An average young person embarks on a career path seeking one thing. A job? Well, yes, but it’s more than that. A career? Yeah, but again, that doesn’t cover it. Success? Getting warmer. So what is it?
We seek comfort, that cushy byproduct of success. And that’s where we go wrong. Just ask Rob Lowe. “You absolutely do not want to get into a comfort zone,” he says. “But the comfort zone is the first instinct. A lot of people are like, ‘I have some success; I feel like that should be enough.’ ”
Once you gravitate toward comfort, you tend to assume a status quo, and that can leave you unprepared for the moment when your world tanks. If you strive for a certain level of discomfort, you gain an advantage. Why? “By definition,” says Lowe, “to get out of your comfort zone means to stretch, to extend, to reach beyond what you’ve had success doing. And that can be difficult.”
Lowe’s never been one to seek comfort, though. Good thing, too, since his chosen field, show business, forces people into discomfort pretty much all the time.
Even as a kid, stage-struck since seeing his first community theater production, just the mention of his interest in acting provoked more than a few playground brawls in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio. Moving to Malibu, Calif., after his mom’s second failed marriage didn’t make it easier to pursue acting despite the proximity to Hollywood, since other kids were more into surfing and volleyball.
That started to change when Lowe met a group of kids—brothers Chris and Sean Penn, and Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen—running around a shopping center parking lot with an 8mm movie camera. These new friendships were formative; the Sheen house in Malibu became like a second home, and the boys’ shared passion for acting helped fuel Lowe’s desire and, ultimately, to land a breakthrough role in The Outsiders and other movies including St. Elmos Fire as a member of Hollywood’s Brat Pack.
Since then, Lowe’s built one of the most diverse careers in Hollywood. He’s played everymen in Stephen King adaptations of The Stand and Salem's Lot . And then his career took a funny turn in a long string of comedies like Wayne's World, Tommy Boy and the Austin Powers franchise. Now, as he approaches age 50, he’s doing both, with a recent recurring role on NBC’s Parks & Recreation, and heavy dramatic roles in films such as I Melt With You and Drew Peterson: Untouchable (seen at right). He’s one of Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s go-to actors, first in The West Wing and recently in a long stage run of A Few Good Men on London’s West End.
Lowe’s also written a critically acclaimed best-seller, Stories I Only Tell My Friends, and is working on another book, Love Life, described by publisher Simon & Schuster as part observations and part life lessons. He’s launching a men’s grooming product line this spring. And he’s expanded into the business part of show business (more on that in a moment).
And therein lies Lowe’s career secret: constant and conscious reinvention, which leads to longevity. “I happen to be wired in a way that I actually like it.”
“I’ve always thought that it’s more interesting to have longevity than being the flavor of the month,” Lowe says. “Flavor of the month is fun while you are that person. But at the end of the day, all the people whom I’ve respected, whether it’s in business, the arts or politics, or any stage, are people who are always there, always in the conversation. They may not always be the subject of the conversation—that’s usually the flavor of the month—but they’re in the conversation. When I meet that kind of person, I give it up to them. Those are my heroes.”
Those are also the people who constantly reinvent themselves, in good times and bad, Lowe says. Now, there’s a downside to reinvention, which Lowe knows all too well.
Remember Oscar night, 1989? Before Rain Man cleaned up with Oscars for best picture, actor, director and screenplay, Rob Lowe left his mark on the evening. Somehow he ended up in a song-and-dance duet with Snow White singing Proud Mary with joke lyrics. Needless to say, it was cringe-worthy. And yes, you can Google it.
Lowe remembers eagerly saying “yes” when asked to participate. For good or ill, that word is one of Lowe’s career strategies.
“The first thing, for me, is I say yes. It’s destroyed my career over and over again,” he says. “But I’ve gotten more, learned more from saying yes than I ever have from saying no. A lot of times I don’t know where it’s going to lead. I don’t even know why I’m saying it. But I’m trusting a gut instinct.”
Saying yes doesn’t always end in Oscar night infamy. Saying yes also helped reinvent Lowe not long after that when he agreed to host Saturday Night Live. And, despite warnings from his agents and advisors, that was an easy yes for Lowe, with equally risky judgment calls: comedy, live TV.
