The actor reflects on 35 years of notable movies — from ''Pretty Woman'' to ''Chicago'' to the new ''Arbitrage,'' which could finally bring him his first Oscar nomination

By Dave Karger
August 31, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

Richard Gere sparred with Louis Gossett Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman, romanced Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, interrogated Edward Norton in Primal Fear, fought with Diane Lane in Unfaithful, and hoofed beside Renée Zellweger in Chicago. But in all five cases, his costars earned Academy recognition while he went unnoticed. What gives? ”I’ve been doing this a long time,” says Gere when asked if he’d like to break his Academy dry spell. ”It’s nice for people to say, ‘Good job.’ And it would be nice for my kid if his dad gets that kind of attention.”

His wish might yet come true. Gere’s commanding lead performance as a morally suspect Wall Street power player in Arbitrage (rated R, out Sept. 14) won raves when it debuted at Sundance last winter. Roadside Attractions is planning an aggressive awards push. Arbitrage offers Gere, 63, his meatiest movie role since the one-two punch of Unfaithful and Chicago in 2002. ”It speaks to the times,” he says over a cup of green tea in Sag Harbor, N.Y., near the home he shares with his wife, actress Carey Lowell, and their 12-year-old son, Homer. ”And it’s a world that I don’t think has been well examined.” We asked him to recall some of his most famous onscreen moments.

Days of Heaven (1978)
Gere’s first leading role was as a farmhand in writer-director Terrence Malick’s visually arresting second feature.

”I don’t think Terry knew exactly what a Terry Malick movie was then. He didn’t have the language to talk to actors. He would struggle for ways to express what he was looking for. It was frustrating for all of us, probably for me the most. It was like, ‘Terry, just tell me what you want ’cause I’m dry now. I don’t know what else to try.’ We shot a much more language-oriented movie; it was in editing that it became the movie you see now.”

American Gigolo (1980)
John Travolta dropped out of director Paul Schrader’s drama, and Gere was cast as the iconic Armani-clad hustler just two weeks before shooting. The role, with its surprising full-frontal nudity, made Gere an instant sensation.

”Paul came to see me in Malibu and said, ‘You’ve got to say yes to this tomorrow at the latest.’ I read it and I thought, ‘This is a character I don’t know very well. I don’t own a suit. He speaks languages; I don’t speak any languages. There’s kind of a gay thing that’s flirting through it and I didn’t really know the gay community at all.’ I wanted to immerse myself in all of that and I had literally two weeks. So I just dove in. If I recall, [the nudity] wasn’t in the script. It was just in the natural process of making the movie. I certainly felt vulnerable, but I think it’s different for men than women.”

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
Gere’s hot streak continued with Taylor Hackford’s word-of-mouth smash about the fraught relationship between a Navy flight-school enrollee and his sergeant, played by Louis Gossett Jr. On set, Gere was convinced the film’s feel-good ending, in which he carries costar Debra Winger out of the factory where she works, was too over-the-top.

”I argued against it from the beginning. I said, ‘This is bulls—.’ I was trying to make a very real, gritty movie and all the rewrites we did were to keep it grounded in that territory of realism. And that didn’t fit at all — it was such a rave-up ‘movie moment.’ We were in the factory ready to shoot it and I said, ‘We’re going to waste half a day shooting this thing. We’re behind schedule, we’ve got other stuff to do. This is never going to be in the movie.’ I remember Taylor said, ‘We’re here, it’s in the script, they expect us to shoot it, let’s just shoot it.’ I was definitely wrong.”

The Cotton Club (1984)
Gere played a jazz cornet player in Francis Ford Coppola’s troubled Depression-era drama, which was budgeted at more than $50 million.

”There never was a finished script. We were trying to figure out what we were doing day by day. At the end of the shoot, there was a joke script that was handed out that had no writing on it. Just a title page and nothing. You can only imagine what it’s like to work on something as big as that and not know what the story is. All the actors and extras, we’d all get dressed up in our tuxedos and get our hair done and we would just sit there. I remember Tom Waits sitting there like a crazy person in a corner in a tuxedo just rocking back and forth.”

Pretty Woman (1990)
Gere’s first comedy was Garry Marshall’s smash romance that made Julia Roberts a household name.

”I’d never done anything so openly charming. It was [then Disney chairman] Jeffrey Katzenberg’s decision to change it from the brutal original idea of a guy who picks up a hooker and just dumps her back on the street and turn it into Cinderella. Julia had already been cast. She came to see me in New York and I still hadn’t decided [to do the film]. You couldn’t meet this girl and not fall in love with her. We got Garry on the phone. She was sitting across from my desk and she starts writing on a piece of paper. She shoves it toward me and it says, ‘Please do this movie.’ It was like, ‘How can you say no?’ ”

Primal Fear (1996)
The intense thriller is most notable for breakout turns by two future Oscar nominees: Laura Linney and Edward Norton.

”Laura Linney did a full test for us and she had learned six scenes word-perfect. She was just a knockout. There was no other choice. The scenes between us are some of my favorite man-woman scenes that I’ve ever done. They seem to vibrate with a reality that I know life to be between men and women. Edward came out of nowhere. We found a lot of wonderful young actors who could be crazy, but then they couldn’t play normal. And the movie only works if you believe in his innocence. We tested him twice because the first test was so good, we went, ‘It’s a fluke.’ We tested him again and he was equally good.”

Runaway Bride (1999)
The reunion of Gere, Julia Roberts, and Garry Marshall grossed $152 million but failed to live up to the success of Pretty Woman.

”Whatever that magic was in the first movie, you can’t make that happen. While there’s some wonderful stuff in the movie, it certainly didn’t have the magic of the first one. The expectation that it was going to have that same kind of delicious magic was irresponsible. It was a different movie, it was a different time, she was in a different place, I was in a different place.”

Unfaithful (2002)
Gere played against type as Diane Lane’s cuckolded husband in Adrian Lyne’s adult drama.

”Adrian brought it to me and it was a terrific script. And he said, ‘Which part do you want to play?’ I said, ‘Well, certainly in my younger days it would have been the other one; maybe I’ve played that part already. Let me play the husband. That’s a new territory to explore.’ It was a very interesting process not being the wild, exotic flower.”

Chicago (2002)
Gere scored a Golden Globe for his charismatic turn as nimble-footed lawyer Billy Flynn in Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning musical.

”In the script it was written, ‘He tap-dances.’ I said, ‘Great, I want to make this work. But I don’t know how to tap.’ Rob said, ‘You’ll get it! And if you don’t, we’ll do something else.’ I had a wonderful tap teacher [Cynthia Onrubia] who worked with me every single day. She wasn’t going to make me a tap dancer in eight weeks. But what she did that was really smart was she said, ‘Do what you think is tap dancing.’ I’d shuffle around and some things would happen that actually felt kind of good. And she would go, ‘Okay, let’s go with that.’ So I muscled through it.”

Arbitrage (2012)
Gere’s new film, about a Bernard Madoff-like financier whose shady dealings get exposed, is the first narrative feature for documentarian Nicholas Jarecki (2006’s The Outsider). Though the plot twists are intense, the actor says the set was anything but.

”I hope we see ourselves in this character, that it’s not just about the financial world but it’s about all of our compromises. [On set] we all made a real point of being relaxed. Nick and I talked about it in the beginning. I said, ‘This is really the way I like to work. Easy and slowly, and drink a lot of tea.’ ”

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