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'Every Culture Has A Norman': Richard Gere On Playing A Fixer And Wandering Jew

Actor Richard Gere says of his new character, "I think there's a kindness and softness in Norman, where he really believes these schemes are going to be good for people."
Chris Saunders
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Actor Richard Gere says of his new character, "I think there's a kindness and softness in Norman, where he really believes these schemes are going to be good for people."

A new film starring Richard Gere follows a Jewish man who pops up on the streets of Manhattan dropping names, handing out cards and promising to connect people. That man, Norman, befriends an Israeli politician whose career is on the outs. Three years later, the politician, Eshel, returns as prime minister and their paths cross again.

The film, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, never shows Gere's character at home and at one point makes it look as though he's going to sleep in a train station. "He carries his home with him," Gere says. "He's got six layers of clothes on. He's got his leather bag that has everything inside of it. He's a turtle, and that is his home. But I think, metaphorically, this is the Wandering Jew who is looking for home, a safe place."

Interview Highlights

On the connection between Norman and Eshel, the Israeli politician

It's one of those magical things. ... I buy him a pair of shoes [and] it is more than just a pair of shoes. Something magical has to happen there that you believe that there is a connection. In a way, they're both peripheral characters. You know, when they meet, Norman sees something in Eshel, who is a junior minister in the Israeli government and who feels peripheral himself; he doesn't know where his career is going. Norman is nowhere, but he sees something in him and fashions a meet, a cute meet, at a shoe store. But that's really the only face-to-face major scene we have together. ... We definitely connect in other places, mostly over the phone. But that scene has to be large. ...

I often talk about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet, peripheral characters who get caught up in something much larger than themselves. Tom Stoppard wrote a play about that, that they became central characters in a story that they're extremely peripheral to. In this case, Norman and Eshel become central to something very, very important to the planet.

On Norman's habit of making a lot of promises to a lot of different people

As Norman says, "You never know. You never know." You don't know where this is going; you never know. You never know. This is a guy who has a lot of spinning plates for sure, and I guess the thought is that one of those plates is really going to turn into gold. ...

He kind of trusts that everything is connected. ... I think that's part of who he is, literally this thing of "you never know." If you're out there doing things, you never know which one's going to work. And I think this mentality sees everything as being connected. It's not knowing quite when things are going to come together in a material sense or in a narrative sense, but trusting that it will somehow, if you wait it out long enough and give it enough energy.

On the kind of person Norman is

I see him somewhat as a holy fool. You know, there's a bit of, I think, Chaplin's The Tramp in him. ... You don't know what his background is. Where does The Tramp live? What's his family? You don't really know anything about him. You kind of get him intuitively, who he is, and you get a sense of his emotional makeup and his softness; there's a kindness in him.

I think there's a kindness and softness in Norman, where he really believes these schemes are going to be good for people. He's a bringer of happiness. I think he's highly motivated. There's no Iago in him; there's no darkness. And as I was playing him, I realized there's no anger. He gets frustrated, but this is not someone — considering his defeats and his humiliations, which we see a lot of in this — he takes the blows, he transforms it and he turns it into forward motion.

On Norman's goal in the movie

He is definitely trying to get something going. You know, I think we know these people pretty well: They're just outside of the perimeter, the boundary of what's going on, and just trying to find an opening and get in. ...

He wants his 7 percent, for sure. But, you know, I think as we see as the film goes on, he wants to belong. It's a question of belonging, becoming essential in some way to the world — essential to the world around him.

On what drew him to Norman

He's a very human character. Writer/director Joseph Cedar, I think, wrote a completely original character here and a completely original movie. It's kind of hard to say no. I didn't know exactly what I was going to do with this guy. There aren't many references to him in literature or other movies. ... I mean it has precedence, I think, in Jewish culture, specifically Jewish culture, but I think every culture has a Norman.

Radio producer Sarah Handel, radio editor Ed McNulty and Web producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.