around him is off the scale, but the human dilemmas, I think, are something we can identify with, and that was my job as an actor, to make it human.
Tavis: To your point now, Richard, nobody could know anything about Bernie Madoff and at any point be rooting for him. The strange thing about this movie is that you sit here (laughter) and there are parts -
Gere: I know what you’re saying.
Tavis: – in this movie where you’re actually rooting for this guy. Is that weird or what?
Gere: I had friends – and I didn’t know this was going to happen – and we started screening it and friends of mine were calling me up very angry with me that they were rooting for this guy. (Laughter) Of course I was delighted by that, because it means you’re identifying. It’s holding up a mirror, somehow, that it’s not a sociopath; it’s us we’re watching.
Tavis: Yeah. First-time director.
Tavis: So at this stage in your career -
Gere: (Laughter) Why did I do it?
Tavis: With all due respect to Mr. Jarecki, he did a fine job, but how do you feel comfortable that he -
Gere: No, no, no. No, we talk about this all the time, everyone asks this question. He wrote the script, and it was – (laughter) when I got off the plane and I called my agent and said, “This script is terrific, what’s the story with this?” He said, “Well, the good news is yes, it’s a great script, we all agree. The bad news, then, he’s never made a movie before.”
And oh, God, I said, “Okay, well, let – he wrote the script; let me at least talk to him.” So it was like the next day or the day later he came up to see me and we met each other a couple of times, and he’s a movie guy. He made a documentary, he’s been around movies, he’s got it in his blood. That was clear. He had enormous energy. Maybe a little too much energy.
He’s going to calm down. But as I was talking to him, getting to know him, I kept looking in his eyes, and even given that we were going to have a great cast and we were going to have a great DP shooting it and great producers who have done wonderful movies, so that was – it was all going to be covered, directing a movie is not an easy thing for anybody. For the best it’s not easy.
But looking in his eyes, I said, “This guy’s not going to fail. He will not allow himself to fail.”
Tavis: He didn’t do bad, though, for cast. That helps.
Gere: No, he did great. But those are smart decision.
Tavis: He got Richard Gere, he got Susan Sarandon, he got Tim Roth, that’s a pretty -
Gere: I think everyone he got in here was in love with the script, in love with dealing with this territory of our world today in a smart way, in an intelligent way, with no tricks. It was all character-driven. Language, great language, great dialogue in this, and also surprising. I think it breaks – every time you might think you know where the movie’s going, it gives you a right or left turn, and I think everyone came through.
I keep saying this and I think it’s true – I think it’s one of the best, maybe the best, ensemble I’ve ever worked with, of actors.
Tavis: It was clearly a risk, as you suggested a moment ago, paraphrasing, a risk to put your life in the hands of a first-time director, but at this stage of your career, this stage of your life, how do you calculate the kinds of risk that you want to take?
Gere: Oh, the risk to me is about isn’t wasting time, because I love my kid, I love my wife. I don’t wanna spend time away from them. And if it’s going to be something that goes into the black hole, somehow, that, to me, is a major waste.
So one, this was being shot at home, it was in New York, so I was living with my family, still. Still have my weekends with my family. Terrific people all the way around it. So I was pretty sure the experience of making the movie was going to be good.
You never know what’s going to happen with a film. Nobody knows. If they say they do, they’re lying.
Tavis: So you didn’t know that “Pretty Woman” was going to be, like, the biggest thing ever?
Gere: Not a clue. Not a clue.
Tavis: Come on, dude.
Gere: No, I’m serious. (Laughter) No one knew. Now, did we have a good time? Yes.
Gere: Did we feel like there were some magic moments that were happening?
Gere: Yeah. But I’ve felt that way before about movies. There was some mysterious alchemy in this movie that cannot be duplicated.
Tavis: Has there been a film – putting you on the spot here – where you felt that way about, and it didn’t turn out that way -
Gere: Yeah, but I won’t tell you what that is.
Tavis: I figured you might.
Gere: Forget it. (Laughter)
Tavis: It’s my job to ask, man. I’ve got to ask. I’ve got -
Gere: No way.
Tavis: So every time you have that feeling, it doesn’t always, doesn’t always work out that way?
Gere: It doesn’t, no.
Gere: No. It’s got to – look, there’s four, five, 600 people to make a movie. It looks like the actors are making a movie because that’s what you’re seeing, but that’s a very – it’s a big part of it, but it’s not the whole movie, and everyone’s got to do their job.
