Rob Lowe (London Sunday Times Magazine, November 25, 2018)
I’m waiting for Rob Lowe at the Polo Lounge, Beverley Hills Hotel. I’m sat in his favourite table, corner banquette outside. The best spot “for people watching”. When he arrives, the staff perform bowing rituals as if he is royalty. As indeed he is – Hollywood royalty, having started off in the 1983 era defining Francis Ford Coppola film The Outsiders and proceeding to become a high-octane member of the Brat Pack with Robert Downey Jr, Sean and Chris Penn, Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen after his role in St Elmo’s Fire.
After a decade of excess (of everything – alcohol, sex) he found his niche proper as Press Secretary Sam Seaborn in The West Wing.
There’s been a profusion of TV series including Code Black and the much loved Parks and Rec, a Globe nomination for his The Grinder and for his role as Dr Jack Startz (creepy cosmetic surgeon) in Beyond The Candalabra and a whole new career as an author. His memoirs Stories I Only Tell My Friends and Love Life are both wonderful reads (both NY Times Best Sellers) with just the right amount of fun, self-deprecation and revelation.
In the flesh he is so handsome you gasp – perfect, chiselled, jaw droppingly handsome. His skin is firm and tan, his slinky body ripples under his dark blue T shirt. His eyes are cornflower blue. Not surprisingly he’s got a skincare range called Profile. Who wouldn’t want to have his skin?
“I’m so hungry,” he announces as soon as he sits down. While you might assume Rob Lowe’s hungry would be for a piece of steamed fish, it’s a burger he’s craving with fries and we share a Macarthy salad to start. It’s an enormous chopped salad involving very bad things.
He’s about to leave for London where on December 1 he will perform his one man show Stories I Only Tell My Friends. He says he’s written it instead of a third book. He’s also going to be filming Wild Bill, a crime drama for ITV set in the Midlands.
When the chunky salad comes it seems as if he’s hungry on another level, an emotional one. Is that a tear glistening in his eye?
He tells me his three-year old dog, Jack a German short haired pointer has just died. He’s in town for meetings. His home is in Santa Barbra and everything happened so quickly he couldn’t get back to say goodbye. “By yesterday he was blind and having seizures. They think he was poisoned. I saw him eating mushrooms in the yard… I pulled him off but I must have been too late… He was such a f****** good boy. I’ll show you a picture of him.”
He shows me the dog – sensitive eyed, brown and white speckled. Lowe loves his dogs. He has another, a Jack Russell called David. He took David to see an animal communicator.
“She would give voice to the animal such as ‘David wants you to know he’s working very hard and he doesn’t feel he’s appreciated.’ David is 17 and every time I go away I think somethings going to happen to him…but it was this guy. He was so happy and I’ve never had a dog that would play fetch with me all day long. David doesn’t do fetch but David was a surf professional. He would surf with his own life preserver on and a dog board but he gave it up.”
Would Lowe ever give up surfing? “Hell no. I’m into it more than ever.” Lowe is into many things. He’s the ultimate multi tasker. Acting, writing, surfing. There’s an energy from him that’s nothing to do with his high caffeine consumption. It’s an inner drive. It’s electric. It’s palpable. He’s used to turning things around. There have been quite a few life changing choices that have gone on for Lowe but more of that later.
“You know all dogs go to heaven.”
My sunglasses fall off my head because the arms are too wide. He tries to fix them. He’s got such elegant hands, long fingers, pink nail beds, an intricate wedding ring and a wizardy looking gold ring with a diamond triangle, both made by his wife Sheryl (nee Berkoff), the jewellery designer who sells at Bergdorfs and Niemans. High end stuff for high end people.
Does the wizardy one have magic powers?
“In a way. It’s the sign for being in recovery.” I’ve never seen anyone with a recovery style ring as beautiful as this one but I’ve never really seen anyone that’s been in recovery for 20 years. He’s passionate about being in recovery. He said if he’d been on the booze he wouldn’t have achieved anything and right now his days are very full.
“This is a very famous salad you know. It feels very Jackie Collins in the best possible way.” Indeed, it was her favourite salad. “I made it into one of her books once. It was a career highlight. It read ‘he walked into the room and he looked like Rob Lowe.’” I tell him no one looks like Rob Lowe. “You’re nice to say it,” and he smiles, happy to have a compliment and I’m happy that he’s not one of these people who say, ‘no, no, surely not.’
