Candelabra Rob Lowe
Credit: Claudette Barius/HBO

Steven Soderbergh’s HBO film Behind the Candelabra is full of WTF moments, but Rob Lowe’s physical transformation as Liberace’s plastic surgeon Dr. Startz might be the most jaw-dropping. Read on for Lowe’s take on his disturbing yet fascinating makeover, the similarities between Dr. Startz and Lowe’s Parks and Recreation character, and what it was like to see “Gordon Gekko banging Jason Bourne.”

Did any of your friends or family see you in costume? How did they react?

Oh my gosh. I’ve taken great glee in showing pictures that I have on my iPhone of Dr. Startz to people. People, honestly, fall over. They are so repelled and engaged, which is sort of what I was going for. I wanted him to be at once repellant and engaging, if that’s possible. He reminded me of a certain genus and species of guy that you would see at Laker games during the Magic Johnson era. He looks almost like a transgendered Bee Gee. You know what I mean? He’s the fourth member of the Bee Gees: the transgendered Bee Gee, the lesser known one. But I wanted his voice to be really macho, like maybe he was a transplant New Yorker who just bought in way too hard in the LA scene. That’s my backstory for him.

How long did you spend in that makeup chair?

We spent a lot of time getting the look right. Then there was the question of, “Would Steven go for it and like it?” Once we cleared that hurdle, which happily was very easy, we got the process down to about an hour and 15 minutes for the face and then another 20 for the wig. Let’s say an hour and 45 minutes a day.

How much of the eyes were prosthetic and how much of the look was you having to squint and work at it?

In the long meetings where we were testing, doing makeup tests, I just sort of was playing with different ideas with how to hold my face and came upon the realization that with the eyebrows pulled up as egregiously as they are, if I closed my lids, it looked so freaky, because you can’t do it in real life. Like if you right now were to like raise your eyebrows, your eyes open. There’s no way they can’t open. So with my eyebrows up but with my eyes closed, that just looks bizarre because you can’t do it in nature.

How did they lift the brow? It looked like a temporary facelift.

It’s tape and pulled behind my head. It’s literally what they used to do in the early days of cinema before there were facelifts for actresses. You know, Joan Crawford, her whole career was this. You tape, you pull around the back of the head, but you have to have a wig because it covers the elastic. We did that, and I’m also wearing a dental piece and then I’m doing a couple of things, a couple of tricks with my own face, the way I’m holding it. Then of course the makeup is literally like Earl Scheib autobody paint sprayed on my face.

That could not have been comfortable.

It was actually really painful, because being pulled that long and that hard for a 12-hour day — it gave me migraines. We shot during the summer. It was unbelievably hot. The wig, being pulled, it was definitely not the most comfortable experience physically for sure.

Did that help your performance in any way?

By the time we rolled around to the second half of the day, my head was swimming, and I think Dr. Startz’s head was swimming all the time. He was on his own California diet, let’s not forget. Dr. Startz did consults drinking whiskey, so it was sort of like being out of my own head was a good entryway to the psyche of this guy.

Did you connect Dr. Startz’s obsession with perfection to Chris Traeger from Parks and Recreation at all?

[Laughs] I could see his obsession with the physical aesthetic is definitely Chris Traeger if he were demented and starring in Boogie Nights. It’s so funny, when I was watching the movie — my character enters halfway through — I thought, “Holy s—. You really know you’re witnessing something totally unseen in the annals of film when you can see Gordon Gekko banging Jason Bourne.” And I go, “Boy, whether it’s me or Danny Aykroyd or Debbie Reynolds, whoever is trying to jump on this train better have their A game.”

Once you started preparing, what did you base your character on?

Obviously there’s the book that the movie was based on [Behind the Candelabra by Scott Thorson], and there are the references to Dr. Startz in the book and they have amazing research throughout the whole movie. But when it came to Dr. Startz, no one could find anything other than what appears in the book. In the book he’s described as pulled unbelievably tightly and his face almost looked plastic. That was a very good leaping off point. In my first conversation with Steven, I was trying to get a sense of what the tone of this movie was going to be because I had a very specific vision of how I wanted to play him, but how I wanted to play him wouldn’t fit in 9 out of 10 movies.

How did it fit in this one?

Happily, when I asked, “Steven, what’s your appetite for me really going for it?” he said, “My appetite is full. Sky’s the limit.” So the end result is the version of Dr. Startz that you see in the movie.

Your character is the major comedic element of the movie, but at the same time he’s very disturbing and sad.

Well Dr. Startz did blow his brains out. We do know that. So there is that element underneath of a guy who is trying to make himself something he’s not. Which by the way is one of the main themes of the entire movie, weirdly enough.

Was it on the forefront of your mind to make this character extreme but also not a joke?

What I love about the movie is that it’s so outrageous, so over-the-top, and yet it’s completely based in reality. And you feel an emotional connection that often you don’t feel for characters that are as over-the-top as some of these are. In my work as Startz I really wanted to make sure that this wasn’t a Saturday Night Live sketch character. This is a really fully rounded man. Otherwise it just wouldn’t work. It would just seem odd.

In a shocking and at times hard-to-watch movie, the only parts I covered my eyes for were the plastic surgery sequences that you had to perform.

Those were hard to do. We had full upper-body realistic casts of Michael and Matt. And they looked like they were dead. I once had to research a role and had to go to a morgue and hadn’t really seen that kind of thing before and what you realize is that dead bodies look like Hollywood wax figures. When I would come into work, it was very disturbing because it looked like Matt and Michael were dead and lying on my table. And we had the surgeon consultants. All that work you see is actually me doing it. It looks like it might be inserts, but it’s actually me. So if you want a cheap, easy facelift, I’m your man. Although I can’t speak for the results.

What are your personal memories of or thoughts on Liberace the man?

There are people who don’t remember him at all, and there are people who absolutely realize he invented bling. When my kids ask about him, I say, “He invented bling.” Like the rappers of today wouldn’t be wearing or doing anything of what they’re doing without Liberace first. But I’m sort of in the middle where I sort of knew about him and sort of didn’t. Honestly, my connection to Liberace was when Bugs Bunny would imitate Liberace in the Warner Brothers cartoons. He’d have the candelabra and he would play and he would turn to the camera and go [doing a perfect impression of Michael Douglas doing Liberace] “I wish my brother George were here.”

You have one of the most interesting resumes on TV. What excites you about roles and what motivates your choices?

I like doing things that are different, unexpected, and where I feel that either the role feels like a natural fit for me or it’s a really big swing that I don’t know if I’m going to connect on. Dr. Startz falls into that category. Drew Peterson falls into that category. You would not necessarily put me even in the top 20 people to play either one of those parts. And I in truth don’t have any idea how I’m going to play them when I say yes. There are other parts where I just instinctively know, “Oh yeah, this is a gear that I’m comfortable in.” That’s Sam Seaborn in The West Wing or even Brothers and Sisters, and a little bit of Chris Traeger. We’ve amped him up as the seasons have gone on into making him more of a character, which I really have embraced and loved. This year, as you know if you watch the show, I did scenes where I was laughing and crying, just a mess. I love it.

Follow @EWStephanLee on Twitter.

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Behind the Candelabra
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