A Conversation With . . . Richard Gere

Mr. Gere received the festival’s Golden Starfish Award for Lifetime Achievement in Acting
Richard Gere, center, with Hilaria Baldwin and Andrew Finkelstein outside Guild Hall on Saturday night. Morgan McGivern

   It was a short red carpet that led into Guild Hall on Saturday night in East Hampton. Our Home, Sweet Home squatted next door to the 300-year-old buildings of the Mulford Farm just down the street in the gloaming. This was not Hollywood, not the “fishbowl” Richard Gere would tell the audience he disliked about the left coast.
    This was a smaller kettle of fish, but the press pressed up to the edge of the carpet just the same, well-armed with cameras ready to capture Mr. Gere, one of this year’s Hamptons International Film Festival’s “Conversations With” guests, his interviewer, Alec Baldwin, or any other celeb who came within range.
    A car pulled up. Heads turned. The star of 45 films over a career of as many years stepped out in blue jeans and a sport coat, ran his fingers through familiar silver hair, embraced a few people, and walked slowly to the carpet where he was consumed by a slow-motion explosion of flashes, which he seemed to accept like a farmer might a rain shower.
    The conversation inside began with a reel of clips from Mr. Gere’s filmography, after which Mr. Baldwin introduced the festival’s guest as a “pure movie star,” an actor with “another quality that actors have or don’t have, but he has in abundance.”
    Mr. Gere, who has a house on North Haven, received the festival’s Golden Starfish Award for Lifetime Achievement in Acting.
    Mr. Baldwin asked the audience to recall all the beautiful women the actor got to kiss. “And you did it well,” he said turning to the man whose lips refused to tell which actress they liked the most. The banter warmed a wide-ranging and serious conversation about the art of acting and, perhaps most enlightening, about Mr. Gere’s relationship with and opinion of the directors he had worked with.
    He started on the stage, Mr. Gere said, doing summer stock in Provincetown, Mass. “Theater was what I knew as a working person, but it was not a career. The last play I did was 32 years ago. I was 30.”
    Mr. Baldwin led the actor through his filmography. Mr. Gere described Richard Brooks, director of “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” as a “dynamo, a great teacher of movie actors, how to structure a part, think how to lay it out, step back, give nuance, not 100 percent, don’t give it all away. He was an old Hollywood guy. Brooks was crazy, a tough guy. In ‘Looking for Mr. Goodbar,’ I was looking for Brooks,” Mr. Gere said, remembering how he went to the director’s house to read the script and was met at the door by the beautiful actress Jean Simmons, the director’s wife, in a bathrobe. “Brooks came in, gave me the script, and said he’d be back in a half hour. Everything was blacked out except my part,” he said. “I had no context.”
    The two actors swapped stories about the idiosyncrasies of directors. Mr. Gere asked about Terrence Malick, director of “Days of Heaven,” which was shown at the festival, the 1978 film that Mr. Gere did after “Looking for Mr. Goodbar.”
    “I saw his ‘Badlands.’ I said, ‘Wow.’ I told my agent, ‘If this guy makes another movie. . . .’ Terry is very literate, bright, journalistic. He doesn’t always know what he wants. He’s waiting for you to get to it. We were on take 30, I said, ‘Tell me something.’ We were in a house on a prairie. The wind was blowing a linen curtain. He says, ‘Like that, like the linen moving.’ We did it in one take.” Mr. Gere credited the director for going beyond the dramaturgical in editing “Days of Heaven” by featuring “wheat moving, animals sniffing the air, water unfreezing, a natural flow.”
    On to John Schlesinger and “American Gigolo,” the 1980 movie Mr. Gere starred in. Mr. Baldwin asked if the actor thought the sexy character Paul Schrader had “stuck to you? Was there a residue leftover from that character?”
   “Paul Shrader was a pretty rich meal,” Mr. Gere admitted. He described Mr. Schlesinger as “an intense guy, a Calvinist” with a repressed libido that perhaps explained the sexiness of the film. “You could not ask for a better structuralist, extremely adventurous, cutting edge, able to articulate what he wants into film history.”
    “Has your sexual iconography gotten in the way?” Mr. Baldwin asked. “Shoot the gun, kiss the girl?”
    “Frankly, to me it has not been a big deal,” Mr. Gere said. He asked his agent, sitting in the audience, what he thought. The agent said his predecessor had not liked a Rolling Stone cover of Mr. Gere with his shirt off. “He said you were a better actor than a hunk.”
    “After ‘Gigolo’ you moved far away from the sexual icon with ‘An Officer and a Gentleman,’ ” Mr. Baldwin said. His sarcasm got an appreciative rise from the audience. The director Taylor Hackford was “a first rate guy” with an instinct for the film’s final shot. “I knew it was the wrong ending, too romantic. Taylor said, ‘Let’s just shoot it.’ It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I saw it in the rushes.”
    In 1984, Mr. Gere starred in “The Cotton Club,” a project directed by Francis Ford Coppola that “was not a great experience” because of “other business interests outside the system” that were involved. Mr. Gere left them unnamed. “I watched it recently. It’s really terrific.”
    “Pretty Woman” followed. “The most fun was ‘Chicago,’ ” the actor said, because it allowed him to sing. “I had a career as a musician. The play did not knock me out. I didn’t see the story.” Mr. Baldwin reminded the actor that he’d won a Golden Globe for the movie.
    “I did a diaper dance into Jerusalem,” he said of Bruce Beresford’s “King David.” “I’d have been happier if it was more like ‘The Gospel According to St. Matthew,’ ” he said, referring to the hard-edged film by Pier Paolo Pasolini.
    Mr. Gere said he was never interested in directing, a sentiment shared by Mr. Baldwin. He said he had acted as producer in recent years because of the collaborative nature of the business nowadays. “At a certain point you become part of the financing.”
    An audience member asked what his favorite role was. Mr. Gere said that of being a parent to his son.
    As for his most challenging movie role, he said, “I never played a part that was easy. It’s hard to be simple, smooth. The bigger characters are easier, it’s harder to play normal. ”
    “Which director gave you the best advice, and what was it?” someone asked.
    “Richard Brooks. He said, ‘Bring something new to each scene.’ The best directors lay back, too. Subtle. Just a look or a hand signal, being in touch with what’s happening. We’re software. They may be looking where the moon is, what’s going on in the actor’s life.”
    An audience member told Mr. Gere he had watched his latest film, “Arbitrage” with Susan Sarandon and Tim Roth, several times. “You deserve an Academy Award,” he told the star.
    “It was a magical experience,” Mr. Gere said, asking the film’s writer and director, Nicholas Jarecki, to stand.
    “You have been a leading man for five decades,” Mr. Baldwin said, to which the actor replied: “I’m continually amazed.” He thanked the audience for their allegiance.
    Asked about how tight money was affecting the movie trade, Mr. Gere said he saw a return to “people versus hardware” films, lower-budget “Sidney Lumet movies” that used language and storytelling rather than special effects. Speaking of “Arbitrage,” he said, “This movie was independently produced and went with video on demand. It was cheaper production and an ancillary [income] stream for a smaller movie.”
    Mr. Gere was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Syracuse. “What would you have done if you didn’t do what you’re doing?” Mr. Baldwin asked.
    “Music. I’d like to see a reel with everything I’ve played. I wanted a creative life, poetry, philosophy. I didn’t care, creativity and the mind.”