In "Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer," Richard Gere plays the title character, a man who is desperately trying to make deals happen when he encounters a young Israeli politician, played by Lior Ashkenazi. The two men bond and when the politician becomes Israel's prime minister things do start to happen, although, perhaps not in the way that Norman anticipated.
It's a stellar performance for Gere, but, after a KCET Cinema Series Screening of the film at ArcLight Cinemas Sherman Oaks, the actor let the audience in on his initial reaction. When Gere first read the script, his response, he says, was "Why me?"
"If I was directing this [film] and producing this, I would not hire me," he tells the Cinema Series audience.
Gere was joined by director Joseph Cedar in a Q&A session led by KCET Cinema Series host Pete Hammond. For Cedar, the Israeli director who was previously nominated for an Academy Award in the foreign language category for his 2011 film "Footnote," "Norman" marks Cedar's first U.S. co-production. The movie, distributed by Sony Picture Classics, also features Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Hank Azaria. It screened at Telluride last year and will hit theaters on April 14.
While Gere may have thought he wasn't the right person for the role, Cedar had other ideas. "I dreamed about this character, and Richard Gere portraying him, my entire life," says the director. "I still see the 'Pretty Woman' poster and this image, it's me carrying the bags and hoping someone will come and save me and that's what Richard Gere did to Norman."
Gere launched his career in the 1970s, but it wasn't until the release of "American Gigolo" in 1980 that he shot up to superstardom. He became one of the defining leading men of the era, drawing moviegoers to the theater for hit films like "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "Pretty Woman." But, Gere is more than a popular actor; he's an interesting one. You can see that in his turn as sleazy attorney Billy Flynn in "Chicago," for which he won a Golden Globe. And, you can definitely see this in "Norman."
Gere says that, for "Norman," he and Cedar had "the luxury of time," which helped him get into the role of Norman Oppenheimer. "I think it took us both to places where it wouldn't have happened if we had rushed it," he says.
Eventually, Gere adds, he settled into the character nicely. "The physicality just kind of happened," says Gere. "I didn't have to make conscious choices about that, it just started to happen and I realize what I was doing now, it's kind of a Chaplin-esque place that I was coming from. The tramp. The sad sack. The outsider in a way. Many of these things happen quite naturally on their own."
He continues, "The character did take over at a certain point."
Cedar adds, "Having to be someone requires an intuition that I can either trust that the actor has found in himself or nothing will work. If the actor feels that something is right for a character because he's spent so much time trying to become him, then I usually tend to trust that instinct."
Norman is an unusual man. If he's down-and-out, then he doesn't let people in on his situation. In fact, so much of his hustle is based on exaggeration, that it's difficult to discern what's true and what's not. He walks through New York bundled up for a cold winter (and, as Gere tells the audience, it was exceptionally frigid while they were filming) as he chases down potential clients who seem in a constant state of annoyance with him. Yet, even as his life grows more chaotic, he appears relatively calm.
"I've done a lot of movies, a lot of plays. I think this is clearly one of the most unique characters I've been able to have the honor to try to figure out, give him some life," says Gere.
"I've done already hundreds, maybe a thousand, interviews on this guy, and I'm still trying to figure out who he actually is and articulate what he is. It's really hard. He's seemingly very simple, but where this guy is coming from is infinitely complex to me," he adds.
Gere continues, "He's coming from, emotionally, a completely different place than any of us in the room. His utter lack of interest in going into anger with all the humiliations and frustrations, he's frustrated, but he doesn't get angry. There's no sense of revenge. There's no darkness, really, in him. He stops that process that most of us do, from hurt, very quickly, to anger. We feel this pain and then he's able to very quickly transport it back in and turn it into a form of movement that I don't know I'm capable of, or anyone in this room, to do that as completely as he does."
Cinema Series host Pete Hammond asked about Gere's turn towards independent films. "I used to make films in the studio system," he says, "they just don't make them anymore." Gere points out that his independent films aren't that different from some of the studio movies that marked his early career, like "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" (1977) and "Days of Heaven" (1978). "Any of those films would be considered indie films today," he notes. "They were done at the studios. It was part of the wide range of films that studios were proud to make."
One of Gere's recent films that Hammond brings up is "Time Out of Mind" (2014), where the actor plays a man struggling to come to terms with his homelessness. As with "Norman," it's an unusual role, although the two characters are quite different from each other. Where Norman talks a lot, George, Gere's character in "Time Out of Mind," is frequently silent. His personality unfolds on his face as he sits quietly and is enveloped by the traffic noise and loud conversations overlapping on the streets of New York.
Gere tells the audience that there's "no way" a studio would have gone for "Time Out of Mind." "It's completely an uncommercial movie," he says, noting that it took 12 years to find a way to make the movie work. Ultimately, he says, "It did fine."
The lack of studio support for less commercial films doesn't seem to bother Gere. "We find another way of doing it," he says, adding that the big hits of his career have afforded him the ability to work in indie films.
Since "American Gigolo," Gere's time as one of Hollywood's biggest stars has been filled not just with name recognition, but with challenging characters in a diverse mix of big and small movies. With "Norman," though, there's a particular sense of accomplishment for the veteran actor. He says, "It's certainly one of the movies that I'm most proud of that I've made."
Listen to Richard Gere, director Joseph Cedar and KCET Cinema Series host Pete Hammond talk about the making of "Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer," below.