Rob Lowe on Taking Big Swings as an Actor


A member of the ’80s Brat Pack, Rob Lowe starred in the films St. Elmo’s Fire and About Last Night and became one of the decade’s leading heartthrobs. He segued into television as Sam Seaborn on The West Wing, demonstrating considerable dramatic ability and a talent for delivering meaty, rapid-fire dialog. Displaying a willingness to take on varied roles, he starred in other dramas and guest-starred in Behind the Candelabra and Californication, before landing roles on the sitcoms Parks and Recreation and The Grinder. Equally at ease in comedies as in dramas, Lowe has also assumed the responsibilities of executive producer, as in the recent Wild Bill.

WS: In your career, you have taken risks and roles that prompted some to ask, Why are you doing that? What motivates your desire to take big swings?
LOWE: I’ve always been the kind that will jump off the highest diving board. My brother and dad will tell you that. I’ve always been that guy. Sometimes it works out great and it’s Behind the Candelabra and other times it’s the [1989] opening of the Academy Awards [singing and dancing with Snow White]! Sometimes wanting to take the big swing works in your favor and other times maybe not!

WS: At this point in your career when there are a lot of doors open to you, what roles appeal to you?
LOWE: Something that I can make my mark in, that I can stand out sounds weird, but for lack of a better term, that I can stand out, particularly if it’s an ensemble. I want to make sure I have a part I can break out with. Something different. I’ll be looking to do a comedy if I’ve been doing a lot of drama and vice versa. Who am I working with? Is the experience going to be a good one? Is the location going to be good? It all comes together.

WS: I thought The Grinder was—
LOWE: Amazing, right?

WS: Absolutely!
LOWE: It’s my favorite. I loved being in Parks and Recreation [but] I don’t think I’ll ever be in anything as funny as The Grinder. I might be in something as funny but not funnier. The Grinder was it—such a great show.

WS: Does comedy exercise different acting muscles?
LOWE: Yeah, for sure.

WS: Is it more difficult?
LOWE: For me, comedy is way easier. For me, comedy is all about getting out of your own way and being free. It’s a different discipline, and in many ways, it’s more disciplined than drama. In drama, you can be all over the place. [But for me,] comedy is free and easy. Whenever I do a comedy, I come home from work and I feel like I haven’t done anything. When I come home from work on a drama I feel, argh, I’ve really worked hard today.

WS: And comedy’s timing element?
LOWE: It’s natural.

WS: You either have it, or you don’t?
LOWE: 100 percent; you either have it or you don’t. It’s just like a musician. Some people can play it and hear it. [Comedy is] 100 percent a hearing of music. Which is why, weirdly enough, on The West Wing, we could do that kind of dialog. Every person on that show is naturally funny. Some of them didn’t get to show it on the show necessarily, but everyone is funny on that show. And here’s the other thing: You don’t have to be smart to be a great dramatic actor, but you have to be smart to be a comedic actor; I’ve noticed that.

WS: Because?
LOWE: I don’t know what the connection is, but every great comedian that I know is smart. I know plenty of dramatic actors that I will never be able to stand in their shoes, but smart? It’s an interesting thing.

WS: You star in Wild Bill and are also an executive producer. What involvement did you have behind the scenes and in the script?
LOWE: For a long time, I’ve always produced the stuff I’ve been in, The Grinder being one of them, too. But the job of EP is different when you are the EP actor. There is the EP creator/writer who is most important. In my capacity, it’s like a quality control officer, and then, with specialization in casting. In Wild Bill [I was also] in charge of the Americanisms because our writers Jim [Keeble] and Dudi [Appleton] are not American, and when trying to write American their constructions were ones Americans don’t say. So I would go through a pass, tweak it and get it American.

In terms of the casting, we had a great casting director. But when it came down to things like [the girl who played] my daughter, I was very specific on the type of person I wanted. We found young Aloreia [Spencer]. She auditioned. She was OK, but I was able to see something. I met with her. There was no way she got that part without me. I knew I wanted that raw, not TV, not actor-y feel. She doesn’t feel like an actor. She’s not.

Actor EP contributions are different on each show, but on Wild Bill, a lot was in that area.

WS: You are going to be taking on 9-1-1: Lone Star.
LOWE: Yes, I’m very excited! Ryan Murphy and I have been trying to find something to do together—there’s nobody like him—since Nip/Tuck. I’ve always not been available. American Horror Story—not available. The first 9-1-1, not available and on and on and on. Finally, our schedules coincided and he’s concocting an amazing new version of 9-1-1 that will stand on its own and have the special sauce of 9-1-1, which for me is that amazing sense of adventure and over-the-top rescues. But what I love about 9-1-1 is that unlike other shows like that, you get to have the great stuff—you rescue people—but then they’re gone. You don’t have to learn about these characters. You get the adrenaline and then it’s over, and you’re on to the next thing. I love that and I love the way Ryan and Brad Falchuck and Tim Minear are able to then immediately pivot away from hyperrealism to the realism of the relationships in the firehouse, where I’ll be the fire chief.

WS: You did Code Black that had a lot of physical procedures you had to learn. How challenging was that and will you have to train for 9-1-1: Lone Star?
LOWE: The good thing is, in terms of the EMT [emergency medical technician] of it all, I’ve already been trained for it. I know so much about it from Code Black. So anything in that area, I’m good to go. It’s the fire stuff I’ll have to train for because I know nothing about that. I’m going to go to New York and train with the guys there. That’s what’s amazing about this job; you get to do that kind of thing. What I learned on Code Black was my love of physical action-adventure. The West Wing and Wild Bill are a lot of talk, which I’m good at and comes naturally to me. But the physical part I love just as much, and for whatever reason, people don’t see me in that way at first blush. So, weirdly, doing something like this feels very fresh for me. And I get to build on what I started on in Code Black—really fun!

WS: You do feature films and television. How have you seen the quality of television rise over the years?
LOWE: It’s incredible. I remember when I first signed on to do The West Wing, people were still talking about television being where careers go to die. Now every movie actor—we all want to come to television or need to come to television or both. The business has changed so much; the financials have changed so much, it costs so much money to launch a movie now that it better appeal to every market in every country. So the more specific the story is, the less likely they are to make it. [But] the more specific the story, the better it is, so all of that goes to television and that’s why you have such good writing and such great opportunity in TV.

WS: As I said, you have allowed yourself to take risks; some of them were supporting roles. Do you enjoy them?
LOWE: On Grinder, I worked with a director called Jay Chandrasekhar, who is in a group called the Broken Lizards, which makes the Super Troopers movies. If you haven’t seen them, I highly recommend them. They’re silly, they’re stupid and they’re hilarious! He came to me and said you probably won’t do this, but we have a role for you. Anyway, I did Super Troopers II two years ago; it was a blast! [In supporting roles] I get to play insane characters. Nobody cares. It’s not on my shoulders. I have no pressure. I can do whatever I want. I get away with murder!

When David Duchovny had me come on Californication, that was great, great! But if that character were a lead, and it was his show, it’s a whole different [proposition]. The pressure changes; the decisions change. There is just freedom in coming and doing what you do and leaving. I wouldn’t want that to be the entirety of my career, at all. But coming in on Behind the Candelabra and going nuts for four days, with Michael [Douglas] and Matt [Damon] and [Steven] Soderberg—that’s kind of it, that’s what you hope for. And then you go and do your own leads. You want to be able to do both.