Has the ''Pretty Woman'' star outgrown playing romantic leads?

By Gregory Kirschling
Updated March 30, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

”I shouldn’t get that close to you,” he says by way of introduction. Richard Gere’s got the flu. It didn’t stop Hollywood’s most famous Buddhist from testifying on behalf of Tibet in front of the House Foreign Relations Committee yesterday in Washington, D.C. And it won’t get in the way of this afternoon’s interview at his offices in downtown Manhattan. He is smiling as he heads back to an expansive lounge area, its walls lined with books on India and Tibet and its tables stocked with Tazo teas, bowls of nuts, and an open copy of Variety.

Gere is busy, too busy to take a sick day. His life, he says, is neatly divided. ”It’s a third, a third, and a third,” he explains at a low decibel, now tucked into a big chair. One-third of his life is being a family man. Married since 2002 to actress Carey Lowell, 46 (he divorced Cindy Crawford in 1995), Gere is now dad to 17-year-old stepdaughter Hannah and 7-year-old son Homer (who, he says, may be the one who got him sick). The next third is dedicated to his activism. From these offices he runs the Gere Foundation to aid the Tibetan people, which regularly sends him all over the world. The final portion is devoted to films. Gere is still a movie star, with four movies planned for this year, and another — a Nicholas Sparks adaptation called Nights in Rodanthe, opposite his Unfaithful costar Diane Lane — set to roll in May.

His latest film, The Hoax (April 6), a larky biopic about a real-life con man, was supposed to come out last year, but Gere was too booked making the upcoming Spring Break in Bosnia to promote it. Had it been released in the fall, it is not inconceivable that his performance would have generated Oscar talk. He plays Clifford Irving, now 76, an inscrutable writer who faked an entire ”autobiography” of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes in 1971, and almost got away with it. In what might be a first for Gere, it’s a Serious Actor’s kind of part. Never before has he played a contemporary historical figure, or had to watch and rewatch old footage to get a real guy’s voice down, or even significantly altered his appearance — he cut back his hairline and got a perm (!) for the part.

The actor doesn’t buy that Irving is any harder to portray than more movie-star-ish roles like the ballroom dancer he played in 2004’s Shall We Dance?: ”To keep a normal guy interesting for two hours, that’s extremely difficult!” But Gere, now 57, does concede that his choice in roles began to shift around the time he started his family. ”I always liked playing romantic leads, because they’re more interesting characters, in a way,” says the star of 1990’s Pretty Woman. ”I found them interesting because they related to my own life, and my own searches for a way to make this man-woman thing look right and feel good.

”But now,” he continues, as he sucks on a cough drop, ”certainly young-romantic-man roles are not appropriate for me. I need to pick parts that I can bring my thing to, and it’s a different thing available to me than I had when I was 26 or 27.”

Instead, this year Gere is playing a wide array of older guys. In Spring Break in Bosnia, a black comedy, he’s a journalist hunting a real-life Serbian war criminal. In the dark thriller The Flock, opposite Claire Danes, he’s a cop ”who has a sixth sense about sex offenders.” And he chuckles at the mention of Todd Haynes’ ”peculiar” I’m Not There, which he says finds him and several actors (including Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett) ”expressionistically” playing Bob Dylan. His character, he says cryptically, is a mix of Dylan and Billy the Kid.

A scarf looped around his neck, black sweater zipped all the way up, Gere is a calm presence with an intent gaze. But ask him if he still gets called ”gorgeous,” and he lets loose a rare belly laugh. That leads to a story about a recent press conference at which a reporter told him that three generations of women in her family are in love with him. ”I got very embarrassed,” he admits, grinning. Ask him if he feels underrated as an actor, and he won’t bite. ”No interest!” he says. ”You just do the work.” He does cop to feeling a moment’s disappointment that ”everyone” in Chicago was nominated for an Oscar except him, but ”I processed that and it was fine.” It must be nice to be a Buddhist in Hollywood.

”Richard doesn’t seem to require the typical validation,” says Diane Lane. ”It’s one step in front of the other for him, without any fanfare. I don’t think he’s interested in the greyhound-race mentality of Hollywood.” Does he think about retiring to devote more time to family and Tibet? ”Every day!” he practically blurts. ”Every day, sure!” But he has a good thing going, and the Buddhist in him knows it. ”Everything is so connected,” he says, thick Mala beads wrapped around one wrist, ”and certainly your life, however you define that, has no separations — this part of my life, that part of my life. It all flows in and out.”

Richard Gere’s Must List

Shalimar the Clown 2005
”I like [Salman] Rushdie. I remember a reading he did once, and I liked him even better after I heard him read his own stuff.”

Letters From Iwo Jima 2006
”Of the movies I thought I was going to like [last year], it was one of the few that was a great film.”

The Lives of Others 2006
”This very German film reminded me of the great period of German films, especially [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder.”

The Beatles 1 2000
”I’m kind of a throwback. We listen to this [hits album] in the car. My son, who’s 7, perks up whenever we put [it on].”

Old Rockers
”Almost any of the deep blues guys, whether it’s Muddy Waters, Albert King, Freddie King, B.B. King; that’s where I’m coming from. I’m a dinosaur.”