Rob Lowe (AWW November 2016)
Rob Lowe’s arm is covered in thick, sticky, vivid blood. Shocking. Or it would be if it was real. We are onset with Code Black where he plays Colonel Willis, a soldier doctor. He’s in army fatigues, short back and side’s haircut but with the same glittering cornflower blue eyes that stared out of so many film posters on girl’s bedroom walls in the Brat Pack era. We’re on the Disney lot and we’re taking a break for lunch at Disney’s restaurant where even the salt and pepper pots are covered in mice.
The fake blood was from filming a scene where he was taking out a guy’s clavicle after an explosion. “Just a little medical heroics before lunch. It’s a tough day’s work. Actors are often asked to play heroes and I find this show gratifying and fun because these heroes actually exist rather than a guy who wears a cape and flies around. These guys are saving lives every day.”
He orders a cheeseburger without the bun and a chopped salad. “I like to eat clean.” We share some chargrilled Brussel sprouts because Lowe’s lunch order sounded so boring. “No it’s not. I have so much more energy if I eat clean. I’m in the middle of 30 consecutive days without a break. I shoot this show weekdays and then travel to Boston to work on a movie at the weekend along with a speaking tour – in the past five years I’ve done everything from talking about cancer research and advocacy, because my family have a history there (his grandmother and great grandmother both battled breast cancer and his father is a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor). And I also talk about recovery from alcohol and drugs. The movie is the sequel to Supertroopers which was a huge comedy cult film. They have been trying to make it for 15 years.”
Last month Comedy Central screened Rob Lowe’s Roast. Why would anyone put themselves up for humiliation like that? “It was a badge of honour. I’ve grown up with that tradition. I watched Dean Martin Roast when I was a kid. Mohammed Ali and Paul Newman. All the cool people of that era did them. They had asked me to do it a number of times and I’d refused, only to see Justin Bieber and James Franco do it, so I figured if those guys can take it I can take it. I love a good hard joke and I really don’t care whose expense it’s at, including my own. As long as it was smart, funny, it didn’t really matter to me, in fact the better I liked it.”
Peyton Manning, Jimmy Carr and various others took part in the Rob Lowe roast. Nothing was off limits. They mocked his pretty boy looks and constantly brought up his 1988 sex scandal with a 16 year old with lines like ‘Rob defies age…restrictions.’ They said he looked like a Ken doll, plastic and something that’s always close to a teenage girl.
Apparently Gwyneth Paltrow who has been a close friend for years refused to take part. “A lot of my buddies were asked. They didn’t want to be mean to me, right? But I thought it’s fine to be mean to me because I’m going to be mean to you. I ran into Justin Bieber just before I did it and he said ‘it’s way more pressure and way more difficult than you think it’s going to be,’ but I didn’t have that experience. My experience was it was exactly what I thought it would be. Really fun, like hosting Saturday Night Live on steroids. And it’s adrenaline. It’s fight or flight. You sit there and take it all night long and then it’s up to you. You go there and deliver.”
The way the Roast is set up is that various luminaries, friends and frenemies of the ‘roastee’ say terrible things about him and he has to wait till they’re all finished before he gets to fight back and defend himself. “The thing that struck me the worst was waiting for my opportunity to respond. That was hard. After the fourth person I was ready to swing back.” His wife Sheryl and sons Matthew (23) and John Owen (21) were all there. Did they want him to do it?
“This is how the dynamic in my family works. My sons are smart, cool guys. They said, ‘Dad you HAVE to do it.’ And then I asked my wife she said, ‘I don’t think you should do it and then she said how much money are they paying you?” I told her and she said, ‘OK you should definitely do it.’ He grins widely.
He met Sheryl over 26 years ago when she was a make-up artist working with him on set. She now designs high end boho chic jewellery using precious stones and ancient symbols. She’s Nieman Marcus’s best seller.
