See that photo?
That’s the day I was on-set for the new film, “The Invention Of Lying,” in May of 2008, just outside Boston. The scene they were shooting involved Jennifer Garner’s character stopping by to give Ricky Gervais his birthday present. At this point in the film, Ricky’s lying has propelled him to fame and fortune, as he literally reinvents the world around him to his own specifications. The one thing he can’t do is force Jennifer Garner to love him, and so he suffers as her friend, listening to her talk about her impending date with Rob Lowe. She tries to give him his gift, but before he opens it, he tells her that the Man In The Sky (his version of God, dispensing wisdom through more and more elaborate lies) does not want her having sex with anyone, no matter what.
Well played, considering her gift to him is a “Free Sex Coupon.”
Watching these three play the scene over and over, I was impressed by how supple the material was, how many different ways they could run the same basic lines and find totally different dynamics in them. And it’s not just Ricky… both Rob Lowe and Jennifer Garner held their own in every moment. Finally, when Rob was done with this part of the scene, he was sent back to his trailer, and I was asked if I would like to join him there.
Oh, if I’d only known when I was a fourteen-year-old girl that I would spend an hour in Rob Lowe’s trailer twenty-five years later…
[more after the jump]
Wait. That came out wrong. It’s just that Rob Lowe has that effect on people. Back in the early ’90s, I was living with a number of friends, and one of them was a drummer who ended up hanging out with Rob Lowe and a number of other people one night. He came home and was telling us about his evening, and one of the other roommates asked what Rob Lowe was like.
“Oh, I’d fuck him,” the drummer said casually. “I’m completely straight, but Rob Lowe is so pretty up close that it’s almost like a magic trick. The whole time you’re looking at him, you’re thinking, ‘There is no way that guy actually looks like that. It’s a mask. It’s a trick. He’s a special effect.’ And the worst part is, he’s actually fairly smart and cool when you talk to him, which makes it impossible to hate him.”
Having now spent the better part of an hour chatting with him, I concur.
It’s ridiculous how well age has treated him. He just gets more interesting every year, but he still has those Golden-Age-Of-Hollywood movie star good looks, that megawatt smile. And he’s got that trick of making whoever he talks to feel like they’re the center of the world for that moment. It’s something I’ve noticed that many successful people do, almost subconsciously. Part of the trick of their charisma is the way they parcel out their focus to people. Very effective. Very powerful.
We spoke twice, with a brief interruption between the two halves of the conversation, but we started talking initially as I stepped into his trailer and he noticed the baseball cap I was wearing, the crew hat for “Iron Man.” Keep in mind, this was about a week and a half after “Iron Man” opened, and it was the big movie on everyone’s mind at the moment:
Rob Lowe: “Stark Industries.” That’s a cool hat.
Drew McWeeny: Oh, yeah? Thanks.
Rob Lowe: Seriously. That’s fucking cool.
Drew McWeeny: I hope these producers aren’t still mad at me. I broke the Sam Jackson secret the day he was shooting because I didn’t realize it was quite as secret as it was going to be.
Rob Lowe: It’s literally… I mean, they aren’t kidding. I know people who actually have no idea because they didn’t stay for the credits. Let me ask you something… was Hilary Swank in that movie or not?
Drew McWeeny: I think she was on-set visiting. I don’t think she was in the movie, because that was the thing… she got photographed in Vegas, and everybody was like, “So, she’s in it, too.” I think she was just visiting somebody.
Rob Lowe: Um-hum. Interesting.
Drew McWeeny: The film that came out pretty much was t
he script. There was really nothing left on the floor. It’s not like they had four subplots that they had to lose or something.
Rob Lowe: Right. Right. Interesting. Interesting.
Drew McWeeny: I think they’ve got the coolest business model right now, how they’re building towards the eventual group film. It’s really shrewd.
Rob Lowe: So S.H.I.E.L.D. will be… who?
