Sept. 14 2006 10:57 AM

Event 3: The First 1,000 Words of a Vanity Fair Profile






Richard Gere on the Edge


By Malcolm Gladwell

       In retrospect, it was probably a bad idea to take Richard Gere to Chinatown. It had been one of those long publicity days and Gere was tired. His close-set eyes had narrowed still further. He snaps at his press agent, then slaps her across the face, three times, hard, each blow making it more and more obvious that he, longtime Hollywood bad boy, still had edge. He is wearing a chartreuse Nehru jacket, and a long, jade-green Buddhist prayer shawl, possibly by Prada. There is a look of barely suppressed pain in his eyes. "Are you hungry, Richard?" I ask him. But it's not as easy as that with Gere. In the two days I spent reporting and writing this story, the one thing friends and Hollywood insiders all told me was that Gere operates on so many levels simultaneously that simple answers are impossible. His press agent is now in tears, but Gere is embracing her, wrapping those long, sinewy arms around her neck. "Suffering is the state where we all find ourselves," he says, as if in explanation. "If you realize you suffer, you can begin to remove the causes of the suffering." My sense is that that means he wants Indian. But it is late, on a Tuesday night, and where to find a good vegetarian vindaloo at that hour in lower Manhattan? So we end up in Hunan Palace on Canal Street, where Gere is forced to come face to face with his demons. The man who accuses President Clinton of "caving in on human rights in China" and once heckled Henry Kissinger at New York City's Cathedral of St. John the Divine, crying out "What about China, Henry" suddenly has to make a hard decision about dim sum.

       I had met Gere before, backstage at the 1979 off-Broadway play Bent, where he played a gay man struggling to survive a Nazi concentration camp. Given the persistent rumors about Gere's own sexuality, it was a courageous move. But if he were in any way attracted to my own rugged good looks, he gave no hint. In what I would later recognize as his trademark greeting, he slapped me three times across the face, hard, then hugged me. "Buddhism is a philosophy that has no givens," he whispered apologetically in my ear, as he wrapped his sinewy arms around my neck. "It questions everything. It acknowledges the state we're all in, which is a state of incompleteness or damage or suffering." There is a kind of paradoxical aura around Gere, a sense of brittleness enveloped by a powerful sensitivity, a hard, unknowable shell encircled by a irresistible vulnerability. For the role of Bent, Gere wore brown contact lenses, obscuring his hazel eyes in a bold and transformative act reminiscent of De Niro's preparation for Raging Bull. Sidney Lumet, who directed Gere in Power, says that during the filming of the movie's pivotal car chase, Gere retreated to his trailer to memorize long sections of Deepak Chopra's Quantum Healing. "He's a charming guy," Lumet told me, then shook his head ruefully at the memory--at the weirdness, at the audacity, at the sheer willfulness--of Gere's choice of reading matter. "You can't direct charm." Lumet says that he sensed in Gere something unusual--almost unprecedented--for an actor: Gere wanted to be loved, yet, at the same time, he wanted to be respected.

      At Hunan Palace, Gere sits in a booth at the back, twisting his body so that he has the wait staff in full view at all times. He is tense, uneasy. China, a few years ago, invited him to attend their national film awards, and he balked. "I thought, 'They're going to kill me,' " he says, as he glances around the crowded restaurant. In his new movie, Red Corner, Gere plays an American in China framed for a crime he did not commit, and it's not hard to see that that was more than just another role for him. His small, hazel eyes are in constant motion. His press agent is in a protective crouch on the edge of the banquette. It is as if Gere has surrounded his true inner sensitivity with a hard brittle exterior, as if he has built a protective shell around his irresistible vulnerability. Once a year, Gere says softly, he goes to a spartan hut in India to do "internal work and work on the content of my mind." I asks him why, when he's had nothing all day but some chapati and cream cheese at breakfast, he isn't eating. He pushes the chicken chow mein on his plate around pensively. He is back in that hut. "When you're doing internal work," he says, raising his hands as he did in his unforgettable climatic scene in the 1979 epic Yanks, "you need nothing."

       What drives Richard Gere? We are walking. It is early morning. We leave Hunan Palace in a rush, after Gere--in a replay of his legendary 1992 Oscar speech--exhorts the largely Asian clientele to beam "love and truth" to the Chinese leaders in hopes that they would free Tibet from China. His fortune cookie says "You are enigmatic. You are spiritual. But you will always make bad movies" and Gere seems to take it personally. He takes one of those orange quarters and bites down hard, drawing blood. In person, Gere is much shorter than he appears on the screen, a shade over 5 feet, but his intensity somehow makes him seem larger. Gere has a way of looking right through you when he talks, as if he could divine your entire essence in a glance and then re-create it on the stage. I kept trying to walk in front of him, so he will give me one of those looks. I want to pierce that hard protective outer shell and get to that brittle interior. But something about dinner has put him off--could it have been the Hunan bean sprouts in a duck sauce? "Suffering is a state we all find ourselves in," he says, over and over again ...
Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer at The New Yorker.