For years people have been commenting on Lowe’s perfect skin. So dewy, so fresh. He’s 52 but could pass for 32. He’s now bottled his secrets and has his own skincare range. “I’ve been working on it a long time. It’s a scrappy little company but it’s my own. I’m not a spokesperson and I didn’t license my name. I built it myself so it makes me really proud and gives me a sense of accomplishment but it’s also tremendous hard work because I’ve never done anything like that before. I researched the best labs and the best people who really know the business but what I do know is what kind of products have worked for me over the duration of my career as an actor. I’ve had the best and brightest people taking care of my skin so here I’m 52 and you see the results.”
What a lovely opportunity to study his gorgeous, chiselled face. Its perfect jaw line. There are no jowly bits and he’s almost unlined, no bags, no puffiness. “A lot of it’s genetics. A lot of it’s taking care of myself and discipline.” Lowe always lights up when he uses the word discipline. He thrives on hard work and mental clarity. “At the end of the day it’s an inside job – meaning I’ve met people in their eighties but their spirit is young and it makes them look young. I’ve met people I their 30s whose spirits are so old they seem old before their time. A huge part of it is your outlook on life.”
So he has the wisdom and experience of a 52 year old and the face and body of a 32 year old. “I feel that your whole life builds to this moment. You have the experience of getting to this point. You’re in your full power and able to enjoy it. Be able to prioritise and not be confused about what’s important. That’s a big thing.” Does he mean having a clear mind that’s not befuddled with alcohol or drugs? “That for me has been so long I can barely remember NOT having a clear mind and it’s about having a very clear sense about what you want that makes life so much easier.” Has he always had that? “No, no no. at different phrases. But I always knew I wanted to be an actor when I was a kid. I never had that thing that people don’t know what to do with their lives.
The food arrives and he tucks in. He disentangles a microphone from his khakis. “My character is a military medic, a trauma doctor. Everybody else works for the Los Angeles County Hospital. In this particular episode I’m back in the field, hence I’m in my fatigues.”
When he had to play the part of the Pope in You Me & the Apocalypse (filmed in London) he read the Bible from cover to cover. What research did he do to play a trauma doctor? “Oh, we have one on the show who is advising us but I researched it as well. There’s a lot of reading about medicine. I have a lot of friends who are in service and you can go to a medical bootcamp. They have that here. After lunch I have a fake torso in my dressing room that I can practise on. I’ll be doing sutures (stitching it up) on that.”
Did his friends in the military come back from tours with horrific stories? “We don’t really talk about the bad stuff. We’ve just revealed in this story that my character was court marshalled in Iraq and found innocent. We know he was on trial for his life. That’s what I love about this show. It feels real. When they asked me to come on for this season I was struck with its authenticity. Nurses and doctors around the country will tell you that Code Black is their favourite show because it’s real. It’s not BS you know. These people aren’t banging in the closet of the hospital every day.”
He doesn’t get to bang anybody? “Not yet but there’s time…” he jokes. “It’s the authenticity of the detailing that I love so much. And I’m working with Marcia Gay Harding. She’s got an Oscar at home so the calibre of acting is high.”
Lowe does not have an Oscar at home even though in my head he got one for playing Doctor Jack (surname) in Liberace. He was Liberace (Michael Douglas’s) cosmetic surgeon. The prosthetics he wore for the pulled-too-tight face lift were in themselves a work of art. “He was my first doctor.” Perhaps he was the inspiration for a skincare regime because his face alone would put anyone off attempted surgery. “That’s for sure.” He was nominated for a Golden Globe but lost to Jon Voight. He’s completely gracious about that of course. “I’ve never done anything that got more reaction from my peers than that.”
Doctor Jack Startz was part of the reinvention of Rob Lowe in a way. It showcased his talent as a comedic actor, a talent which he honed so brilliantly for Parks and Rec (with Amy Poehler) and The Grinder (add description?). For Lowe, Dr Jack Startz was a stand-out moment. “I would proudly put it up with The West Wing in terms of my work.” The West Wing. What can we say about The West Wing? A landmark television series set in The White House. Some critics say that it, along with The Sopranos reinvented television as an art form. It was the start of television being cooler than movies. And Lowe was right there as press Secretary Sam Seaborn. Without The West Wing there would have been no House of Cards. Without Sam Seaborn there would have been no Frank Underwood. Imagine Aaron Sorkin’s words coming out of Rob Lowe’s mouth. Brilliance. There are always rumours of a revival. “I’ve heard that people want it but I’ve not heard that it’s a viable thing. Until Aaron Sorkin decides to do it, we don’t know. The West Wing was all about him.”