“When I had the opportunity to host Saturday Night Live for the first time,” he explains, “it was a dream come true and I was steeped in the tradition because I’d been such a fanboy growing up. I made the most of it. I liked being involved in the writing process. It goes till 6 in the morning—you go from writer’s room to writer’s room and you work with people, and the one I really clicked with and had the most success on the actual broadcast with was Mike Meyers. When the time came for Mike to write a Wayne's World movie, in spite of me turning down a Wayne’s World sketch on the show because, truth be told, I preferred Sprockets to Wayne’s World—and told him so—he didn’t hold it against me and wrote the part for me in the movie.” Then Lowe laughs. “Or maybe he did it to spite me: ‘We’ll make a monkey out of him yet.’ ”
That particular yes led to a complete reboot of Lowe’s career based again on a combination of words you wouldn’t expect: Rob Lowe, Comic Actor. And yet he’s appeared in some of the most successful comedies of all time. All it took was opportunity and interest. And a quick yes.
Flash-forward to this past year. And another fast yes: “Even right now, being on Parks and Recreation, those guys came to me with a beginning, a tiny seed of an idea, not even a guarantee that I would stay on the show. I knew enough that I liked the show, so I didn’t do a lot of overthinking, let the chips fall where they may, and said yes,” Lowe says.
“Yes is the beginning of the road. And the road hopefully leads to you staying relevant.”
Of course, for every career-making (or re-making) project like St. Elmos Fire or Wayne's World or The West Wing, there are bombs like Atomic Train or Dr. Vegas. That risk stalks us all. Somewhere, sometime, something you do will tank. And bye-bye goes your precious comfort zone. Lowe, as an actor, has experienced this many times. And he’s prepared for the next one. How?
“The first thing I do is move on,” he says. “It’s easy for me to say that now, three decades in. If you asked me that question when I was starting out, I would probably have a different answer, but now I know how many happy accidents have to line up for something to work. You can be sabotaged on 70 different levels on any project, wittingly or unwittingly, and I know that even in failure, it can lead you to a path of more success. I believe that. Now, you either believe it or don’t believe it, but if you do, you don’t look back.”
Lowe is quick to point out that this formula also applies to personal life. Again, Lowe has some experience here. In 1988, the night before the Democratic National Convention (he’d been campaigning for Michael Dukakis) Lowe ended up in bed with two young women he met in a bar. A few months later, a videotape surfaced along with an allegation that one of the women was a minor. (In an interview last year, Oprah Winfrey asked when Lowe found out the girl was underage. “Not soon enough,” he said.)
The media feeding frenzy was savage. Lowe was already a heavy drinker, and this only intensified his alcoholism. He found very quickly what many addicts take years to find: The bottom. Now, with some 20 years of sobriety, Lowe has a reassuring take on this.
“If you’re out there living life fully, charging ahead, you’ll have your time in the barrel. Everyone does. And you see it everywhere. In Hollywood, for example, there isn’t an actor of longevity who doesn’t have their moment. It could be a personal problem, it could be a box office problem; whatever it is, they have the moment where everyone beats the s–t out of them. The question is, What do you do about it?
“For me, I assessed what I could do better, or differently. Try to assess what that is. There’s always some sort of lesson or good news. When I had my videotape thing, it eventually led to me getting sober. Without that, I don’t get sober. So it ended up arguably being one of the greatest things that ever happened to me.”
Indeed, Lowe’s two decades of sobriety coincides with his marriage to wife Sheryl, a makeup artist he wed in 1991. They have two teenage sons. And it’s no coincidence that his career has accelerated in that time period—a combination of not just saying yes, but also seeing opportunities that others might not.
