Rob Lowe just can't get enough of politics. We meet in New York where he's attending the Tribeca Film Festival to promote his latest political incarnation, playing spin-doctor Paul Turner in Knife Fight. At 48, he's lost none of the boyish good looks that made him such a star in the Eighties.
In the film, directed by Bill Guttentag, Lowe plays a maverick political strategist using his wiles to keep his wayward clients, a philandering Kentucky governor and a Californian Senator, out of the gossip pages. As has been his habit throughout his career, Lowe plays a character just the right side of jerk. When some of his unscrupulous tactics backfire, Turner goes against his rule of only helping candidates with a chance of winning elections to work for a nurse campaigning on a liberal ticket. From this moment the satire takes on a decidedly feel-good sentiment.
The key to what sets Knife Fight apart from other recent dramas set in the political arena is that even the most heinous of deeds is done with good intentions. Turner always thinks he's working for the greater good, even when such thinking is patently irrational.
Yet just as Lowe was typecast as the young, good-looking, but slightly dim romantic lead in the Eighties, he's now in danger of being the go-to guy for political mavericks. Lowe's acting career was rejuvenated in 1999 just as it seemed to be heading to the wilderness inhabited by fellow Brat Pack star Matt Dillon when he began playing Deputy White House Communications Director Samuel Seaborn in The West Wing. Later on in the hit Aaron Sorkin series, he would become Deputy Chief of Staff. More recently, the blue-eyed star appeared in Brothers and Sisters playing a Republican Senator from the state of California, a role that started as a cameo, but due to the episode's popularity turned into a recurring character.
So it's no surprise that The West Wing star admits to thinking twice before accepting the part in Knife Fight. "It's funny, I was sort of reluctant to do another politically themed project," insists the Virginia-born star. "But I have two problems, one is that I love that world, and someone once said to me when I was talking about my reluctance about appearing in another politically themed drama, John Wayne did 500 Westerns and nobody said anything to him about it. What's the big deal? And then there was Bill's documentary film-making credentials and [screenwriter] Chris Lehane has really been inside those rooms and so the script they delivered felt really authentic to me."
When I tell Lowe that I found the movie surprisingly sympathetic to spin-doctors, usually the pantomime villain of the political world, he responds, "That's the other thing that I loved. In this sort of genre, movies that have worked that I liked, like Wag the Dog and other political satires, for want of a better description, inherently they are cynical at their core. This movie is not. People behave cynically but it's not a cynical movie. I loved that my character loves the political world so much and that really appealed to me, its sort of an unabashed love. This is a love letter to the process, it really is at the end of the day and I think that is more interesting."
The allure of politics to actors in America has always been a strong one. Indeed, the two most famous governors of California, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, started out their career as actors. It's the state that Lowe moved to from Dayton, Ohio as a young child after his mother had her second divorce and where he now lives with his wife, former make-up artist Sheryl Berkoff and their two children.
The political arena has been a pull that started yanking at Lowe way before The West Wing would have him forever associated with the White House. Indeed, the darkest hour of his public career came at a Democratic National Convention in 1988 when he went to Atlanta as part of his support for the presidential candidate Governor Michael Dukakis. Picking up two women at a bar, he became embroiled in one of the world's first sex-tape scandals, and received a double whammy when it was revealed that one of the girls was only 16 and underage. The notoriety marked the end of the first stage of Lowe's career, the end of the Brat Pack era when his career trajectory had only rocketed skyward.
The sex-tape episode is one that Lowe describes briefly in his excellent autobiography stories I only tell my friends. In hindsight, he looks at the night as a blessing in disguise as it "set in motion events that would ultimately, through painful, long and circuitous path lead me to greater happiness and fulfilment that I could ever have hoped for".
After the incident, he fell in love with make-up artist Sheryl Berkoff on the set of Curtin Hanson thriller Bad Influence, yet having failed to curtail his drinking and womanising the relationship almost ended before it began. It was in 1990 that the actor decided to check into rehab. One of his tags on Twitter is "sobriety". His career in the Nineties was hardly anything to get too excited about. His most memorable roles came sending himself up in the Mike Myers vehicles Wayne's World and Austin Powers.
When I ask Lowe if he used any of his own experiences with publicists and scandals to inform his latest role, he shows a politician's ability to dodge hard questions by referring his experience back to those that he's had on the campaign trial rather than as an actor in the limelight: "I've worked on campaigns; in fact , Steve Schmidt [Republican campaign manager] and I worked on Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign together. I've been on the bus, I've been in the room and read the polls. In fact, Bill [Guttentag] and I had a great discussion about watching election results. I've watched election results with presidential candidates, government candidates and I've been on the losing side, on the winning side. So I'm lucky, I have that experience to draw on, we really do get that perspective."
Lowe has also got into the habit of speaking more directly to his fans. The release of his biography coincided with his uptake of Twitter. "I once said to somebody if you ever see me tweet, kill me," he recounts. "Then I started it and I love it. First of all because I love the discipline because I'm a communication freak and I think that communicating succinctly is a lost art in our culture, ironically the easier it is to communicate the less well people do it, just the discipline of so few characters turns me on and I don't abbreviate. I don't use the letter 'u' for 'you.' But more than anything I like to be able to cut through the middleman. That is also really what appeals to politicians, they can circumvent the gatekeepers so if I want to comment on something I can do it in my own voice without it being edited, and, there is no-follow up question."
He then describes how he can imagine the process by which President Obama used the term knuckleheads when he commented on the secret service scandal. He ecstatically plays every character he imagines to be in the room before he argues that the strategists probably settled on knuckleheads because, "It sounds authentic coming out of the President's mouth and it says he doesn't approve, but it also says guys it's not that much of a deal and don't pay too much attention to it. He says all the things that you want it to say in one word and that is the stuff that this man is a genius at, and is so interesting to me."
So with such a love of politics, will we soon be seeing Lowe follow in the footsteps of Reagan? He immediately dismisses the suggestion, "I'm more interested in public service than I am in politics. There will be a time when my kids are out of the house, when I'd like to find something to do, to give back and be involved in policy, but I'm not necessarily sure it's politics, I don't know if I have the stomach for that."
But offer the actor a political role, and like John Wayne he'll come riding to the rescue quicker than you can say Western.
'Knife Fight' is released later this yearReuse content