By my count it has been almost a decade since Richard Gere last toplined a conventional major studio film — 2008’s Nicholas Sparks romantic drama Nights In Rodanthe from Warner Bros. His last huge hit was 2002’s Oscar-winning musical Chicago, which brought him a Golden Globe but failed to put him in the Best Actor Oscar race, something that has unfairly eluded him his entire career.

But the star of such hits as Pretty Woman, An Officer And A Gentleman, Primal Fear, American Gigolo, Unfaithful, Internal Affairs and many others hasn’t gone away — he’s just shifted Geres. Harkening to early interesting career choices like his breakthrough Looking For Mr. Goodbar 40 years ago, or Terrence Malick’s seminal Days Of Heaven, the actor has gone all indie on us, for now at least, and the result has been some of the best work of his career.

On Friday his latest, Normanopened in Los Angeles and New York from Sony Pictures Classics, and on May 5 he will be seen in another provocative independent that premiered at the Berlin Film Festival (and hits Tribeca next week) titled The Dinnerin which two couples (Laura Linney, Rebecca Hall and Steve Coogan co-star) try to sort out a tragic situation involving their college-age kids over the course of a very intense night out.

The Dinner
The Orchard

The latter is written and directed by Oren Moverman, who also has a producing credit on Norman, and directed and wrote Time Out Of Mind, an art house film that drew some top reviews for Gere in a startling turn as a homeless man adrift on the streets of New York City. The pair also had a connection on Todd Haynes’ wildly inventive 2007 film I’m Not There, in which Gere played Billy, one of six incarnations of Bob Dylan in the offbeat movie Moverman and Haynes co-scripted.

Gere’s also done top-drawer recent work in little-seen movies like 2009’s wonderful Lasse Hallstrom-directed Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, which shamefully barely was released in theaters before hitting DVD almost directly, and The Benefactor, which premiered two years ago at the Tribeca Film Festival. For my money a movie that signaled his current indie renaissance was when he played a hedge fund magnate in 2012’s Arbitrage, which was one of the early success stories of films debuting simultaneously in theaters and on-demand.

But now with Norman, the 67-year-old star is pulling some of the best reviews ever for a role he says is so out of left field for him even he would not have cast himself in it. As Norman Oppenheimer, a small-time Jewish operator who networks and makes connections in New York City, Gere transforms himself physically and personality-wise, completely inhabiting a guy most of us would probably turn away from when approached, but one who is fully dimensional in unforgettable ways. I think it ranks right up there with anything he has ever done, and he deservedly won praise for it when it first premiered at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals in September.

Sony Pictures Classics

The first English-language film from multi-Oscar nominated director Joseph Cedar (Footnote, Beaufort) whose previous films have emanated out of Israel, it was originally called Norman: The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall Of A New York Fixer and offers Gere a plum character turn that he runs with. It is award-worthy work, but it took about a year before he was fully comfortable going in front of the cameras with it.

Gere is pleased with the results and the initial reaction (it earned an impressive screen average of around $20,000 in its first weekend), but when he first read it he wasn’t sure.

“I thought the script was great,”  he told me recently when he appeared with Cedar at my Cinema Series in Sherman Oaks. “And I read it and I remember saying, ‘Why me?’ If I was directing and producing it I would not hire me. So we worked through that.” He said it was great they had the luxury of time, of letting things settle in an unhurried way where what he calls “a deeper sense of poetry” could come out.

“I guess it just took us both to places that it wouldn’t have happened if we had just rushed it,” he said of Cedar and himself. “You always think that the last one is the best one you’ve ever done, and it’s certainly one of the movies that I’m most proud of I think that I’ve made, and I will always be grateful for Joseph inviting me on this trip.”

For Cedar, there was no question Gere was the right guy to play this ambitious Jewish mensch, and he doesn’t understand why Gere didn’t see himself immediately in the role. “I don’t know what he’s talking about. I’ve been dreaming about this character and Richard Gere portraying him my entire life. To have Richard Gere bring him to life — I still see the Pretty Woman poster in this image. It’s me carrying the bags and hoping someone will come and save me, and then that’s what Richard Gere did with Norman, ”  he said, invoking an unexpected comparison.

Gere thinks the character is fairly universal. “If we’re not Normans ourselves, I think we all have a little bit of Norman in us. We want to belong, we want to be essential to something, and I had to find that in myself in order to play this guy,” he said. “I don’t care what business we’re in or what things we would like, there’s always a Norman on the edges trying to get in. You don’t know who he is, you don’t know his story, you don’t really want to know his story. You want to keep him in your life but you want to teach him business. I thought it was incredibly poignant to take a character like that.”

Gere had to transform into the shoes of Norman Oppenheimer because he is quite the opposite in most ways. He is not into social media, doesn’t know much about phones (a staple for Norman, earbuds and all). He says a lot of creating the character was just not in his own experience.

“But we knew that this was a guy who was carrying his world with him. He’s a turtle, he’s got a shell, he’s got his  stuff that he carries with him every place he goes. The only place he removes his shell is the synagogue, and that’s home for him,” Gere said. “The physicality just sort of happened. I didn’t have to really make conscious choices that way. It was just something that happened naturally. The character did take me over at a certain point, and completely to the point where I didn’t have to think about it at all — it was there every time I showed up for work. I’ve done a lot of movies and a lot of stories. I think this was clearly one of the most unique characters I’ve been able to have the honor to try to figure out and bring to life a very complex thing.”

IFC Films

Gere points out that the movies he’s been making in recent years are really much like the kind he once did in the studio system, but not much recently. “The truth is no studio would have done Time Out Of Mind. There’s no way. That’s a completely un-commercial movie which did fine, but it took me 12 years to figure out what to do in that film. (Studios) just don’t want them any more, so now they’re independent.”

He added: Days Of Heaven or Looking For Mr. Goodbar or any of those films would be considered indie films today, but they were done at the studios. It was part of the wide range of films  that every studio was proud to make. Now we just find another way of doing it.

“I love that we made enough money doing those (studio) films that I can afford to make these kind of films now,” says the very independent Richard Gere.