To talk about Rob Lowe, one cannot ignore his face, which appears to be an object lesson in symmetry, in everything scientists have learned about what makes babies naturally smile and how far noses should be from eyes.
It's an uncomfortable truth about which Lowe can do nothing, which shaped his public trajectory, and which used to annoy him. "What do you want me to do?" he would think, glowering at casting directors who thought him too pretty for this role or that one. Lowe has "the face that Michael Jackson's surgeons always seemed to be chiselling their way towards," wrote one Australian journalist in what might be the best description of a modern search for aesthetic perfection.
He's older now. Up close, his periwinkle-twinkle eyes are lined with delicate tracks that don't show up on television screens. He gives hugs that feel like dad hugs - caring and chaste, pat-pat-pat - to people he's met only once. He's practicing authenticity now - he uses addiction recovery words such as "flawed" and "gratified." He laughs frequently; he has learned to be self-deprecating; he comes across as uber-sincere.
And he's wearing fake teeth - they're Chiclet-sized, they're a wall of blinding white - for his latest role as John F. Kennedy in a made-for-TV movie "Killing Kennedy."
All the better to eat you with, except Lowe doesn't bite - not anymore, not since he's wrung out the Hollywood spin cycle and somehow become an elder statesman of fame.
"Castro. Castro. Caaaastro. On the beach?"
The words roil around the fake teeth in Lowe's mouth, transforming into Boston putty, coming out chowdered. He sits at an oak conference-room table, surrounded by extras, practicing. The camera is not rolling. His mike is still on. A few days ago, his teenage son tweeted, "My dad won't stop doing his ...@cking JFK voice #makeitstop." Lowe thought it was hilarious and has been quoting the tweet ever since.
It's late June and "Killing Kennedy," the TV movie produced by the National Geographic Channel, is filming in Richmond, Va., five months before its scheduled nationwide premiere Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. The hallways of the state capitol stand in for the 1960s hallways of the White House. In this scene, Rob Lowe, playing a Missile Crisis-era Kennedy, will learn that the Cuban leader is down on the shore himself, with the tanks.
"This may sound like a funny request," Lowe calls out between takes, "but is there a smaller pencil? This one is brand-new, and this is sharp." He knows that Kennedy had a nervous tic with pencils, and it will look more realistic if the utensil appears to have actually been used. "I could maybe take a pen, but - no, he always used a pencil."
He makes the request apologetically - he's sorry to be a bother - but also authoritatively. A production assistant produces a suitably nubby pencil for him and the take commences.
"Castro. On the beach."
It's nearly impossible to play John F. Kennedy well. The president represents the most Washington of Washington characters - the dignity, the shenanigans, the tragedy, the public commodification - but 50 years after his death, parodies have drowned out the real thing. Encounter Lowe, 49, in his deep-parted pouf of a Kennedy wig, and it's easy to giggle, until you fact-check his appearance and remember that this is exactly what Kennedy's hair looked like. "Killing Kennedy" follows the last months of the president's life, toggling back and forth between his work, his home life - Jackie is played by Ginnifer Goodwin - and the life of Lee Harvey Oswald.
It's also nearly impossible to accurately pin down Rob Lowe, who himself has become less of a person and more of an ur-type, one of Hollywood: a rise, a fall, a rehab redemption, attractiveness that borders on parody. A time capsule to mid-1980s manhood. He was an original Brat Packer, playing saxophone in a Georgetown dive in "St. Elmo's Fire." After years of handsome-guy TV roles and movies, he was reborn three years ago - jolted by the same NBC-sitcom heart paddles that revived Alec Baldwin's career - as a comedic genius on "Parks and Recreation."
Through it all, he was almost a leading man, but wasn't quite, or isn't quite - somehow his name never got the billing that his face looked like it deserved.
"I'd always sort of felt like maybe one day I would play one of the Kennedys," he says in his trailer, barefoot in loafers, smoking a cigar that he says is both for the character and for enjoyment (those teeth!). His brother Chad's first role, he says, was playing Bobby Kennedy in something.
"I can kind of look like [the Kennedys], and also I'm at a point in my life where I'm old enough to play leaders." He shrugs. "Characters with more substance. All of us hopefully have more substance as we go on our life's journeys. That roles are coming to me with more facets is great, and it happens to all actors." The Kennedy role, he says, "doesn't say anything special about me."
But there's this: When Lowe published his memoir a few years ago, he chose to open and close the book with an anecdote about John F. Kennedy Jr., with whom he was friendly, bonded together in a dark and handsome pinup fraternity. He wrote about being asked to appear on the cover of George, the magazine founded by the younger Kennedy, at a time when Lowe's career had been in a slump, and how grateful that made him. He wrote about telling legendary playboy John Jr. to find a woman he could love as much as legendary playboy Lowe loved his own wife.
"Why this family's legacy has impacted my life so much that it would lead my book about my life - my life, not their lives - and then what does it mean that I end up playing Jack?" He thinks about it. "I don't know those answers, because I think the conscious is inevitably unknowable. But there's no denying that connection."
Lowe works hard, says Goodwin over the phone, in a voice as best-girlfriendy as you'd expect. On set, "I asked him a million business questions - how he handles certain situations, navigating the politics of the world, prioritizing things."