Rob Lowe: High on Lowe
As we know from the Direct TV commercials he stars in, there have been a lot of different Rob Lowe’s. There was Brat Pack Rob Lowe, Party Boy Rob Lowe, Underage Sex Tape Rob Lowe and Sings With Snow White Rob Lowe. In the mid-nineties, those guys were replaced by Repentant Rob Lowe who slowly rebuilt his career while most of his contemporaries faded into obscurity. In the June 1997 issue of Movieline magazine, one thing is clear: Rob Lowe will do anything.
Outside, it’s a blisteringly bright and hot L.A. day, but Rob Lowe and I are high up in Beverly Hills, in his manager’s plush screening room, which is pitch black and ice cold.
We are watching American Untitled, a short film made for Showtime. It’s Lowe’s directorial debut. I was expecting the worst (oh, come on, you would have, too), but now, less than 10 minutes into the film, I’m dead surprised. This is not some actory, embarrassingly studied piece of film noir. It is noir–the story is about a man who fails for one split second to do the right thing, and ends up paying for that lapse forever–but it’s funny, and strangely moving.
I steal a glance at Lowe, who is sitting next to me. He still looks like Gatsby’s heir apparent–ridiculously handsome, perfectly put together. It’s hard to believe that the hardpartying Brat Pack days he shared with Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Ally Sheedy, Andrew McCarthy and Judd Nelson ended nearly 10 years ago.
We move out of the screening room and sit beside the pool. “What made you want to direct?” I ask him. Given Lowe’s spotty acting output over the last few years, I figure the answer could ‘be, “Free time.”
“I felt there was a place for me,” says Lowe. “It was time to put my toe in the pool. My agent said that the easiest way to get this thing going would be if I wrote something myself. So I sat down to write, and I don’t think I put one word on my computer screen for five hours. I got up to get a glass of water and I passed the television, and there was one of those horrific live telecopter shots of this Linda Sobek body recovery [she was the model found buried in the Angeles National Forest]. And they were saying, ‘We have a suspect in custody, he’s a photographer, he was able to lead police to the site where he apparently buried the body, although he is saying he did not kill her, that it was an accident. ‘And I’m thinking, obviously that’s a preposterous lie. Which it was. But I thought, is there a way that it could be true, where a guy does something by accident that’s so incriminating he figures, ‘No one will ever believe me, I’ve gotta get rid of her, I can’t go for help, I can’t call the police’? And I came back to my computer and it literally vomited out of me.”
“That’s a funny expression to use as a writer,” I say. “Would you rather direct or act?”
“I liked directing–loved it, actually,” Lowe tells me. “I spoke to Sean [Penn] and he was so excited that I was directing. He said, ‘I never had a pleasant moment in front of the camera, ever.’ And I was shocked, because I love acting.”
People think of Rob Lowe as the cheating boy-beautiful from St. Elmo’s Fire or the bachelor who’s too handsome to commit to Demi Moore in About Last Night… That’s not the stuff that got me.
“For Square Dance you got a Golden Globe nomination for playing a retarded guy who tries to cut off his penis–”
“Was it my penis or my arm?” Lowe asks. There isn’t a trace of a smile, much less a smirk, on his face.
“Honey, if you don’t know the difference, I’m not about to tell you.” Now he laughs, but I get the idea he’ll be watching Square Dance later this week. “So anyway. I rented all of your old films, and I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I used to think your looks were your only drawing card, and yet in Square Dance, Masquerade, The Hotel New Hampshire and a number of other films, you turned in solid performances. Why hasn’t Hollywood figured out what to do with you?”
Lowe thinks this over. “I think people have never really known how to use me well. That’s the problem now and it’s been the problem ever since I first started working. There have been roles that I would have killed for, but I couldn’t get them because people have this preconceived notion about me.”
Maybe this is so not only because Lowe broke through as a spoiled, shallow looker, but because offscreen he lived the life of a hard-drinking, hard-living Hollywood brat. “I have this celebrity quiz I give to young actors who are starting out here in Hollywood,” I tell Lowe. “The first question is: which of the following are you allowed to have with you in a hotel room at one time: (a) a naked woman, (b) drugs, (c) guns, (d) a video camera? If they say more than one, I give them a one-way ticket back to where they came from.”
Lowe laughs. “At one time, I would have failed that test miserably.”
No kidding. Lowe’s infamous videotaped tryst with two women, one under age, at the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta ranks as one of the memorable movie-star embarrassments of the decade. It was widely rumored to be a classic setup, no criminal charges were ever filed, and Lowe, who says he has done his mea culpas to death, refuses to talk about it even now–and I don’t blame him.
“I don’t think they ought to let kids move to Hollywood until they’re 30,” I tell Lowe. “Hollywood should be treated like a trust fund, and you can’t have any of it until you’ve reached an age where you won’t do something stupid.”
