From his work as Deputy White House Communications Director Sam Seaborn on “The West Wing” to his portrayal of Pawnee acting city manager Chris Traeger, about to bid farewell on “Parks and Recreation,” Rob Lowe has spent a lot of his acting career playing public servants.
Even his character on “Brothers & Sisters” was a U.S. senator running for president. Now, in National Geographic Channel’s filmed version of Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Kennedy,” he’s finally become president.
Though he’s also played a number of much shadier characters of late, from convicted murderer Drew Peterson for Lifetime, to Brad Pitt parody Eddie Nero in “Californication,” to a nearly unrecognizable plastic surgeon in HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra,” noble-minded politicians and government people have been high on Lowe’s list ever since he shook his Brat Pack membership, following tabloid fallout for follies committed while campaigning for Michael Dukakis at the Democratic National Convention in 1988.
As a former John Kennedy Jr. pal and longtime family admirer, 49-year-old Lowe seems a natural for the JFK role in the Nat Geo film, alongside Ginnifer Goodwin as Jackie. And amid a day of press flurry preceding the D.C. premiere of the film, which airs Nov. 10, Lowe sat with Salon to talk about his approach to Kennedy, the nature of politics in Washington today and the possibility of playing another U.S. chief executive.
I’m surprised you haven’t been asked to play Kennedy before. Had you ever been approached to play him in the past?
I’d never been approached. I knew that I was approaching the age where I was in the zone to play one of the Kennedy brothers and had always hoped to do it some day, because they’re heroes of mine and I admire them so much. I thought I could bring something interesting to it. So when this happened, I was really excited about it.
Then you go: Well is this the one to do? Because you can only do it once, I guess. And I thought: 50th anniversary, [producer] Ridley Scott. I read the script, loved it. And it’s based on such a popular book, I felt that it was time to do it, too.
A Bill O’Reilly book.
Had you read the book?
I hadn’t read it previous to getting the part.
Was there a lot of research involved in the role? You already knew quite a bit.
I’m interested in that time in his presidency, so I’ve read a lot of books before I got the part. So I didn’t feel compelled to do a ton of research on him, because I just knew so much going in and I did research more around getting the voice, the look and the stuff you sort of have to do if you’re going to play JFK.
That said, I did learn new things. It was just helpful to know what he would have had for breakfast or lunch. Stupid little things like that. But they end up being useful. You end up being on the set in a big smoke-filled room, lunch conference sequence in the primary and a person will say, what would you like to eat? And I’ll know exactly what he will eat.
Or if I’m in a scene with the joint chiefs and I have a legal pad and a pen there, I’d make them take it away and give me a pencil. Just little stupid things like that, but they’re authentic and I think that people intuitively know, even if they don’t say when they see it "Oh yes, of course JFK took notes in pencil, we all know that!"
I was thinking that knowing too much might be a hindrance for an actor.
I'll tell you where it’s a hindrance. It’s a hindrance if the audience knows too much, which is exactly the issue with playing JFK.
He’s so alive in our imaginations. We know what he looked like, we know what he sounded like. It’s not like when Daniel Day Lewis played Lincoln. He could use that voice and people could say what they wanted about the voice, but at the end of the day, no one could authoritatively say he didn’t sound like that.
Kennedy, you know what he sounded like, you know what he looked like, you know how he stood. You know these things. So it’s incumbent upon whoever plays him to do that and do that in a way that is not an imitation. You want to bring your version of JFK. You want to inhabit, not imitate.
Did you have the luxury of doing a lot of takes to get it right?
What’s extraordinary is the speed with which we shot this. You would never know we shot it in 18 days.
My first day at work I did Cuban Missile Crisis, the death of his son Patrick, the Bay of Pigs, back injections and flirting with interns and swimming in the White House pool – all in the first day. Honestly I felt that my whole part had been shot.
It’s one of those things where, on the first day, if you’re rusty, you’re kind of screwed. Because you’ve done a fourth of your heavy lifting.
What did you want people to feel about JFK through your performance?
I was hoping that they would identify with him as a human being, as a man: a father, a brother, a son, a husband, and someone who has a high-pressure job and is marked with extraordinary qualities and courage, but also fears the flaws and is someone living with tremendous, agonizing pain on a minute-by-minute basis and has for years; someone who is in the midst of one of the great American love stories with his wife but is also flawed in his behavior in living with her.
The humanness is what I was interested in as opposed to the big broad strokes of “Ask not what your country can do for you” or the Bay of Pigs or all of those big things we know. I was interested in him as a person – a regular man who was in extraordinary circumstances and he was an extraordinary man.
Your whole acting career, you’ve had so many parts where you’re a public servant, from “The West Wing” to “Parks and Recreation.”
I work my way backwards: From the White House to Pawnee, Indiana!
Is there something about those roles that attracted you or have you always had this political bent?
I’ve always been interested in politics. I’ve always been involved in politics, since I was 8 or 9 years old. I sold Kool-Aid for McGovern -- I could always pick a winner.
Worked the phone banks for Howard Metzenbaum, the longtime Ohio senator. And I worked with Maria Shriver and Arnold in the California gubernatorial. So I have that interest in my personal life.
