To talk about Rob Lowe, one cannot ignore his face, which appears to be an object lesson in symmetry, in everything scientists have learned about what makes babies naturally smile and how far noses should be from eyes.
It’s an uncomfortable truth about which Lowe can do nothing, which shaped his public trajectory, and which used to annoy him. “What do you want me to do?” he would think, glowering at casting directors who thought him too pretty for this role or that one. Lowe has “the face that,” wrote one Australian journalist in what might be the best description of a modern search for aesthetic perfection, “Michael Jackson’s surgeons always seemed to be chiselling their way towards.”
He’s older now. Up close, his periwinkle-twinkle eyes are lined with delicate tracks that don’t show up on television screens. He gives hugs that feel like dad hugs — caring and chaste, pat-pat-pat — to people he’s met only once. He’s practicing authenticity now — he uses addiction recovery words such as “flawed” and “gratified.” He laughs frequently; he has learned to be self-deprecating; he comes across as uber-sincere.
And he’s wearing fake teeth — they’re Chiclet-sized, they’re a wall of blinding white — for his latest role as John F. Kennedy in a made-for-TV movie whose red-carpet D.C. premiere is Monday night.
All the better to eat you with, except Lowe doesn’t bite — not anymore, not since he’s wrung out the Hollywood spin cycle and somehow become an elder statesman of fame.
“Castro. Castro. Caaaastro. On the beach?”
The words roil around the fake teeth in Lowe’s mouth, transforming into Boston putty, coming out chowdered. He sits at an oak conference-room table, surrounded by extras, practicing. The camera is not rolling. His mike is still on. A few days ago, his teenage son tweeted, “My dad won’t stop doing his f@cking JFK voice #makeitstop.” Lowe thought it was hilarious and has been quoting the tweet ever since.
It’s late June and “Killing Kennedy,” the TV movie produced by the Washington-based National Geographic Channel, is filming in Richmond, five months before its scheduled nationwide premiere Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. The hallways of the state capitol stand in for the 1960s hallways of the White House. In this scene, Rob Lowe, playing a Missile Crisis-era Kennedy, will learn that the Cuban leader is down on the shore himself, with the tanks.
“This may sound like a funny request,” Lowe calls out between takes, “but is there a smaller pencil? This one is brand-new, and this is sharp.” He knows that Kennedy had a nervous tic with pencils, and it will look more realistic if the utensil appears to have actually been used. “I could maybe take a pen, but — no, he always used a pencil.”
He makes the request apologetically — he’s sorry to be a bother — but also authoritatively. A production assistant produces a suitably nubby pencil for him and the take commences.
“Castro. On the beach.”
It’s nearly impossible to play John F. Kennedy well. The president represents the most Washington of Washington characters — the dignity, the shenanigans, the tragedy, the public commodification — but 50 years after his death, parodies have drowned out the real thing. Encounter Lowe, 49, in his deep-parted pouf of a Kennedy wig, and it’s easy to giggle, until you fact-check his appearance and remember that this is exactly what Kennedy’s hair looked like. “Killing Kennedy” follows the last months of the president’s life, toggling back and forth between his work, his home life — Jackie is played by Ginnifer Goodwin — and the life of Lee Harvey Oswald.
It’s also nearly impossible to accurately pin down Rob Lowe, who himself has become less of a person and more of an ur-type, one of Hollywood: a rise, a fall, a rehab redemption, attractiveness that borders on parody. A time capsule to mid-1980s manhood. He was an original Brat Packer, playing saxophone in a Georgetown dive in “St. Elmo’s Fire.” After years of handsome-guy TV roles and movies, he was reborn three years ago — jolted by the same NBC-sitcom heart paddles that revived Alec Baldwin’s career — as a comedic genius on “Parks and Recreation.”
Through it all, he was almost a leading man, but wasn’t quite, or isn’t quite — somehow his name never got the billing that his face looked like it deserved.
“I’d always sort of felt like maybe one day I would play one of the Kennedys,” he says in his trailer, barefoot in loafers, smoking a cigar that he says is both for the character and for enjoyment (those teeth!). His brother Chad’s first role, he says, was playing Bobby Kennedy in something.
