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A seeker in Hollywood

Even after 22 years of stardom -- and plaudits for his turn in 'Chicago' -- Richard Gere is still trying to unlock the secrets of his craft and his being. That's where Buddhism comes in.

January 05, 2003|Sean Mitchell | Special to The Times

He is not quite as you imagined, Richard Gere, having nothing to do with his hair, which is not as dark as it once was, and his face, which, at 53, still somehow lacks any wayward angles or dangles. It's that he leans forward, listening carefully, rather unfull of himself, this baby boomer fashion-plate exemplar of male style. Maybe that's what is interesting about him on screen and what is more plain in person: that he is both very present and decorously remote.

He has been a star for a long time. His becoming a sex symbol for "American Gigolo" back in 1980 is something he admits he may never understand. But the source of that confluence of personality, talent, story, public appetite and -- maybe -- the position of the moon and stars remains at the heart of what he has found to be the ultimately unfathomable power of movies.

"Movies are a very bizarre thing," he says on the evening after the Hollywood premiere of "Chicago," his latest. "Their power is very often not at all what you put into it, but just the fact that you did it -- with those people. I don't know if my acting ability has anything to do with the power of my work. I have no idea." He has said something that even he finds amusing and notes it with the comment, "I've never said that before."

The question would be, then, what does ability have to do with? We are seated outside on a terrace at the Four Seasons Hotel, the sound of Beverly Hills' late rush-hour traffic creating a dull roar in the background. He is having a smoothie and a glass of mineral water.

"Maybe it's not something you're doing consciously. Maybe it's just something in that time and space. The story might be what comes out of someone's eyes. Bob Altman," he says of the man who directed him as a charismatic Dallas gynecologist in 2000's "Dr. T & the Women," "says that 99% of what he does is casting. And maybe it's the same for an actor. Maybe 99% of what an actor does is show up."

A role made for Gere

It took more than just showing up for him to tap-dance and sing his way convincingly through "Chicago" as the flamboyantly cynical defense attorney Billy Flynn, who defends the murderous floozy Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) in director Rob Marshall's well-received re-imagining of Bob Fosse's historic 1975 Broadway musical, which opened Dec. 27. He trained four months for the role in what he says was the hardest work he's ever done for a film.

It's a role that's winning award nominations and critical plaudits for Gere, one he seems made for: charming (almost too charming), bigger than life, a wised-up con man who knows exactly the game he's playing. Flynn's showpiece number, "Razzle Dazzle," seems a perfect expression of the celebrity culture -- whether it's Chicago in the '20s or Hollywood today.

Gere, whose first big roles were as Diane Keaton's rough-trade pickup in 1977's "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" and as a migrant farm worker opposite Sam Shepard and Brooke Adams in Terrence Malick's dreamy "Days of Heaven" the following year, has long looked beyond the obvious to assess his place in the world.

Well-known are his devotion to Buddhism and his campaign on behalf of the Dalai Lama to free Tibet from decades of Chinese occupation. At the "Concert for New York City," which was held six weeks after the terrorist attacks, he bravely remarked that carpet-bombing Afghanistan might not be the answer to creating a more peaceful and stable world. For this he was booed.

Even now, while trying to explain the unity of all being and the falsity of the notion of the self, he says, "Your well-being is the same as mine. The pain of the Iraqis is the same as mine."

What some have long wondered about him, apart from adding up the columns of his good movies (few) versus bad (many), is how he, or any other well-intentioned thespian, can reconcile the ego-disappearing act of Buddhism with the ego-asserting act of a Hollywood career.

When this is put to him, a different look -- and not one of amusement -- comes over his face. "I get this constantly, and I get it from smart people," he says, with just a hint of exasperation. "It's a misunderstanding of what Hollywood is and what Buddhism is. Hollywood, to me, is, I don't know, a job. You work hard. There are a lot of accouterments around the edges, but most things have stuff around the edges. Buddhism is a science of the mind, actively working with the mind."

An hour earlier, addressing the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the organization that bestows the Golden Globe Awards, he explained that the Dalai Lama "has done a lot of work, has looked into his heart and has taken out the last specks of self-cherishing, of self-love." Whereas, as he told the group, Richard Gere, like most mortals, still has a lot more work to do in this regard.

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