But it’s not that I’m so interested in playing public servants and politicians in real life as I am in playing parts that are smart, well-written, articulate, powerful and dynamic -- and a lot of times those are the parts of a guy playing the president or running for office or governor or what have you. So inevitably those parts are interesting to me.
So does it occur to you, spending so many years in such roles, that the actual life would be one for you?
Well, I’m a fan of those people who can make that kind of commitment. It’s a tremendous sacrifice and, in our displeasure with the current political climate, we forget what kind of sacrifice it is to come here and serve people. And I never do forget that. Because I’ve played so many of them and I’ve met so many of them.
But if ever there was a time to do it, I’m not sure it’s now. I don’t think this would be the most fun time to be in Washington, the easiest time in Washington to get things accomplished. I’m glad people are still called to do it.
What do you think led to what’s going on there?
Let me lead with: I think it’s cyclical. And I think this is all part of it. And what’s beautiful, we have to remember we have a process here where we all feel so frustrated and we’re not tear-gassing in the town square. There’s not going to be a coup. There’s not going to be a civil war. We’re going to yell, we’re going to scream, we’re going to throw things, and the result of it will be some sort of change and we’ll go forward.
We’re just in a cycle, of which there have been many in our country, where we’re all frustrated. But out of it will come a new point of view, because it always has.
Do you have an idea of what that will look like and when it will happen?
It’s one of those things where it happens so incrementally that only with the gift of time can you look back and see what led to it. It took the disillusion of Watergate and the malaise of Carter to produce a climate to produce Ronald Reagan. It took the euphoria of winning World War II and the want to move away from the grey, staid Eisenhower era to produce JFK. And it took the previous eight years to produce President Obama.
And we’re definitely going through a time that’s going to produce somebody and something and no one can really tell what it will be. It’s going to be someone who has been produced by this.
It seems from what you say that it will be someone opposite of Obama.
That’s just the way it works, right? Whatever has been in flower, then the pendulum swings. And I say that only on what we know from history.
Are you involved in any campaigns or backing anyone right now or active in that way?
No, I haven’t been in quite a while. I have been in what is without question the most busy period of my life. My son is in his second year of college, we got him all squared away there; my youngest is a senior in high school and applying.
At one point a few years ago, I was doing "Brothers and Sisters,” “Californication,” and went to “Parks and Recreation” at the same time. I’m finishing up on “Parks and Recreation,” and developing a series I co-created for ABC loosely based on my life in coming to Malibu from the Midwest in 1976, and developing a show at NBC that’s a half-hour comedy that I will star in, and I have a book on deadline for Simon & Schuster, my second, that comes out in April. Just finished a movie with Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel that Universal is releasing in summer, and “Killing Kennedy” coming out now. So I’m campaigning for myself.
Tell me about the NBC comedy.
It’s a workplace comedy.
No. I play half of one of the greatest doubles teams that have ever played, that had a spectacular flameout, and now I am the head pro at the prestigious and staid L.A. Tennis and Golf Club.
To Mike Schur, the genius behind “Parks and Rec,” “West Wing” was his favorite show ever. And he said, “What would a comedy version of ‘The West Wing’ look like?” A comedy version would be: the government machinations of Pawnee, Indiana.
I loved “Downton Abbey.” So what would a contemporary comedy of “Downton Abbey” look like today? “Downton Abbey” would be the L.A. Golf and Tennis Club.
This is a story about class, and belonging; about the haves and the have nots, and the people they serve. It’s “Downton Abbey.”
Weren’t you supposed to be playing another president, U.S. Grant?
I am hoping to do it. There are amazing scripts. We’ve been on the one-yard line a bunch of times. It’s the Civil War; it’s expensive. And there are a lot of bearded people involved.
Cast the Red Sox.
Maybe this is the time. It took the Red Sox to make America comfortable again with beards.
So was it the whole of the Civil War? Did it concentrate on Grant?
It’s the entirety of the Civil War, told through the perspective of a number of people, with the main one being Ulysses Grant. And it starts with 19-year-olds at West Point and it ends with Grant’s funeral. Very, very sweeping. Very, very epic. And a great script. At the moment we don’t know where or when we’re doing it, but it’s sort of a dream project.
When I heard about that, I thought: Oh, he’s only doing presidents from now on.
Well, you know, Ulysses Grant is a recovered alcoholic from Ohio, and as a recovered alcoholic from Ohio, I feel like it’s my civic duty to play him.
Any other presidents you’d like to play in the future?
That’s interesting. I’d have to think about that.
It’s hard to top JFK for so many reasons. He’s so Shakespearean -- his life, his family. And he had such a way with words. That’s one of those things you know, but then you revisit it, and you’re just blown away.
His press conferences feel like there’s a laugh track to them. Honestly, it sounds like canned laughter. It’s amazing.
I found footage of him doing a Huntley-Brinkley interview in the Oval, where it’s after the interview and they’re re-asking him questions that he muffed: “Mr. President, you were talking about your involvement in Southeast Asia. You said nine months, I think you meant two years.” “Oh yes, we botched that. Let’s do that one again.” And they do it again!
Can you imagine today? That would be enough to bring down a presidency.
It shows how well he got along with the press.
Watergate changed all of that. The minute everybody could be an investigative hero and bring down a government, that forever changed everything. That relationship is over. Up until then, everybody was sort of on the same side.