People who think of the Bible’s King David simply as the shepherd boy who killed the giant Goliath with a slingshot or as a bearded man in flowing robes strumming a harp are in for a shock. In the film King David, directed by Australian Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant, Tender Mercies), viewers are confronted with an intense, disturbingly real portrait — based on the Biblical text — of one of the most complex and fascinating characters of ancient history. As portrayed by Richard Gere, David is at once shepherd, poet, warrior, lover, traitor, outlaw, king and spiritual seeker. Beautifully shot in the southern Italian town of Matera — one of the oldest villages in Europe — King David presents with startling clarity this 3,000-year-old story that has so often been glossed over and sentimentalized by generations of Sunday-school-book accounts and retellings.
Gere’s risk-taking performance marks the twelfth film appearance of the thirty-five-year-old actor, whose roles have ranged from big-city, streetwise, macho-yet-vulnerable protagonists (Bloodbrothers, American Gigolo, Cotton Club) to American innocents insistently trying to live out their dreams and romantic commitments (Days of Heaven, Yanks, An Officer and a Gentleman). But in King David, Richard Gere has taken on the most challenging and all-encompassing role of his career.
What do you say to people who think it takes a lot of chutzpah to play the role of King David?
Well, who has a right to play anyone on that level? Who has the chutzpah to play any other life and think you can fulfill it? But as with other professions, you take on the largest challenge in order to expand yourself. It would be foolish for anyone to think he could be King David or Jesus Christ or Freud or whoever. What you can do, though, is to explore some of the territory and hope that, momentarily, through craft and hard work, you can coax out some of the essence of the material. And that’s it. There’s really no pretense about it. I approached the role of David like any other character. You can’t do it any other way. If you start playing the king, then you don’t play the person. You never play the king. It’s the people around you who play you as if you were the king. So, as with any character, you find the essential human being there — the situation, the mind set, the spiritual point of view. By keying into those aspects of the character, you can then deal with it dramatically.
What first got you interested in the character of David?
He was the golden boy, he was someone who could do everything. He was the poet, the lover, the chosen one, the madman, the womanizer, the warrior, the rebel, the political thinker, the philosopher, the priest, the prophet. He had touches of all these things within him, and they were all explored and expressed. We have the whole legacy of his military and political thinking. And in the Psalms, we see a guy who’s psychologically very similar to us, who’s dealing with self-knowledge and guilt, who’s aware of his shortcomings and is trying to overcome them, but is very honest about them… who’s saying, basically, “I’m fucked, I’ve sinned, forgive me.” It’s his sense of self-awareness, I think, that’s interesting about his character.
I’ve always wanted to know, what was the first role you ever played?
You mean besides Santa Claus?
Yeah, Santa Claus. I was in the first or third grade, and my mother made the costume. I had a pillow over my belly and a big black belt, and my mother pasted cotton on my red jacket.
How did you do?
I think it was a huge success [laughing].
Then what happened?
My second role was the funniest one, actually. I was in junior high — and wasn’t exactly student-council material — but I was playing the president of the United States in The Mouse That Roared. So you can imagine this fourteen-year-old kid coming out onstage and playing the president, with everybody knowing that he was a fuckup. So I went from Santa Claus to King David in thirty years!
A very religious career.
It’s the beard [laughing] — that must really be the key. Maybe it’s the same essential character I’m perfecting now.
What were your first serious roles?
The first time I was ever paid for this line of work was at the Provincetown Playhouse one summer when I was nineteen. It was a two-week rep — that is, you rehearsed for two weeks and played for two weeks, and while you were doing one role, you rehearsed the next one. So it was really a twenty-four-hour nightmare. No sleep. You never learned the lines. You were always on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
I was ill equipped, I’m sure, to play any of the roles, but for some reason they allowed me to do them. And I covered an incredible range of things. The first play I was in was O’Neill’s The Great God Brown. We wore plastic masks through which we spoke our lines in normal, prosaic ways, and then we’d take the masks off and speak our innermost feelings.
As Santa Claus, you had a beard; in The Great God Brown, you wore a mask. When did you show your true face?
I don’t know if one ever does that. Maybe when you die — that’s about it.
Sometimes a mask allows you to be truly yourself.
I think the gig is either to have no mask at all or else to have an infinite number of them and keep shuffling them. It’s probably more fun to have an infinite number of masks.
What were some of the other masks you were trying on at that time?
