Pretty witty

No one would have accused Rob Lowe of being a fine dramatic actor in his Brat Pack days, but he did have an aura. Then came the hotel room, the girls, the scandal. Now, playing a White House aide in The West Wing, he’s revealed a flair for smart dialogue and sophisticated comedy, and a whole new career opens up. Simon Fanshawe asks him where he’s found the willpower to hang in there regardless.

He sticks his head around the door of his trailer and says, “Hi guy, come on in.” He’s tremendously chipper, trim, tanned. Right down to the perfect stubble and the piercing blue eyes, he looks exactly like a poster of himself, all nicely airbrushed. Then I notice that his hair has got highlights. He laughs. “They’re not mine. They’re my character’s. If I didn’t have them, on screen it would look like I was wearing a black woolly hat.” Although this emphasis on looks may seem terribly superficial, with Rob Lowe you have to start with the face. He’s always been pretty, and that has had a lot to do with the way his career has gone, until now.

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In the first episode of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s brilliantly written and popular eavesdrop on the White House, his character Sam Seaborn, the deputy communications director, unwittingly sleeps with a call girl – and then has a panic about whether it will ruin his career. Aha, we all thought. Clever casting. They’ve written a part that plays off the only two things that anybody knows about Rob Lowe.

One: he was a founder member of the Brat Pack in St Elmo’s Fire in 1985 – he played the rebel, the rock’n’roller, the bad boy, the one who couldn’t keep his flies zipped. And two: in 1988 Lowe slept with two girls – at once – at the Democratic convention in Atlanta, while campaigning for Michael Dukakis.

One of them was 16 and the other, her lover, was 22, and they videoed the whole thing and stole the tape. Ten months later, the mother of the younger one filed a personal injury suit. And as the balloon went up, Lowe’s career went down. He settled out of court, but got community service.

He says of The West Wing storyline, triumphantly, “I was cast after that was written.” So the sleazy resonances were a coincidence? “If Aaron was really writing to what people’s perception of me is, he’d have given me a love interest.” Then he lists the pairings in the series and, as people often do with TV they love, he uses actors’ names and characters interchangeably. “Martin [Sheen] has got Abbie [played by Stockard Channing], Brad [Whitford] has got Donna his secretary [played by Janel Moloney] and he’s now got Mary Louise Parker, as his girlfriend, and as of next week Richard [Schiff] has got Laura Dern. And I have nobody. But Aaron marches to his own drum. There’s nothing you can tell him. But if Sam had a personal life, it would definitely make him more interesting.”

Even without a love life, Seaborn is perfect casting for Lowe – and finally allows him to be more than just a pretty boy. The script suits his clipped timing, and he has developed a rather engaging, faltering, staccato delivery. And while he may not have the greatest range as an actor, it turns out that he has a considerable talent for slick delivery and sharp comedy. He describes the oh-so-optimistic Seaborn “as a master intellect with a varying level of expertise on almost everything. He’s a bit of a geek with a big sense of what is right and wrong. But when crossed he can be an unbelievable motherfucker, which is a great juxtaposition to have with his kind of exuberant puppy side.”

This allows Lowe a touch of drama and plenty of deft comedy. The West Wing is a throwback in style: the plots are driven by the witty rat-a-tat-tat of Sorkin’s dialogue that is more reminiscent of a Preston Sturges film of the 1940s or a Ben Hecht script than the dramatic realism of TV in the 1980s and 1990s. The inhabitants of the Bartlet White House are more Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant or Myrna Loy and William Powell than they are the doctors in ER or the police officers in NYPD Blue. And no one ever accused Grant or Powell of being great actors. But they were great light comedy stars. The West Wing is Lowe’s opportunity to occupy the same kind of territory. Added to which, as he puts it, “It’s a team effort. There is never any doubt about any of these people’s abilities. These are fucking amazing actors.” And being among them has put Lowe on to the A-list.

He was brought up in Ohio, in “a traditional midwestern setting, surrounded by large Catholic families”, although his much beloved grandparents, Bob and Peg Hepler, were Methodists and he was baptised Episcopalian. But his family never really went to church, he says. His parents, a teacher and a lawyer, divorced when he was young and both re-married. He is the oldest of four, two of them stepbrothers; his younger brother Chad is also an actor.

