In "Arbitrage," Richard Gere plays a Master of the Universe in trouble -- a Manhattan "investment oracle" who, having secretly lost hundreds of millions belonging to his clients, is on the edge of a Madoff-sized crash. And that's before Robert Miller's literal crash: He wrecks his car and with it comes another massive secret to hide.
This isn't the first opportunity Mr. Gere has had to personify the dark side of extreme wealth. He was offered the role of Gordon Gekko in 1987's "Wall Street" but turned it down. The actor has expressed regret about that choice over the years but today says it's for the best. "That was a wonderful character, and no one could have done that better than Michael Douglas. Nobody on the planet," he says graciously and with conviction.
Playing Robert Miller, though, wasn't a chance to make up for not being a previous generation's iconic plutocrat. Sitting in a fashionable SoHo hotel, he says he wasn't interested in turning this character into a Gekko-sized icon -- even now in an era ripe for One Percent-bashing.
"It's a dead end to go there," he says. "Is he an archetype? Of course he's an archetype. It doesn't help me to think that way." Doesn't help, that is, in constructing a performance as psychologically complicated as those in Mr. Gere's best films.
Asked whether, given his years of fame, he has known people in Miller's realm, he admits: "You know, I don't really know the financial world at all. I certainly have met people who are unbelievably rich. More than anyone could ever imagine, and powerful in that way. But it's not the world I know well or think about very much."
But when figuring out how to play a new character, he says, "it's never about the character's job description. Ever." The actor's job is to conjure a character's internal state, to ask, "Under these causes and conditions, why do they make that choice?"
But doesn't a character's choice of career say a lot about his psychology?
"Well, we choose our profession based on what our drives and ambitions are," he concedes, but "some of us make choices based on what we're not good at. I started as an actor because I was extremely shy. So we're counterintuitive in many ways."
Asked whether Miller proved to be counterintuitive, Mr. Gere says: "I don't think he was a surprise to me. My job with him was to let myself be vulnerable enough to let the different sides come out," understanding that some aspects, such as Miller's alpha-male drive to control, would be obvious without Mr. Gere's encouragement. "He's absolutely a freight train of alpha energy."
Mr. Gere felt a special need to deepen Miller's relationship with his mistress, making it more significant than the usual Hollywood scenario of a rich man with a beautiful young woman on the side (played by model-turned-actress Laetitia Casta; his wife is played by Susan Sarandon). He worked on the screenplay with writer/director Nicholas Jarecki to determine, as he puts it, "how real" the couple was.
"Were there possibilities in that relationship? It could never play like there was nothing there, that she was just a girl."
The other area in which the story required a delicate touch was its parallel to the Bernie Madoff scandal: In both cases, a patriarch's children were deeply involved in his investment business but (allegedly, at least) unaware of his illegal activities. Although quick to point out that Miller isn't personally like Madoff -- "he's not crazy" -- Mr. Gere acknowledges that the similarities in plot were on the filmmakers' minds.
"It seemed always to be the elephant in the room," he says, forcing them to ask themselves whether they wanted to make the movie a commentary or steer clear of real-world references. Fortunately for them (and unfortunately for everyone else), much larger financial catastrophes happened in the interim, making their concerns moot. "By the time the movie was done, it wasn't just a Madoff world anymore."
Talking to Mr. Gere about current events naturally makes one think of the struggle for Tibetan independence, a cause the actor has promoted for decades. While other actors, such as Tim Robbins, have made off-screen political causes a part of their on-screen careers, Mr. Gere has not acted in films about China's persecution of Tibet.
It's not for lack of trying. Through the years, Mr. Gere says he has worked with screenwriters and "developed a lot of things. And I would say they're either not good enough, or unfinanceable."
"It's not easy getting a good script, especially on something you care about deeply ... and it's impossible to do something with less than a shot at being great.
"Greatness is not easy," Mr. Gere chuckles. Especially these days, when serious, politically relevant dramas such as "Arbitrage" -- lacking superheroes, special effects or at least a prestigious literary source -- struggle to find backers. Comparing "Arbitrage" to the New York-set, socially conscious films of Sidney Lumet, he says: "We used to make movies like this, in the '70s, '80s. There were a lot of them, and they were popular.
"That was a Saturday night date movie, too, seeing that kind of movie. But it's a different world now."
Then again, if anybody today can turn hedge-fund chicanery into a date movie -- for half of the moviegoing public, anyway -- it might be Richard Gere.