The American Gigolo gets spiritual in his latest film

Richard Gere is a spiritual guy. He's spent the last thirty years as a devout Buddhist. It was obvious that he was really taken by Bee Season's focus on Kabbalah. He's not converting, but did seem to find Kabbalah's basic theories interesting. Kabbalah has become the pop celebrity religion of choice. He had no comments or insights as to why when asked. I guess I'll have to wait until the next Madonna film to find out.

What drew you to this character?

Richard Gere: I supposed there's two things, basically the script and the idea that every piece of serious work has a letter to the universe somehow. The letter to the universe was mysterious and all encompassing and generous and very much about this yearning that I think we all have, that all beings have, to reconnect, to fix but there is a larger universe.

What were the challenges in playing him?

Richard Gere: It's very easy to play certain characters in a caricature way, and I didn't want this guy to be so obviously overbearing that you can just go, Oh yeah, boy, this is a controlling motherfucker isn't he? [laughs] and kind of write him off. I wanted to find a way that was subtle enough that you could take a ride with him and give him the benefit of the doubt for as long as possible. And realize that he also was caught up in his own ignorance, like everyone else is, and at the same time is definitely a controlling guy.

It must've been a pleasure for you to work on such a spiritual movie.

Richard Gere: The ideas were really stimulating. It was mysterious and there's darkness. It's dangerous territory to be playing it; we talked a lot about the responsibility of doing this in a serious, responsible way. Even inserting things in the script, we said, look this is dangerous territory. This is nothing to play with, because it isn't. This is serious stuff.

Is this your first Jewish character?

Richard Gere: I guess it is, I just actually played another one. I just cut all my hair off, but I had kind of a Jew-Fro. (Laugher) I had a perm, dark hair playing Clifford Irving—I just finished that one. It's called "The Hoax." We just had a wonderful time on this movie. Lasse Hallström directed that one.

Can you describe immersing yourself in the Jewish religion?

Richard Gere: I talked to a lot of writers, rabbis, thinkers, and spokespersons; some that I knew before and some that I met during the process of this. In the book, this character is really a cantor, I mean he is so hardcore Jewish. The decision was made to make this a little more universal, so he's a religion professor at Berkeley who specializes in Kabbalah, even more specifically in Abraham Abulafia, a 12th Century mystic. You can't really in three months four months become an expert on anything. What you can do is learn enough to find how it stimulates sympathy with what you have learned in your life.

Will you continue research into Kabbalah?

Richard Gere: I'm perfectly fine with Buddhism.

Was there anything about Kabbalah you found interesting?

Richard Gere: I'm particularly taken by this idea of Tikkun Alum. Michael Lerner is someone I talked to quite a bit when I was practicing this. And we were writing how to actually describe Tikkun Alum and the origin of this concept; this idea of fixing of healing is an important part of any genuine spiritual approach. Kabbalah is very much about this idea of fixing of things that have been damaged. From a Buddhist point of view, things have been damaged because ignorance has intoxicated the mind.

Many celebrities are sporting red bracelets and now this movie's coming out. Can you explain it's recent fad popularity?

Richard Gere: I don't know. I don't have any friends who practice it.

Can you talk about working with Juliette Binoche?

Richard Gere: She's a wonderful actress and I was so happy she was making this movie. We had known each other for some time, but not well. A very difficult part to play, it was all internalized. She immersed herself in this character. She became remote to me. The relationship on screen was more or less the relationship we had off. It was a bit disconnected.

What about working with the kids? Were you worried about working with newcomers?

Richard Gere: Max [Minghella] is not a newcomer. It's his first movie but he's hardly a newcomer. He was born into the sea of movies and theatre; it's in his DNA most likely. And he's smart; he's observant and self-critical. He knows when it's good and knows when it's bad. He's monitoring himself… but he's always trying, he's always working. He has a great natural sense of self-editing. His bullshit-barometer is very acute, which is really important for an actor.

And Flora Cross?

Richard Gere: Flora is day to day, it's like, "I come to play. I want to see what's required of me." She works hard, she would have someone, the night before and the morning of, go over her lines with her and she'd be prepared. It wasn't like the design of a performance. I don't know if she ever understood what was happening in the process. But she inhabited fully each day, and that's a different approach. It means you have to have a really good director to do that and you have to trust the people you're with.

Have you kept up on your violin lessons?

Richard Gere: One of the most frustrating things I've ever done in my life. One of the joys of being an actor is that you're always learning new things. And I've been doing this since I was 19, so there's been a lot of new things I have learned for each part. I always assume that I can do it. I had this enormous hubris that I could actually pull off playing the violin in three months. [laughs] I had wonderful teachers and I worked really hard. I was really horrible, and it was really painful to the point where my family said, "Please stop." We went on vacation and I dragged my violin with us, and they said, "You're ruining our vacation, please stop."

What are you doing now?

Richard Gere: We just finished "The Hoax" with Lasse Hallström.

And a new one?

Richard Gere: A new one with Andrew Lau, who is—I don't know if you know his work.

Infernal Affairs?

Richard Gere: Infernal Affairs, exactly. We're starting shooting in two weeks in Albuquerque.

Bee Season opens in limited theaters November 11th.