If you just do it workmanlike, you say the lines, you put the lighting, you do the set, it’s going to have no magic. You’ve got to be in some kind of zone of surprise and in territories you don’t know what’s going to happen. In the end, you don’t know if a story’s going to hold that’s in the script.
You don’t know if you see it up there it’s going to work. You don’t know if these relationships really are interesting, you don’t know if the chemistry of the actors is going to work. You don’t know anything until you see it in front of an audience.
Tavis: After all these years of doing this and doing it well, what do you still like about this profession and what do you most loathe about this profession? Because you mentioned earlier that you, as often as you can, want to stay close to your family, and I get that, but there must be some things about this business after all these years that you still like (unintelligible) that you must not -
Gere: Oh, no, I – it’s an incredible job I have. I’m sure you feel that about what you do. You’re very – everyone in this room, I think, feels we’re very lucky to be doing this. Everyone’s raising their hand – (unintelligible) are you – yes, nodding.
Tavis: Everybody say amen.
Tavis: Amen, you hear it (unintelligible).
Gere: This is, like, wow. To be able to do this and get paid to play, essentially, is an extraordinary thing, and I never take it for granted, believe me, and my family doesn’t take it for granted. It’s a great gift. I love working – people. People, it’s fun for me to bounce ideas off of, see what happens, have an environment where we’re all working on something.
The movie, there’s maybe three months that the whole group is together making a movie, and then you say goodbye, or you say hello to some of them and you keep on with the relationship, but it’s this idea of creating something with other people that I think is extraordinary, and I don’t know that I had that when I started my career, that sense of really enjoying the process of it.
Tavis: Does it matter to you now, now more than ever, you tell me, to make movies that are saying something, or are you okay with just pure entertainment?
Gere: I don’t know that there is “pure entertainment.” I think that -
Tavis: Well, some things are mindless. It can be fun, but doesn’t mean (unintelligible) -
Gere: I don’t think I’ve done anything mindless. I think I’ve escaped that. I’ve made films that are less good, for sure, but I don’t think I’ve made anything that’s mindless. Everything that I’ve done has – I feel confident has had a human quality to it, and if you show a human being on film, already you’re making a political statement, just by the mere fact of seeing a human being.
Tavis: You’re not one who’s shy about making political statements in his own personal life.
Gere: No. No, but I don’t think it’s outrageously brave, either. I think we all do in the way we do. I have a certain platform and I have a lot of experiences in certain areas, and I’m very happy to talk about them and feel a responsibility to, because I have some experience.
Tavis: I agree with you. I wouldn’t say it was outrageously brave, but I think any time you take a position on something, particularly the issues that you take a position on, on Tibet, on China, it might not be outrageously brave, but there are consequences, perhaps professional consequences, that one might -
Gere: No. None. None. The worst consequence is that the Chinese don’t let me into mainland China or Tibet.
Tavis: That’s a consequence.
Gere: Since ’93 was the last time they let me in.
Tavis: That’s a consequence.
Gere: That’s -
Tavis: Do your films play there?
Tavis: Yeah. But see, that’s a consequence.
Tavis: That’s a consequence.
Gere: Well, it’s not a big deal.
Tavis: China’s one of the biggest markets in the world. People want -
Gere: (Unintelligible) to me.
Tavis: The studios want your films to make money.
Gere: I did a movie – well, I still keep working. How it is, I don’t know. (Laughter) I’m still amazed that people want me to keep doing it, and I’m going with the flow. Hey, it’s a great script and great people, I’m still there. I’ll do it.
But I had this wonderful experience after I was not allowed in China anymore, but I am allowed in Hong Kong, and -
Tavis: We’ll see how much longer that lasts, with the Chinese repressing on Hong Kong.
Gere: Yeah, I know, but I think I’ll still be okay there for a while.
Gere: But I remember coming through customs there, and still everyone’s a little careful, and I came through customs and the customs guy looked at my – looked at me and looked at the passport and he looked over his shoulder, and he went (clears throat) (unintelligible) “Autograph, please.” (Laughter)
So I gave him an autograph and then he got very professional again. It happened in the hotel. I’d made this movie “Red Corner,” which was a very political -
Tavis: I’ve seen it.