When he was 12, in 1976, his mother re-married for the second time, to a therapist, and the family moved to Malibu. Lowe hated it. “I was not a happy camper. Coming from Ohio, I might as well have been dropped in from Mars. I didn’t surf. I don’t think I had ever swum in the ocean. And I wanted to be an actor. I had since I was eight or nine. It was like being hit by lightning. At that time, if you wanted to be in entertainment, I guess you’d have wanted to be in a band. There wasn’t the culture of young actors like there is now. I might as well have wanted to be a nuclear botanist.” He was beaten up for being a sissy. “Yes. Well, I have my sissy side, and Sam has that same thing.” He adds, with almost teenage bravado, “But I definitely got kicked out of school for fighting, once.”

Co-incidentally, Sean Penn was his classmate at Santa Monica High, and the Lowes lived across from the Sheens, so he knew Charlie and Emilio a little even before the Brat Pack days. The only solace of being in LA was that, “at least if I wanted to be an actor, I was in the right place”. And he started well. He was in a TV series called Thursday’s Child, for which he got a Golden Globe nomination. Then, in 1983, Francis Ford Coppola cast him in The Outsiders, his rather dark answer to American Graffiti, George Lucas’s prescient 1970s re-invention of the teen movie. He played alongside Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze and Emilio Estevez. The Brat Pack was gestating.

The two signature films of the Pack, both released in 1985, were The Breakfast Club and St Elmo’s Fire. Now unintentionally funny in parts – a reminder that most of the 1980s hairdos were hair-don’ts – the films do summon up the atmosphere of an age. Still enjoyable, they were spirited precisely because they focused on the desires, problems, concerns and fears of the young. Lowe, along with the rest, came to symbolise a combination of optimism and ambition, and had the cash to back it up. It’s hardly surprising that he dived into heady excess. “I definitely enjoyed my life at that point,” he says, “I really did. It made me happy then. It wouldn’t make me happy now. It didn’t feel as if I wasn’t happy, although as I got older and started to work on myself, as opposed to just my career, I realised there were other things I wanted to deal with.” Like what? “Like acknowledging that there was great pressure from wanting to have a functioning major career from a very early age.”

As we talk, it becomes clear that what has always kept Lowe afloat is ambition and sheer graft. He may not have been in great movies, but he has always known how to keep his profile and his price up. “I don’t know what drives me. Things that I consider bad qualities, I always try and figure out where they are coming from. I don’t consider ambition to be a bad one. It’s served me very well in my life. Very well.”

By the time he reached his 20s, he was an emblematic figure on screen, and in politics, too. He was close to Jane Fonda and her then husband, the Democrat politician Tom Hayden. At 24, he was playing a prominent role in the Democratic presidential campaign. By 1988, Lowe was the new Warren Beatty, the young stud with a world view.

And then . . . well, then it got the better of him. A lot has been written about the incident with the young women. As people started snickering, the phones stopped ringing. Dukakis said, rather pathetically, several years later, “I guess I should have called him.” Careerwise, it hurt. In 1999, George magazine suggested that there were still major movie figures who continued to block his career.

Lowe is phlegmatic about all that now. “There were times when I have undermined everything I was trying to accomplish. No question of that. But what gets lost is that that’s fairly common in the human condition. It’s pretty much a rite of passage for teenagers to drink too much and be wild. And you just have more access to it if you’re famous and making money. And people are more likely to know about it.” Okay, but Rob, you weren’t quite a teenager.

The experience propelled him into rehab. “I was 26, and I thought, ‘Where do I want to be when I am 36?’ I have been drug- and alcohol-free since May 10, 1990, although I am not a square. I mean, I serve alcohol in my house. And if someone wants to get in the Jacuzzi and smoke some pot, that’s fine by me. If it worked for me, I would be right in there with you.”

He’s enthusiastic about the 12-Step programme, but has not become particularly religious. “I wish I was a more religious person. I really admire Martin Sheen for his Catholicism. It’s such a bedrock. I wish I had that in my life. Although I do pray, and I am completely shameless about it. I only pray when it suits my own needs. I’m not proud about that.” He laughs.

His bedrock has been his wife, Sheryl. They had once had a fling, but then she went out with his best mate, Emilio Estevez and, for various reasons, she and Lowe fell out. But they re-met on the set of Bad Influence, a film in which Lowe was trying, not altogether successfully, to flex his acting muscles, and on which she was the make-up artist. They became great friends again, and then more than that. When he went into rehab, she stood by him, then married him. They now have two sons, Mathew, eight, and John-Owen, six.