The waitress delivers a candle even though it’s daylight to help the flies go away. They noticed from afar that the flies were bothering him. “Flies love me. I hate flies. My wife hates flies. Sheryl Lowe loses it over flies. Once we were in Hawaii. It’s a beautiful day and she says, ‘these flies have red faces.’ There’s nobody more quotable than Sheryl Lowe. I’ve had more people offer to make a reality series out of her than…”
Wait a minute. I thought you already did a reality series with your boys (Matthew 25 and John Owen 23). “Both smart, cool guys. The Lowe Files was us on the road exploring supernatural legends. A very different kind of reality. I loved it and I’m proud of it but if we had the traditional cameras following us everywhere it would be the biggest thing because my family is so nuts…My wife is such an original. Her business is growing faster than she can keep up with. It’s very inspiring to watch but not surprising. One of the reasons I fell in love with her when I was dating everybody under the sun was that she had her own business, her own work life, a tremendous work ethic and she was so driven. And that really comes through in everything she’s accomplished which is awesome.”
There was a time when Rob Lowe really was dating everybody who was A lister ready. And why not? He was young and gorgeous and available. He dated Natasha Kinski, Demi Moore, Princess Stephanie and Melissa Gilbert and admitted to using MTV like a home shopping network. If he saw a sexy dancer on the latest Sting video he would get her number.
The opening chapter of his book Stories I Only Tell My Friends is about how he lived in awe of John Kennedy Junior – his heritage, the fact that all of his girlfriends loved him and when John Kennedy Jr saw that Lowe was married to Sheryl and expressed surprise ‘How did you settle down?’ and Lowe recommended that the gorgeous blonde now chatting with his wife was one that Kennedy should not let go, soon after Kennedy married Caroline. Just after he put Lowe on the cover of his magazine George he was killed in the plane crash.
But how did Lowe do it? How did the most handsome man in the world make monogamy interesting?
“When it came down to it, what kind of woman do you want? There were the Princess Stephanie’s who sleep till 5.00pm, wake up, dinner, no less than 15 people a night, a club, repeat, repeat, repeat. Or there’s the Sheryl Lowe’s who come from nothing and own their own house by the time they are 20.”
We realise he’s missing a pickle and the pickle arrives immediately. Not sure he’ll get this kind of service in the Midlands where he goes to shoot Wild Bill.
“I play an American law enforcement analyst whose father was a cop who never wanted to be ground down by the system. He went to Stanford, got his degree in algorithms and still ended up in law enforcement. He has a 13-year old daughter who’s struggling since her mom has died. He’s been headhunted by the police force in Boston UK to come and take care of the largest crime rate per capita in the UK.”
We’re not sure if the crime rate statistic is fact or fiction but in 2018 the Lincolnshire area crime rate was higher than average and in 2016 it was the highest in the UK.
“It’s a classic fish out of water – cosmopolitan American comes to the Midlands. It’s a different case each week but each case has a direct correlation to the growth and discovery of the character. It’s an interesting hybrid in the way that you could only do it in the UK because it’s a character driven piece with procedural elements. He’s a fly off at the mouth, say anything, hot tempered guy and he runs foul of the skittish British sensibility…”
But first up is the one man show. I tell him I can’t wait to see his show live. It has stand up comedy elements and Q&A. When Lowe endured of those infamous VH1 roasts, no one enjoyed it more than him. He loves a bit of self-roasting. Roasts are scary, people insult you but he was ‘bring it on’. He is thrilled by self-deprecation.
“I’m so excited to see how it plays in the UK. It’s predominantly comedy. I give myself a pretty good beating.”
Why does he do that? Pause.
“All my heroes – and I say this in no way self reverentially – were big movie stars who owned it, had tons of charisma and didn’t shy away from it and were unbelievably self-deprecating and self-aware. They got the joke yet they were also being very serious. So it’s in that spirit that I write my books.”
The books flow. They are serious without taking themselves seriously.
“This is like having a third book that I can continue to amend. A living, breathing thing. My reference and inspiration for the first book was David Niven. Niven had a way of writing that delivered everything you want from a celebrity memoir.”
Humour, revelation and flow. “And self-deprecation. Get in, get out, nobody gets hurt. There’s a substance to his book like when you’re done with it, it’s not disposable.”
And I would say it’s the same of Lowes, which opens with the John Kennedy Jr moments and goes through his uncomfortable family set up (parents divorced when he was 4) The gregarious father was absent and his mother, a teacher, loved language.
Born in Dayton, Ohio he was a working actor at 8, in repertory at 15. There’s a punchy chapter about his excitement at being chosen for The Outsiders and his anguish when he saw most of his scenes had been cut.
Of course, it’s a compelling read – what eighties fame felt like from the inside and how it slipped away. He doesn’t slip away from his infamous incident the night before the Democratic national convention. He was there at 24 supporting Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. He took two girls that he met in a nightclub back to his hotel room. His age had been checked rigidly. He assumed theirs had but one was only 16. Their encounter was filmed and the result was the very first leaked sex tape. The 16-year olds mother brought a civil suit against Lowe who ended up with a fine and 20 hours community service.
