Life on the Streets: Richard Gere on Going Homeless
If you live in a decent-sized city, much less a metropolis, you probably see someone like George every day. Having fallen on hard times, George lives on the street; if he’s not able to procure a bed at the chaotic, prison-like local shelter, he’s apt to be sleeping in a cardboard box or, if he’s lucky, the basement of an apartment building he’s snuck into. He spends his days shuffling around the city, occasionally panhandling for change. A winter coat he’s picked up from a church is pawned for money for a bottle. When you pass someone like George on the street, you’re likely to look away. Most people wouldn’t stop to take note of the desperation in his eyes, or the damage done to a once-handsome man whose face has weathered the elements in the worst way.
And, if you’re like a good deal of New Yorkers, you probably wouldn’t have noticed that the homeless man in question was Richard Gere.
“It wasn’t just that I was invisible; I was a black hole,” Gere says, sitting in the corner of a Toronto hotel suite. He’s describing the experiment that he and writer-director Oren Moverman tried on the first day of shooting Time Out of Mind, their stripped-to-the-bone drama about a lost soul drifting through Manhattan. While Moverman and his cinematographer Bobby Bukowski sat in the Starbucks that faces the Alamo Cube sculpture in Astor Place, they trained their camera on Gere — dressed in his character George’s tattered clothes, a dirty beanie covering most of his head — as he hit up passerbys for spare change. Not one single person recognized that the man interrupting their afternoon stroll was the same man who granted Julia Roberts a get-out-of-prostitution-free card in Pretty Woman.
“People actively avoided me,” the 65-year-old actor continues. “It wasn’t that folks didn’t notice me; they could see someone asking for change from two blocks away. It was that they saw the embodiment of failure — and failure is something that people fear will suck them in. If it’s not a fear of the vortex of failure, it’s the overwhelming sense of guilt: ‘Oh, I don’t want to feel bad about not giving this guy money, I don’t want to give him money at all, how much money can I give him where it doesn’t hurt me but I feel like a do-gooder?’ All these conflicting feelings, just because I’m standing in Astor Place going like this.” Gere mimes rattling a cup. ” ‘Spare change, can you help me out?’ That was it. And I had an idea of what that experience might be like intellectually, but from the emotional perspective of being the person that people cross the street from…it’s an entirely different thing.”
“The initial idea was really a test to see if the whole concept would work,” Gere says after a pause. “You know, would they say a homeless man or would they see Richard Gere? We got our answer. After that, we knew we could not only make this movie but do it right.”
How to do Time Out of Mind “right” was something that had vexed the star for close to a decade, when the original script came across Gere’s radar — a far different version of George’s story than the spare, documentary-like character study that left audiences stunned at the Toronto International Film Festival a few days earlier. “Yeah, you would have hated it,” he says. “The original script was basically a ‘normal’ version of what you’d expect a Hollywood movie about a homeless man would be like. There were bad guys, and a court case that played a big part in the last half, where George sues the city. It was just a lot of clichés. But there was also this intriguing section about the character stalking a young woman for reasons that aren’t really made clear at first, and I thought, this is interesting. And there was this relationship between George and an older man at the shelter [played in the film by Broadway legend Ben Vereen] that was just barely sketched out, but you could see there was something there as well. I kept feeling that somewhere within this script was a really great movie that was trying to come out.”
Unable to let the project go, Gere ended up buying the script and holding on to it. As he started researching, he came across a New York Times story about Thomas Wagner, who went by the name “Cadillac Man” and had just published a memoir about his life on the streets. The actor met Wagner through some contacts, and became convinced that the book’s style — “no pity, no self-consciousness, incredibly straightforward but incredibly moving” — offered a guidepost for how Time could transcend the typical Hollywood social-issue-screed pitfalls. “Forget the dramaturgy,” Gere says. “Just allow things to happen, in the most simple, matter-of-fact kind of way. Don’t make him jump through a lot of narrative hoops. Just allow George to be.”
It wasn’t just that i was invisible; i was a black hole. People actively avoided me.
The next step was being able to find someone who’d share that vision, and it was Gere’s producing partner, Caroline Kaplan, who suggested that he reach out to Oren Moverman. The two men knew each other from working on I’m Not There, the fragmented Bob Dylan(s) biopic that Moverman wrote and Gere starred in as the “Billy the Kid” era version of the musician. The screenwriter had gone on to become a director of films like the Oscar-nominated military drama The Messenger (2009) and the take-no-prisoners portrait of an alpha-dog LAPD officer Rampart (2011). Gere naturally assumed the filmmaker would be too busy to take the project on and asked Moverman for the names of writers who could replicate his style and sensibility. “His response was, ‘Why don’t you just ask Oren Moverman, he’s sitting right in front of you,’ ” the actor says, laughing. “I sent him Cadillac Man’s book and the draft of the script we had, and he immediately got it.”
“You could tell there was something there,” Moverman says. “It was just a question of what. We kept throwing around a bunch of different ideas before we finally hit upon a question we couldn’t answer: Why, exactly, do we need to craft a story around him? Why not just follow this guy around and observe him? You know, bring in the sights and sounds of the city. Experience the sort of things he’d experience in a day. Let you walk around in his shoes.” The result ends up resembling a European art-house movie dotted with elements borrowed from avant-garde shorts. (When asked about influences, Gere namedrops Robert Bresson, the French director known for having his actors say their lines without emotion or inflection; Moverman cites the Italian neorealist films of the 1950s, specifically Umberto D.) The camera discreetly watches George from a distance. Random snatches of urban noise — an overheard phone call or the sounds of a rush-hour commute — play over the scenes in lieu of a score. Sentimentality is AWOL. It is the least Hollywoodized American movie about a man trying to put his life back together — not to mention one featuring a major movie star — that you are ever likely to see. (The film is currently without a distributor, something that will hopefully change ASAP.)
As to whether audiences would buy the man who made slim Armani suits the uniform of Eighties power players as someone on the skids, his first appearance in Time Out of Mind — roused from sleeping in an abandoned apartment’s bathtub, his grey mane reduced to a disheveled buzz cut — immediately makes you forget that this was the man who, for decades, was the sex symbol who embodied first-class corporate success in the public consciousness for years. “I knew Richard was capable of a transformative performance,” Moverman says. “But when I saw the rushes, I forgot it was him.” Even Gere will admit that viewing scenes from the film feels a little like he’s watching someone else.
“I did one of those talks where they look back at your career a few days ago,” he says. “There were some clips of older movies I’d done, and I thought, oh yeah…I remember those.” He laughs. “Then a clip from this one came on, and two thoughts occurred to me: This looks completely different from anything else they’ve shown; and I have no recollection of filming those scenes whatsoever. That’s when you know you’ve hit on something. The process of what I do…that hasn’t changed in 40 years or so. But being able to get in to the flow of something where what seems impossible comes naturally and you don’t remember acting because you’re able to just be the part? That’s rare.”