Drew McWeeny: Well, you’re going to see Robert Downey, Jr. in “The Hulk” in a few weeks…
Rob Lowe: Right.
Drew McWeeny: And then in “Iron Man II,” you’ll get more puzzle pieces building towards “The Avengers”.
Rob Lowe: Right.
Drew McWeeny: And then they’re going to do “Captain America” and “The Avengers” in one year. So you’ll get to “The Avengers” by… and keep in mind, “Thor” will happen before then… so you’ll get like all of that together in one giant movie at the end.
Rob Lowe: That’s genius.
Drew McWeeny: It’s only because they own everything again. Like that’s the only way that works.
Rob Lowe: What do you hear about… I’m on this show, “Brothers and Sisters,” and our head guy is writing either the “Green Lantern” or…
Drew McWeeny: Right. He mentioned it in an interview.
Rob Lowe: Oh he did? Okay, good.
Drew McWeeny: He dropped it right at the end. They were talking and he said, “And there’s this other movie I’m working on about some character you wouldn’t know called ‘The Green Lantern’,” and then he said, “Gotta go” and got up and left. So the interviewer is like, “What, what, what?”
Rob Lowe: That… I want to check that out.
Drew McWeeny: Yeah. I remember when Jack Black was going to do it and they had the Robert Smigel script. And we wrote about that, and the response was so hostile from fandom that Warner Brothers was like, “No. We’re not doing that. We were never going to do that,” because fans don’t want a comedy. They want a real “Green Lantern” film. And I think when they heard Jack Black, fans immediately went, “Oh, God no. They’re going to do a spoof”.
Rob Lowe: And is it Warner’s?
Drew McWeeny: Yeah. I believe, because unless they’ve licensed it out…
Rob Lowe: It couldn’t be Universal, no.
Drew McWeeny: No, I don’t think so.
Rob Lowe: They’d never give that up.
Drew McWeeny: No. Because they’re pretty smart about keeping it in-house. There are very few of their characters they’ve let go. The problem is then they don’t develop them very quickly so they have a huge stable of stuff they still haven’t done.
Rob Lowe: Yeah, right. It’s insane.
Drew McWeeny: Marvel has been much more aggressive. But it sounds like DC is starting to realize, “Oh, shit, we have to wake up”.
Rob Lowe: Yeah, I know. They’re sitting on a fucking goldmine.
Drew McWeeny: “We’re getting our asses kicked here, and all we’re doing is ‘Batman’ movies, so…”
Rob Lowe: That’s unbelievable.
Drew McWeeny: So, anyway, when did you get approached about this?
Rob Lowe: I got approached really early on. Ricky and I have the same agent, and he was saying Ricky’s just sort of found this new movie that he’s likely going to do. He brought it to my attention that way. And Matt and Ricky had just sort of hooked up and it all really coming together. Ricky and I got on the phone with each other just to say hello in London late one night and we made each other laugh a lot just even on the phone. Then we met each other at a party that my agent had for Ricky so he could meet people in show business. And that was it. I mean, they always just really saw me for the part, and I really wanted to work with Ricky and Matt a lot.
Drew McWeeny: Ricky’s such a talent magnet now. Then on top of that, to have a script this smart in a world that you really get to invent as an actor because nobody’s ever played this before.
Rob Lowe: Nobody’s ever played it, and you know, that’s the thing… what I like about it, when Matt and I had a really, really, really long meeting before I committed to it, was in “Wayne’s World,” and “Tommy Boy”… not so much in “Austin Powers”… but in those two movies, I sort of did the sort of prick nemesis part.
Drew McWeeny: Right.
Rob Lowe: And what was fun about this was, it’s the prick nemesis part, but because it’s a world where everybody tells the truth, you get to see the neurosis and the insecurity underneath it. That’s what I really… that’s why I really wanted to do it.
Drew McWeeny: Well, you’ve had a really lovely second act to your career where people realize, “Oh shit, Rob’s funny.”
