The Fixer: Richard Gere and Joseph Cedar reflect on a New York character named 'Norman'

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Norman fixes deals, but right now no one’s buying into his schemes, and no one needs his help. One day he meets Eshel, an Israeli politician who’s also down on his luck. Moved by the possibility of helping out a fellow Jew, Norman does Eshel a favor: He buys him an expensive pair of shoes. Three years later, Eshel becomes prime minister of Israel. Unable to forget Norman’s kindness, Eshel allows Norman to draw him into a crazy business deal, but when cries of corruption begin to sound, he’s forced to cut Norman loose. An atypical comedy with an off-type cast, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer strikes an inventive comedic chord that will offend some and thrill others. Director Talk recently met with Norman star Richard Gere and director Joseph Cedar.

Director Talk: Norman isn’t the kind of character Richard usually plays. Richard, can you talk about acting off-type, and Joseph, can you talk about directing an actor who’s playing off-type?

Richard Gere: First of all, they’re all off-type. There’s not a character that’s not off-type, but this one’s further off than most. Part of the process with this one lay in the fact that he’s a totally unique character, and I didn’t want to play any clichés with him. Joseph didn’t want me to, either. I laughed about it, because Joseph was so nervous about this and wanted to get it right.

We had a lot of time; we spent eight or nine months, just talking, no pressure, Joseph bringing me slowly into his universe: the universe of the movie, the universe of this character, the universe of thousands of years of Jewish history, and emotions, and psychology. Narratives. It was perfect—I like to do things slowly that way, too. It gets deeper. Then, when you start making choices, you have a strong foundation, and it’s connected to something real, something authentic. That’s who we started to discover: the Norman in all of us, which was more important than being the Jewish Norman or the nebbish Norman, the whatever Norman.

DT: The Woody Allen Norman.

RG: The Woody Allen Norman, or even the Charlie Chaplin Norman. It was a matter of finding the emotion that we all have: that we want to belong. We want to be in.

Joseph Cedar: We mention Charlie Chaplin over and over again. I’ve always perceived the Little Tramp as a Jew, but it may be only the way I see it.

RG: Maybe. The Tramp’s always looking for a home.

JC: There’s something about his size, he’s everywhere the story needs him to be but never really welcome. Or it might have to do with his costume.

RG: He’s always on the road, isn’t he? Things don’t work out, and he’s got to get back on the road.

DT: Joseph, you’ve said in a number of Q&As and interviews that the character of Norman is based on the historical figure of the court Jew, of whom there are a number of specific examples throughout history. But I found that your Norman reflects not only one type of Jew but Jews as a race as well, with a history of assimilation, contribution and expulsion. That’s not a funny subject, but I found your movie hysterical. I was wondering if you dropped the character of Norman into the context of Israeli/American-Jewish politics to put a comedic spin on a subject that’s really not very funny.

JC: At the end, the subject is detached from the work itself. Norman is an individual person, and working with Richard on this character was not about anything but Norman at a specific time. Every scene had its own emotional truth to it for Norman. Everything else is either something that had to do with my intentions before the movie got off the ground or, now that it’s made, talking to journalists. The work itself was finding the human need in every situation that was specific for Norman. I don’t think I understood Norman the way I did after these conversations with Richard. We came to the set knowing something about how Norman functions that I didn’t know while I was working on the script.

RG: I was asking questions on a lot of levels that a Jewish actor probably would not have asked.

DT: My guess is that you were asking acting questions that an actor of any faith would ask, which a non-actor would not.

RG: Yes, they were acting questions, but there’s a mysterious process that starts between a director, especially a writer-director, and an actor. You know that everything you do from the moment you meet to talk about the project is rehearsing. Every second. I don’t care if you’re ordering a burger, you’re walking down the street, you’re watching TV. I don’t care what it is; you’re rehearsing. You’re working on the project. We danced through that in a very leisurely way—not without intensity, but it was leisurely because of the eight or nine months we had before we started shooting.