I remember being in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Peter Schaffers’ The White Liars. Edward Albee’s Everything in the Garden and Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real. In that last one, I played the roles of Lord Byron and Lobo, the beachboy!
Where did your acting career go from there?
After Provincetown, I spent a season in Seattle, then later moved to New York City, where I lived in a fifth-floor walk-up — no heat, no water — on Sixth Street between Avenue C and Avenue D. When I took the place, I told the landlord, “Look, the only thing I can’t take is roaches.” He said, “No problem with roaches.” But as soon as I wrote him a check and he left, 4 million roaches jumped out of every nook and cranny in the place. Meanwhile, outside on the street, I learned drums and Spanish.
This was in the early Seventies, and it was a time when rock operas like Hair were popular. I played instruments and sang and had long hair, so I fitted right in and started working immediately. The first thing I did was something called Soon, a Rock Opera — that’s how they billed it. It was on Broadway, and I was making money, and a lot of good people were in it — Peter Allen, Barry Bostwick, Marta Heflin, Nell Carter. Nell Carter played my girlfriend.
It was a very deep piece about country musicians who come to the big city to make it. All of a sudden, their acoustic instruments are taken away from them, and they’re playing electric instruments. The songs were supposed to come out sounding like disco, but unfortunately, when we prerecorded the music, instead of it sounding awful, it actually sounded great [laughing] — like Leon Russell, which at the time was the hippest stuff going. I was playing slide guitars and basses and everything. Hardly anyone who was in those kinds of musicals felt they were great art, but they kept the wolf away and gave you money for your rent and acting classes.
Soon led to Grease, which took me to England, where I met Frank Dunlop, who was then running the Young Vic. He asked me to work in a production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, in which I played Christopher Sly. The concept of the role was that I was a member of the audience, a drunk in the lobby causing trouble before the play began. Then when everyone was seated, Jim Dale — the actor playing Petruchio — made an announcement, saying, “We’re terribly sorry, but we’ve had this terrible disaster — our sets and our costumes have been destroyed in a fire, but we’re going to go ahead and do what we can.” And then I shouted out from the audience: [drunken voice] “Whahthafuckareyatalkina-bout . . . ” So the actors kind of pacified me, brought me up onstage, and at that point I became part of the drama — which, in fact, honors the essence of the play, since it was supposed to be performed for this drunk named Christopher Sly, though that suggestion is normally cut out in most productions.
So here I was stuck up on the stage in various stages of stupor. And at a certain point, the other actors decide to let me play the role of an old man who’s pretending to be the father of some other character. It was quite fun, actually. And I got arrested the first night we did it, because the guards didn’t know that I was supposed to be part of the production.
You’re playing a role, and they arrest you. It could be your life story!
Arrested because they didn’t know [laughing]. And the audience would get embarrassed. They’d think it was kind of funny that I was falling off the chair, being an asshole. But when I’d speak up, they’d get embarrassed, especially those sitting next to me. Some nights I fooled people, some nights I didn’t. I remember one performance when there was a little girl up in the balcony who called out. “He’s not drunk!” [Laughing.]
Your first critic . . . she’s still around.
She’s still here [laughing]. Actually, she grew up to be David Denby [New York magazine’s movie critic].
Some critics and gossip writers seem to forget that you’ve performed a broad spectrum of fascinating film roles, and they tend to stereotype you as a one-dimensional kind of magnetic, provocative character whom girls get crushes on, boys feel resentful toward, mothers get nervous about and fathers get scared of.
I think that somewhere along the line, the people who have to market and sell things — people who sell Tupperware and plastic — decided this was a way to sell whatever it is I represent. And it’s got nothing to do with me. It’s very bizarre. They seem to have bent things in order to make me fit a certain kind of argument they have about me.
You should talk to the people I work with, because my essential self comes out in that process. I like working with people, I enjoy group enterprises. And that’s the joy of making films. You’re dealing with so many elements — most of which I’m a novice at — but, I mean, film fulfills so many drives . . . with regard to music, photography, writing, philosophy, world movements, metaphysics [laughing] — they’re all involved. As for my roles, I’ve tried not to repeat myself. My static media image bothered me for a little while, because I felt I was being incredibly misconceived. But then I realized that it really had nothing to do with me, that I was happy with what I was doing, proud of the work that I was doing and the choices I was making.
It’s interesting that you choose to play characters who, no matter how different each one may seem from the other, are all, in a sense, lunatics, lovers and poets, to paraphrase Shakespeare.