Gere: – story about the Chinese judicial system, or lack of a judicial system that protects people, and a good film, I like the film. I was going up in the elevator and the movie was called “Red Corner,” and the elevator operator’s in, I’m going up, and we’re looking at the numbers, and he looks over at me and he looks up at the camera that’s up in the corner, and he looks down and he looks over at me and says, “I loved ‘Red Corner.’” (Laughter)
So these things get through. In a way, they might even get in deeper because they happen that way.
Tavis: For folk who have not met, and that would be the majority of us, folk who have not met the Dalai Lama, what’s he like? How would you describe him?
Gere: That’s a real hard one. Of course, he’s a delight. He’s an extraordinary person, and you feel that immediately. But you also are struck by how simple and straightforward and available.
I remember him saying to me once, he said, “Look, if you really have it, if you’ve had an experience of shunya, of emptiness, and really have penetrated the core of what the Buddhist thought is, you’ll be able to express what that is to a fisherman, to someone who’s uneducated.
You don’t have to do it with high concepts. It can be done in a very simple, heart-to-heart way, and this is what he does. I mean, highly scholastic kind of person. He has triple degrees within his system of doctorates in philosophy and psychology and allied disciplines, but can speak to anyone heart-to-heart about the highest aspirations of a human being.
Tavis: What’s been the – I’m curious, what’s been the greatest take-away for you from this faith journey that you have been on?
Gere: The take-away?
Tavis: Yeah. What have you taken away, what’s been the greatest joy for you?
Gere: Just everything expands. I was really on a journey as a kid, and I call it a dissonance, a very real dissonance between what I had been told the world and reality is and the nature of my own mind, and what my heart was telling me. It wasn’t the same. I felt inside of me an incredible sense of expansion and possibility, but the world has so many boundaries around it in the way we see things, and that’s usually on the surface.
As a man of color, you’ve had this your whole life, but in every aspect of our life we see the surface of things and take that to be the whole of reality, and the more that I realized that that is totally unreliable as an experience, the whole world has expanded in terms of the possibility of joy, bliss, happiness, fun.
The amount of patience that comes up from that, that’s part of that experience, is extraordinary. The willingness to be there, the sense of empathy, the sense of compassion that comes up, the spontaneous sense of being of help and service starts to emerge.
Tavis: In a world that is so troubled and so unsettled, a world where people – how might I put this – are becoming more and more nativist; that is to say, turning more and more inward every day -
Gere: Yeah, tribal.
Tavis: Tribal, exactly. Do you think what you’ve just described is available to each and every one of us?
Gere: Absolutely. Look, I see – even in this movie, take about this movie, you look at the guy and you say, “Well, financial guy,” and you kind of label him as a bad guy, right? Because he’s rich, he’s powerful, and from our point of view, those are bad guys.
I look at a guy like that and I say, “He’s got the same problems I do and you do.” It’s a question of am I consumed with anger and hatred and this stupid sense of self-cherishing? Do I love myself more than others? That’s the key issue right there.
It’s not about how much money or how much power. Nothing changes on the surface of things if you attack it there. The attack is an internal one of what is my motivation in the world. Now, from that point of view it doesn’t matter how much money you have or how much power you have. It’s what the motivation is and how you use it.
Tavis: How’s the faith journey impacted your work?
Gere: This comes up a lot too. No direct line. I can’t say that at all. But of course whatever you think and feel and you’re passionate about resonates in all parts of your life. You? Your faith, does it change how you do this job?
Tavis: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. What I think and what I believe and what motivates me impacts the kinds of choices I make, the kinds of decisions I make on a daily basis. I was literally blown away when I saw the project because as a guy who runs a small business – I’m nowhere near this guy’s level and I don’t have that level of problem.
But on any given day, and certainly over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself having to make choices that are really, really interesting. I should do this, but I’m being pulled in this direction.
Gere: Or short-term as opposed to long-term.
Tavis: You got it, that’s what I’m thinking about. Or I say to myself, this is what’s best for me, personally, but this is what’s best for my company and for the employees. These are difficult questions, so I think that’s where, for me at least, my faith allows me in those moments, I think, to make better choices and make better decisions. Does that make sense?
Tavis: So it does, so it does, it does matter. I’m glad to have you on the program. I could have done this for hours, man.
Tavis: Could have done this for hours. The movie’s called “Arbitrage,” starring Richard Gere alongside Susan Sarandon and Tim Roth. A great cast. I think you will enjoy it, so I highly recommend it. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for tuning in, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.