It could be set in the Clinton or Trump administration. “Let’s hope it’s the Seaborn administration,” he says excitedly. Trump or Clinton? “Well…I’ve met them both and I like both of them personally. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Clinton’s. They were so supportive of The West Wing.”
At one point there was talk of Lowe’s life imitating art and taking on a political career. Would he ever consider running for office? “Not in this climate. It’s so unnecessarily bruising.” He was very vocal to his 1.2 million Twitter followers about Brexit. “I think now is our (America’s) Brexit moment. It feels as if there is a bit undercurrent of change that people want and dissatisfaction. The question is what are they really going to do? I’ve followed Brexit really closely. Watched it unfold as the vote came in and it’s a sort of similar situation here where a whole group of people think it could never happen and a whole group who want it to.”
After a lengthy decision we summarise Brexit as people who want to be European first and English second and people who want to be English first. “You’re either one or the other, there’s no in between and that’s what’s happening here. I hate election season. I used to love them. They’re so divisive, unnecessarily so on both sides and it grosses me out. I believe no matter how diametrically opposed people are politically, if you sat them at a table you could think of a couple of things they could agree on. I would say let’s just focus on those things and get moving but everything is predicated on division and differences.”
I had read that he was supporting Donald Trump. “I’m not endorsing Donald Trump, I’m not endorsing anybody.” He has a keen political eye and is super articulate but he’s less enthralled with politics than he used to be, just because they seem a little sour. “You make a difference when you do things that are still valued as art. Entertainment that is valued. Trying to get stories that aren’t debasing and are smart.”
Lowe has grown in to the smart scripts. Of course it didn’t start off that way. He started off struggling to find meaningful roles because his face was so beautiful. He emerged in the eighties in the Brat Pack scene with The Outsiders, St Elmo’s Fire and About Last night. Does he ever see his old brat packers Sean Penn, Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Robert Downey Jr? “I really don’t. I live in Santa Barbara and work so hard and so often. If I’m not on set I’m at home with my family resting and living life. I’m never out on the scene. “
Do his boys still live at home?” They really don’t. My youngest Johnny is in his third year at Stanford and he ow wants to be an actor. He had a role in the Grinder and also he worked in the writer’s room on the Grinder and he’s working on something that’s coming out called The Nick. And my other son Matthew just started at law school. He’s Sam Seaborn, The Grinder and his grandfather rolled into one.” (The Grinder is a show about an actor playing a lawyer. His role gets cancelled and instead of finding work as an actor he decides he can work in a law firm.)
Do his boys keep him in touch with current younger thinking? “Yes without a doubt. They are very much my sounding board for so much. I’m not interested in what’s hip and happening. I don’t care anymore as I shouldn’t. I love new music, new artists, new adventures but the score of keeping up popularity is something that everyone should leave behind in their twenties.”
Sitting with Lowe you can’t help but feel high on his energy, his clarity, his drive. He’s been 26 years sober and he takes on his sobriety the way other people might take on a party – with relish. He’s excited too when he speaks about his wife Sheryl. Proud when he talks about her jewellery range, rare in a 25 year marriage.
He doesn’t know anything about Brangelina or pontificate on what might have gone wrong. “I’ve known Brad forever but not well. He’s a Midwestern boy like me from Missouri. He’s a sweetheart as is she. But you never know what’s on the inside. You know one of the things I always say is never compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.
I can only speak from my experience. Sheryl and I have been married for 25 and been together for 28 years and it comes down to picking the right partner. Most people don’t pick the right one. It’s really that simple. Because as the years go on you had better be simpatico, whether it’s about your beliefs on travel or child raising. Then you had better be legitimately attracted to them. There’s a lot of boxes to tick and it’s hard to find someone that ticks all those boxes.” Did he know that in the beginning? “A little bit. I knew she was my best friend and if I had one seat on a plane going into space I would want her to be on it with me. I didn’t know how we’d feel about raising kids together but we were always on the same page. Little things can be huge. I didn’t want my kids to go to a school where you could skateboard in the hallways, wear shorts and call the teachers by their first names. I wanted uniforms.”
