Richard Gere: Don't call me babe

Richard Gere has been portrayed as a sex symbol for decades. It's a description he hated, he tells Tiffany Rose
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Despite nursing a fractured wrist, Richard Gere saunters into the swish Manhattan hotel suite in high spirits. "It's a horse accident," he explains, sensing that this would probably be the first question fired at him. "I'm breaking him in, but I'm not too sure about him and I don't think he's too sure about me either."

Despite nursing a fractured wrist, Richard Gere saunters into the swish Manhattan hotel suite in high spirits. "It's a horse accident," he explains, sensing that this would probably be the first question fired at him. "I'm breaking him in, but I'm not too sure about him and I don't think he's too sure about me either."

Gere lowers himself into an armchair, and continues: "We were out riding and he began bucking. He kept putting his head in between his legs and hopping in a strange way, and so I thought his foot may have become caught in one of the straps underneath his belly. It's hard to predict what horses will do, so I bailed. I jumped off just in time."

After four decades in the business, whatever that magical It factor may be - Gere has it 100 per cent. His gentlemanly charm still works, and he still possesses the boyish good looks that we were first introduced to in American Gigolo, 25 years ago. At the age of 55, this charismatic actor, with his trademark squinty eyes and schoolboy smirk, can still make women swoon. However, for Gere it's a different picture. He views celebrity as dull; and is much more interested in being a student of Buddhism and a human-rights activist.

"These interviews used to terrify me!" he half jokes. "Most actors are introverted, which is why they chose acting, because it's like therapy. And for me, I used to hate encountering situations where journalists wanted me to be something I was not. I was a sex symbol, I had everything - that's all projected. I never thought of myself as that."

Despite the title of his new romantic comedy, Shall We Dance?, Gere says he actually can't dance. His movies say otherwise. He has proved he can hoof it well: he played a tap-dancing lawyer in his Golden Globe-winning performance in Chicago; and he's a waltzing, tango-ing accountant in his new film, which co-stars Susan Sarandon and Jennifer Lopez. No cutaways or body doubles were used; Gere trained, sweated and ached in order to morph his self-confessed "two left feet" into a ballroom-dancing pro on the big screen. "No, I can't dance, and I certainly don't dance as well as I look in the movies," he shrugs. "I worked for a long time, and I had a very smart teacher."

Australian choreographer John "Cha Cha" O'Connell, who has worked on several of Baz Luhrmann's films, including Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge!, trained Gere for the film. However, the three-hour-a-day workouts for four months prior to shooting took their toll. "I had a rotator cuff problem at one point, and the women had a lot of feet and ankle problems," recalls Gere. "The back is always a problem. You're often moving at an angle while your back is torqued back the other way. It's not easy."

Maybe not, but according to Blackpool-born director Peter Chelsom ( Serendipity), whatever Gere had up his sleeve did the toe-tapping trick. "By the time we started shooting, he had become obsessed with it," laughs Chelsom. "At one point, I remember thinking he had become too good."

In Shall We Dance? - based on the 1996 Japanese film Dansu Wo Shimasho Ka - Gere plays John Clark, a happily married yuppie who catches a glimpse from an elevated train of a beautiful woman (Lopez) peering out of the window of a dance studio. One night after work, instead of returning home to his wife (Sarandon) and children, Clark signs up for a series of ballroom dance lessons.

"I don't see this man going through a mid-age crisis," Gere says. "To me, a mid-age crisis is a guy who buys a red sports car, and lands a trophy wife, because he feels the burden of his family. This guy is much more subtle. He's trying to understand himself and to figure out why he isn't happy, which is why he secretly takes dancing lessons. He's not in a dysfunctional marriage. This is the dilemma of a man who gets off the train at a different stop because he sees this beautiful but sad-looking woman staring out of a window, and the only way he can understand his impulse is to deal with the infatuation he has with this girl. We discover that it's not about him wanting to have an affair, but it's about how dancing makes him feel. He feels alive again. But he keeps the dance lessons from his wife because he already knows he has so much and he feels ashamed of wanting more."

