Buddhism to Judaism
NEW YORK-Richard Gere, famously a Tibetan Buddhist, chose to star in the film Bee Season in order to play a man who is as devoted to the practice of Kabbalah as Gere is to his own choice of religion. A student of Tibetan Buddhism since his 20s, the 56-year-old Gere, who seldom shies away from talking about his beliefs, says he was excited about starring in the film. In a New York hotel room, he admits it wasn't difficult to find similarities to Buddhism in the role of a university professor who teaches Kabbalah, a mystical approach to Judaism's Torah.
"I talked to a lot of writers and rabbis and thinkers and some I knew before and some that I met in the process. In the [Myla Goldberg] book [on which the film is based], this character is a cantor and he is hard-core Jewish. The decision was made to make this more commercial, so he is a religion professor at Berkeley who specializes in Kabbalah. I knew that I couldn't become an expert on Kabbalah in three or four months, but what I could do was to find out how it stimulates an empathy in what you have learned in your life. I found enough aspects in Tibetan Buddhism that were similar to the approach to Kabbalah that it kind of hot-wired into my own truth and explorations into Buddhism."
In Bee Season, which opens Friday , November 18, Gere plays Saul Naumann, who dotes on his teenage son Aaron (Max Minghella) to the exclusion of his nine-year-old daughter Eliza (Flora Cross) and his wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche). His allegiance shifts to Eliza when she becomes a champion speller. Naumann believes that if his daughter can fuse her focused approach to spelling with the teachings of Kabbalah, she can reach "the ear of God". However, his decision to coach Eliza leads him to completely ignore Aaron and Miriam, both of whom are caught up in questionable pursuits.
Gere says the key to making the transition from Buddhism to Kabbalah was to find the most obvious parallels. He adds that both offer followers an opportunity to be "whole", no matter how shattered their lives may seem. "There is this idea within both Kabbalah and Buddhism that fixing and healing is part of a genuine spiritual approach. There is wholeness in the approach of Kabbalah, and in Buddhism there is something similar. It is not as much about being healed. It is more that things have been layered over, this sense of oneness, of unity and connectedness. Both see that something has been clouded over with ignorance and negative mindsets. From a Buddhist point of view, people can be damaged because ignorance has intoxicated the mind. It is human to have a hard-core belief in 'self', and that creates dualism, and that is the source of all of our pain and suffering.
"Having said that, this is a complex movie, and so when you are making a movie that is complex, you can never let either yourself or the audience feel that there is a simplicity about it. You can't say, 'Oh, I get it. It is that.' It is like life. There are conflicting forces in all of us, and the direction has to be saying that and the screenplay has to be saying that and the actors have to be saying that. So it is not 'You are wrong.' It is 'Yes, it is that, but it is also this and this and this.' I was moved by the early cuts of the film because it was working on that level, even though I couldn't tell you why. The important thing about a complex movie is that at the end you have to be moved. And I can't tell you why it was moving, because it was a purely spontaneous reaction."
This complexity may keep the film from being popular. Gere says he knows a movie that combines religion and education is not going to top the box office. However, the man who has made comebacks in Hollywood that rival Lazarus' says he hopes audiences will gravitate to a story that doesn't tell them how they should feel or react.
"I think the movie will work for some people, but it is complex, so it probably won't work for some people. It will leave them cold because it doesn't tell us exactly what we should be feeling, which is something that some people like. I don't think there is any music in this film that gives you an emotional cue. In most movies you get the cue and you think 'I am supposed to feel that here or feel that there.' It is a much more complex way of playing. You are divorced from the habitual, which is one of the good things about this and one of the reasons why it won't be a hugely commercial success. You have to be on the wavelength of it. Some people will be on that wavelength and some people won't, and it is neither a good or bad thing."
The best thing about the movie, according to Gere, is that he was able to create the character without giving out cues to the audience about how they should feel about him. He says that while viewers may see something on the surface, the Goldberg book and the Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal screenplay gave him room to move.
"It is very easy to play certain characters in a caricature-ish way, but I saw something in him [Saul] when I read the book and the screenplay that led me to believe there was more there. I didn't want to play him in an overbearing way. I didn't want people to think 'This is a controlling motherfucker' and just write him off. I wanted him to be subtle enough that you could take a ride with him and give him the benefit of the doubt for as long as possible. I wanted them [audiences] to conclude he was caught up in his own ignorance, just like everyone else."
And the worst thing? Gere says he has always been enthusiastic about preparing for his roles. Although this work has never been easy, he's usually avoided abject failure. Or at least until Bee Season, when he was given just three months to learn to play the violin.
"One of the great things about being an actor is that you are always having to learn new things. I have been doing this since I was 19, so I have learned a lot of new things for each part and I have always just assumed that I could do it. I had this enormous hubris that I could actually pull off playing a violin in three months. I convinced myself it was possible, and I had a wonderful teacher. But it was really horrible and really painful, to the point where my family would say, 'Please stop.' We would go on vacation and I would drag my violin with me and they would say, 'You are ruining our vacation.'"