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Richard Gere: With age comes cinematic wisdom

(ran GB edition)

Teaming up again with Julia Roberts sounded like fun to the actor, but he made sure his character is more relaxed than the one he played in Pretty Woman.

It has been almost a decade since Julia Roberts and Richard Gere achieved legendary status in Pretty Woman, the Garry Marshall-directed romantic comedy that took the country by storm and catapulted 23-year-old Roberts to stardom.

Now Roberts and Gere have reunited in Runaway Bride, another '40s-style romantic comedy with Marshall at the helm.

Times, of course, have changed; Roberts is no longer a new kid on the block. As he approached 50 _ his birthday was July 29 _ Gere wanted a role that was more freewheeling and less reliant on impeccably tailored suits.

"This was more fun than Pretty Woman, for sure," Gere says. "The character in Pretty Woman was a very stiff, straight guy. The hooker loosened him up. This guy had many more possibilities, many more moves, and in that sense, was much closer to me."

What led Gere to believe the Pretty Woman magic could be recaptured?

"You mean re-marketed?" asked the good-spirited Gere, who was talking from New York City. "It was purely the script. I was working on something more serious when my agent asked me to read it. I did and laughed out loud.

"I thought I could bring myself to the character. I also thought the only person who could play the girl's part was Julia. I called her and said, "Look, whether I do this or not, you should.'

"She said the story sounded familiar. Turns out it was a later incarnation of something she'd read before. She said, "Yeah, let's go.' She came over to my office. We sat down with our directors list. We started laughing and said, "This is Garry.' We sent the script to him. None of us could think of a reason why we shouldn't do it. We thought we'd have fun.' "

Gere jokes about the differences between himself and Roberts then and now.

"I'm much younger, and she's much older," he says. "That's the big difference. Obviously everything has changed. She's in a very different situation now.

"She was a very talented girl then; she's a much better actor now. She has had such wonderful experience. I don't think it's about talent, though. I was talking to an actor friend the other day. There are hundreds of actors who are more talented than me. I don't know what kind of forces are active in the universe that allowed me to be successful at what I do."

On the chemistry he has with Roberts: "People ask me what it is. Truthfully, I have no idea. The best I can say is that you know when it's not happening, when there really is nothing going on. But it's hard to tell when something magical happens. It's not obvious. There really is a peculiar quality the lens has. It either invents chemistry or picks it up. It's something you can see."

Gere, who has not always fared well in the press, is playing a cynical journalist, a USA Today columnist based in New York City.

"From where I'm coming from, journalism is not my favorite profession," Gere says. "It's fun playing a guy who's just out there to get the story, a guy for whom there are no rules. What I related to more was something else. When I was a kid I had compositions due every Friday. I would torture my mother to help me find topics. That's what it must be like to have a column, coming up with that idea every Thursday night."

Gere says he seldom recognizes himself in the journalism that's done about him, much of it focused on gossip and sensationalism, such as the fact that he and actress Carrie Lowell (of Law and Order) are expecting a child.

"Unfortunately most of those kind of magazines have agendas going in and very specific guidelines from editors. . . . It's rare that I recognize myself, certainly not in the entertainment pieces. It's still annoying. I feel pretty open talking to people, so when I read an article that doesn't reflect the tenor of the conversation it's frustrating."

At one point in Runaway Bride, Gere has his hair dyed a variety of colors. It's part of Roberts' character's revenge on him for writing a column about her. She plays a woman who has left three grooms waiting at the altar.

"It took five or six washings to get it out," says Gere of his multicolored head.

Gere has two movies on tap. The first is being directed by Joan Chen, the actress who also directed Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl. It's called Autumn in New York, and Gere plays a restaurateur who has a relationship with a younger woman (Winona Ryder). He's also set to star in a Robert Altman movie called Dr. T and His Women, about a Dallas gynecologist who's surrounded by women.

"It's not that he's hitting on all these women. It's just that he's got this job and he's got two daughters and a wife and sisters-in-law. Everyone in his life is a woman. All the various complications come from that. It's very Altmanesque."

Gere's big-screen comedy may be frivolous, but his off-screen life has a serious tone because of his well-known commitment to Buddhism and Tibetan independence. Recently, he traveled to Macedonia to observe the fighting and help in refugee camps. He talks about the emotional experience of watching people stream over the border.

"Some have hidden in the woods for six weeks. Some have walked for two hours. They've been in situations where paramilitary types have said, 'You're leaving in two hours or you're dead.' They're in no man's land between Kosovo and Macedonia."

At such a time, says Gere, politics and strategy seem to fade: "The only thing they know," he says, "is that they're out of that killing field."

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