Rob Lowe: Right, right.
Drew McWeeny: Because I’m of the age where I grew up with the Brat Pack films in that earlier era, and then it was right around “Wayne’s World” where you reinvented yourself. A lot of actors don’t get that shot to sort of re-establish who they are and re-define themselves.
Rob Lowe: Right.
Drew McWeeny: And directors, I think, really got it and pretty quickly, because we saw a number of roles afterwards where people used you right. Was that a conscious thing where you said, “I really want to do comedy,” or was it more like you did one and realized, “God, this is what I love doing now”?
Rob Lowe: I think it was true the first time I hosted SNL. I really connected with Mike Myers in the writing room. Mike was a writer as well. So I can remember writing long nights… not writing, but sitting with Mike and him saying, I remember vividly, “Do you want to be in a ‘Wayne’s World’ or do you want to be in a ‘Sprockets’?” I said, “I want to be in ‘Sprockets,'” so we did a big “Sprockets” thing. It was like the “American Bandstand” version of “Sprockets” together. And it went really well and I really connected with Lorne Michaels. And so when Lorne and Mike did “Wayne’s World,” they wanted me to be in it. And that’s really what started it. I mean, it was just that I loved it. I grew up on “Saturday Night Live.” I worshipped it, just worshipped SNL as a kid.
Drew McWeeny: I’m the same way. Eventually I want to do a book about every film that has had a cast member or a writer from SNL involved. There’s like 700 movies. More than that now, I’m sure. That’s just how it was when I started researching. There’s never been a TV show that has had as large a cultural impact on film as SNL has.
Rob Lowe: That’s a good point.
Drew McWeeny: And it’s ongoing. We still see new talent pop out of that show constantly.
Rob Lowe: It’s true. And working with Tina is interesting because the first time Tina hosted “Update,” it was a big deal because they were replacing, I guess it was, Norm. I hosted that show. It was the season opener, and so it was the first time that Fallon and Tina had done the show. And I can remember being backstage with them and them being nervous, and I said, “You’re going to be great. You’re going to be great.” But I had no idea how great she would end up being. And then to end up working with her in this was really cool.
Drew McWeeny: It’s pretty remarkable. Louis C. K., who I have been a huge fan of as a standup for years…
Rob Lowe: Yeah, hilarious.
Drew McWeeny: … has a… it’s a really different Louis that I think people have seen before.
Rob Lowe: He’s so funny. We went to the Celtics game together, Jonah, Louis and me, and they were so funny, but Louis with his sort of running commentary of life is the best. Just the best. I mean, you just want to have one of those tape recorders like you have and just run it all day. Just say to him, “Talk, man.”
Drew McWeeny: Well, he’s easy to talk to. I was thinking maybe I’d do like 5 or 10 minutes with Louis, and I looked up and it’s been 48 minutes. And you get the sense right away that here’s a guy that has a lot of say. But in general with this cast, you’re not playing it as an overt comedy.
Rob Lowe: No.
Drew McWeeny: At what point did you feel like you got a handle on the tone?
Rob Lowe: Well, you’re exactly right. That’s the whole magilla of the movie is the tone. I got a sense of it from reading it, of what it was likely to be, but you never know. In the hands of other people, it could be completely different in spite of how it’s written.
Drew McWeeny: That was a question mark today, coming in here. I had no idea what to expect from how it was played.
Rob Lowe: I know.
Drew McWeeny: Big question there.
Rob Lowe: There’s a caveman sequence at the beginning, for fuck’s sake.
Drew McWeeny: And Louis was scared of you. He was telling me today, he said, “Rob scared the shit out of me. He came in with those crazy eyes and the black teeth, and he was like… I didn’t think I was acting anymore.”
