Working for Uncle Sam

By Nicholas Kralev
The Financial Times Magazine

August 18, 2001

BURBANK, Calif. — Rob Lowe’s comeback story is of a peculiar kind. For his audience, seeing one of 1980s-Hollywood’s highest-profile heartthrobs in a serious, political role, in an award-winning TV drama series about life behind the scenes at the White House, has provoked a reaction just short of shock. But for the 37-year-old actor and ex-Brat Pack member, whose career had slipped over the past decade, playing deputy communications director Sam Seaborn in “The West Wing” is a logical turn that shows “everything I can bring to a part”.

“It taps more into my abilities as an actor than any other part I’ve done,” says Lowe, whose looks typecast him as the invariable romantic youth from the start of his career. “This is a role on which my physicality has no bearing whatsoever. Sam could have been played by anyone. The hallmarks of this character aren’t physical but verbal and cerebral.”

On a personal level, “The West Wing” has brought Lowe “huge relief”. Having watched him in films such as “St Elmo’s Fire”, “Class”, “The Outsiders” and “Oxford Blues”, the public never really got to know him, he says. “I always got the sense, even when people came up to me and were effusive about my work, that they didn’t get who I was. It was their interpretation of who they thought I was. And in many ways, that’s the best you can hope for in this world — because the good news is, they like you. It’s too much to hope that they like you and actually know who you are. I believe I now have both.”

But he’s quick to remind me that he had done “good work” before — he singles out his portrayal of Dr Cukrowicz in the 1993 TV revival of Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly, Last Summer”, opposite Maggie Smith. The difference, he says, is that now “everybody is finally paying attention”, referring to the more than 20m viewers who watch “The West Wing” on NBC every week.

Sam Seaborn, a hurried and able aide to President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), and a bit of an idealist, is a Harvard graduate and one of those single young Americans who put their personal lives on hold to passionately and devotedly serve the leader of the free world. Although in the pilot episode Sam had a one-night stand with a beautiful woman who turned out to be a high-class call girl, romantic involvements haven’t been typical of Lowe’s character, mainly because he and his colleagues spend nearly all their time at the White House.

Since its première in October 1999, “The West Wing” has enjoyed rave reviews and unexpectedly high ratings. For an hour-long “office” show about politics and public service to reach an audience near to that of dramas such as “ER” (which averages 25m viewers) with the first episode of its second season wasn’t in anyone’s calculations — especially at a time when more and more Americans are believed to be disillusioned with government. But the public’s interest has remained steady, and Sam, press secretary CJ Cregg (Allison Janney), chief of staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) and his deputy Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) have become household names across the US. After two seasons on the air in America (it started in the UK last January), the programme has won nine Emmy awards, four Golden Globes and three Screen Actors Guild awards.

The news of the show’s 18 Emmy nominations for 2001 last month (the winners will be announced on September 16) was overshadowed by a salary dispute that threatened to delay shooting of the third season. But the four cast members who demanded higher wages — Janney, Spencer, Whitford and Richard Schiff (who plays communications director Toby Ziegler) — agreed to stay with the series through to 2005 in exchange for $70,000 (£50,000) per episode, up from the previous $30,000. Lowe reportedly earns $75,000; Sheen’s salary is believed to be in six figures.

Part of the show’s success has been attributed to good timing. It started at the end of a Democratic administration whose ideology the fictional White House clearly shared. “We were embraced initially by the culture of Washington, because ideologically the two administrations were like-minded,” says Lowe. “We had unprecedented access, with people from the secretary of state to the national security adviser to the chief of staff to the president himself, all voicing their enthusiasm for the show, which was really helpful.”

Then came the 2000 election, and the public began wondering whether a win for the Republicans would lead to any changes on “The West Wing”. It didn’t — President Bartlet is still in office, determined more than ever to stand by his liberal policies. Actually, says Lowe, “the fact that we have a Republican in the White House now is probably a good thing for the show. It takes away the argument that we are just aping the Clinton administration. It’s the perfect situation.”

We are talking in Lowe’s trailer on “The West Wing” set at the Warner Bros studios in Hollywood, not far from the sets of other popular shows, such as “Friends” and “ER”. Visibly content with his job, in spite of the long working hours and frenetic pace of the series, he’s enjoying a break while scenes without him are being shot. Sitting comfortably in a chair beside his telephone and fax machine, with no make-up and casually dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, he recalls his audition for the part of Sam Seaborn.

“The West Wing” creator, Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote the 1992 film “A Few Good Men”, starring Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise, and “The American President” (1995) with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening, has said that Lowe made it very difficult for anyone else to get the job. Lowe says he “heard Sam’s voice in a very specific way, and it was exactly how Aaron intended it when he wrote it. I hadn’t felt that way before about a part. I came in, I read once, and they called my agent to offer me the part before I had driven off the lot.”