Did he have a uniform growing up? “I did not and they did skateboard in the hallways. I wanted old fashioned academics for my kids and they turned out well from it. They did well by the discipline. My kids get enough exposure to the arts at home. At school I’m not interested in that for them.”
Discipline is a passion in Lowe’s life. I’m reminded of that as he tucks into his bunless hamburger. That wasn’t always the case? “It still isn’t you have to let your id out. You have to.” He comes to the party after all? “No, no, no. mine comes out in adrenaline sports.” He does a lot of surfing. “Bigger and bigger waves each year. If I had it my way I would really train and do some legitimate big wave surfing. Sheryl doesn’t like me doing it very much. I try to be as careful as I can but you know it’s one of those things like motorcycles which I also have.” The blue glittering eyes go extra glittery. I look with concern or disdain, I’m not sure which. “I got one when I was 48. Total midlife crisis moment.” Couldn’t he just have a glass of wine? “That’s the one thing I can’t do. The only thing I can’t do.” I know the old saying one’s too many and a thousand’s not enough, but big wave surfing and motorbikes seem to be more dangerous. “The irony is you might be right,” he nods.
He’s written – with graphic and hilarious detail all about his alcohol and drug addiction in his memoirs Stories I Only Tell My Friends and Love Life. It was cathartic. “I meet people every day who have read the books and it always moves me. I didn’t know that people would care or what they would think of it. I was just doing it. It has to be something really personal and then the rest of it is up to the Universe. That people responded was an amazing experience.” He has amazing recall for someone who was out of it all the time. “I wasn’t out of it all the time.” What about a trip to Sydney – where on a radio show he said the only thing he remembered was going to Sydney zoo. “Here’s what I remember. I remember meeting Michael Hutchence and the guys from INXS on the first night. That’s sort of writes its own narrative, doesn’t it? Then there was the zoo and a tattoo parlour.”
I lift up the sleeve of his khaki tee to see the bicep tattoo. “It was a little koi fish. Really tiny. I would be like here is my tattoo and there was this dainty little thing. When I got sober I needed my own wildness so I got a bigger tattoo because I’m gonna show them I’m still a badass.” If you peer closely you see a tiny fish in what appears to be green swirling waves. Is he sure that in the teeny tattoo he didn’t have some other girls name in it and had to have the waves scrolled over it so Sheryl wouldn’t see? “No, she was with me. That was at the beginning of our courtship. I do remember what’s worth remembering.”
He remembers only vaguely visits to the Playboy mansion. “But I haven’t been there in so many years.”
I order expresso after my lunch. Lowe declines. “I have about 12 a day. Coffee is the last man standing for me. I’ve gotta have something right?”
He tells me, “There was a great white shark attack on my surf beach a few weeks ago where a guy got eaten. It’s on You Tube. Santa Barbara shark attack. I worry about sharks when I go spear fishing with my son. You go in the ocean with a weight belt to keep you down, fins and a snorkel. You hold your breath. You are not scuba diving. You are breath holding. You dive down with a spear gun and you shoot whatever there is to shoot. Sea bass, whatever. I love it. My son had a tiger shark charge at him at 90 feet in Hawaii at Christmas. He was lucky.”
Doesn’t that scare him? “I respect it.” Seriously he is a fear junkie. Perhaps fear has replaced alcohol as a vehicle to an altered state.
If he could edit your own life what would he change? “Nothing and that’s the best you could hope for.” He’s an emotional man, sentimental even. Can he remember the last time he cried? “Oh yes, three weeks ago. My favourite dog, one that I wrote about in the book Buster, the Jack Russell, we had to have him put down. He was sixteen. My oldest son Matthew is very stoic. The younger is very emotional. I went into Matthew’s bedroom and he was crying. I got into his bed to hold him. He’s 23 years old. He’s a man. It was a sad beautiful moment. I was happy that I had raised a young man who could still cry over his dog.” Tears start to appear in both of our eyes.