But at least Lowe didn’t spend the following years looking at life through the bottom of a martini glass, like several of his contemporaries from the swinging ’80s. Instead, he married makeup artist Sheryl Berkoff in ’91, had two kids and became landed gentry in rich, bucolic Santa Barbara. For the last few years he’s been on a slow road back to Hollywood and has picked up a variety of roles, from a sleazy TV baron in ’92’s Wayne’s World to a starring role as a deaf mute in the enormously popular TV miniseries eries The Stand, to a cameo in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Now he’s in director Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, a big-budget adaptation of Carl Sagan’s saga about a radio astronomer (Jodie Foster) who receives a coded message from outer space.
“What kind of a character do you play in Contact?”
“A Ralph Reed type,” he says, referring to the articulate, shiny-faced Christian Coalition leader. “I’ll tell you a funny thing. One night I was in bed with Sheryl watching ‘Nightline,’ and Ralph Reed was talking about the Christian Coalition. I said to Sheryl, ‘Someday I’m going to play that guy in a movie.’ The next day, Bob Zemeckis calls and asks me to play this character, Richard Rank, who is very much like Reed. He’s very beguiling, very smart.”
“How does an actor prepare to play a religious zealot?” I ask.
“I read the Bible,” says Lowe matter-of-factly. Lowe has worked before with good directors–Coppola (The Outsiders), for example–but he’s done lots of movies with what he refers to as “hideous” directors, too. He does not take his opportunity to be in a Zemeckis film lightly, particularly now.
“A chance to play a part like this was exciting,” he says. “And also, it was a chance to work with Jodie [Foster] again.” (Foster, who starred with Lowe in The Hotel New Hampshire, will later tell me, “Rob is the funniest person I know. He’s a great mimic, he can do everyone. Did he do me? Because he does the best Jodie Foster ever.”)
“Contact is a great story,” Lowe continues. “Jodie plays a scientist who is at one of the listening posts that the government has, where they interpret signals from outer space to see if anyone is trying to communicate with us. And then she hears something that is indeed a signal. They are sending us plans to build a spaceship. And it raises all kinds of moral issues. Is there a God? What is our place in the universe? It’s a very human story.”
Whatever Contact does for Lowe moviewise, he also has a deal going with the producers behind the hit TV show The Golden Girls to develop a sitcom.
“I thought I’d never say this,” says Lowe, “but I’ve been wanting to do a TV show. All the funniest writers are on TV.”
“Why did you move to Santa Barbara?” I ask. It’s not like any picture of Santa Barbara doesn’t answer the question, but it’s a schlepp back and forth if you’re working in L.A.
“When I was a teenager, I was friendly with Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez. It was over a year before I ever met their father, because he was in the Philippines making Apocalypse Now. I knew I didn’t want that in my life. As soon as Sheryl and I had kids, I wanted to move to a place where they could play outside and meet other kids who weren’t in this business. Come up to the house tomorrow. You’ll see. Santa Barbara is the South of France … why would I travel over there and pay $15 for a bottle of Evian when it’s in my backyard?”
You only have to ask me once. The next afternoon I arrive at Lowe’s house in Santa Barbara. As soon as I walk in, I’m awestruck. “Oh, how fabulous,” I say. “You guys have money and taste.”
“I have to give all the credit to Sheryl,” says Lowe with a laugh. “She’s the one with the eye.” He shows me around, past Sheryl’s collection of Victorian dishes, past the silver cigar paraphernalia (cigar smoking is Lowe’s one vice since he gave up drugs and drinking in 1990), even into the his-and-hers closets. Every part of the house is arranged in a way to make you feel at home and comfortable. We spend an hour just looking at the little details–Lowe is obviously so proud of the place that he doesn’t seem to mind my endless questions. His two young sons, Matthew and John Owen, are napping in their rooms, so Lowe leads me out to the pool, where there’s a rippling waterfall and soft music.
“I don’t know if we can talk here,” I say. “I’m afraid it’s too noisy for the tape.”
With a flick of his wrist, Lowe turns off the music and the waterfall. “Is that better?” he asks.
Ah, Hollywood. This is perfect. Lowe hasn’t always lived in California–when he was a kid his parents divorced and when his mother remarried she moved the family from the Midwest to Southern California.
“Your mom married a shrink, right? And just as you were hitting puberty, you went from Dayton, Ohio, to living the life in Malibu–”
“My mom didn’t marry a shrink–she married a county mental health worker,” Lowe interrupts. “Over the years, it’s become this story that makes it sound as if he was a really wealthy therapist with a house on the ocean. We lived in a little tract house. Malibu’s gotten expensive, but when I first moved there, it was a sweet little town.”
“Still, didn’t you feel as if you’d died and gone to heaven?”
“You better believe it. I remember seeing Steve McQueen in the Mayfair Market, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I just followed him around the frozen-food section for a while and didn’t say a word.”
“You sort of have a Steve McQueen haircut going for you,” I point out.