In the book he says that that night “would set in motion events that would ultimately, through a painful, long and circuitous path, lead me to greater happiness and fulfilment than I could ever have hoped for”
In the book he describes his return to TV in the West Wing and all of thats nuances…
“Writing a book for me was like writing an album. Do I want to open with a hit or the radio single? When Vanity Fair excerpted it, they opened with the radio single, the story about the casting of The Outsiders. All of my life I wanted to be on the cover of Vanity Fair. I never got it for my acting but my writing. For me Kennedy is the lead single (the hit). I also looked at having too many ballads, too many epic songs and that’s how I edited the book. When I do the show live, it’s the live album version as opposed to the studio version.
“What I wear has been an evolution. I started with a crisp suit, no tie, now it’s black jeans, black work boots, grey T shirt, leather jacket. It went from movie star to rock star. I base my entrance on the Rolling Stones. One of their nineties tours where all of a sudden there was a flash and they were just there. I don’t have a flash but I’m just there. It doesn’t feel like a show. It feels like a chat. The best part is the section where people ask questions.”
Are there any questions that he dreads? “No. the more unusual and off topic, the better the show is.” I wonder if US audiences talk about the sex tape, now 25 years old.
“I’ve done hundreds of Q&A’s with lots of questions each night and that never comes up.” I wonder if the British audiences are different in that they love the whiff of scandal, the idea of the beautiful being taken down into an ugly world, whereas American audiences prefer to raise people up.
“I don’t have any qualms about anything in my life. Everything’s in my book.” And it is. Those events are intimately depicted. He doesn’t shy away from it. It’s Lowe’s belief, if you front it out it makes it interesting, not dark and it adds to your charisma.
“I get a lot of West Wing questions and I love that. A lot of Parks and Rec questions.” His co-star in that, Rashida Jones referred to him as a benevolent narcissist. He beams when I bring it up, or is that the double expressos arriving?
“The show’s good for all ages. Kids who’ve rediscovered The Outsiders, middle aged women, maybe their husbands, predominantly female but not exclusively which is why you never know what subject they’re interested in.”
His career has been diverse, perhaps that’s the clue to its longevity. “I think you’ve got to have the goods. That’s prerequisite. Then you’ve got to be decently fortunate and pick the right things. Very few people can get it right every time.”
He says if he’d still been drinking, “It would have been over for me for sure. First of all, because of the pace of which I live my life… I did two years of a gruelling show called Code Black, a medical drama, then I went into directing, starring and editing a remake of The Bad Seed. And then I went to Africa for 6 weeks and shot a Netflix romantic comedy movie – Christmas in the Wild – it’s me and Kristin Davis. It’s in the vein of Eat, Pray, Love but in Africa. And then I partnered up with the people who made American Ninja Warrior and we made a version of it – the ultimate obstacle course but for the mind. The most technically complex set every built for a competition series. And my one man show – doing that is as close to being a rock star as I’ll ever get.
“Bradley Cooper’s done very well this year. Everyone’s raving about A Star Is Born and it’s a movie about addiction.”
Does that mean he’s slightly feeling it should have been him up there with the Kris Kristofferson beard, singing, talking amorously to Lady Gaga’s nose. “No.” He says he’s too busy getting on with what he has done to think about what he didn’t do.
His Bad Seed movie for Lifetime TV was a remake of the film noir about a child serial killer. He says, “I’m really proud of it. My books, my one man show and The Bad Seed are the most personal things I’ve ever done because they’re mine and I’m not for hire…”
He downs his double expresso. He once said he’d like to have an caffeine IV drip feed him. He corrects himself. “I love working with the great collaborators.”
The great collaborators of The West Wing tried to stop him getting the solo cover of George magazine which seems a bit mean because he was the name that got the show on TV in the first place. No one had heard of writer Aaron Sorkin back then.
“Sometimes you think you’re crazy and I think was it as intense as I remember? The other day somebody had me sign the cover of the first season DVD. I went to sign my picture and I couldn’t find my face because they’d put me in the back row even though I’m first billed in the show…That’s just mean.
“In all fairness the West Wing was so good it didn’t need me, but it needed me initially for people to pay attention to it and it needed me to get it on the air but after that the show was amazing, the writing was great and everybody was amazing. But everybody runs things differently. It was their show, they called it.”
I don’t think he’s losing any sleep over what happened in the nineties. I like the way he knows himself. Sure, he’s done a lot of work on himself but it’s not that. There’s no false modesty, there’s no self-aggrandisement. There is a love of language and a vivid imagination and a sense of separateness, of otherness and a need to communicate their very being. That usually comes from being an only child but he has a brother Chad.
He nods. “It’s interesting you say that. He was four years younger than me and four years is a big difference when you’re young, especially because from the time I was eight I knew what I wanted to do and every single thing in my life was seen through the lens of wanting to get where I wanted to get, even at eight. So that immediately puts you aside from everybody else.”
