NYFF Report: Richard Gere Talks About Wandering New York Streets as a Homeless Man for 'Time Out of Mind'

Richard Gere in Time Out of Mind

Richard Gere in a still from ‘Time Out of Mind’

The next time you pass a panhandler on the street that looks like Richard Gere, pause and take a closer look because it may actually be Richard Gere. Earlier this year, the 65-year-old actor spent several weeks on the New York streets shooting Time Out of Mind, in which he plays an elderly alcoholic who becomes part of the city’s homeless population. Wearing a black-knit winter hat and clutching an empty coffee cup, Gere approached actual passers-by and asked for spare change while director Oren Moverman (Rampart, The Messenger) filmed the interactions, often from a block away. And, amazingly enough, nobody recognized him.

Well…almost nobody. “There were two or three times where someone talked to me on the street,” Gere remarked at a press conference following a New York Film Festival screening of Time Out of Mind on Thursday. “One was a French tourist, a woman, who totally thought I was a homeless guy and gave me some food. The other two times were African-Americans and they just passed me and went, ‘Hey Rich, how you doin’ man?’ No question about what I was doing there or ‘Have you fallen on hard times?’ and ‘What happened to your career?’ Just “Hey Rich, how you doin’ man,” and they just continued on.”

For the most part, though, people barely looked at Gere, and that was precisely the non-reaction he needed to get into character. “I think we all have a yearning to be known and be seen,” he explains. “I come here and you want to hear what I want to say. But I’m the same guy that I was on the street and no one wanted to hear his story. I could see how quickly we can all descend into [scary] territory when we’re totally cut loose from all of our connections to people.” Here are five other things we learned about Time Out of Mind — which is currently without a distributor — from Gere and Moverman’s press conference.

The movie has been almost 30 years in the making

Gere remembers receiving the script for what became Time Out of Mind a decade ago, but it apparently had been kicking around Hollywood a long while before that. “It was written in the late ’80s, but a lot of it was still relevant ten years ago,” says the actor, who has been a longtime supporter of the New York organization, Coalition For the Homeless. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind and I bought it.” After befriending Moverman on the set of Todd Haynes’s 2007 Bob Dylan non-biopic, I’m Not There (which Moverman cowrote), Gere decided he had found the right collaborator to finally make the project a reality. “There was a book [Land of Lost Souls] by a guy named the Cadillac Man, a homeless man. It was a very unschooled autobiography, but it was by someone who was able to communicate his world. I knew this was the way it should feel, so Oren and I started talking about this film with that point-of-view…. What wasn’t clocking with me until I read Oren’s first draft is the sense of process being the movie. The process of [this character] going through the bureaucracy is enough plot — you don’t need to pump it up. Life itself, without any dramaturgy, is enough.”

There was no plan B

Because the entire production hinged on its star being able to panhandle on the street without attracting a crowd, he and Moverman did a test shoot before production began, with Gere wandering around the Astor Place section of Manhattan while his director filmed him from inside a Starbucks. “I’m out there and I was a little scared and anxious,” Gere recalled. “And nobody saw me! I started approaching people and asking, ‘Can you help me out, spare some change.’ There was no eye contact, even when someone gave me a dollar bill. That was the first time I really felt what that [experience] is.” As nerve-wracking as that trial run was, it gave both the director and his lead actor the confidence to proceed. “The whole thing was predicated on the idea that, for a lot of this, I would be on the streets and New York would be passing me by. If that didn’t work, I don’t know what we would have done.” 

Richard Gere during the filming of Time Out of Mind

Richard Gere was photographed on NYC streets during the filming

You might hear yourself onscreen

One of the reasons that New York is colloquially known as “The City that Never Sleeps” is because it’s often too damn loud for anyone to get any shut-eye. Usually movies try to modulate that volume, but Moverman wanted to turn it up to 11. “We were creating 3D sound basically; we created a soundscape that was about listening to the city and watching it. We wanted to do everything that most people [shooting] in New York take out of a movie. They want clean sound and we wanted it to be dirty, to have the feeling of walking down the street and hearing fragments of conversations and lives being lived everywhere.” To add to the movie’s aural authenticity, Moverman secretly taped sidewalk conversations by actual New Yorkers. “After we finished shooting, I walked around and covertly recorded people talking and [those recordings are] in the movie. I apologize to anyone who recognizes their own voice!”

Instead of demanding more backstory, Gere wanted less

Actors commonly prepare extensive life histories for their characters, but in this case, Gere opted not to. “In our own lives, we make judgments about people without knowing anything about them. Based on how they look, we posit education, where they might live or where they come from very quickly. The original script was a little more specific about where he was coming from economically and the job he had lost. I had no interest in that whatsoever and Oren didn’t either.”

Richard Gere with Ben Vereen

Gere with his ‘Time Out of Mind’ costar Ben Vereen at the Toronto Film Festival

Gere’s costars also did their homework

If few people on the street recognized Gere, even fewer people in the theater will recognize The Closer star Kyra Sedgwick, who appears in a cameo as a homeless woman that provides Gere with a brief moment of comfort. Moverman says that, despite her character’s limited screentime, Sedgwick immersed herself in the movie’s world. “She went out and started talking to homeless women and came back with a lot of notes. I took those notes and wrote her monologue that’s chopped up into three scenes. That was all taken from someone she met.” Meanwhile, Ben Vereen, who plays an elderly man that befriends  Gere in a homeless shelter, came to the director with a very personal take on his part. “We sent that role to a bunch of people and the next thing I know, I’m being told that he’s coming to New York to meet me. He showed up with a suitcase, sat down and said ‘I need to make this movie and here’s why.’ And when he told me why, it was clear he needed to make this movie for his own personal reasons. He had a take on this character that was very personal.”

Watch a quick video history of the New York Film Festival below:

Photo credits: Lightstream Pictures/Cold Iron Pictures, Splash News, ©Getty Images