“This is left over from Contact. I’m not really sure what my real haircut is, it’s been so long. As an actor you are never yourself, you’re just remnants of who you’ve been paid to be.”
“I read you did a TV series way back when, before you hit it big.”
“I did a TV series with Eileen Brennan called A New Kind of Family, which was about two families sharing the same roof. Five years later that same idea became Kate & Allie, which was a hit, but my series was notable for its lack of success. My favorite story about it is that the network canceled us, brought us back, then fired the white family that ‘my’ family lived with and brought in a black family and never explained anything to the audience. One week they were white, the next they were black. The girl from the black family who was my age was Janet Jackson. I think she was about 15 at the time.”
Now that we’re comfortably ensconced in Lowe’s luxurious refuge, I want to bring up the thing one of my girlfriends told me she thinks is what really screwed up Lowe’s career.
“What made you do that ridiculous song-and-dance routine with Snow White at the Academy Awards?” I ask.
Lowe groans. “The Academy called and asked if I would sing ‘Proud Mary’ with Snow White. I thought it was a little goofy, but, hey, who was I to argue with the Academy? I figured if it didn’t turn out well, it would be no different than doing a stand-up act for the first time and bombing. Except that the audience wasn’t The Comedy Store–it was Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, every studio head, and a billion people watching at home. I remember being in the middle of the song–I’m singing ‘Rolling, rolling’–and I look into the audience, and what I see is blur, blur, blur, Barry Levinson, blur, blur. I look back to Barry Levinson, and he’s got the most stupefied expression on his face. He turns to the person next to him and I see his mouth moving and he’s saying, ‘What the fuck is he doing?’ I almost stopped in my tracks I was so mortified. But I finish the song, go backstage, and I hear this woman say, ‘Young man, that was so fabulous, that’s just what this show needed, come sit with me. I didn’t know you were such a good singer.’ I look up and there’s Lucille Ball smiling at me. So I sat with Lucy and that’s all she wanted to talk about. That was funny,’ she said. ‘Funny and sexy.’ I sat and watched the show with her, and I’m thinking, I did it, it worked! Fucking Lucille Ball liked it! Afterward, at the Governor’s Ball [movie critic] Sheila Benson told me she thought it was very funny. So really, I went to bed that night thinking everything was hunky-dory.”
“And you woke up in the morning and found out you were more reviled than Hitler,” I say.
“Exactly. I had bombed in front of the whole world. What I learned is that people take the Academy Awards as seriously as the cure for cancer in this town. And when you’re unveiling the formula of the cancer cure, I guess you don’t want anybody hoofing it up with a cartoon figure. To top it all off, the producer of the show had neglected to get a licensing arrangement with Disney. Still, I think I would have seemed like an ingrate if I’d turned the Academy down [in the first place].”
“The Academy should have had you back the next year as a presenter, to show that they were behind you and all.”
“That’s a sweet idea, Martha, and if you ever become the head of the Academy … But you know what? If they called tomorrow and asked me to do it again, I would. That’s part of why people don’t know what to do with me. That’s Barry Levinson going, ‘What the fuck is he doing?’ I don’t know! They don’t know. They never have known. Because I am the guy who will do stuff like that. That’s the good news. And sometimes it’s the bad news.”
Right now all I want to do is throw my arms around Lowe and make him feel better. “When I was a little girl, my mother used to say to me, ‘You’re really funny and you can make people laugh, and that’s going to make you cry.’ Now I know what she means.”
“Oh, how great,” says Lowe, reaching for a pen. “I think that expression is going to lift up and see the light of day in another medium.”
Lowe then lights up a Havana cigar and hands me one. We sit in the deepening afternoon light and slowly puff away. “You’re a good sport,” he says, handing me the ashtray. “Most people throw up in the pool the first time.”
This is not exactly what I need to hear. I’m gulping air and trying not to turn green. “How do you see yourself in 10 years? Do you want to act and direct, like Clint Eastwood?”
Before I can finish the thought Lowe is knocking on wood. “Clint is my hero, so, sure, that sounds good. But I’m open to anything. I’d like to do comedies. Shit, I’d like to do an action adventure. As usual, Rob Lowe will do just about anything.” He leans back, puffs his cigar, surveys his kingdom, and lets a slow, satisfied grin cross his face.
“I know someone in L.A.,” I tell him, “who refers to you and your wife, and Jeff Bridges and his wife, and Dennis Miller and his wife, and Bob Zemeckis and his wife as The Happily Marrieds.”
“All those people are my friends–we all live up here, we all have kids, we get together for Halloween, things like that. But you know what’s funny? I hear a bit of contempt in that, like we’re lesser for being happy and committed. When I was a party boy, people berated me for not having a wife and family. Now, when I’ve found the truest fulfillment of my life, they’re snide about us being happy. Well, fuck them. I’ve done both, and I’ll tell you, waking up next to someone you love beats all that other crap.”
Martha Frankel interviewed Kelly Preston for the April ’97 issue of Movieline.