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Bread and Buddha

By John-Paul Flintoff, The Sunday Times, June 12, 2005

He's one of Hollywood's highest-paid actors. But he says it's his off-screen passion - as a devout Buddhist - that really drives him. How does Richard Gere reconcile his two very different roles?

London, UK -- Nobody does magnificent arrival better than Richard Gere. In An Officer and a Gentleman, dressed in the crisp white uniform of a Marine Corps aviator, he burst into the factory where his girlfriend worked and carried her off in his arms. In Pretty Woman, he climbed a fire escape with a flower in his mouth to fetch back Julia Roberts. In his most recent film, the sweet but flawed Shall We Dance?, Gere contrived to recall both those earlier iconic scenes - by turning up at his wife's place of work to sweep her off her feet, only this time wearing a dinner jacket and carrying the bloom in his hands.

There's a scene like it in almost every film Gere has made. A heroic moment that encourages men in the audience to project themselves into his place - as I did, in my early teens, strutting out of the cinema as though I too were a Marine Corps aviator - and allows women to picture themselves in the place of the one he's come to rescue.

So his first appearance this evening comes as a shock.

The actor who won People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive award as recently as 1999 doesn't walk into the studios of Holland's third public channel. He shuffles, then blinks at the audience that surrounds him. He wears jeans and a black ribbed sweater that gives an impression of paunchiness. His hair is not the familiar silver: it's white, and the harsh studio lights, shining through it with forensic attention, acquaint the cameras with a surprisingly pink scalp. On top of that he wears long-sight glasses that everybody knows look bad on TV: they cast heavy shadows and shimmering puddles of light over his cheeks.

This can't be an accident. He's making a deliberate statement: forget the film star, meet the other Richard Gere.

He's come to the Netherlands to accept an award on behalf of the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), of which he's the chairman. The Geuzen Medal honours the ICT for promoting human rights and self-determination in Tibet nonviolently. While he's here, Gere is throwing himself into political affairs: urging the EU to keep in place the arms embargo on China that was imposed after the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Why? Because China occupies Tibet and its human-rights record remains poor.

That's what he spoke about this afternoon, at a press conference attended by the Dutch media. He also took questions, mostly inane. Tonight he hopes to speak in greater depth. And so he does. B&W is a highbrow chat show, with a formidable woman presenter, Hanneke Groenteman. Gere talks about many things, including Buddhism and Tibet, and about Tibetans who lose fingers and toes, perhaps even children, as they escape across the cold mountains to Nepal. But when Groenteman presses him about China, he avoids criticism, insists he does not wish unpleasantness on the Chinese or anyone else, and touches on the Buddhist concept of karma. "We're all in the same boat here, all of us - Hitler, the Chinese, you, me... If anything, the Chinese are creating horrendous future lifetimes for themselves. One cannot fail to be compassionate towards them for that." All human beings are connected with one another, he adds. To underline the point, he stares warmly into Groenteman's eyes and places a hand on hers. Groenteman places her other hand on top of Gere's: "Thank you, Your Holiness," she says.

 

To be a celebrity these days, you must do charity work and be seen doing it. But Gere has done that for years, and gone beyond the call of duty. In 1993, as presenter of an Academy Award, he said: "If something miraculous, really kind of movie-like, could happen here... [DENG XIAOPING]will take the Chinese away from Tibet." He asked viewers to beam "love, truth and a kind of sanity" to China's leader. Not exactly firebrand rhetoric, but enough to put Gere among the minority of actors who have turned political at the Oscars. He was banned from appearing there again.

Henry Kissinger, who secured détente between the US and China in the 1970s, said at the time: "Richard Gere is a better actor than he is a political analyst." Some fans disapprove too. On an internet site I found this recent diatribe, aimed at Gere: "These actors make me sick. It's time for them to keep their political agenda to themselves. If you don't like it here, go to Tibet or other countries that flip your trigger. We don't need you here." Even the Dalai Lama's special envoy, Lodi Gyari, was unsure about Gere initially. (Gyari is executive chairman of the ICT.) "But as soon as I got to know Richard as a person, as a friend," Gyari tells me, "my cynicism disappeared. He has a deep spiritual commitment." The composer Philip Glass, who co-founded New York's Tibet House with Gere to help preserve Tibetan culture, says he brought intelligence to the project. He also inspired others to join the cause, including Harrison Ford, Sharon Stone and Goldie Hawn.

