It's not really a question for Richard Gere, who has exited the Hollywood fast lane to focus his attention (and his camera) on the Dalai Lama and his exiled followers.

Celebrity is a funny thing. Some people use it as a license to perpetuate adolescence and evade responsibilities. For others, celebrity is something to walk away from, as Debra Winger did at the height of her fame, when she wearied of Hollywood's hype and hypocrisy. But for Richard Gere, Winger's costar in the romantic classic An Officer and a Gentleman, fame is something to be used as a springboard for something even better: a lifetime of commitment to a world far beyond Sunset Boulevard.

Gere, who started out as something of a lightweight actor with good looks that seemed to outshine his talent, has become an international activist and humanitarian. He lobbies tirelessly for justice on behalf of the people of Tibet and works in India and other countries to devise strategies to contain the spread of the AIDS virus. He regularly meets with prime ministers and business leaders to trade ideas on the best way to use precious human and financial resources, and he is often found at top gatherings of scientists, academics, and politicians, where the future of the planet is discussed in earnest.

This whirlwind of activities has, to an extent, taken Gere out of the Hollywood fast lane. He makes fewer movies than he used to, sometimes staying off the set for a year or longer. But, curiously, the movies he does make are far better received than the flicks of his heartthrob years. Critics have found depth and humor - and a surprising ability to dance with flair - in his recent roles in Shall We Dance? and Chicago.

The result is a man whose hybrid life is unique, perhaps, to this day and age. One week, he may be on a meditative retreat to India to further his study of Buddhism at the feet of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual and political leader of Tibet who has been a friend and mentor to Gere for several decades. The next, he may be on a publicity tour with Jennifer Lopez to push a movie. Gere, whose next film, Bee Season, will be released November 11, sees no contradiction in these very different aspects of his life.

"People always ask me, 'How can you deal with this horrible, superficial, shallow world of movies, and then do this work with the Dalai Lama and Nobel Prize winners?'?" says Gere, a quiet and thoughtful man with longish silvery hair. At the time of this interview, he's on a brief visit to Brussels to open Pilgrim, a just-closed (in September) exhibit at the Young Gallery of his photos of Tibetans. "But to me, it's just people. It takes 400 to 600 people to make a movie. They are real people with real families and real issues, and interacting with them is the same as dealing with anyone in the world."

That said, Gere prefers to talk about AIDS and Tibet and the need to raise the social status of women in Africa and in the Middle East rather than discuss his extensive filmography, which dates back to Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Days of Heaven, and other 1970s films. But the fact is, he has been receiving increasing respect from critics.

Asked earlier this year to name the most underrated actor in movies today, Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gleiberman singled out Gere and said that many critics who had written him off should now reappraise his talents. "A lot of critics, including me, got so used to thinking of Richard Gere as an empty vessel of fake intensity that we're all still playing catch-up to how much he really has ripened with age," he wrote. "In Unfaithful, he caught the shame of a cuckolded husband with a candor that felt nearly confessional, and in lighter fare like Dr. T & the Women and, most snazzily, Chicago, he has perfected a mode of quicksilver bemusement."