Rob Lowe: I was just scary. I was very into it. I have to say I was very into it. I regressed to being like an 8-year old kid in the backyard. And I didn’t care who knew it. I was so into playing caveman, I can’t tell you. But then you look at Ricky’s work, you look at “The Office” and you look at “Extras,” and you know that he does that really detailed truthful work. I mean it all comes out of truth. His whole career is predicated on him putting himself in unbelievably painful truthful situations. So I had a sense of that, but I didn’t know until the first day when I got here and I had prepared what I thought I was going to do, and luckily I had diagnosed it. And it was just deadly straight, absolutely real.
Drew McWeeny: It really forces you to think about everything you do or say, since metaphor gets stripped away, simile gets stripped away, slang gets stripped away. It really forces you to think about how much deception we layer onto things.
Rob Lowe: Well, did you see the scene today, the ad-lib I threw in where Ricky’s got the sex certificate from Jen? And my line as scripted is, “What’s that?”, and I really, I’ve been bringing sort of a Great Santini element to this character. That’s sort of been my thing. This guy, to me, I’m trying to play him as a cross between The Great Santini and the owner from “The Natural.”
Drew McWeeny: Okay. [laughs]
Rob Lowe: “I think you’re a loser”, but looking like Cary Grant the whole time. I once heard incidentally that Anthony Hopkins described Hannibal Lecter as a cross between Hal the computer from “2001”, Katherine Hepburn, and Olivier in “The Entertainer.” So just think about that one for a moment. Ever since I heard that story, when I do crazy things like this, I think okay, it’s the owner from “The Natural”, it’s “The Great Santini.” Santini was always on his fucking kid’s ass for everything. That’s what I am with Ricky, and I wanted to go… instead of saying, “What’s that?”, I said, “What the hell is that?”, like really accusatory, like I found him with pot or something. And Ricky fucking started cracking up. He said “That’s genius, that’s hilarious,” and we were all laughing, and Matt came in and said, “You can’t say hell.” I’m, like, “fuck”.
Drew McWeeny: Yeah.
Rob Lowe: Because it’s true. There are so many things you cannot do.
Drew McWeeny: Well, I would think that after playing it for awhile, do you ever now catch yourself as you’re talking or as you’re thinking or processing things, thinking about what you layer onto stuff?
Rob Lowe: I was doing an ad-lib where I was trying to impress a secretary. And so I was coming up with this sort of story about what my character would have…
That’s the exact moment an A.D. showed up and took Rob away for a few minutes to adjust some wardrobe for the next scene. During the break, I was taken to interview Ricky quickly, and then brought back to When he came back, he asked me to step outside so he could smoke a quick cigarette, and we continued the conversation.
Drew McWeeny: That’s the first time I’ve really had Ricky’s undivided attention today. Good conversation. He takes his craft very seriously. I’ve been checking out the blog while it’s been in production…
Rob Lowe: It’s very fun.
Drew McWeeny: And all you see is the Nerf guns and the stuff like that, and then you meet him and you talk to him. I haven’t seen a Nerf gun today, not once. So it’s…. but you wait for that cackle and that’s when you know you’re on a Gervais set.
Rob Lowe: Yeah, yeah. That’s really true. I mean, that cackle is so… it’s so good as an actor to hear it, to know, “Oh, Ricky thinks it’s funny”.
Drew McWeeny: There’s the stamp of approval, man.
Rob Lowe: That’s what it is, man. I’m telling you, you know? I keep coming back to the caveman. I said, “Ricky, so how do you want to…” Talk about tone. “So what is the deal with the caveman? I mean, are we apes? Are we literally ourselves from the movie with just cavemen outfits on? Or how are we going to do it?” He goes, “Oh, this time I think we’re not apes, but we can’t speak. I think there’s a lot of grunting”. So I came up with the idea of, like, grunting, but there’s a language of grunting. I didn’t know how he was going feel about that, but then once we tried it, I heard the cackle, so I knew he liked my language.
Drew McWeeny: I think the draft I read, it was English. They were talking in English, or the narrator was talking… I can’t remember which it was.