Gere doesn't restrict his activism to Tibet. He recently went to the West Bank: as part of his general commitment to pacifism, he's backing plans to show an Arabic version of Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi. He persuaded contacts to put together safe-sex TV ads in India; the prime minister hosted meetings; Bill Gates contributed $2.4m; and James Murdoch, the head of the satellite network Star India, donated $14m in airtime. Next, Gere hopes to meet the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to talk about Aids. But Julia Taft, who worked closely with Gere on Tibet, as assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration, believes that cause is different from the rest. "His interest in Tibetan culture and Buddhism is particularly effective. He did go to Kosovo," she recalls, "but it didn't raise awareness because - well, my sense is that he understood it less and had less passion, even though he did it in good faith."

The morning after his interview on B&W, Gere hosts a working breakfast at his hotel with Gyari and a Dutch MP, Boris Dittrich. Dittrich, who speaks perfect English, has a history of supporting Tibet, and the ICT wants to encourage that. Gyari describes the latest talks with Beijing as the most serious so far. As the Dalai Lama has stated, the issue is not Tibetan independence from China but genuine autonomy; the model could be Hong Kong. Clearly, Dittrich could receive such a briefing without Gere coming along, but would politicians like him bother to meet the Tibetans without Gere there? Maybe they would, but the presence of a Hollywood star makes such encounters more appealing.

Leaving the room, the MP's assistant gushes: "You've really raised awareness." Gere smiles: "That's my job." But it's not his day job. And though his starry presence may bring politicians - and journalists - wherever he goes, I can't help wondering if Hollywood will always eclipse Tibet. One up-market Dutch broadsheet, I notice, carries a report on yesterday's press conferenceÉ on its entertainment pages.

Would Gere be taken more seriously if he gave up acting? Went into politics, like Arnold Schwarzenegger? He laughs, actually throwing his head back. It's the most animated I've seen him, but lasts a mere fraction of a second. "I like Arnold. He is a really interesting guy, and potentially he can have an enormous impact. But I don't think he thought of himself as an actor." Ouch.

That afternoon, we travel out of Amsterdam towards the town of Vlaardingen for the award ceremony. A crowd has assembled around the town church, mostly composed of young to middle-aged women. There's a military band, sea cadets holding wreaths for VIPs to lay at a war memorial. From the top of the church flies a Tibetan flag. Gere looks his best again. He steps forward with Gyari to place a wreath, then they clasp hands in the Buddhist fashion.

<TB><TB>Inside, the church is sober. There's a great wooden pulpit, from which hangs a portrait of the Dalai Lama. Gyari is invited on stage to accept a medal and a scroll on behalf of the ICT. He makes a speech. There's a poem from a Dutch schoolgirl, then a Tibetan woman steps up to hoist a three-stringed instrument across her front. "I am going to sing an auspicious song for this happy occasion," she announces.

Finally, Gere is called up to make his own speech. "This is an incredibly moving experience," he begins. "From a Tibetan point of view, just to be born human is extremely difficult and rare. It's a great responsibility. There is nothing that gives a human life more meaning than caring for each other." He describes the situation in Tibet, the need for political action. "Just for a second, I'd like everyone in this room to close their eyes and say, 'I personally will do what I can.'" At that moment, a church bell rings the hour. "I liked that," he grins. "It was nice. I will take that as 'Amen'. So I'm going to consider us all brothers and sisters. We have a secret society in our hearts. And this brotherhood and sisterhood is going to change society. Thank you."

There's huge applause. Gere leads Gyari to the exit. As soon as he's outside, a choir of female voices shakes off the burden of Dutch sobriety to let out an appreciative whoop.

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Gere was born in 1949 and grew up in New York state, the second of five children. His father, Homer, sold insurance and his mother, Doris, stayed at home. Richard was musical, but his first ambition was to be an Olympic gymnast. He won a gymnastics scholarship to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, but left after two years to pursue acting. He played Danny Zuko in Grease in New York in 1973, then in London. (Many people forgot, when he sang and danced in the film of Chicago - for which he won a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination - that he'd done something like it before.) His screen career also took off, almost in spite of his judgment. "The two movies that I didn't want to do, but I had mortgage payments coming up and whatever, were An Officer and a Gentleman, and Pretty Woman." (The latter was the highest-grossing film of 1990.) One lucrative part he did turn down was the lead in Die Hard, which went to Bruce Willis.