So, did Gere identify with his character? "We all want more. More love. More everything," he says, opening his arms wide to emphasise his point. "This wanting more is metaphoric... if we are all on a path to happiness; we think we know what happiness is, right? If you get this and that, and you're in a committed loving relationship, then you'll be happy.

"But even after you achieve that, you are still not fulfilled, and so the idea of happiness starts to become more subtle and larger all the time. The ultimate happiness is transcendence. It's liberation. It's Buddahood. It's enlightenment, whatever your religion is - that's it. That is happiness. The big H - absolute happiness, done. Everything below that is relative, at varying degrees. What this movie is dealing with is joy. That joy is the lifeblood of happiness."

One might think this topic is a tad deep first thing on a Monday morning, even for a devout spiritualist, but Gere does have a point. So, just how happy is this man who seemingly has everything? Gere, whose marriage to the supermodel Cindy Crawford lasted three years, is now happily wed to actress Carey Lowell, 41, and is a doting father to Homer, five, and a stepfather to Lowell's 14-year-old daughter, Hannah, from her previous marriage.

Gere admits his life is very sweet indeed, but he believes that you should not look to your partner or to anyone else to complete you. "It's just an illusion," he explains. "It's a big mistake we are all taught. If we don't stand on our own, there's nothing you can bring to a relationship. Do you help each other? Sure, there's a commitment there. That person is going to be there. There's a line Susan says in the film that she is there to witness her husband's life - that statement, I believe, is very true."

The fact that his character keeps his dancing lessons secret from his wife could be classed as a form of cheating. Gere shakes his head. "The cheating for him is really the secret, and not the fact that he had an affair with another woman or even was in love with someone else."

So does Gere consider being faithful in a marriage is the right thing to do, or is it imposed by society? He pauses for a second before responding. "It depends on what you want. There's certainly nothing wrong with sex. It's an animal function and almost everyone has it. That's real, that's true, but life is about choices. And many of the choices are how do we use our animal nature and transform it into something else. Something higher. It's a choice in learning how to do that."

He suddenly laughs: "I don't give marriage advice to people! It's not my place. Many marriages are frustrated, because maybe they would like to have an affair with somebody else, but they know it's not the right thing to do. There's another possibility here, that wanting to have the affair is just a manifestation of another issue.

"In my life, I would tend to think that is the truth most of the time. If people are really connecting, then marriage is really a partnership of not leaning on one another, but walking the path in the same direction. And you have to be able to walk on your own to get there. If you are stuck with someone else leaning on you, you'll never get there."

Gere grew up the second of five children on a farm in upstate New York. He credits his parents, Homer, 81, an insurance salesman, and his mother, Doris, 79, a housewife, with giving him the confidence that has propelled him to reach his potential. His primary passion has always been music, and Gere played and wrote music for his high-school productions. He studied philosophy after winning a gymnastic scholarship to the University of Massachusetts, but left college early when he landed a lead role in the London show of Grease in 1973.

Becoming a sex symbol was never his goal. However, playing the brooding stud-for-hire who showed us his abs in American Gigolo (1980), and, later, a young, huffy navy flight student who falls in love with a local girl (Debra Winger) in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), changed all that.

His price-tag rose to $15m a film and he churned out a slew of mega hits including Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, Primal Fear and Unfaithful. But he has never been awarded an Oscar for his acting efforts. This could be due to his controversial political statements over the years, which saw him banned from the Academy Awards when he attacked the Chinese government at the 1993 ceremony.

However, one thing is for certain, Gere is not your run-of-the-mill movie star. When he had achieved global recognition in his early thirties, at a time when Hollywood mocked anyone on any kind of spiritual path, Gere went against the grain by embarking on a journey of enlightenment with his devotion to Buddhism. Since the early Eighties, he has forged a close relationship with his mentor, the Dalai Lama, visiting him four to five times a year. And he is dedicated to fighting for a free Tibet.

I'm curious to know - did Gere suffer a mid-life crisis? He laughs. "I kind of surpassed that period, but my wife bought me a black sports car, so maybe subconsciously I had one."

'Shall We Dance?' goes on general release today