Lowe is touching about what he owes to Sheryl. “Of course she’s responsible in some ways for grounding me. But that’s a very unfair mantle to put on anyone. At first it’s a compliment. But then it’s unfair. She never laid down any laws with me. That’s not the loving thing to do. She just said she’d love me anyway. And I wanted to change myself in order to have someone like her in my life.”

And then, on queue, the phone rings and it’s her. They live two hours out of LA, in Montecito, where they have built a house “evocative of an English manor”. In 1992, he’d been working in England on a film of Suddenly, Last Summer, directed by Richard Eyre and starring Maggie Smith and Natasha Richardson. “And one day Sting and his wife rang, because they knew we didn’t know many people in England, and very kindly asked us for the weekend to their country house in Wiltshire. We had never been exposed to that life. That elegant, benign neglect. Wellingtons, sweaters, the dogs, the living room with the fabulous antiques, the communal eating. It blew my mind completely.” So they went back to California and built one of their own. Even before The West Wing he could afford to do that.

Although the scandal clearly affected his life and his career, he did keep on working. The movies just weren’t very good. He talks of himself “as someone who has carried movies”, or “This put me on the cycle of young writer/directors that all the studios wanted to work with”. Excuse me? Carried movies? Which ones? He comes up with Bad Influence, The Hotel New Hampshire, About Last Night and, er, um . . . And as for the writer/director bit, he did certainly write and direct a well-received hour-long short film for the Showtime network in the US, called American Untitled: Desert’s Edge. But that’s it. He has written a feature film called Union Pacific, but it is still doing the rounds to find a producer. He’s not quite on a level with his “good friend” Jodie Foster, whom he mentions at this point.

He kept alive, and even prospered, by working on medium-sized movies and on TV. In 1990, he hosted the cult US entertainment show, Saturday Night Live. Originally they asked him to guest, but he said, “Ring back when you’d like me to host.” It showed a canny understanding of how to keep himself in the public eye in the right way. His opening routine was reading from his (fictional) personal diary of the 1980s. He claims not to be able to remember the jokes now. But you can guess. It also showed off his talent for comedy, and introduced him to Mike Myers, which led to him being cast in Wayne’s World and the Austin Powers movies.

Despite all this activity, The West Wing has been his real re-entry. And, paradoxically, it has taken him away from politics. He no longer has any active involvement, and he feels that it would compromise the way people see the character of Sam Seaborn if he did. He has also changed politically. “I have gotten more conservative. On social issues – women’s right to choose, minority rights, sexual preference rights and all that stuff – I am traditional Democrat. But on the hard stuff, I have moved. I mean, we’ve been running social programmes in this country since Roosevelt, and I am not sure that we have all that much to show for it.”

And neither does The West Wing. “People in the US,” says Lowe, “obsess about the Kennedy administration – Camelot and all that. They yearn for youthful vigour and idealism, charm, intellect, vitality in government. The West Wing speaks to that same want. This show is romanticised wish-fulfilment.”

This may be why, when Bush was elected, The West Wing – or “The Left Wing” as Republicans call it – increased its popularity. Bush scrambled to victory over Gore, but most people, even the ones who did vote, probably didn’t want either of them. In truth, they might have preferred to keep Clinton. In any case, the character of Josiah Bartlet is a classic Clinton figure. He talks left and acts right. When faced with deciding whether to commute a death sentence, he agonises decently and backs the death penalty. When US military personnel are killed, he vows revenge and doesn’t hesitate to use military intervention. The parents of a murdered gay teenager withdraw their support for Bartlet because they think he is not going far enough in backing gays. In the end, it’s a show about the inside of politics as much as it is about the issues. And both the right and the left are hooked on that. As Lowe says, “In Washington, when Clinton was in office, people were very openly unadulterated fans of the show, but my sense in the Bush administration is that of course they watch it, but it’s more covert.”

For himself, Lowe is delighted that the show has not yet traded on his looks. “At the start of the third series, there are a series of flashbacks to where we all met, and Abbie, you know, the president’s wife, says to the president, ‘I like all these young people, that CJ, and the young one.’ And the president says, ‘Sam Seaborn’.” Lowe is cock-a-hoop. “You line up 100 Hollywood writers and give them one word to describe me, and it ain’t going to be young. But that’s the one that Aaron used.”

And so speaks not just a recovering alcoholic, but a recovering pretty boy.

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