For instance, while many “serious” movie people often dismissed “TV work,” Lowe was completely open to it. In the late ’90s, when Lowe met Aaron Sorkin and was handed the pilot script for The West Wing, “it was like being presented with a diamond,” he says. “You didn’t ask where it came from, you just wanted to have it. When we started The West Wing, television was still considered to be a creative ghetto for ‘movie actors.’ I wasn’t caught up in what will people think, what message does this send about my career, does this mean I’m a TV actor, all that stuff people get caught up in. The quality was there. Fast-forward to Keifer Sutherland on 24, William Petersen on CSI. It seems hard to imagine now, but everybody aspires to have a high-quality and respected television series.” He chuckles. “Sometimes you still hear, ‘Oh, so-and-so doesn’t do television.’ I don’t even know what that means. That’s like an architect saying, ‘Oh, I don’t design A-frames.’ ”
As Lowe’s career accelerated, it also became more diverse, with TV, film and theater work as well as writing and business deals. He recently did two very dark dramas. In the Lifetime movie Drew Peterson: Untouchable, Lowe became the real-life title character, the Illinois ex-cop charged with murdering his third wife (while his fourth wife is missing). In the indy film I Melt With You, Lowe joins Thomas Jane and Jeremy Piven as a group of friends who reunite in middle age and find that life has become… something unexpected. “To say that movie’s dark is to say it makes Sophie’s Choice look like a Sandra Bullock movie,” Lowe says.
So how is he able to jump so easily from project to project, each one requiring a different skill set? With some self-knowledge and the guts to try, basically. But he’s also worked at honing every area of potential talent and using it.
“It’s sort of like playing golf,” says Lowe. “It’s all golf, but sometimes it’s the driver or the sand wedge, the putting game, the long game. Very few people hit every club equally well, but the real pros work on hitting every club in the bag. It’s what I aspire to. In a year like I’ve had where I was finishing up on a book tour to doing Parks and Rec to doing I Melt With You—to do that part and Parks and Rec in the same week sometimes, that’s being able to use every club in the bag.”
You can also play a new course with an entirely different set of clubs. After spending the better part of 30 years working for others, he decided, in a bold way, to try life “on the other side of the desk.” He has partnered with other investors to buy Miramax’s library of films (Shakespeare In Love, for example) from Disney in 2010 for a reported $660 million. At the time, the conventional wisdom in Hollywood was that his group wildly overpaid. “So many people thought it was worth less than it was,” he says. “We felt we could do a better job monetizing it than Disney had.”
The result? Content deals with Netflix and Hulu, with more to come. “Bloomberg broke the story that we’re paying dividends to our partners after only 11 months when people thought we overpaid for the company.”
“As I move forward in that area, that’s a whole other way of reinventing myself—as an owner as opposed to an employee. That’s ultimately where I have the most to learn. As an asset, a film library is like a melting ice cube. How do you replenish it? Production. How do you go into production? You either need to buy your way in or build your way in. Those are the conversations we’re having right now. Very exciting stuff.”
Amid all of this, Lowe admits that time is a factor. And the week we spoke, his age was on his mind. He explains: “Yesterday it was rainy and crappy here in L.A., and I’m watching football with my 16- and 19-year-old sons. I don’t know why, but I start into this, ‘When I was your age and it was raining, my friends and I couldn’t wait to get out in the mud and play some football!’ So my sons are like, ‘Let’s do it!’ So they call some friends and there I am with 10 19-year-olds playing football in the mud. But… my heart wants to do it. My spirit wants to do it. But my body and long-term common sense is saying, ‘What the hell are you doing out here?’ And on Parks and Rec last week I had to jump from a stage to a cement floor and do some crazy dancing. The 19-year-old actor I remember was like, ‘Yeah! Hell yeah!’ And as I’m in midflight over this cement floor in my dress shoes, I’m thinking, Dude, you’re going to be 50 soon, what are you doing? So this week has been one of learning that my heart and chronological age, well, there’s a disconnect I have to figure out.”
In reality, however, acknowledging the passage of time contributes to Lowe’s embrace of big projects outside of acting: If you don’t try now, you may never try.
As if on cue—and totally ad-libbed—Lowe swings back to his original point as we wrap up our interview. I ask him about his reinventions and whether they are premeditated. “You know, I definitely look down the road more than when I was younger. Right now, I’m planning for what comes next after Parks and Rec; I’m building a big area of business. I’ve been writing this year. And then I have the investment business with my partners.” He pauses. “So, yes, I have every intention of delving into those spaces where I can extend and reach and grow and break through barriers. And in doing that, I’ve reinvented myself in a new way.”