Rob Lowe's profile

Jay Rayner

In his first scene in Brothers & Sisters, Rob Lowe's character, a Republican senator and veteran of the first Gulf War called Robert McAllister, is seen pleading for seriousness from the media. He wants to talk policy, but he knows the equally Republican firebrand TV pundit played by Calista Flockhart is also going to ask him about his divorce and whether he slipped it to the nanny.

It is a scene Lowe could play as himself. He is eager to talk about the business of playing politicians on screen, and rouses himself from his jetlag when I mention I was a big fan of The West Wing, and his dry, deadpan performance as Sam Seaborn, the deputy communications director. But he also knows that there might be a McAllister moment here for him somewhere down the line - in his case involving booze, a threesome with an underage girl and a notorious sex tape. In the new show he offers to buy Flockhart an espresso if she'll dodge the subject. I'm less bribable and anyway, I've just had coffee. At the time, the threesome was expected to spell the end of a promising career. That it didn't, that Lowe turned it around, makes him all the more interesting.

We'll get there in time. For the moment though, Lowe, who is 43, is happier describing the journey that took him from pretty boy, bratpack roles in movies like St Elmo's Fire in the 1980s, to playing dependable, conviction politicians.

This afternoon, at a central London hotel, he looks tired from the flight, slumped on the over-stuffed sofa, and admits he's wiring himself on caffeine. Still, he has that well-tended and tanned glow of the high-wattage star, though the gorgeous cheesecake looks have been softened a little by age.

"Let's just say that the passing of the years has done for me what I could not do for myself," he says, when I suggest he's been on an interesting journey.

He says there's nothing peculiar about the way he keeps turning up on screen as various kinds of party hack. "I'm a political junkie," he says. When he was eight he sold Kool-Aid door to door for George McGovern, the Democrat contender in the 1972 presidential election who was defeated by Richard Nixon's landslide, and more recently he campaigned for Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California.

Lowe grew up in Ohio until his parents divorced and he moved with his mother to Malibu to live with her second husband, a psychiatrist. It was an intriguing place for a precocious kid who had already announced he wanted to be an actor. Martin Sheen and his boys lived two doors down, and Sean Penn and his late brother were nearby too, though Lowe points out that he got there "before Martin had done Apocalypse Now. It was before any of us were famous."

It was just a middle-class beachside community in the days before Bob Dylan rolled up and bought up the shore; a defiantly left-wing community which pretty much guaranteed he would arrive in adulthood as a registered Democrat. Lowe says he has since made a familiar middle-aged family-man's journey towards the centre and now describes himself as an independent.

That makes his switch from Seaborn in the impeccably liberal West Wing to the role of conservative politician in Brothers & Sisters all the more believable.

"You have to recognise what my character is, though," Lowe says. "McAllister is a Rockefeller Republican, a Schwarzenegger Republican. Which is shorthand for saying that anywhere other than California he'd be a Democrat."

Still, he is a Republican, right at the heart of a mainstream American drama, and that in itself is intriguing. As its name suggests, Brothers & Sisters is essentially an old-fashioned family piece. It follows the lives of liberal, recently widowed matriarch Nora, played by Sally Field, and those of her adult children, beneath the Californian sun.

It's no surprise to learn that the producer, Ken Olin, was also the star of thirtysomething, for it has a lot of that to it, along with a dash of updated Dynasty and The Colbys thrown in. The script drips with the American tendency to emotional incontinence, and it's clear that Lowe's character is more important as potential love interest for Flockhart than as a speech maker.

But there is an added element that lifts it all beyond mere domestic intrigue. Brothers & Sisters is attempting to be the first post-9/11 drama. The terrorist attacks on America are specifically referenced, and one brother, Justin, is a complete screw-up because of his military service in Afghanistan. By the same token, Flockhart's character, Kitty Walker, is allowed to pursue the sort of hardcore conservative values that represent the chasm that has opened up in American politics, neatly creating a mother-daughter clash.

It's a big change from The West Wing, which paid lip service to America's drift to the right. That, Lowe says, was one of the reasons he was attracted to the role.

"The writer, Jon Robin Baitz, came to me and said 'we're going to create a believable Republican'." Not that they had it all worked out. "The show was already on the air when they came up with the idea for my character. It gave me a more proprietorial role. It happened so late that to a certain extent we were making it up as we went along."

I'm curious as to whether playing these political parts has made him feel a certain responsibility towards his audience. I was such a West Wing junkie that - sitting with the guy who, in the show, had such a certain moral compass, who could make the killer political speech - I almost want to discuss the state of the Bush Government more than the fluff of acting.