Off screen, Gere married the supermodel Cindy Crawford in 1991 and divorced her in 1995. Then he met the actress Carey Lowell, another Buddhist, often patronisingly described as a "Bond girl" ever since she appeared in Licence to Kill. It's been observed that Gere has married only very beautiful women, as if that proved him to be shallow. I wouldn't go so far: that patronising view requires you to believe the women are dim. I just put it on record that he did, indeed, marry two beautiful women. Gere and Lowell have a five-year-old son, Homer. Gere finds it hard, he tells me, to wrench himself away from them. "I'd never have taken the red-eye from the US before, because you're so tired afterwards. Now, I don't want to miss him - so I fly while he's asleep."

So much for the public and the personal life. What about his spiritual career? Gere grew up in a "serious, church-going" Methodist family. At university, he studied philosophy ("I remember being stunned by Bishop Berkeley's idea that reality is a function of the mind," he tells me. "There is nothing 'out there'"). In his twenties he discovered Buddhism.

Nicholas Vreeland, a Buddhist monk, has been Gere's friend since 1980. In 1993, Vreeland accompanied Gere on a trip that would profoundly influence the actor. "He had been outspoken," Vreeland recalls, "and the Chinese government decided to show Richard that they were good guys. They invited him to show a movie he had recently produced." Gere asked Vreeland and their teacher, the Reverend Khyongla Rato Rinpoche, to come with him. They won permission to visit Tibet. It was the first time Gere had been, and the first time Rinpoche had returned to his monastery since fleeing Tibet in 1959 with the Dalai Lama. "The townspeople poured out to greet him," Vreeland recalls. "They lined up with white scarves, lit incense and . . . well, Tibetans stick their tongues out in politeness and they did that too. These people were hungry for some kind of spiritual touch and enlightenment. Richard was overwhelmed, as we all were."

Can Vreeland describe Gere's own progress in Buddhism? "Well, he devotes more and more of his time to things that help others, and less to pursuing his own selfish desires. He is a happy person. He has a level of contentment. There is also a wisdom about him, a philosophical attitude - you can only do so much, you must do your best."

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We're at Gere's hotel when I sit down to speak with him, one to one. I say I'd like to talk about Tibet, Buddhism and acting. Almost immediately he launches into a speech that I find incomprehensible. "You have to ask, what is real and what is the mind? Is there really a separation between you and me?" As if to make this clearer, he moves a pair of glasses around: one represents me, I guess, the other Gere. "Is it true that you and me are here?"

He sighs, throws up his arms. "You will never print this! I've been doing interviews for so long... for 25 years. You'll never use this."

My heart sinks. Gere hates press interviews. Journalists have found him difficult. "The most miserable, insular and self-obsessed actor it has been my misfortune to meet," one wrote. All too often, interviews are terminated after somebody goes too far. Some have asked if it's true that Gere once waved his penis at a woman reporter (he doesn't remember). Others ask about his short-lived marriage to Crawford, and the ill-judged ad they placed in The Times insisting everything was fine and, bizarrely, that both were heterosexual. (He's said lawyers advised them to do it, and he wouldn't do it again.)

The fact is, Gere has attracted a huge amount of sexual innuendo over the years. And it's easy to understand his frustration when that becomes the focus of an interview. But he seemed to expect it even before our chat started.

To his credit - and my relief - he starts again. "The biggest habit of mind is self. We think about ourselves: me, then my family, then my village, then my country..."

I think I understand now. He's pleading for people to love one another, as he did with Groenteman on TV last night. Hoping to ingratiate myself, I offer an analogy from the movies: the best way to get the entire planet working together is to have aliens attack from another planet. Gere smiles thinly. I also tell him, correctly but irrelevantly, that my family background is Quaker, so I'm sympathetic to his interest in nonviolence. From now on his attitude changes. He relaxes, and we continue to talk for about 90 minutes.

I ask about meditation. "I started to practise Zen when I was 24. The core is to sit and follow the breathing. Concentrate on the breathing. Not in a hard way, but count to 10, count the exhalations to 10. If you lose count then catch yourself and say, 'Oh, I'm thinking again.' And bring yourself back to the breathing. Eventually you get to the point where you are just breathing. Almost all forms of meditation are a form of looking at the mind. At the start you are almost amazed how much noise is going on there. You have no idea how much monkey stuff is going on, how cluttered it is. You look at that and you're acknowledging what the mind is, you're taming it, and when you have done that you have learnt the power of concentration."

