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Richard Gere / Michael Larsen and Tracy Talbert/Larsen & Talbert

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The elegant figure cruising into the outdoor cafe in Manhattan’s West Village isn’t immediately recognizable as a movie star.

Richard Gere’s trademark wire-rimmed glasses and wavy silver hair may provide clues. But from a distance, the 63-year-old actor could be any well-groomed, well-preserved man of a certain age — perhaps even one of the local titans of finance, taking a break from wheeling and dealing.

As it turns out, Gere plays such a fellow in his new film, Arbitrage. Due in theaters nationwide (and on demand) next Friday, the movie casts him as Robert Miller, a hedge-fund billionaire who’s harboring a few secrets. Some involve his business, which he is desperately trying to sell. But one of the biggies is personal — and leads to a fatal accident that threatens much more than his empire.

“When we started the movie, anything having to do with financial markets was associated with Bernard Madoff,” Gere says, crinkly smile now at close range. “But Madoff was a sociopath. It’s not interesting to play someone psychotic. It’s more interesting to play someone who does have a moral foundation, but has to make choices.”

Gere thinks Miller — who has a wife played by Susan Sarandon, a mistress played by Laetitia Casta and a daughter-colleague played by Brit Marling — “is an outsized version of all of us in the modern world. We all cut corners on some level — morally, financially, emotionally. We’re all scamming.”

The actor wasn’t intimate with Wall Street. “That’s not my world at all,” he insists. “But I certainly know alpha personalities. There’s some of that in me. I’ve been successful because I’m a highly directed person. Miller is an archetype of our present, a guy with unbelievable self-confidence and charisma.”

To better understand the person behind that archetype, Gere accompanied Arbitrage’s director and screenwriter, Nicholas Jarecki – whose parents are both commodities traders – on trips to the New York Stock Exchange.

“Richard walked through the floors, met with all these hedge fund managers,” Jarecki recalls. “He didn’t ask them about business, though; he asked about their personal lives — their wives, their families, what they loved, what they worried about, what they’d had for breakfast. So he was able to really lift his character off the page, to bring a total authenticity to him.”

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With Arbitrage opening before the presidential election, it wasn’t lost on Gere that alpha types, and Miller, share key assets for politicians. “You need that confidence and charisma. And you need believability.”

Gere feels that the candidate with more corporate experience lacks that. “People in other countries hear Mitt Romney speak, and they think, ‘He’s inauthentic.’ With Obama, you think, ‘Yeah, he’s bright, sensitive, has his foibles — he’s very human.’ Romney just doesn’t project that. It’s bizarre that this man leading the charge for this whole other way of looking at government doesn’t have that No. 1 quality.”

But Gere isn’t entirely unsympathetic to Romney supporters, including some in Miller’s tax bracket. “I remember standing in a billionaire’s house, asking this very powerful Republican, ‘Do you think it’s going to change this billionaire’s life if he has to give up $10 million in taxes?’ And this Republican said, ‘No, it wouldn’t.’ I think his concern was that the money would be squandered. And I agree with some of that vigilance, even in terms of entitlements: Make them responsibly. Don’t dehumanize people by giving them too much.”

A longtime activist for Tibetan rights and the fight against AIDS, this practicing Buddhist and philosophy major in college quips he was “one of the few people who saw a silver lining in the economic meltdown. I said to myself, ‘OK, this means that everyone has to slow down and take a deep breath.’ It could have been a point of radically changing priorities: making sure that everyone in the world has a real education, has health care. Because then you’d have real security in the world.”

Gere, a practicing Buddhist, admits that he hasn’t seen much progress where the religious and civil freedoms of Tibetans are concerned. “It’s been terrible. I think there have been 44 self-immolations in the past two years, something like that. Suicide had been unheard of in Tibet; but since they’re committed to non-violence and the Chinese have left them little opportunity to express themselves, they’re turning violence on themselves.”

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He is nonetheless encouraged by “how rapidly China is changing. I’ve spoken with some Chinese dissidents, and on the information front, they’ve obviously found ways to get past the government firewall. Then there’s the innate desire of all beings to be free, to speak their minds, and the innate abhorrence of dictatorship and violence. Those things give me hope.”

These days, much of Gere’s world is hanging out at home with his wife, actress Carey Lowell, and their 12-year-old, Homer. Asked if the boy shows signs of following his parents’ careers, Gere shakes his head adamantly.

“No, no, no — absolutely none,” he says. “Which I’m very happy about. He’s very independent, his own person — introspective, a wonderful student, with a great sense of humor.”

Gere soaks it up. He recently rejected a tempting film because “I woke up one morning and realized that doing it would mean being away for three months, and that I would rather spend those months with my son.”

He makes time daily to play piano and guitar. Photography, another avid interest, is indulged differently: “I go on binges.”

Still, after nearly 50 movies, he doesn’t take career success for granted. “I have a really great job that continues to feed me financially, creatively, emotionally. But it’s my job, not my life.

“My life is my family, and my Tibetan teachers. I especially enjoy being able to spend evenings with my kid, who still asks me to read him stories. I’m not going to give that up.”

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