As close as Lowe feels to his character, one thing Sam doesn’t share with him is the role of husband and father. Lowe has dedicated most of the past decade to his wife, Sheryl Berkoff, and their two sons, who are now five and seven. In fact, he says, one of the reasons he took the job on the show was to “have stability“ for him and his family. Lowe and Berkoff met in 1989 on a blind date, arranged by a good friend of his, and became close during the filming of “Bad Influence” (1990), on which she was a make-up artist. They now live in Goleta, California, a small town about 20 minutes north of Santa Barbara. The couple celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary on July 22, in the company of 50 friends, including actors Kevin Spacey and Christian Slater.

“I was always a fan of marriage and fatherhood,” says Lowe, “even when I was doing everything in my power not to be married. That would probably surprise people who knew me in my teens and 20s. I married very young by Hollywood standards — or by any standards. For a romantic leading man, 27 is really young.”

Lowe has been in front of the camera since he was eight years old. He was born on March 17 1964 in Charlottesville, Virginia, but grew up in Dayton, Ohio, where his family moved when he was six months old. By the time his family relocated to Los Angeles in 1976, Lowe was already doing TV commercials. He got his first acting job at 15, on the TV series “A New Kind of Family”. At 19, he starred in such 80s hits as “Class” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders”. By 22, he was being mobbed by fans, after the release of “St Elmo’s Fire” (1985) and “About Last Night” (1986).

Just as Sam Seaborn offers a glimpse of the actor’s personality today, so Lowe says that Danny, his character in “About Last Night”, where he played opposite Demi Moore, “was representative of who I was at the time I did that movie. Danny was afraid to commit, although he wanted to — and I always wanted what I have today”.

Although Lowe enjoyed stardom, he says he never really had his “on top of the world” moment. “There were always movies I wanted but didn’t get and directors I couldn’t work with. I saw actors doing parts that I thought I would have been good in. But I knew I was in a fortunate position. I wanted to do work on the biggest stage I could. I wanted to be Paul Newman.”

But a much-publicised scandal — “my video meltdown,” as Lowe calls it — gravely threatened his career and public image. The tape of a sexual encounter the actor had during the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta (long before “The West Wing”, he had an interest in politics), with two young women, one of whom turned out to be a minor, was broadcast on national television, resulting in studios and producers shunning Lowe and magazines cancelling cover stories on him. Although he has put the incident behind him, and insists that it’s completely irrelevant to his present life, he admits it had significant personal impact at the time, and prompted him to leave behind his drink- and drug-fuelled 80s excesses. “It changed my life,” he muses. “I took stock and spent the 1990s getting my own house in order.”

The last decade, says Lowe, was about “discovering who I was outside my work as an actor and my public persona. And, of course, I never stopped working, although I started a family, and any work I did was to buttress that priority”. While his film credits in the 1990s weren’t as impressive as those in the previous decade, he starred in such movies as “Wayne’s World” (1992) and “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” (1999), both with Mike Myers, and “Contact” (1997), with Jodie Foster. He made his Broadway debut in 1992 in “A Little Hotel on the Side”.

His latest films include “A View From the Top”, with Gwyneth Paltrow, and this summer Lowe is shooting Framed, about an “extremely moral but embittered cop” who is entrusted with the case of an international financier’s suspicious dealings. Lowe has also written a script entitled “Union Pacific”, “a road movie about two estranged brothers who reunite to go on what they think will be the last great American adventure”.

Having experienced both positive and negative aspects of the media spotlight, today Lowe is less bitter about the way he was treated in the past. “The media gives and the media takes it away,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever been understood or particularly presented with resemblance to who I really am, although today people for the most part have caught up with what I’m about. But it’s not only the media’s fault — I can’t blame them. I don’t like the blame game. We live in a culture of glorification of victims, and I don’t subscribe to it. I don’t like the rough time I’ve had on the front pages of tabloids, and I don’t think it was fair, but I’m also aware that those are the rules of the game today. Whenever I’ve had any troubles in my life, I’ve tried to take responsibility for my own actions. It’s a rough world and if you can’t stand the heat, you should get out of the kitchen.”

Yet, he shares the opinion of many celebrities and politicians that such intense media scrutiny is responsible for turning qualified people away from running for high office. “One can only imagine the greats of this country who would never have served had this litmus test been so prevalent in the media culture of their time,” he says. “Things are beginning to change, but what has yet to happen is cleansing of the cynicism and the politics of personal destruction, and the soundbite-spinning. That’s been in season for a long time.”

Lowe’s own perception of public service, to which he was “exposed” by his family as a young man, is that of the “noblest cause”, with “true-hearted people answering the bell”. His work on “The West Wing” “may have changed some of my positions, but my theory on public service has remained the same”. He says it took him a long time to learn that “you are not supposed to vote for the person you like, but for the one you think would do the best job. Why don’t people get that when it comes to electing a president? I understand that it gets so personal because he is our president, and emblematic of what we believe in and stand for. But when you go to an attorney or brain surgeon, all you care about is: ‘Would I be better off?’”

Would Lowe himself consider public service some day? “If the time and opportunity presented themselves, it would be my honour and privilege,” he responds quickly. “That said, I really doubt it will happen.”