I’ve always thought of these roles as being that way, too. But some people don’t notice those aspects because they don’t get past the obvious attributes of the characters to see what’s really motivating them. All of them are leaning in a certain direction. They’re people who are trying to grow in some way, trying to figure out what they’re involved with, trying to figure out what is this universe. They all reflect different intellectual, spiritual and economic points of view, but they’re all basically unencumbered human beings — lovers, lunatics and poets.
Do you think of yourself as a lover, lunatic and poet?
Me. I’m nothing. I’m an empty creature [laughing].
So how does an empty creature go about preparing for the part of King David?
The way I work is to pull back and find neutral, to clean myself out of me, Richard. Then, on neutral ground, I start building the pieces of the character, and also try to coax in whatever can come through me from other levels. And you can only do that if you’re empty. If you’re filled, there’s no room for something else to come through. That goes without saving.
Did you know much about the David story before you started work on the film?
The Goliath story was just about it. Marty Elfand, who produced An Officer and a Gentleman, sent me the script, which was written by the English author Andrew Birkin. The first version — there were, finally, ten drafts — was huge and filled with everything one could say on the subject. But it was done with such invention and texture that I was immediately drawn to it . . . just as I had been drawn to the movies of Bruce Beresford, who was going to direct. We tried to avoid overpoeticized spiritual digressions and the kind of style typified by the Biblical engravings of Gustave Dore — you know, Moses with the beard, holding a stone. We also tried to steer clear of any kind of mock-Shakespearean attitudes. But we had to find some kind of heightened way of dealing with the language, so that it would convey the weight of the material — the Bible — and at the same time still be within the realm of believability, so that characters would be talking to one another like friends to friends.
Not being Jewish, how did you feel playing a Jewish king?
At the time of David, people didn’t understand the sense of Jewishness the way they do now, which is informed by the whole European experience of exile. So I related to the role completely divorced from the oy veys of Yiddish New York and saw the story simply as being about people trying to survive in a desert society, like the Bedouins I visited in Morocco. Before shooting the film, I went to the edge of the Sahara and spent some time in the Atlas Mountains with the Berbers and Bedouins. We had a Berber guide who took us into Bedouin tents. One isn’t normally invited into Bedouin tents. In fact, it’s highly dangerous to go near them. But our guide spoke the language and got us in. In one tent, we met a girl who was in a lot of trouble. She had been in labor for days, and everyone feared for her life. So we got her to our vehicle and took her to the nearest town, which opened up the possibilities of dealing with the Bedouins on a day-to-day basis. Which is really ground-level stuff. I mean, it’s a totally transient, nomadic life. Tents and animals. A little taste of that, and you begin to sit differently, your concept of time becomes different, and you start to live that way. I think it’s important to explore that way of living. How do you protect yourself at night? How cold is it? How do you deal with women? How do you deal with men? Do men touch? You have to confront all those kinds of physical realities. So that was essential. And on top of that, doing all the reading and research I could, and then going to Israel and visiting the places that are described in the Bible and in the script. I walked the riverbed, for example, where, the archaeologists tell us, David and Goliath supposedly had their encounter.
All of these events were supposed to have taken place around 1000 B.C.
To simplify the story: Saul was the first king of the Jewish tribes, and was chosen by God through the prophet Samuel. The Jews hadn’t had a king before. God was their ruler, and he was an all-encompassing concept for them. But the people were having lots of problems with the neighboring Philistines, so they felt they needed one leader to command the standing army — a temporal king, one they could see. Samuel chose Saul — who he thought was just a big dumb soldier from the small Benjamite tribe. In fact, however, he turned out to be not only a good soldier but also a powerful man who began to question the authority of Samuel and of the revealed God through him.
So Samuel began to have problems with his protégé — the issue being the division of church and state — and had him excommunicated. In the film, we show Samuel using two divinatory gems, by means of which he chooses the young shepherd boy David to be the future king.
It’s been pointed out that the Bible, which is the basic source for the story of David, reveals him to be guilty of extortion and robbery, high treason, consorting with the enemy and conspiracy with intent to murder.
It’s there in the Bible.
This guy who’s grown up very innocent, a poetic soul, is brought into court, becomes the king’s armor carrier and then a captain in Saul’s standing army, one who rides a chariot into town as the girls line up, cheering, “Saul has killed his thousands, David his tens of thousands.” Saul tells David to go out to kill 100 Philistines as the bride price for his daughter Michal, thinking he will surely die in the process, but he comes back with a box of 200 foreskins. So this is a brutal time, Jack. And this young poet has taken quite a voyage into the realm of death and killing.
