You’re supposed to look just below the ears for the telltale signs of a nip and tuck, which is why I am deep in conversation with Rob Lowe, talking about his first role for British TV, while actually focusing on his earlobes. As far as I can see, no marks. At 51, his lack of discernible jowls is jaw-dropping.
The main reason Lowe’s appearance astounds is because he has done so much — that face should look more lived in. He has been on screen since he was eight, one of the original Brat Pack from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders. Lowe followed high, as it must in Hollywood, with what history recalls as the first sex tape, and a very public stint in rehab. (He’s 25 years sober.) But he also trademarked the Hollywood bounceback. He began mocking his flawless persona in Wayne’s World and the Austin Powers series. He embraced television at a time when it was still considered the inferior medium, as Sam Seaborn in four series of The West Wing.
Since then he has been in some good films (Behind the Candelabra, Thank You for Smoking), as well as one of the few indisputably great modern sitcoms, Parks and Recreation, and has even appeared in a film called Sex Tape. Yet he still looks like a block-drawn cartoon action hero. So, Rob Lowe, what’s your secret?
“I have a skincare line that I’m about to launch,” he says, laughing. I ask him if it will make me look like him.
“It will absolutely… help.”
And the blue eyes twinkle on. What’s slightly disconcerting is that Lowe tells me this wearing a soutane. He has just come off set from You, Me and the Apocalypse, a new comedy-drama set 34 days before the end of the world. He plays a chain-smoking, potty-mouthed priest called Father Jude, who works at the Vatican in the so-called Devil’s Advocate department, digging up the dirt on those who are to be beatified. He is one of a group of seemingly unconnected characters from around the world, including Mathew Baynton’s unassuming bank manager and Jenna Fischer’s New Mexico librarian, most of whom wind up together in a bunker in Slough, representing the (highly unlikely) future of mankind.
It is a bizarre transcontinental caper, and Lowe’s priest — in part because he’s played by Rob Lowe — is the most bizarre character on the show. His very first scene, interviewing the nun who will become his assistant (Gaia Scodellaro), amply sets the tone: “Do you find the phrase ‘Christ on a bike’ offensive? Because I just used it in a meeting, and you’d have thought I’d performed an abortion on the table.”
Not every actor could pull this off. The You, Me and the Apocalypse producer, Nick Pitt, says his presence is more than just stunt casting. “What’s so great about Rob is that he has this balance. He can hold and handle an emotional character — he’s a proper actor — yet he is a funny, charismatic, want-to-watch guy. It’s the combination of truth and humour that he brings that becomes the touchstone of the piece.”
Nonetheless, there’s still inherent humour to be found in Rob Lowe swearing profusely in a cassock. “This is my first priest,” he says. “I’m ticking the boxes. Cowboy — check. Politician — check. Lawyer — check. I have basically spent my career working my way through the Village People. But this is exciting. You see so many things where it tastes and looks and feels exactly the same. This is very, very different.”
Lowe likes things that are different because, after 40-plus years on screen, acting can get a little samey. “I do have periods when acting doesn’t hold the same level of interest it did 10 or 20 years ago. That’s why I find other stuff to do.”
The other stuff is legion. He has a Fox legal drama, The Grinder, that’s been picked up for a series, and a cartoon series for Comedy Central. He has written two volumes of memoirs (which, astonishingly for a genre renowned for plumbing the depths of self-regard, are actually good). He is a bona fide Hollywood survivor, the chunk of hunk who has spent most of his career trying to be seen as more than just a jawline, and suddenly finds, as he passes 50, that it’s worked.
“Here’s what’s really great,” he says, in a 200wpm, adverb-heavy idiom that is (pleasingly) exactly like Sam Seaborn. “I don’t think there is a ‘Rob Lowe’ role any more, not in the last five or 10 years.” He reels off characters from Behind the Candelabra, Californication, Killing Kennedy (he was JFK), Parks and Recreation. “I used to get scripts a lot where I’d be, like, ‘Oh boy, I know what this is gonna be.’ Now I don’t. I honestly have no idea what people are going to send to me next.”
Running through both of Lowe’s books is the theme of how he has had to struggle with being taken seriously, owing to his looks. At the same time, he recognises that this is not a struggle most of us would consider a struggle. “When we talk about people having a sense of me that isn’t correct, the sense is, ‘Well, of course, why wouldn’t he be famous?’ That’s fine, I get it, it’s all good, but the truth of it is, it’s been very, very, very hard fought.”
Which only leaves the question: what next? Lowe is famously political. He now declares himself “a true centrist”, “alienated” by both the Democrats and the Republicans. Might he run for office? “There’s an open seat in the California Senate. It’s the first time it’s been open in 20 years, and there’s an online poll that just came out. I was leading all unannounced possibilities by a long way. It was very, very flattering. But it’s such a divisive time. This certainly wouldn’t be the time that anyone would want to go, ‘Gee, I want to go to Washington.’ That, and my wife would divorce me.”
Possibly. But at a time when Donald Trump leads the polls for the Republican nomination, in a country where it’s not unknown for actors to become politicos, you wouldn’t bet against the Outsider.
You, Me and the Apocalypse starts on Sky 1 on Wednesday
From The Sunday Times