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In a perfect world, 30 minutes alone with Richard Gere should be the kind of scintillating interlude that can make celebrity journalism such a rewarding experience.

In the real world, it's like surviving a rough flight, rife with turbulence and treacherous air pockets. Just when it seems the wheels are never coming down, you're back on the ground and it never looked so good.Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy read.

An hour after a scheduled interview, a reporter and photographer are ushered into a hotel room to meet Gere. At 43, the star of "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," "American Gigolo," "An Officer and a Gentleman" and 1990's biggest hit, "Pretty Woman," looks a decade younger.

Gere does not get up from the couch but he extends his hand and flashes a bright smile. "Hi, I'm Richard," he says, all movie star stubble, boots, jeans and blazer.

Things look promising. But right after the opening question, a softball about his new movie, "Sommersby," the temperature dips precipitously and the first clouds appear.

Gere announces that he isn't fond of interviews and only does them for movies he cares about, such as "Sommersby," a romantic drama in which he co-stars with Jodie Foster.

"I've seen it 50 times and it still moves me," says Gere, who attended a screening the night before for industry executives and the press. "I shed a few tears last night."

He leans forward.

"Did you?"

The answer - no - is not to Gere's liking. His lip curls into a near-sneer.

"You know, everyone but you and one other person was in tears at the end," he says menacingly.

"Sommersby" is about a soldier who returns home from the Civil War a changed man - literally. Because he is a nicer man than the one his family and friends remember, they don't want to look too closely at whether he is actually a different person.

"It's about masks, about lies, about how to fulfill our hearts, seeing that through lies the deeper truth emerges," Gere says.

In an effort to glean the deeper truth about Gere, a few more softballs are lobbed, a few deep questions about his own masks.

Like this one: "What is Richard Gere REALLY LIKE?"

Bad idea. Gere is like a shark smelling blood.

"No way, I'm not playing this game," he says, shifting in his seat and staring down at his boots.

The question is rephrased. Gere stares moodily into space and begins a soliloquy.

"I'm always shifting the mask," he says. "I'm not knowable. I think something happens once you start making movies, once you start being an icon. You start to see you can't take things personally. The universe goes on without you anyway."

You sound like a pretty serious guy, he is told.

Gere frowns.

"Well, you aren't asking any funny questions!" he snaps.

OK. What does he think about comedian Denis Leary's well-publicized fantasy about Gere's wife, supermodel Cindy Crawford? Leary has said he wants to see her naked on the Empire State Building eating an Eskimo Pie.

Gere allows a rare smile to interrupt the tension.

"I love Denis; he's a good friend," Gere says. "I told him, there was even a joke in my family about Eskimo Pies. Every night after dinner, my father would ask for an Eskimo Pie."

But any visions of Gere relaxing and letting loose with a stream of family anecdotes are short-lived. He waits for each new question with a mixture of scorn and derision.

When it is suggested he's a bit defensive, he smiles.

"How much can you expect to learn about me?" he says. "You just walked in the door. All I know is you're someone who writes about celebrities. What do you want to know?"

Well, you asked. How about those recurring rumors that you and Cindy Crawford are gay? Crawford has addressed the rumors in recent interviews, saying she and Gere are "secure" in their sexuality and denying that either is homosexual.

Gere was also the subject of a particularly vicious rumor a few years ago, one that was resurrected in a cartoon in the February issue of Spy magazine.

Gere smiles at the question and then adopts a blank expression.

"I don't know anything about any of that," he says flatly. Then he amends the statement: "It's kid stuff. Kids in a schoolyard."

Oddly enough, the gay rumor question seems to put him in a good mood.