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Arts & Culture

Richard Gere Brings Homelessness To The Big Screen

Actor Richard Gere has long been involved in issues of homelessness. In his new film, “Time Out of Mind,” the issue is front and center.

Gere plays George Hammond, a man living on the streets of New York, occasionally connecting with others, but more often existing on the margins.

He tells Here & Now’s  Robin Young that when he was in character, panhandling in New York City, “No one was paying attention to me – nobody… I could see people react to me as if I was a black hole that they would be sucked into… a black hole of failure.”

The film opens in New York and Los Angeles this week.

Interview Highlights

On taking to the streets for the film

“We did a test shoot down in the Village, Astor Place, where there’s a cube that turns and swivels. Tourists come, thousands and thousands of people come by there all the time. So I came out there for this test, and the cameras were in the Starbucks across the street, so I walked over, I was in character, I gave myself a haircut with a Swiss Army Knife. And I was a little anxious, personally, it’s nothing I would do as a known person, I wouldn’t just be standing there in a public place. And, as the producer of the film, if this didn’t work we didn’t have a movie. If I couldn’t get 30 seconds without getting noticed, we couldn’t make the movie. So I came out there with a certain anxiety, but I quickly realized that no one was paying any attention to me – nobody. I could see from two to three blocks away that people were making a certainly unconscious, sometimes conscious, decision that ‘there is a panhandler, he’s going to be bothering me, he’s going to want money, I don’t want to give him any money, I feel guilty for not giving him any money, why’s he making me feel guilty that I’m not giving him any money, I don’t like this guy’ I could feel all this anger, this swirling of emotions. And, I think on a deeper unconscious level, I could see people react to me like I was a black hole that they would be sucked into, that there was a black hole of failure.”

One of the things I really felt on the street, and I should have known this, but I was really feeling how quickly a human being can deteriorate.

On sympathizing with people walking by

“I felt guilty making them go through these emotional changes. What right did I have to do that, as the panhandler, the homeless guy, but also the filmmaker? Our motivation was really pure in this, in wanting to look into the human soul. I’ve been involved with the Coalition for the Homeless in New York for a long time, and I care about this subject. But I care even more deeply about what those deepest yearnings we all have are, and we are social creatures – deeply social creatures. We don’t behave that way very often but we can’t exist on our own. And I wanted to explore the mystery of that yearning to connect.”

On how Gere’s Buddhist faith impacted his character

“I certainly wasn’t thinking about this as I was planning or making the film, but when I saw a first cut I was certainly struck by how monk-like this guy is. There’s no anger in him; he’s not blaming the world, he’s not blaming God, he’s not blaming anyone for his situation. The furthest he goes is in the middle of the bureaucratic hornet’s nest he finds himself, just saying to people ‘I don’t care what you write on the forms, I’m hungry and I’m tired and beyond that, I need connection.’ That sense of belonging is the beginning of healing. We can find the internal resources to move towards a life that is meaningful and happy. The basis of that is this sense of genuine belonging, but unless we can get on that vibration of connection, of love, we’ll never ever achieve real happiness.”

On making sense of homelessness in New York City

“I think we need to just get back to the very simple notion that we are all in this together. The collective good is really important to us. There are strategies at work, almost all of them are based on housing. We need a place – human beings need a place – and it’s not a warehouse. The shelters in New York are certainly better than nothing, but its warehousing. One of the things I really felt on the street, and I should have known this, but I was really feeling how quickly a human being can deteriorate. The humiliation and isolation of being on the streets and being the invisible black hole, what that does to the human spirit? And how fragile our reality structures are. And if we don’t have healthy minds, and positive minds, and optimistic minds, and know we’re always leaning towards love, none of the strategies are going to work. Certainly not warehouses and shelters.”

On interacting with the homeless

“I always felt like giving something, even if it was a quarter. There was a point in my process where it was – well I wanted to make sure it was food, somehow I was trying to instill within them – ‘I’ll give you money, but this is for food right?’ I started to feel really guilty, it’s none of my business. I also went through a period where I insisted that they talk to me, and on some level it was I wanted to hear their life story, and I realized how invasive that was. So at this point, I engage someone, I do look them in the eyes, but I silently think as I’m looking at them, ‘I wish you happiness.’ And I give them whatever I give them. If they want to engage and talk, I talk. If not, I wish you happiness, and I move on.

[Youtube]

Guest

  • Richard Gere, actor and activist. His latest film, which he also produced, is “Time Out of Mind.”

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A still frame of Richard Gere on set for "Time Out of Mind." (Copyright © 2014 IFC in Theaters LLC. All rights reserved.)
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A still frame of Richard Gere on set for "Time Out of Mind." (Copyright © 2014 IFC in Theaters LLC. All rights reserved.)