There’s an old story in Hollywood that Rob Lowe required a shaman, or some sort of spiritual healer, to bless his trailer before he could begin work on a new project. But it’s bogus, not even close to the real truth. ”It’s feng shui,” says Lowe matter-of-factly while picking at a low-fat lunch in Los Angeles recently. Turns out the 46-year-old actor relies on a feng shui master to bring positive energy to his personal work space. ”I think there is a lot to that stuff,” Lowe says. ”A billion Chinese can’t be wrong. Or maybe it’s 2 billion. I’m looking for any edge I can get.”
Lowe is not trying to be funny. But he will be when he starts an eight-episode arc on NBC’s sophisticated sitcom Parks and Recreation May 13. And he could use all the good karma he can get. When most people hear the name Rob Lowe, they think about the star of ’80s Brat Pack films like Class, Oxford Blues, and St. Elmo’s Fire, or the ensemble player on TV dramas The West Wing and Brothers & Sisters. Comedy is not the first thing that comes to mind. However, Lowe does have impressive comedic credentials, including turns in Wayne’s World and all three Austin Powers movies, three stints as host of Saturday Night Live, and even a cameo on Family Guy (playing himself). And his latest foray into the funny treads familiar territory. ”When the Parks and Recreation producers were asked to develop a spin-off for The Office, they said, ‘Let’s do the comedy version of West Wing. If the drama of The West Wing takes place in the White House, then the comedy [here] should take place with how big the swimming pools should be in the Parks and Recreation Department,”’ explains Lowe. ”I thought, ‘Wow, that makes perfect sense.’ It seemed like a good fit.”
On Parks, Lowe is Chris Traeger, an upbeat, fitness-addicted state auditor who plays good cop to his partner’s bad cop (Party Down‘s Adam Scott) as they slash the Pawnee budget. Lookswise, the lean and handsome Lowe (who’s the picture of perfect health these days with his bulging biceps and dark tan) has the part down cold. Traeger even wears a hologram bracelet that’s supposed to ”balance his body’s energy” (something Lowe’s feng shui master would probably endorse). But the actor insists the similarities stop there. ”A lot of the comedy comes from his unrelenting enthusiasm, his physicality, and his obsession with achievement,” explains Lowe. ”He’ll literally be in the corner in a budget meeting, just ripping off 200 pull-ups. Or he’ll take his suit off and he’s got all his running gear underneath it. His heroes are Jack LaLanne and Tony Robbins.” And with any luck, Lowe will be the hero who rescues the struggling Parks — a critically acclaimed comedy that nevertheless ranks No. 4 in its Thursday time slot (it averages only 5 million viewers).
But one show’s gain is another show’s loss. Lowe’s relocation to Pawnee comes on the heels of his defection from ABC’s Brothers & Sisters. Though it’s not exactly a repeat of 2003, when Lowe walked away from playing Sam Seaborn on The West Wing to headline NBC’s short-lived The Lyon’s Den, the actor recognizes that he may (once again) raise the ire of fans who prefer he stick to ensemble dramas. But Lowe also thinks the timing couldn’t be better. ”I’ve been able to go from one thing to something that was also good,” he argues. ”And sometimes if you stay too long, you’re not able to do that.” Lowe won’t spoil how his character leaves Brothers on the May 16 season finale, though he hints it would be wrong to assume that Robert’s bad ticker (he had a heart attack last season) will provide the only way out. Robert’s role as a politician will also come into play, since the show’s Washington, D.C., story lines (or lack thereof) had a lot to do with Lowe’s choice to leave the series he first joined in 2006. ”When the decision is made that [the network] doesn’t like politics and they don’t want to do politics, it becomes hard to play a sitting United States senator,” says Lowe. ”The show will be markedly, markedly different next year. And the network was kind enough to give me a heads-up.” That said, Brothers‘ showrunner, David Marshall Grant, isn’t exactly kicking up his heels over the change. ”Rob was one of the people I loved to write for,” Grant says. ”The relationship between Kitty [Calista Flockhart] and Robert was very popular. Change is always good, I guess. We’ll have to see what happens next.”
