The first time Richard Gere appeared in a television series it was 1976 and the then little-known actor was in a single episode of the New York crime drama Kojak, playing a crook holding up a liquor store. Gere has since gone on to rather more illustrious parts, but now the Hollywood star is taking on his first major small-screen role in an eagerly awaited BBC Two drama.
Tom Rob Smith, the writer of MotherFatherSon, which starts next month, embarked on “a long wooing process” with Gere, eventually convincing him to take the part by assuring him it would be like performing on stage. “The question I asked was: when has Richard Gere recently had the chance to do a big two-page monologue?” Smith told the Observer.
“I knew Richard had done theatre early on in his career, but he doesn’t do it now because of the length of the runs. This was a way of doing theatre without having to do it in a theatre, which was exciting. I don’t think people will have seen Richard do this kind of role before.”
Smith, increasingly in demand on both sides of the Atlantic since the success of London Spy in 2015 and the recent American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, knew that Gere was the right person for the role from the moment he re-watched the actor’s seminal performance in American Gigolo.
“He’s such an extraordinary actor, and that performance in American Gigolo is brilliant. You wouldn’t get a character like that in a film now, with this incredible ambiguity and wonderful charm and also an air of menace at times,” he said. “Richard hadn’t done TV in over 30 years so the first thing he said was that he wanted all the scripts… It definitely helped that he really liked the director, James Kent, both as a director and as a person.”
In the new drama Gere, 69, plays media mogul Max, the father of the show’s title, while Helen McCrory is cast as Max’s estranged wife, Kathryn, while rising star Billy Howle, who plays the couple’s son Caden, was key because “he tells you so much with his eyes and makes you feel so close to him”.
That last skill turned out to be a particularly useful one, given that the plot of MotherFatherSon spins on a stroke suffered by Howle’s character in the first episode. Smith drew inspiration initially from the experience of a close friend who had a stroke aged 34.
“My friend had to learn to speak and walk again, and his parents became parents again in that sort of elemental sense. I just found the whole thing so intense. We all thought he was going to die, so the fact that he was able to attend the preview screening of MotherFatherSon was really emotional.”
He is unconcerned about frequently using the experiences of friends and family for his work – his 2013 crime novel The Farm was inspired by his mother’s psychotic illness: “I always write about myself and my own world – we are who we are, and I have to draw on that.” But he knew too that he didn’t want MotherFatherSon to be a chamber piece. “I knew you could do it as a closed story about that specific family and how they coped, but I felt the stroke and what happened next was such an interesting way of looking at everything – family, identity, masculinity, all those things,” he said.
“And if you’re going to look at the world through that prism, then why not look at the whole world, not just a slice of it?”
Thus the drama is both an intimate examination of power, masculinity and the ties that bind and also a state-of-the-nation thriller featuring politics, murder and long-buried secrets.
“It’s very hard to do a state-of-the-nation drama if that’s your main story,” Smith says. “If you do it out of the corner of your eye, almost in flashes, then it feels more real because that’s really how we engage with the state of the nation in real life. I liked the idea that someone’s capillary bursts in their head and it changes the course of the country.”
He acknowledges that, as with the recent Sky Atlantic drama Succession, comparisons to Rupert Murdoch are inevitable but stresses that he drew inspiration for Gere’s character from “fictional figures like Citizen Kane to historical figures like [Joseph] Pulitzer. We were always clear that Max should be Richard’s creation from a charisma point of view but also because we didn’t want to come down on a real-life parallel because that would bring its own baggage.
“Max is apolitical, ruthlessly practical and not ideological in the way others might think, and Richard brings that energy to the part because he can be all things at once. He can be sensitive. He can turn on a dime and be tough.”
The success of American Crime Story, which won the 2018 Emmy for outstanding limited series and the 2019 Golden Globe for best miniseries, has meant that Smith is an increasingly hot property in the US. He is currently working on an original US drama series.
MotherFatherSon starts on BBC Two on Wednesday 6 March at 9pm