He was working in local theatre when he was eight and repertory when he was 15. “I was the breadwinner for the family because my dad paying child support was always a major trauma. He was a lawyer and my mother’s parents had some money. My family was solidly middle class.
But is he a benevolent narcissist?
“All my heroes are benevolent narcissists. Rashida also said that her father, Quincy Jones, is the Mount Rushmore of benevolent narcissists, so anything where I’m mentioned in the same sentence as Quincy, I’m in. There is the element with the stars that I look up to as being larger than life and being unashamed about it. They are approachable and down to earth. That combination is rare but it’s what I love.”
That’s part of the complexity that makes him charismatic. He is larger than life yet approachable and unashamed. And what’s also rare is a lasting marriage. He nods.
“I talk a lot about Sheryl in the show. If I do another version at some point, the show will be almost exclusively on me and my wife. When I talk about her the audience love it because it’s humanising. Everybody is either married, wants to be married or had a bad marriage. I have a long sequence about why it’s impossible to sleep in the same bed as my wife (don’t want to ruin his punchline here. It’s partly because she snores and partly because of her obsessive watching Family Feud 16 episodes a night).”
People want to know how does he make monogamy interesting?
“I do talk about that but a little elliptically. You need to know it’s going to be a struggle at times. I don’t believe it’s a natural arrangement in terms of nature. But in terms of society, in terms of happiness, health, wellbeing, in terms of success nothing beats it. People’s natural inclination is to have a devil on their shoulder saying ‘is this it? Is this the last first kiss I’ll ever have? Is this the last first butterflies I’ll ever have? Is this my last wild, crazy sex I’ll ever have? These are all the things that may or may not be true, that get in the way. The key to it all is the same thing that Alfred Hitchcock said when he was asked what was the key to a hit movie. ‘Casting’. And I was great at casting. Do you know the phrase the picker is broken?”
I’ve never heard that phrase – it means making bad choices. What if you let other people pick you?
“Sometimes I like to let the inertia of events make decisions for me because it takes the pressure off. I’ve done a lot of thinking on this about intimacy and sex, intimacy and love, intimacy and relationships and I’ve done a lot, a lot, a lot of work on it.”
Does he think that sexual intimacy and love intimacy can be the opposite? For instance, one can be intimate sexually with someone and not love that person and vice versa.
“Absolutely. You’ve diagnosed the problem. Many people have that problem and that’s why most people have a hard time with long term monogamy because it’s not easy, but the integration of that is where long term intimacy and long-term monogamy lives. I know this 100% to be true.”
There’s a glint in his cornflower blue eye. It’s not quite a tear. More a chink in his steadfastness. A chink that says he always knows the right thing but sometimes he struggles.
“Left to my own devices I’m right there with you but you have to work on these things. Relationships. And if you’re not willing to work it’s not going to happen. If you’re not willing to forgive it’s not going to happen. People want to die proudly on their sword and oftentimes there’s more dignity in forgiveness. People may be able to grow and change and work on themselves too and not make the same mistakes over and over.”
The sunlight catches the diamond triangle on the wizardy looking ring. Maybe being in recovery is part of the magic because people who are recovering alcoholics have been forced to rock bottom and are forced to talk openly about themselves and to themselves.
“Working on yourself is not fun. Worse than painful, it can be boring. But if I look at the lengths I used to go to to find some bad behaviour, I should be able to go to those lengths to make my life better.”
He has said that his rock bottom came when he decided to finish a bottle of tequila rather than go home to his dying grandfather. Of course, he would never do such a thing now but the fact that he once did makes him much more human.
He’s politically savvy too. Fascinated by the post Brexit world. He remembers, “watching as the vote came in and Christiane Amanpour practically vomiting and crying as the sun came up on Big Ben. There’s nothing worse than a foreigner weighing in on the affairs of another country. That said, I’m so interested. I think there’s a connection to people in the US who are feeling forgotten and ignored and who are really mad. I’m fascinated by all of it. When I was in Africa I was out of the cable news cycle. I had broken my addiction for news and I feel the better for it.”
I’m not sure if I believe that. He’s far too keen to talk about Richard Quest – British CNN newsman.
He’s looking forward to his time in post Brexit Britain because watching people and how things change interests him.
“I must say that London was a tough nut to crack. I remember vividly at the height of my teen idol phase walking the streets of London in the midday sun and it was crickets. They were very slow to the party and I remember my 21-year old ego thinking what’s going on here? I was used to walking down the street having my clothes ripped off. I walked in London in anonymity.”
Really? No one ripped his clothes off?
“Well…..Well I have to go now.”
As he strides out through the Polo Lounge, every head turns to watch him and I’m sure he won’t walk in London in anonymity again.
Rob Lowe Stories I Only Tell My Friends – Royal Festival Hall. December 1, 19:30