Lowe gives a gee-shucks kind of shrug. "I do feel like the recipient of people's longing for a certain type of political discourse and administration," he says. His voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper.

"People still stop me in the street, and it's clear from what they say that they wished the certainties of The West Wing really existed."

It is also clear that having a part in the new character's development appeals hugely to him. After leaving The West Wing he went on to star in and, more importantly, take a production role on a couple of series - The Lyon's Den and Dr Vegas. Though both failed, he agrees he'd like to do more of that in the future. Indeed he accepts that, while film is where he started, working alongside the likes of Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise and Matt Dillon, television has been much kinder to him.

"Movies have become huge corporate events, which is why you see a lot of actors gravitating towards TV," he says. "I'd like to build a TV company for myself. I've rather fallen in love with it."

I ask whether he's ever surprised by the path his career has taken. He smiles. He knows where this is going.

"As a guy approaching my mid-40s I have had that Talking Heads moment, when you sit up and say, 'how did I get here?"' And does he regret anything? Famously, he and the rest of the bratpack were wild boys, who drank and screwed their way about Hollywood.

Then came the incident in 1988 - his McAllister Moment - when he got into trouble at the Democratic National convention in Atlanta while campaigning for presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.

He picked up two girls in a bar for a threesome, which was videotaped. The girls made a recording, which later became one of the first mass-marketed celebrity sex tapes. It turned out one was only 16. Lowe argued that, as he had met the girls in a bar, it had been reasonable to assume they were of legal age, though he eventually settled a claim out of court. He also went into rehab.

"I regret nothing," Lowe says. "I wouldn't be where I am today without my mistakes. Particularly my mistakes. Exclusively my mistakes."

There's no doubt he's said all this before, many times, and that he's got the sincerity down pat. Then again, at the time he did provide a masterclass in how to deal with scandal. For one, he insisted on working, taking smaller stuff than he'd been used to. But he was also quick to ridicule himself before anybody else did. His appearance hosting Saturday Night Live in 1990, when he played up to all the tabloid gags about him - lascivious, sex-obsessed, vacuous good-time boy - fixed him firmly in the affections of the audience.

He tells me: "I'm 17 years sober now. It's given me everything - my wife, my children. I'm still as wild as I used to be but in a different way." What way? I am expecting a Hollywood answer, and boy do I get one. "I throw it into my work, athletics, my kids. The great addicts and alcoholics have great qualities." And he also says he doesn't demand special behaviour from others around him. "Only I could be sober and have one of the biggest wine cellars in the world." Really? "My wife looks after it. I draw the line at dealing with the wine. But I'm not a Nazi about it. If someone wants to get slammed round my house, they can."

I mention that the multi-millionaire porn baron Al Goldstein, who was responsible for releasing the sex tape, had since fallen on hard times, losing both his fortune and his house. Lowe sits bolt upright, intrigued.

"Wow, I hadn't heard that." So he doesn't Google himself? "No way. That would be staring into the eye of the beast."

In any case, he has more than enough evidence of his notoriety. Recently he was taking part in a golf tournament in Iowa when one of his shots hit and killed a goldfinch in flight. For the first time, faced with an anecdote he hasn't told to death, Lowe looks genuinely enthused. "Some actuarials worked out the odds were one in 247 million. I could have won the lottery with those sorts of odds."

A journalist with the golfers filed a report from his Blackberry while on the course. "The shot happened on the fourth hole. By the 18th hole my own Blackberry was buzzing with emails from friends in Europe asking about it."

But that's where the role he plays and the job he does separate. For a real politician like Senator McAllister such an incident would be the stuff of nightmares. For an actor, whose career has survived sex scandals and alcoholism, it's just another quirky story.


Who: Rob Lowe.
Born: Robert Hepler Lowe, March 17 1964, Charlottesville, Virginia.
Married: To makeup artist Sheryl Berkoff in 1991 and has two children, Edward (born 1993) and John (1995). Former girlfriends include actress Melissa Gilbert, Nastassja Kinski and Princess Stephanie of Monaco.
Breakthrough: In bratpack movies The Outsiders, Class and St Elmo's Fire.
Scandal: While attending the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, Lowe videotaped himself having sex with two women, one of whom was 16. The video was leaked, and a media furore ensued. Later, he mocked his own behaviour on Saturday Night Live.
Awards: Lowe was twice nominated for a Golden Globe, and once for an Emmy, for his role as Sam Seaborn in The West Wing. He had more luck with the Razzies, winning worst supporting actor for his performance in St Elmo's Fire in 1985.
Latest: Appearing on Brothers & Sisters.
Where and when: TV2, Mondays, 8.30pm.

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