Though Lowe says Brothers is leaving open a ”tiny little window” for the return of his character, the actor seems far more interested in exploring the opportunities that await him in comedy. ”Getting him for these eight [episodes] was a very lucky thing,” says Parks executive producer Michael Schur. ”Because he was leaving Brothers & Sisters, and because of this weird, quirky schedule [to accommodate Amy Poehler’s second pregnancy], we’re shooting these extra episodes when no other broadcast shows are shooting. So we were able to snag him.”
Lowe’s contract on Parks is open-ended, so the producers could ask him to be a series regular. Meanwhile, another gig has emerged to help him satisfy his comedy jones — that of a guest star on an upcoming episode of Showtime’s Californication. This time, the very pretty Lowe will have to check his vanity at the door. He’ll play a heavily bearded, slightly crazy movie star. ”It’s one of those sort of…how do you describe it…high-impact roles. He comes in and makes a big splash. It’s going to be a lot of fun to play.” Even better, it’s just another low-pressure supporting role, a far cry from when he was the main man on The Lyon’s Den and CBS’ 2004 drama Dr. Vegas, a high-paying part that he took after passing on an offer to play McDreamy on Grey’s Anatomy (the role went to Patrick Dempsey). The show was canceled after five episodes. ”It’s great to be the center of a show, because you can control so much of the storytelling, and that’s a good thing,” says Lowe. ”On the other hand, there’s a lot of pressure, a lot of exhaustion. It takes a lot of time away from my family.” As it is, Lowe insists upon making the two-hour-plus drive from his home in Montecito, Calif., to Los Angeles whenever he’s working to spend more time with his wife, Sheryl Berkoff, and kids, Matthew, 16, and John Owen, 14. And lately it’s been nonstop, because his stint on Parks began while he was still shooting Brothers, sometimes on the same day. ”I’ve been going back and forth, and they literally could not be more different,” Lowe says. ”To be able to do both in the same day is the kind of challenge that actors dream of — to be on a drama that’s as finely observed as Brothers & Sisters and then to come over to Parks, which is literally the most flat-out comedy I’ve done in a long time. It’s pretty cool.” Or maybe he’s just been blessed.
Rob Lowe’s 5 Favorite Roles
He’s played everything from a sociopath to a presidential speechwriter (and always looked damn good doing it). Here, Lowe reflects on some of his most cherished parts.
1. THE WEST WING
(Lowe played deputy communications director Sam Seaborn from 1999 to 2003 on the NBC political drama.)
”I took my son’s eighth-grade class to the White House this year, and the entire speechwriting department was there. They came because they watched Sam, and Sam made them want to be speechwriters. It was so humbling.”
2. ABOUT LAST NIGHT…
(Just a year after costarring in St. Elmo’s Fire together, Lowe and Demi Moore reunited in this 1986 romantic comedy based on the 1974 David Mamet play Sexual Perversity in Chicago.)
”It holds up really well. It had a great pedigree, it was a David Mamet play adaptation, and it was funny and sexy.”
3. THE OUTSIDERS
(Lowe played Sodapop Curtis in this 1983 coming-of-age flick from Francis Ford Coppola.)
‘ ‘It was my first movie. I was 17. Every year I go to seventh-grade classes and talk about it, because it’s required reading, still. The Outsiders and The West Wing never age. You’re lucky to have one of those in your life. But to have two is really extraordinary.”
4. BAD INFLUENCE
(Lowe was a sociopath in this 1990 thriller, which costarred James Spader.)
”I wish more people had seen it. It was a little bit ahead of its time. Again, a great pedigree: David Koepp, who wrote a great script; Curtis Hanson, who was a great director; Jim Spader, who was a genius. I loved that part. He was a bad guy!”
5. SQUARE DANCE
(Lowe starred opposite Winona Ryder in this 1987 movie about a 13-year-old girl who befriends a mentally disabled boy.)
”Very few people saw it, but it was important to me because it was really exciting to be nominated for best supporting actor by the Golden Globes. It was a nice opportunity to stretch, and it was great to work with Winona Ryder.”