Rob Lowe: It’s interesting because it’s described. There’s no dialogue, but the dialogue that is written is meant to be the subtitles. So it is English. “Oh, fuck that guy,” which makes me laugh, so I’m like going… (grunting noises)… and shit like that. And it’ll say, “Oh, he’s scared,” so that kind of… so I had…
Drew McWeeny: That’s what the boar was for, right? The giant…
Rob Lowe: The giant boar was the boar, yeah, that Ricky says he killed.
Drew McWeeny: That he didn’t.
Rob Lowe: That he actually didn’t.
Drew McWeeny: Right.
Rob Lowe: And, yeah, I mean… and listen, where else do you get to go to the prop master, “Hey, you see that fake deer? I’d like to carry that into the scene”?
Drew McWeeny: That’s what Louis said freaked him out… when you came in with the deer. He was, like, “Dude, it was nuts.”
Rob Lowe: I was literally, like, out of “Apocalypse Now”. I completely left the reservation for those two days.
Drew McWeeny: Like I said, you had a great run on “The West Wing,” and now you’re doing “Brothers and Sisters.” You’ve been able to conquer TV very successfully. You’ve obviously made a name for yourself with comedy now. Is there anything left that you feel like you haven’t done that you want to do, or do you feel like really you’ve been kind of blessed by the way it’s all worked out?
Rob Lowe: Up until a couple of years ago, I felt like I’ve never really done a definitive stage performance, and so Aaron Sorkin and I went to London and we did “A Few Good Men” at the Royal Haymarket, and it was the greatest experience. And that was sort of the one thing that I wanted, to be able to have that part that really I could call my own and have it work, and that worked out great. I mean, I would like to play a superhero now. I watched Downey in “Iron Man,” and I went, “Hey, wait a minute. Hang on here a minute.”
Drew McWeeny: I think that’s what he said… he realized, “Shit, everybody else is getting to have all the fun. I want my super hero film.”
Rob Lowe: I think we all need to wear the suit at one time in our careers.
Drew McWeeny: Yeah?
Rob Lowe: I’ve just got to figure out what suit’s a good fit.
Drew McWeeny: There you go.
Rob Lowe: Maybe it’s Green Lantern.
Drew McWeeny: You know what? That’s one where there’s a lot of room for interpretation. There’ve been so many Green Lanterns over the years that it’s not like there’s… it’s not like Superman where you’re fighting an icon.
Rob Lowe: Right.
Drew McWeeny: And you’ve got to kind of struggle with everybody having their definition. There is room there.
Rob Lowe: I always liked Green Hornet, too. He’s very sort of get trim and sort of dapper.
Drew McWeeny: Have you read “SuperMax”?
Rob Lowe: Unh-uh.
Drew McWeeny: Call your agent and tell him to send it over.
Rob Lowe: Really? “SuperMax.”
Drew McWeeny: It’s a Green Arrow movie.
Rob Lowe: Right.
Drew McWeeny: The premise is, the first ten minutes, he’s the Green Arrow we all know, and then he gets a call. He goes to a crime scene. Gets there and all these mob bosses have been killed with green arrows sticking out of their chests. Cops come in and arrest him and they realize, “We can’t put you in a regular prison. We’re putting you in SuperMax,” which is the prison for super villains. And the rest of the movie is Green Arrow with a price on his head in that prison having to survive as just another prisoner against every super villain from the DC universe.
Rob Lowe: Wow. That’s a really good idea.
Drew McWeeny: Yeah. And it’s not an origin story. It’s not the typical super hero film.
Rob Lowe: Okay. I’m going to have to check that out. That would be awesome. That would be really good.
Drew McWeeny: It’s cool. You’re in a position now where I think you’ve kind of, you’ve reinvented yourself enough times, and now there’s really no expectation of Rob Lowe has to do this.
Rob Lowe: Right. That’s a good place to be I think.
