| October 9, 2015 | People
With the debut of his longtime passion project, Time Out of Mind, Richard Gere talks about the homelessness epidemic, his work for Tibet, and what he learned panhandling on the streets of New York.
At 66 years old and after nearly 40 years in show business, Richard Gere has no intention of slowing down. In the past 18 months alone, he has starred in three new movies, including the critically acclaimed Time Out of Mind, directed by Oren Moverman, in which he portrays a homeless man in New York City.
The 120-minute film, which took 12 years to develop, may seem like a departure to fans of An Officer and a Gentleman and Pretty Woman. But Gere is a longtime advocate for the disadvantaged, having worked with the Coalition for the Homeless for the past decade, and, since 1992, as a board member (now chair) of the International Campaign for Tibet.
When I finally reach the busy actor-slash-activist after a few missed connections, joking that we’re like ships passing in the night, he replies in that smooth, distinctive croon, “Where is your ship right now, Elizabeth?” Whether he’s discussing movies or public policy, Gere retains his seductive touch.
Time Out of Mind is a quiet, impactful film. I’ve been thinking about it for the past week.
This could’ve been a totally silent movie, because it’s not dialogue-driven, it’s not plot-driven.… [It’s] immersive. It’s just the city [New York] as it is and this one guy who has no place to go, while the whole city is moving from one place to another. They have appointments, dinners to get to; they have issues they’re dealing with, responsibilities, and he’s essentially still within all of this movement.
The New Yorkers in the movie were real, and it wasn’t shot on a soundstage. It was the real, gritty New York.
The whole of the movie-making was hidden away, so no one saw a camera. Very long lenses were hidden in storefronts, or apartments, or rooftops, or under work tents. We were shooting reality as it is in the city. No one knew that we were filming. Whenever someone is in the frame, they’re just going about their world.
This is obviously a passion project for you. How long have you been working on it?
This script came to me about 12 years ago, and then 10 years ago I bought it. [For this project,] we ended up totally rewriting it, but I’ve always respected it so much, respected what was inherently in there. For the 21 days of shooting—we had a very small budget and crew.
I found myself wondering what happened to your character, George, to get him to such a low place.
We stripped away everything that you don’t need—his backstory and everything you’ve seen before—and focused on a very primitive human drive to find our place, to find our community, to find our village, to find our connections. And humans are very social beings, and when we lose the ability to have social connections, we start to go a little crazy.
In the movie, George and his homeless friend Dixon, played by Ben Vereen, refer to being homeless as being “reduced.”
That was something that came from the original script. The only clue that we give that’s really meaningful about who this guy is is when he sits down and plays the piano. You have some sense that he had a life, he had skills, he had music. But other than that, it’s not really that important.
How did you prepare for this role?
It’s an irony that we did this movie in New York. New York City is actually the only place that’s a right-to-shelter environment. By law, as we say in the movie, you have to be given a bed. But they make it as difficult as they possibly can. A lot of people just can’t make it. The [scenes] that we have in the movie in the shelters were actually shot in Bellevue [Hospital]. This is the first time, as far as I know, that anyone’s ever shot there.
No one recognized you as Richard Gere, combing through garbage cans in New York?
The cliché is that homeless people are invisible. [Even for me,] when I was in that situation, because I was in character, internally and emotionally, looking like someone on the street, no one paid any attention to me. No one would engage me as Richard Gere, nobody. The first time I was out there panhandling, I literally was out there for 45-minute takes and made only about a buck and a half.
The homeless are essentially invisible.
It’s beyond being invisible; there’s something more active than that. You’re actually a black hole. People from two blocks away would sense there’s a black hole that they would get sucked into—a black hole of failure, and sadness, and suffering. There I was, in another context, the exact same guy, Richard Gere. He’s on the red carpet with a tuxedo—everyone wants to see him, touch him, take a picture with him, ask him questions. That guy sitting on a street corner is a black hole [that people are trying to avoid]. It was a profound experience for me.
There were no Good Samaritans?
There was a woman at Grand Central when I was going through garbage cans. She came up to me while we were shooting, unaware that there was a movie being made, and she offered me a bag of food. The New York Post ended up getting a picture of this woman, and it became a big cause of “Who’s this woman?” They found the woman, a French tourist. She wasn’t even American. No idea that it had anything to do with the movie or me—a genuine pure act. But that was the only time.
Tell me about the Coalition for the Homeless.
[I’ve been] involved for about 10 years now. And we shot an important scene in their offices. They’re providing lifesaving services, and it’s not easy. The joy of being able to make this movie—which has taken so long and is one that I’m deeply proud of—is the fact that this movie could also be a tool for social change or social action.
You were recently in Washington, DC, testifying in front of Congress, trying to make a change.
I’m focused generally on human rights and cultural survival, education, and health issues. And, more specifically, almost anything to do with Tibet. The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) is a main focus of my work.
Do you get anxious in front of Congress?
Well, I’ve been doing this for a long time—we started in ’80, so… 35 years? So I don’t get particularly nervous about this stuff. And I usually know the players. In this case, [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi was there, who’s an old colleague of mine. [Congresswoman] Nita Lowey, also an old colleague of mine, was there. Congressmen James McGovern and Joseph Pitts, who are the cochairmen of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission [were there, as well]—and Tom, he’s an old friend of mine. I think the biggest issue is focusing the energy on the subjects and the issues that can actually have an outcome. What’s the realm of the doable, of the deliverable, of the achievable?
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Can you elaborate on your work with the International Campaign for Tibet?
With these human-rights issues, [it’s about] bringing up our own responsibilities as human beings, and especially as Americans, in this world. China’s obviously the 1,200-pound gorilla in the room. And it’s very hard to counter what they’re doing in Tibet. But it’s important to keep telling the truth, just keep talking, and I feel that there’s a very open audience [out there] and in this administration.
Do you enjoy spending time in DC?
I’ve been very fortunate to meet real quality people in Washington. Even [with] the ones that I don’t agree with in particular, it’s very rare to find someone who’s not essentially a good human being there, who’s not trying to do good. Most of the things that I deal with are extremely difficult, and there’s no money in it, there’s no power in it. You do it because it’s the right thing to do.
You’re a longtime Buddhist. Tell me about your journey.
I think most everyone, on some level, questions the world they were born into. I certainly continue to question everything about the world around me. And the vehicle that I chose to focus my aspiration on was Buddhism, for many reasons. One, it questions everything. And, obviously, it’s unbelievable good fortune that I got to be a friend and student of the Dalai Lama and other really extraordinary teachers. That’s really the meaning of my life.
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