“I can kind of look like [the Kennedys], and also I’m at a point in my life where I’m old enough to play leaders.” He shrugs. “Characters with more substance. All of us hopefully have more substance as we go on our life’s journeys. That roles are coming to me with more facets is great, and it happens to all actors.” The Kennedy role, he says, “doesn’t say anything special about me.”
But there’s this: When Lowe published his memoir a few years ago, he chose to open and close the book with an anecdote about John F. Kennedy Jr., with whom he was friendly, bonded together in a dark and handsome pinup fraternity. He wrote about being asked to appear on the cover of George, the magazine founded by the younger Kennedy, at a time when Lowe’s career had been in a slump, and how grateful that made him. He wrote about telling legendary playboy John Jr. to find a woman he could love as much as legendary playboy Lowe loved his own wife.
“Why this family’s legacy has impacted my life so much that it would lead my book about my life — my life, not their lives — and then what does it mean that I end up playing Jack?” He thinks about it. “I don’t know those answers, because I think the conscious is inevitably unknowable. But there’s no denying that connection.”
Lowe works hard, says Goodwin over the phone, in a voice as best-girlfriendy as you’d expect. On set, “I asked him a million business questions — how he handles certain situations, navigating the politics of the world, prioritizing things.”
During a rough day of filming, Lowe watched her beat herself up. “He said to me, ‘Hey, I want you to know that I will only ever have your best interests at heart. Can I weigh in on what I’m watching you go through?’ ”
He doesn’t take himself too seriously though, she says. “For someone who has seen it all and done it all,” she says, “there’s nothing about him that’s jaded.”
Lowe will play almost anything. Cheerfully, willingly, with the can-do, happy-to-be-here attitude of the Midwesterner he is. (He was born in Charlottesville but raised in Dayton, Ohio, until his mother brought him and his two younger brothers to Malibu, Calif., when Lowe was in grade school). He comes across as someone who wants to be liked.
He’ll do comedy, he’ll do drama, he’ll do oily, he’ll do dry. He’ll shellac his eyelids frozen and skyward to play a Botoxed plastic surgeon in HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra,” and he’ll slick on a caterpillar of a mustache to play alleged wife-killer Drew Peterson in a 2012 Lifetime Original movie. He’ll make himself the punch line, again and again: “Wayne’s World’s” villain, too slow for Mike Myers’s patter; “The West Wing’s” Sam Seaborn, accidentally sleeping with a call girl. (“I don’t understand,” another character asks him. “Did you trip on something?”)
“What did you think of Drew Peterson?” he asks in his trailer, appearing delighted that anyone saw the movie. “I’m not a brand snob. I’m not. I don’t care if it’s on Lifetime. I don’t care if it’s on NatGeo, I don’t care if its on HBO, it makes no [bleeping] difference to me. If there’s an opportunity for me to explore something, I’m going to take it. . . . If an actor is a real, substantive actor and is not all propped up with publicists and editors and most-beautiful-list placements and who’s hot and who’s not, then you should be able to work anywhere. With no compunction.”
Lowe is not Daniel Day-Lewis playing Lincoln in a Spielbergian Oscar dream, he’s Rob Lowe playing Kennedy in a made-for-TV movie based on a book in Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing” series. A jaded take would be to see the role as a mark of a perpetual B-list actor, but Lowe’s choices are also what have humanized him.
“I might not have felt this way earlier in my career, but at this point I feel like — and I guess there’s no real way to say this without taking a chance of sounding self-satisfied — but I guess I don’t feel like I have anything left to prove anymore.”
He’s putting it all out there now, which is something more easily done now that he’s put it all out once before, in his 2011 memoir “Stories I Only Tell My Friends.” Some critics said he glossed over the juicy stuff, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a celebrity memoir as reflective about what it means to be famous in the 21st century.
He takes readers through all of it: divorced parents, early successes with “The Outsiders,” a punch-drunk reaction to fame that left him “using MTV like a home-shopping network,” perusing videos for attractive women and having his agent ring up their agents.
In one of the more intriguing passages, he writes about a New York Magazine article that was supposed to be about Emilio Estevez, a friend of his. Estevez phoned a group of buddies and asked them to come to a bar with him and the journalist; Estevez was worried he’d been coming across as too serious and wanted to show the reporter he could also be fun. A few weeks later, in June 1985, the article appeared.