Drew McWeeny: Yeah.
Rob Lowe: I think it’s a really good place to be. You know, I also like how people have been so supportive of the Steven King stuff that I’ve done. “Salem’s Lot,” which I really fucking loved, and I thought it turned out great. Yeah, listen, if the part’s good, it’s good. People… that’s really what’s it’s about, because there’s really nothing else to prove.
Drew McWeeny: Well, some of the people you’ve hooked up with… obviously Ricky, and you mentioned Aaron Sorkin… these are the people right now that you want to be in business with, who are the big idea guys and not just that, but I think they also have longevity. They have more in them then just the one thing.
Rob Lowe: Oh, totally. You know Aaron’s working on “Chicago 7” right now.
Drew McWeeny: Whatever he’s going to do is going to be worth paying attention to.
Rob Lowe: Yeah. And I’ve been blessed at various stages in my career at having those people who come into my life. At the beginning, it was Francis Ford Coppola, who gave me my first movie part.
Drew McWeeny: That movie is so crazy. It’s ground zero for everybody.
Rob Lowe: Isn’t it weird?
Drew McWeeny: It’s amazing. My wife had never seen it until like a year ago.
Rob Lowe: You’re kidding.
Drew McWeeny: She’s from Argentina, so it wasn’t like a big thing for her.
Rob Lowe: Right, right.
Drew McWeeny: And when I showed it to her, she was like, “Holy shit, everybody’s in this”. It’s really an unbelievable who’s-who as you go through it.
Rob Lowe: It is, you know, and Fred Roos, who produced it… he cast… he was Francis’s casting and Lucas’s casting guy. He cast “American Graffiti”. He cast “The Godfather”. He cast “The Outsiders,” and just those movies alone… it’s insane.
Drew McWeeny: Yeah, you can’t argue with that.
Rob Lowe: It’s insane. Insane.
Drew McWeeny: What an eye for talent, man.
Rob Lowe: Fred, yeah. And I never forget reading for him. He gives you nothing. He’d go, “Thank you”. And I’d go, “Fuck. I blew that one. Total stone-face. Nothing.
Drew McWeeny: Was there competition on that set? Was there like an alpha-male thing going on as you guys were all trying to…
Rob Lowe: Yeah, we used to beat the shit out of each other in the hallways. We’d put on boxing gloves and head gear and beat the shit out of each other. And the one guy you’d never want to hit really hard was Cruise, because he’d go psycho.
Drew McWeeny: [laughs]
Rob Lowe: You could fuck him up and shit, but if you hit him really hard, he’d just go nuts.
Drew McWeeny: That’s funny. So few people have ever used that on film. I love it in “Taps”. I think he’s got the best ending in “Taps”.
Rob Lowe: Yeah, that’s Tom.
Drew McWeeny: And I think “Born on the Fourth of July” used it well. When he gets to be angry, pissy Ron Kovac for an hour, that’s a Tom we don’t see often.
Rob Lowe: That’s his intensity. That’s who he is. Yeah, he’s great. That movie is… that was my going off to college was that age. I was 18. I’d never been away from home and I went off to… that was my frat.
Drew McWeeny: Hell of a frat, man.
Rob Lowe: Right? That was my frat. Yeah. How long are you on the set for today?
Drew McWeeny: I’m out of here in like an hour.
Rob Lowe: Oh no.
Drew McWeeny: Yeah. I have to be in L.A. tomorrow morning, otherwise I would have tried to book it a little different, but I’m due back tomorrow morning for “The Hulk”. They’re doing some…
Rob Lowe: Okay, what’s the story on “The Hulk”?
Drew McWeeny: [laughs] I hope it’s good.
We start it talking about superheroes, and we end it talking about superheroes.
Yes, it’s true. Rob Lowe is a nerd.
Next up, I talk to Jennifer Garner about reuniting with Ricky for the first time since his guest appearance on “Alias.”
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