JC: It’s a great period, because you start seeing everything through the filter of what understanding Norman requires. So suddenly everything that I encounter has, in some way, an echo: If I bring it up with Richard in our next conversation, it will help us uncover something in Norman. For instance—and there are many examples like the one I’m about to give you—Norman name-drops all the time. Now, people around us always name-drop, but if you try to figure out when someone drops a name, it always reveals something about the situation that he’s in, something about what he’s trying to achieve, something about the personality of the person who feels that he needs to use someone else’s name in order to gain entrance into a certain situation. Just using that example, you can take every scene in the movie and see where Norman decides to say, “I know this person” or when he decides to mention that he’s married. It always comes at a point where if he wouldn’t do that—and this is intuitive for Norman—he’d probably be pushed away. Finding that mechanism in Norman and then finding how to make it feel intuitive for Richard in any given scene was almost like rewriting the script. It’s understanding everything through the eyes of an actor who has to believe what’s happening.

DT: Was this a different process from working with other actors?

JC: Every process with an actor is always different, and every actor approaches the character differently. This process had more influence on the script than I’ve had in the past. There were things that came up in our conversation that affected the script…and affected the whole journey that Norman goes through. One of the things that came from Richard was a discussion around what desire or wanting is. I always perceived Norman as someone who wants more than either he can deserve or he can handle. It’s like someone at a great restaurant ordering more than he’ll ever need, either because he wants to taste everything and he’s just eager to be making the most out of this great restaurant, or because he’s afraid someone will take it from him and he needs extra. I think Richard’s understanding of wanting is very different from Norman’s understanding. Norman is constantly wanting more than he needs, and every time he gets what he thinks he wants, he immediately wants the next thing. Part of what happens to Norman over this film is that at a certain point he stops wanting. The third act is about him not wanting anymore, and that’s something that came out of Richard and came out of his understanding of Norman’s journey.

DT: We all know the saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Do you think that applies to Norman?

RG: I think there’s no dark intent in him at all. I keep saying there’s no Iago in him. He could never play Iago. He doesn’t have that. He doesn’t have anger. He doesn’t have resentment. He can’t afford that, and he’s found a way that that instinct has been muted in him, in a genuine way. It’s just not there. I think he genuinely wants everyone to have everything, and he found a way to do it by the end of the movie. Including himself. Everyone got what they wanted.

JC: But judging things morally by only intention is always problematic. Bad things can happen with good intentions. I occasionally witness someone doing something that I think is conniving—for example, someone sneaks his way into an event that I’ve arranged and I’m upset that he’s there; that happens every once in a while. How bad can the intentions be when someone sneaks into someone else’s dinner uninvited? Even if it’s not nice, it’s not evil. Still, I’d tend to be really upset at that person: How dare you do that? But most likely if I’m in his shoes, his intentions are probably reasonable, and I shouldn’t be as upset as I am at him. The way people deal with Norman challenges the way I deal with some of the situations in my life that are close to what Norman does. Seeing someone try to take a piece of what’s mine for whatever reason is aggravating, but I don’t think it almost ever comes from a bad intention.

DT: I’d like to draw a comparison between this film and another Israeli film, Ephraim Kishon’s film Sallah Shabati. In Kishon’s film, there’s a scene where a big American car drives up to the forest where Sallah is planting a tree paid for by donations from American Jews. Over the forest is a big sign that says The Goldberg Forest. The Goldbergs get out of their big car, look at their forest, and leave. Then you hear the sound of another car. Before it arrives, the Goldberg Forest sign is replaced by a sign that says The Rosenstein Forest. The Rosensteins get out, look at their forest—the same forest—and leave. In the space of that one scene, I suddenly understood the Israeli view of American Jews like me, little kids in Hebrew school walking up to the front of the classroom to drop their quarter in the blue-and-white charity box.

As an American Jew, I never imagined that Israelis could be making fun of me. I had that same moment in Norman with the travel posters…suddenly that whole thing opened up for me again, thirty years later—that experience of: This is how I look to an Israeli.

JC: There’s another side to it. The American who’s giving money to plant the tree doesn’t really care what’s being planted in Israel. He’s just happy that his check is doing something for his conscience. He’s happy about that, and Israelis can do whatever they want with that check. As long as the American thinks there’s a tree and he has that picture in his mind, he’s happy.

DT: So what’s the difference with Norman?

JC: Norman feels that he’s doing something that is good for Israel, and doing something good for Israel is huge. That’s being part of history. Whether he is or not doesn’t make a difference. That’s his sense. He’s almost messianic.

Sony Pictures Classics’ Norman opens today in New York and Los Angeles. To view the trailer, click here. The author thanks Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interviewThis article is published here courtesy of Director Talk. Copyright © Director Talk 2017