The film itself begins in an extremely brutal way.
Saul has won the war against the Amalekites. He’s happy. He’s got Agag — the king of the Amalekites — before him. And, spying Samuel, he asks him to come in to observe the negotiations, because his basic idea is to buy the Amalekite land for a low price in order to obtain a deed of ownership so that it could never be argued that the land was obtained illegally. But Samuel, as the Word of Yahweh, says: “This is blasphemy. The word of God is clear: Kill every man, woman, child and beast; take no prisoners; do not negotiate; the enemy is unworthy and unclean.” And he then personally cuts off Agag’s head.
It’s pretty shocking.
It’s pretty shocking for a god to be interpreted by a prophet in that way, and to be believed . . . by both sides. Each side was fighting for its god, and the same edict was down: Kill every man, woman, child and beast . . . the other side is unclean.
This story, to me, represents a transitional phase between the Biblical accounts of Moses and of Jesus — who, the Bible tells us, is said to be descended from the House of David — because the history of David represents the change that occurred between the conception of the strict and punishing God of Moses and the loving and compassionate God of Jesus, the God who basically says, “Look, I know you’re fucked, but I love you anyway.” And David is the key character who explores that new territory which no one had been in before. His own hands are bloodied, but he’s also torn by the compassionate and giving side, for of course he’s a poet and musician as well.
The hard side of the story — as it’s written in the Bible and as we portray it in the film — is that of Samuel and the prophet Nathan, who are upholding the word of the God of Moses. And Saul and David are continually questioning that word and saying, “Look, if God wants us to do something, let him speak to us face to face.” They’ve been commanded to kill, and they want to know that the command is a direct communication from God.
To me, the key to the whole story is hidden in that phrase “face to face.” “Let me see you face to face,” David is saying to his God. “Let there be no separation between my life and yourself. If you’re going to use me, use me fully, take the whole thing, you and me, face to face.” And on his deathbed, David says, “Hide your face no more.”
These are characters whose unbridled emotions are openly on display. Saul loves David, even when Saul tries to kill him. And David loves Saul’s son, Jonathan.
It’s clear to me that the characters in the Bible knew that something was going on between David and Jonathan. Saul tells Jonathan that he has chosen David “to your own shame and the downfall of us all.” Don’t forget, too, that David is married to Saul’s daughter, Michal; he’s the best soldier; he’s loved by the people; and he has a special relationship with God, which torments Saul. The one smile that David and Saul share together at their first meeting says it all. They understand each other immediately. Saul loves him, he’s jealous of him, he’s attached to him.
Now the movie doesn’t get into this heavily. If you want to see the relationship in the way it’s suggested in the Bible, you won’t find it in the film such that people could walk out of the theater saying: [Borsch Belt voice] “Do you think David and Jonathan were shtupping each other?” Rather, there’s a gentleness of spirit, an ease of touch, poetry whispered in the ears, tearful runnings-away — it’s that kind of thing. And yes, it’s men doing this. But we found that it was better to show it in this fashion, with a purity of expression devoid of any coy sexuality. All of the relationships among the male characters are extraordinarily strong and bizarre, and none of these characters could exist without the others. Look at Nathan and David — they’re like Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund.
King David accurately re-creates the passions and violence and political realities and spiritual yearnings of the Biblical story. Which side is the film ultimately on?
Basically, I was free from dogma and had no religious or political ax to grind and was as confused as anybody else about the issues involved. Everyone working on the film entered into it in order to explore the territory. Of course, there’s ammunition for anyone’s ideas or ideologies in this movie. But clearly there’s a message that we all wanted to communicate, and that has to do with the face-to-face notion I mentioned earlier. If you’re going to be doing something in God’s stead, make sure you have direct communication with him… not via some self-proclaimed prophet, who may be a false prophet anyway. As David whispers on his deathbed to his son Solomon, “No matter what the prophets may tell you, be guided by the instincts of your own heart, for it’s through the heart and the heart alone that God speaks to man.”
So after immersing yourself in the role of King David and his story, what did you learn?
You want to know what I learned? “Who knows the meaning of anything? God has so ordered the world that man cannot find the answer. However hard a man may try, he will not find God. The wise man may think he knows, but he knows no more than the fool, who knows nothing. Emptiness, emptiness, all is emptiness and a striving after wind. What has happened will happen again, and what has been done will be done again. And there is no new thing under the sun.” — Ecclesiastes. . . . Just kidding, folks!