Robert Miller has it all: A billion-dollar business that he built from scratch, a supportive wife (Susan Sarandon) and family, a stunningly sexy mistress (Laetitia Casta) and a welcome opportunity to cash out of his company thanks to a merger that would allow him to walk away at age 60 with all the money — well, OK, almost all of the money — he could ever want.
Trouble is, Robert Miller could very well lose it all. When his mistress dies in an auto accident after Robert quite literally falls asleep at the wheel, the normally self-assured master of the universe grows increasingly desperate to hide any trace of his involvement in the mishap. Even during the best of times, the bad publicity would be worse for business.
But any delay in the proposed merger could lead to the uncovering of a $400 million debt he has inconveniently amassed — and meticulously hidden.
The stakes are high and the tension is crackling in Arbitrage (at Alamo Drafthouse and other theaters), a slickly packaged and smartly written indie drama starring Richard Gere as Robert Miler, a remorselessly amoral One Percenter who fears he may be toppled from his spot at the top of the world.
The debut feature of writer-director Nicholas Jarecki, it’s an impressively enthralling and provocatively timely piece of work. Not so incidentally, it’s also a worthy showcase for one of Gere’s finest performances ever.
Indeed, judging from the veteran actor’s enthusiasm during a telephone interview with CultureMap, Gere, too, fully realizes — and greatly appreciates — just how much mileage he got from this star vehicle.
CultureMap: I assumes it’s safe to say that, in real life, you’re nothing like the guy you play in Arbitrage. But was there an aspect of the character you found easy to identify with? One that might have made the character slightly less difficult to pull off?
Richard Gere: Honestly, I look at all of my characters as just people. I don’t see them as caricatures in any way. So I certainly could see myself — I could see anyone — in the position this guy was in.
But to play the character as realistically as I wanted to, I was glad I had to spend a lot of time with guys who actually do this for a living, and got the sense of ease and normalcy that they have in their lives. I wanted to bring that sense of ease in life to Robert Miller, the guy I’m playing in the movie.
See, he always knows where he’s at. He’s always comfortable in his situations. But then he has the rug pulled out from under him.
CM: I would imagine folks like Robert Miller are a bit like surgeons. That is, in order to be any good at what they do, they really can’t spend too much time thinking about the enormous stakes involved.
Like, you can’t let yourself be fazed by the idea that what you’re doing, in effect, is making billion-dollar bets that black will come up instead of red.
RG: I also think there’s an action junkie aspect to these guys. They crave that pressure. When I went down to the stock exchange, I found some wonderful characters there. There was this 80-year-old guy employed by the exchange. And it was just infectious, the energy that this guy had. He just loved being there so much.
I pulled him aside to have a conversation — to pick his brain — to see what he was about. He told me he’d been there since he was a teenager — and that he just loved the energy of it. He’d spent something like 70 years of his life being inside that kind of intense action. And he didn’t want to be anywhere else. That was it.
And I think that’s the case for a lot of these guys. A lot of the stock trades are done by computers these days. But to be able to make the big decisions about which ones to take on, and basically plug into the computers — these are billion-dollar bets, as you said. So you’ve got to have a lot of confidence.
CM: Can you identify with that? Having to be confident, I mean. Because, as an actor, every time you make a movie — whether it turns out well or not, it stays around forever. And every decision you made about your performance, good or bad, always will be available for audiences to see.
RG: I’ve been doing this a long time, so that decision is not such a big deal. But I’ve got to tell you: Before every shot, I still get a little nervous. There’s always a little bit of stuff going on inside of me. And that’s good, I like the energy of that. But there’s always the question of whether it’s going to work, of whether I can pull it off. That’s always there.
CM: Was there a scene in this movie that you found especially challenging? One that made you think the night before, “Oh, yeah, we’re going to do that one tomorrow,” or something along those lines?
RG: I don’t think there was anything that was so emotionally difficult. The whole thing was sort of at the same emotional pitch.
But we were shooting on a very short schedule. And I think the scene in the park with my daughter [played by Brit Marling] is a very, very long scene. And we would shoot the entire scene from one angle, and then do it again from another angle. And, you know, we’re talking about five pages of dialogue. And complex stuff. And I wanted to get that five pages right from every angle, to make it a satisfying scene.
So I think there was enormous amount of pressure — on all of us. Because on top of everything else, it was a daylight scene, and we didn’t have all day to do it. I think everybody was a little nervous about that.
CM: In the course of the Arbitrage, your character does some pretty dastardly things, and puts other people at serious risk. Yet you manage somehow to generate a rooting interest in the guy. How do make an audience care for someone they likely wouldn’t care about, and might even detest, in real life?
RG: Well, that’s very tricky — not just for the actor, but also the director — to keep people involved for two hours. And honestly, I don’t know how you do that. I mean, I guess my success rate of doing that is fairly high, or I wouldn’t keep working. But I don’t know how exactly to do that. Yet it’s my job to do that. And it’s obviously more fun to do that with someone who’s difficult, who has unexplainable angles in him. Like most people.
I guess the trick ultimately is, if you can make them a human being, then it’s very easy to relate to them. If you play clichés — if you play categories of people, or descriptions of people — that makes it very difficult for an audience to identify with them. So as long as you’re playing honestly in a scene, and the story is true – I think we naturally want to be carried away by the story.
CM: I teach a course about ‘70s cinema. And I often stress to students that while great movies continue to be made today, the big difference back in the ‘70s — during what some people call the last golden age for Hollywood — is that most of the important American movies, the movies that have lasted, actually were released by major studios.
You started out in films during that period. How do you feel the film industry has changed?
RG: Well, you know, it’s funny: You look at The New York Times movie section, and you see there’s an enormous number of independent movies that have found a niche. And they’re a lot like the movies you’re talking about, the really well-made, interesting ‘70s movies. This one, Arbitrage, clearly is one that would have been a studio picture back in the ‘70s. Warners or Paramount would have made this movie. This is like a Sidney Lumet movie. And it’s true, the studios don’t make them anymore.
But, you know, it wasn’t that hard to find the independent money for this one. Mostly because the script was so well conceived. And since it was able to attract well-known actors to play these parts, the financing was fairly easy.
I did live through what you’re calling the golden years for modern filmmaking, for sure. But I think that to make those same films now, we have to rethink budgets, we have to rethink what compensations are, we have to rethink how quickly we work. Those are compromises we all have to make to make those same movies. But it’s part and parcel of it.
I think there are still wonderful movies being made. Just in a different way.