If ever there were a man of masks, it's Richard Gere. Long before Brad Pitt started doing a lot of good work for charity, Gere was the quintessential Hollywood stud-turned-humanitarian. A practising Buddhist and a Tibetan ambassador, he's also the man who married a supermodel and made his career from playing the morally dubious. This duality is there for all to see the moment he glides into view at the bar in Venice where we meet. If the wire-rimmed spectacles lend him a scholarly air, it's offset by his ability, at 58 no less, still to cause female hearts to flutter. Wearing a grey suit and white shirt, with his swept-back block of silver hair and fresh-looking skin, he simply looks like a more distinguished version of the Armani-clad character he played in American Gigolo 27 years ago.
If he doesn't exactly show it, he hardly seems comfortable wearing this most famous mask of his. Back in 1999, the year he revitalised his career with the romantic hit Runaway Bride, he was voted Sexiest Man Alive by US magazine People. He was 50 at the time.
"Oh, it's absurd and it's insane," he smiles, yet there's no doubt a rakish part of him that revels in this. This year, he was caught up in a scandal when he kissed the Indian actress and Celebrity Big Brother alumna Shilpa Shetty at a televised Aids-awareness event in India. Rousing angry protests in a country where public displays of affection are considered obscene, court proceedings were initiated against Gere, only to be later dropped. Calling it "a nave misread of Indian customs", Gere firmly indicates the subject is now closed.
Still, such behaviour is surprising. Given his frequent trips to India, where he regularly visits the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, Gere is hardly unused to the country's customs. But throughout his life, he's always had the ability to shock with inappropriate or downright bizarre behaviour. Dogged by rumours that he was gay after he starred as a homosexual concentration-camp prisoner in a 1980 Broadway production of Bent Gere famously reacted to a female reporter's impudent line of questioning by whipping out his penis. Years later, in 1994, amid whispers that his three-year marriage to supermodel Cindy Crawford was little more than a business arrangement, the pair took out a newspaper ad, costing nearly 20,000, stating they were very much married. Within months, they had split.
Gere has never been nominated for an Oscar he was even banned from being a presenter at the 1993 Academy Awards after condemning the Chinese government for its treatment of Tibetans. But if he's a Hollywood outsider, that makes him perfect casting for his latest film, Todd Haynes' marvellous I'm Not There. An abstract look at "the many lives and faces" of Bob Dylan, with six actors each embodying an aspect of the troubadour, Gere appropriately plays him as an outlaw. Superficially recalling Dylan's involvement in Sam Peckinpah's film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Gere's western-style segment also references the time the singer withdrew from public life for 18 months after a motorcycle crash in 1966. "It's the idea of someone who decides to walk away and hide out for the rest of their life," says Gere, "which is obviously an instinct I've had and Dylan has had."
Other actors play Dylan at different times of his career: Christian Bale gives a brilliantly understated turn as a protest singer-turned-preacher; Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg offer a thinly veiled account of the man in his troubled marriage to Sara Lownds. Most potently, a husky-voiced Cate Blanchett plays him during the time he went electric. "It's a bizarre movie but I don't know how else, if you're an artist, you can approach dealing with Bob Dylan and his creative process," says Gere. "You can't make an attempt at biography, as it will always be reductive. Any of us who had a biography done of us would be deeply disappointed, no matter who we are, to be reduced to two hours. That wasn't the attempt. It was to get a taste, like a dream a taste of someone."
Certainly the most referential of the segments everything from Dylan's carnival-like Rolling Thunder Revue tour to Gere's own participation in Terrence Malick's elegiac 1978 western Days of Heaven seems to get a nod it offers further proof that Gere is willing to take his career in a new direction. In truth, most of his recent Hollywood films like the tepid remakes The Jackal and Shall We Dance? have left much to be desired. He went through a similar period in the late 1980s. It wasn't until he played a tycoon with a penchant for Julia Roberts' hooker in the mega-hit Pretty Woman and a corrupt cop in Internal Affairs, both in 1990, that he dug his way out. More recently, his answer has been to back away from Hollywood, working on films like The Hoax, in which he played the real-life con-man Clifford Irving, who fooled the publishing world with his bogus biography of Howard Hughes.
Yet put it to Gere that he's slipped on a new, less commercial mask, and he's having none of it. "Well, I'm sure I change all the time but I just go where the script is," he says. "Whether it's for a lot of money or no money whatever interests me." He quotes Gertrude Stein's 1936 essay on why there are so few masterpieces. "She says, 'Because everyone has their little dog telling them who they are.' And that's what we do. We've constructed lives where you have an idea of who you are, even as a creative artist. And within that it's impossible to create something new. The illusion may be that you're creating, but no, you're just regurgitating the known, and I think that's a process for any artist, to clean out our little dog, telling us who we are all the time."
If Gere has been doing just this of late, he claims Dylan has always been masterful at such artistic palette cleansing. He's met the man in the past, and been a fan of the singer-songwriter since his teenage years. "I can't think of a period of my life when Dylan was not there in some way. When I go back and listen to the great albums, like Blonde on Blonde, it just restores me to a place when things were much simpler and clearer in my life, actually. Everything was much fresher. It's hard now to be fresh, for all of us, but as a teenager when things were fresh, emotions were really powerful and you had no way of describing them. Dylan had a way of helping me describe them, and later on as a man, too. The simple poetry of his lyrics is a way we can talk to ourselves about what we're feeling."
