A Conversation with Richard Gere
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!
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