Don’t get me wrong, Richard Gere has played many likable characters in movies like “Pretty Woman” and “An Officer and a Gentleman,” but it’s when he plays despicable ones that he truly excels as an actor. The latest example of this is his brilliant performance as Robert Miller in “Arbitrage,” the movie which marks the directorial debut of writer Nicholas Jarecki. Robert is a hedge fund magnate who is desperately trying to cover up his instances of fraud, cheats on his wife, and willfully deceives his children. On paper this character is a jerk, but the beauty of Gere’s performance is how he keeps us rooting for him to get away with the crimes he has committed.
So how does Gere manage to make such an unlikable person so fascinating and relatable on screen? Audie Cornish of NPR’s “All Things Considered” asked him this question as she couldn’t get past the fact that Robert Miller is a “monster” and yet still wanted him to get away with what he did.
“Isn’t that funny? I mean, that’s one of the uniform things and kind of mystifying things,” Gere said. “And the comments I’ve gotten back, even from very close friends, that they’re very angry with me, that they care about this guy and want him to get out of trouble, although they’re well aware the guy is a jerk, as you say, and makes some very bad decisions in his life and has a kind of a mindset that you go, huh?”
“But look, that’s my job, is to make characters human, to make them knowable on some level,” Gere continued. “I think it had root in when you spend time with even supposed monsters, there’s a human being there. And in storytelling, you’ve got to find that human being.”
That humanity certainly shows up in the scene between Robert and his daughter Brooke (played by Brit Marling) where he has to break her heart by telling her the truth of his fraudulent activities. What he’s doing to her is terrible, and yet you still feel for him as he tries to explain how his business really works. Regardless of all the bad things Robert has done, there’s no doubt as to just how much he loves his family.
“That was a scene we (Gere and Marling) worked on a lot, and in the end, it came out of an improvisation actually, that she’s not my partner, that she works for me,” Gere said. “And I found myself almost in an animal growl saying everyone works for me. And I think that was the truest moment with this character, that that’s his mentality – horrifying but true. I mean, he’s naked in that moment.”
Another great scene in “Arbitrage” has Gere’s character about to do the right thing only to see him look for another way out. Being the reckless gambler that Robert Miller is, he always seems to find another angle that can keep him up and running for yet another day. Gere remarked about how his sister, who is a psychiatrist, found this moment in the film especially fascinating.
“That mentality of I’m always going to find a way out, always find a way out. I think it’s that kind of gambler’s thing,” Gere said. “Well, I’m down to my last penny, but I’m going to turn that penny into two pennies, and I’m going to get out of this. It’s a really interesting kind of person that never truly gives in. Now, if you’d imagine they were in the service of something extraordinary on the planet, what they could achieve, I guess the hope for me is, is that the people who are so effective in the world and can do this stuff, which is just ultimately pretty silly, just the accumulation of wealth, if they were putting their minds and their talents and their skill towards being of service and responsible on this planet, man, this will be a garden.”
Whether or not he’s playing a good or bad guy, Richard Gere always comes across in his performances as someone we want to support. Regardless of whether he plays a self-serving defense attorney in “Primal Fear” or “Chicago” or portraying an infinitely corrupt cop in “Internal Affairs,” there is something about the actor that is always alluring. Just don’t expect him to explain what it is because even he’s not sure:
“I don’t know. I don’t know what that is. I suppose it’s some peculiar thing I’m able to do. I don’t know. It’s certainly nothing I work at or particularly aware of in the process.”
Perhaps it’s best that he doesn’t find out because we want to see him giving more great performances in the future like the one he gives in “Arbitrage.”
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Audie Cornish, “Richard Gere On Playing A Jerk You Want To Root For,” All Things Considered, NPR, September 14, 2012.