You think of Richard Gere as the smooth Lothario in American Gigolo or the smooth tycoon in Pretty Woman. As the title character in Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, Gere is a lot of things, but smooth is not one of them. The movie, which will open the Miami Film Festival this Friday, stars Gere as Norman Oppenheimer, a bumbling Jewish New Yorker with a peanut allergy who is more Larry David than Edward Lewis. The movie walks the line between comedy and drama, mixing in a bit of exploration of Israeli politics. Gere took time out from speaking on behalf of the International Campaign for Tibet to talk to New Times about portraying the ambitious, eccentric Norman, who finds himself causing an international incident.
New Times: What was the movie or performance that made you want to become an actor?
Richard Gere: Every time I'm asked this, I reach into my mind as far as I can. When I was a kid, I would come home from school and there were these black-and-white movies on television, and I was taken by these really bad Italian muscle movies — Ulysses, Hercules. There was something about them. I don't know what my psychology was, but there was something operatic and magical that I responded to.
Norman is as far from an Italian muscleman as you can get. Was there someone you based the character on?
You know what I'm realizing, is that everyone has a Norman in their life. Every time I talk about the character, I get a nod from people, "Oh yeah." Whether it is a distant cousin, there's someone in their life who is trying to get in and you don't know who they really are. You don't know their history; they're the brunt of a joke. I guess I found my inner Norman, the part that always wanted to be him.
How did you as an actor create in your head Norman's history?
I work many different ways in finding a character. I'm open to many ways of finding a comfort level and confidence in being that guy. This one was peculiar. We don't know his backstory, and almost everything he says is a lie or exaggeration. He tells different stories throughout the movie. Joseph Cedar, who wrote and directed the movie, I asked him those types of questions all the time, but there wasn't an answer to them. I kept wondering as we were working on the script; I was trying to get in touch with his emotions and objectives constantly. With the humiliations he goes through in the movie, was there an anger, was there something that had to be paid back? The reality is he didn't have any of that. There was an internal mechanism that processed all those things. Joseph wanted this to be a universal character that spoke to the Jewish narrative and Jewish experience of never being able to express anger. You need friends around you. You can't burn bridges. You're always looking for protection and safety and blending in, being accepted but not noticed. It was peculiar. I don't think I ever played a character like that. For myself, it wasn't my natural response to the situations.
Because you're not Jewish, were you cautious about playing a Jewish character?
I'm a New Yorker, so I'm an honorary Jew. It's a beautiful script, but I asked Joseph, "Why me?" Why would he want me to do this? There certainly are supertalented Jewish actors who would knock this out of the park. So why me? He said, "Because you're not Jewish. I want you to find something different." The more we talked about it, the more I was up to the challenge.
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This movie has political elements but is more of a character-based movie. With all of your activism, you've surely been assaulted with the idea that actors shouldn't be political. Where do you think that idea comes from?
I have no idea. I don't know how to answer that.
Have people ever been aggressive with you about your activism?
Not at all. Not in my experience. I know you said the movie isn't political, but it is. It takes the most important thing going on in the world right now in the Middle East peace deal and the prime minister's commitment to it. The political hierarchy of Israel is really important to this, and the American Jewish/Israeli Jewish relationship is important to this. When Joseph and I first met three years ago, I told him: "If you ever have a project about the Middle East, I'm there." I've spent good time and energy trying to help both sides as much as I could. Soon after that, he came to me with this. There are many important elements to this movie. What is an individual? But on another level, how does that one anonymous person resonate in huge, operatic world politics? I kept thinking of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet. They are very important characters to what goes on, but they are essentially anonymous. Norman is Rosencrantz.
Miami Film Festival Opening Night: Norman
7 p.m. Friday, March 3, at the Olympia Theater, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami; miamifilmfestival.com. Tickets cost $30 to $125.