Unlike most Buddhists, Gere sees the Dalai Lama privately several times a year. The meetings are not always easy. "I've had to explain to people who have a romantic vision of His Holiness that at times he's been cross with me. I'm thankful that he trusts me enough to not pull any punches. Mind you, the first meetings were not that way; he was aware of how fragile I was and he was very careful."

At their first meeting, the Dalai Lama asked him about acting. "He said, 'When you do this acting and you're angry, are you really angry? When you're acting sad, are you really sad?' I gave him an actor's answer. I said, it's more effective if you really believe in the emotion you portray. He looked into my eyes and laughed. Hysterically. He was laughing at the idea that I could believe emotions are real - that I'd work so hard to believe in anger and hatred and sadness and pain and suffering. I should have known, as an actor, that I create those emotions. That is what we all do, every day."

I want to know more about how his spiritual life affects the acting. But as we're talking, the photographer Tom Stoddart - himself a Tibet veteran - asks Gere to sit astride a chair and assume a serious expression. Perhaps predictably, the request makes Gere smile. Stoddart chivvies him: "You spend your life saying nobody takes you seriously, and suddenly you don't want that?"

"Yeah," Gere replies with good humour, "when you're sitting crossways on a chair - that's really easy!"

Then he covers his expensive timepiece ("I'm not selling watches here") and does whatever Stoddart asks.

In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, the critic David Thomson describes Gere's "grimly passive beauty" as his greatest asset. He can be a "near-motionless thief of scenes", Thomson writes, but his active outbursts seem "as calculated as dance". It's a tough assessment, but I suspect Gere might agree: he's underrated, I reckon, precisely because he doesn't "do" much on screen. This is not an actor you will see painting pictures with his left foot, or going out of his way to master difficult accents. One exception is music: Gere really did play the cornet in The Cotton Club, and piano in Pretty Woman; in his next film, Bee Season, he plays the violin. Then there's dance, as seen in Chicago. But most of the time Gere's acting is low-key, invisible.

"Invisible acting is the hardest. Just playing the character, being in the moment. Most actors are very aware of ham-acting when we do it ourselves, and when we see other people do it. But audiences like it."

In 1980, Gere won the Theatre World award for his portrayal of a concentration-camp prisoner in Martin Sherman's Bent. But he's never appeared on stage again - not once. Why not? "I'm happier doing film. Repetition, in theatre, leads you to be seduced by the audience. You get to know where the laughs are. When I was young, I remember doing something on stage... I haven't thought about this in years! We did a good version of Grease - it was entertaining, with energy and pace. And after we went to London the director came back to see us. He said to me, 'What are you doing? That really is the hammiest performance I ever saw.'"

Gere has spoken equivocally about acting before: "You have your emotions on the surface. You've got to be willing to take direction, which leaves you in a childlike position." But as he hinted already, it can also feed into the spiritual life, and vice versa. In Bee Season, Gere plays a professor of religion whose marriage is collapsing. "The guy is a master of kabbalah, particularly interested in Abraham Abulafia [the 13th-century scholar]. There are parallels between the techniques of Abulafia and tantra [Buddhist ritual]. There are also the same dangers: the dangers involved in getting too deeply into any spiritual practice." Such as? "The biggest danger is you get lost in it and build up a strong ego."

A big ego, it seems to me, is not Gere's problem. In fact, I'm coming to the conclusion that he may have no ego at all. Decades of meditation ("taming" the mind) and playing other people on film have almost entirely polished away his personality. Sure, he can turn on the charm, knows how to get the best from people he meets, whether they're MPs at breakfast or Protestants at prayer. Of course he does: he's an actor, master of a wide repertoire of behavioural techniques. But he seems to have decided, perhaps after that little chat about acting with the Dalai Lama, to desist from indulging - or "creating" - any of the more operatic emotions. I don't pretend to know Gere well, but I've found it almost impossible to locate even the mildest tic or mannerism on which to hang his character. Writing this some days after I met him, I find that faintly chilling.

Suddenly I think that I understand why Gere hates interviews. Not because journalists ask impertinent questions about his sex life (though that can't help). It's because we go away and try to fix him, to sum him up, to give him a character he's taken care to eliminate, like so many monkey noises in his head. But that's my job, so here goes. He's good-looking. A persuasive advocate. Deserves praise for his commitment to the Tibetan cause. But the greatest compliment I can pay him is this: Richard Gere is a great big nobody. You see him, but he's not really there.



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