You can Google it now and see the cover: No longer just a profile of Estevez, it features Lowe, Estevez and Judd Nelson looking boozy and smarmy under a headline reading, “Hollywood’s Brat Pack.” The story itself is mocking, presenting the crew as a preening pack of ego.
And that was before Lowe’s lowest points: before the romantic dalliances — Melissa Gilbert, Princess Stephanie of Monaco, Nastassja Kinski — before a string of underperforming roles made him all but disappear from the major box office, before the transformative stint in rehab at the age of 26 that ultimately dried him out.
He married his wife, the makeup artist Sheryl Berkoff, shortly after, and they’re married still. Two kids.
Tracing Lowe’s life over the past three decades feels like tracing modern celebrity — a word that he dislikes. He unwittingly starred in the first commercial sex tape, long before Paris Hilton. He’s dealt with nanny lawsuits. His career paralleled the birth and rise of celebrity tabloid magazines and the accompanying death of privacy. He’s savvy in the “new media,” which has now just become the “media” — dispensing friendly, frequent tweets for his 700,000 followers.
“One of the things that’s changed most in the business is that people can be famous for no reason,” he says. “When I was coming up, there was no market for people who didn’t have something to offer.”
One of Lowe’s good friends is the actor Bill Paxton, with whom he appeared in the 1995 Western “Frank and Jesse.” In their youth they were up for some of the same roles — Paxton auditioned St. Elmo’s Fire — and over the years the two, both self-described history buffs, became friends. (A while back, Paxton remembers an acquaintance gifting him a bottle of the cologne brand reportedly used by Kennedy. “Who’s the first guy I called?” Paxton asks. “Rob.”)
“Of all of that group that he came up with — and this is a bit of a generalization — I would say Rob is the guy who went down the road to excess,” Paxton says. “But was able to come out the other side. . . . He’s really a man in full terms who has developed, who has that maturity.”
“We kind of want to control our image, but we can’t,” Paxton continues, pondering the strange profession that he and Lowe inhabit. “Most of us out here in Hollywood suffer from arrested development. It’s partly the youth game, and it’s partly the life we live. . . . It’s a heartbreak of a town, and a heartbreak to stay relevant in it.”
A few weeks after “Killing Kennedy” wrapped, Lowe sits in a Manhattan hotel suite. He’s in town for business, just for the day, flown cross-continent the day after dropping one of his sons off at a Stanford summer program. The teeth are gone, the wig is gone, the costume is gone — he’s in shirt-sleeves and jeans, snacking on apricots from an artfully placed fruit tray.
The ad campaign for the film is picking up — yesterday, Michelle Trachtenberg, as Oswald’s wife, Marina, was displayed many, many feet high, across a billboard in Times Square. Lowe has been up there, too, his arms folded across his chest, gaze downward in an iconic Kennedy pose. Serious. Statesmanlike.
Here’s something about Lowe: The one thing he almost never does is play beautiful. No romantic leads for him, not for years.
The closest recently is “Parks and Recreation’s” Chris Traeger, a perfect physical specimen whose looks are balanced by an unsavory fear of physical imperfection: He is desperately trying to stave off decrepitude with diet, exercise and relentless positivity. (He and co-star Rashida Jones will be leaving mid-season. “Our show,” co-star Nick Offerman deadpanned after the news came out, “just got 65 percent less good-looking.”)
It seems like it has to be an intentional choice, as if playing up his face would be just too much.
“Here’s what’s weird,” he says. “And I don’t know what it says. But given free rein, with really good writing, all of my characters become nerds.”
He thinks it’s a Midwestern thing. He’s reflective now, in the deep hours of the afternoon. What his characters are no longer matters to him as much as it once did. Paradoxically, he says, “My work got better when my work wasn’t the most important thing in my life. My family supplanted that.”
As for dealing with fame, the Kennedy kind or otherwise?
“The answer is trying to be your authentic self, as opposed to being ‘on.’ I believe I’m a good person. I believe I have something to offer. I know I work really hard at what I do — I know I’m a flawed man, like everyone else. But if I can be authentic, it will be better than just being ‘on.’ ”
As for the younger generation, the beautiful boys and girls trying to figure out their own career trajectories:
“Trust your instincts. Go your own way. Build a life outside of Hollywood. Full stop.”