An accomplished piano-player and guitarist, who also writes songs in his spare time, Gere's primary focus has always been music, he says. Raised on a farm in Syracuse, in upstate New York, he first satisfied his creative urges by writing music for high-school productions. The second of five children, he credits his Methodist parents, Homer, an insurance salesman, and Doris, a housewife, for fostering in him this passion. "My parents are extraordinary people," he says. "They gave me and my four brothers and sisters enormous opportunities in terms of education, in terms of music, in terms of anything we had an inclination towards somehow they found a way for that to happen. They found the teachers. We weren't brought up with a lot of money, and the scraping that it took to have an education, to have music teachers, was an extraordinary thing."
His first major role, in the original London stage production of Grease in 1973, drew from this. "It was very easy for me to get work in rock musicals, back then in the early Seventies. I was a rock'*'roll guy and my hair was down to here," he says, pointing past his shoulders. While he eventually returned to the musical in Chicago, the hugely enjoyable 2002 film of the stage hit, for which he won a Golden Globe as hardboiled lawyer Billy Flynn, he admits he had "a love-hate relationship" with the genre back then. "They were very fun to do, but I didn't think they were serious pieces of work. They were frivolous entertainments." It's something of an irony, then, that a few years later, Gere would be making his living as a poster-hunk in films like An Officer and a Gentleman and Breathless.
Yet if these were hardly stimulating, Gere can point to the fact that he's been on a life-long quest for enlightenment. After graduating from high school, he won a gymnastics scholarship to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and decided to study philosophy. "As a young man, I always questioned the nature of existence and the nature of self," he says. "What am I? Why am I here? What am I here to do? What are we all here to do? What's the point of it all? So I'm more or less an existential person." Although he abandoned the course after two years to take up acting full-time, his interest in such questions did not wane. In 1978, after taking a trip to Nepal with the Brazilian painter Sylvia Martins, he found Buddhism, the perfect prism for him to view the world through.
Forging a relationship with the Dalai Lama in the early 1980s, Gere became one of the founders of Tibet House, a non-profit organisation that works to preserve Tibetan culture. There was even loose talk that he might quit acting to become a monk, though while he's done much for Tibet, one suspects his 1997 thriller Red Corner, a clumsy attack on Chinese bureaucracy, did little to help the cause. This summer, he called for a boycott of the 2008 Olympics in China. "The Olympics is a huge opportunity for the Chinese themselves to change in a positive way for them," he says. "You don't achieve greatness through human rights abuses, through abusing your minorities, or abusing political dissidents. You achieve greatness by creating an open society, not a closed one."
Gere believes it was after travelling to Central America in the early 1980s, during the Reagan-supported wars in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, that he first became politically motivated. "That did as much to change my political, social and spiritual thinking as anything in my life," he says. "That was deeply powerful to me." Visiting refugee camps with a doctor from El Salvador, he subsequently became a regular supporter of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. He's even managed to convey this in his work. Following time spent in Kosovo, he took on The Hunting Party. Due for release next year, Gere plays a maverick journalist during the Bosnian war who goes in search of a war criminal a sort of fictionalised Radovan Karadzic.
Yet for all his hard work, Gere has never managed to win over a cynical press corps, maybe because his Hollywood lifestyle seems at odds with the minimalist existence preached by Buddhism. Most sent to meet him attest to the fact that when he latches on to the subject of his religion, he drifts into pseudo-intellectual speak ("We're all separate revolving moons in an endless universe," he tells me) that would probably see Nietzsche scratching his head in disbelief. In fact, I gave up transcribing one answer, so convoluted was his discussion of wisdom and compassion, the two driving forces in his life. "He's very youthful and enthusiastic about ideas," says Scott McGehee, who co-directed him in 2005's Kabbalah-friendly movie, Bee Season, yet he evidently finds communicating them difficult.
That said, if he comes across as pretentious and inaccessible, with a manner that's not easy to warm to, Gere's not quite "the Buddhist with the baddest karma I've ever encountered", as a remarkably disgruntled journalist once made him out to be. Neither does he have, as she put it, "absolutely no sense of humour at all" at least upon the evidence shown here. He seems able to laugh about the more impractical aspects of his religion like not doing any living creature harm when his Venetian hotel room is a haven for mosquitoes. "I haven't killed one here," he claims. "There have been moments where I thought, 'I'm going to go there... don't do it,' but I haven't been tortured enough yet." He lets out a laugh, his face creasing up. "Even his Holiness says mosquitoes are very difficult not to kill!"
I wonder if he's planning to raise his seven-year-old son, Homer, in these traditions. "He can do whatever he wants," says Gere, a little testily, though one suspects that won't be the case. Homer's mother, the former model-turned-actress Carey Lowell and Gere's wife of five years, is also a practising Buddhist. He met Lowell, whose most famous role was as a Bond girl in Licence to Kill, in a restaurant in New York. She already had a daughter, Hannah, who is now 17, from her previous marriage to the actor-director Griffin Dunne. "Being a step-father was an easy ride," Gere admits. "I got past any fears I had about having children." In the past, Crawford had cited Gere's unwillingness to start a family as the chief reason for their split. Gere has said his hesitation came through "a guy fear that it would monopolise my life".
If the family man is the mask he prefers to slip on now, Gere's still nowhere near retirement. Having recently completed the "adult romantic drama" Nights in Rodanthe with Diane Lane, and with two more films about to shoot, his current industry seems to make a mockery of the recent lifetime achievement award he received at the San Sebastian International Film Festival. "It feels bizarre because I don't feel like my life is even half-way over yet," he notes. Never mind the 40-odd films under his belt, he says he can't quite fathom how he's got this far. "I think I still have the attitude that I haven't decided what I'm going to do when I grow up," he grins. Maybe he'll tell us when he does.
'I'm Not There' opens on 21 December. 'The Hunting Party' will be released next year