Exclusive Interview: Rob Lowe Returns to Politics in Knife Fight

March 7, 2013

Rob Lowe is as charming as you’d expect him to be. The almost-50-year-old looks only slightly older than he did when he first broke through in Hollywood over 30 years ago. As part of the 80s group of young, powerful actors known as the “Brat Pack,” he’s well known for his movie roles in The Outsiders, St. Elmo’s Fire, Youngblood, and About Last Night.

Today, he’s probably best known for his TV roles, including The West Wing and Brothers and Sisters. His most recent foray into TV is playing Chris Traeger on Parks and Recreation. Doing press in New York City for his indie film, Knife Fight, Lowe chatted about gravitating towards political roles, movies vs. TV, and The West Wing.

Knife Fight is now available on DIRECTV CINEMA.

How did you get involved with Knife Fight?
Rob Lowe: Chris Lehane, who co-wrote it with Bill Guttentag and directed it, sent it to me. I think they may have even written it for me. I read it and fell in love with it, as I think everybody did, which is why we have such [a great cast]. I was a little hesitant because I had done The West Wing and sort of felt like, “should I even go back to this arena,” but I was swayed by the dialogue and the great words I got to say. And I actually believe in what it has to say at the end. I like the journey – it’s a horrible cliché, but it’s true – the journey my character made spoke to me.

Your character has a great bit of dialogue at the beginning when he meets Carrie-Anne Moss’ character and he’s trying to talk her out of running for governor that was mesmerizing watching it.
RL: [Starts reciting the dialogue from that scene.] “I have seen grown men who have served their country with valor reduced to tears on my couch.” That kind of stuff.

You remember it.
RL:If it’s good dialogue, any good actor can remember it like that [snaps]. If it’s bad dialogue then it’s hard to remember.

I didn’t know Richard Schiff was in the movie and when his name came up in the opening credits, I was so excited that it was a mini West Wing reunion.
RL: It literally was a mini West Wing reunion. Richard and I, not only had we not acted together, we really hadn’t seen each other. I have to tell you, when he sat down in that first scene at the diner, it was magic. That show was so brilliantly cast and we all have – it’s like a great band. Everybody is really important. There’s just a chemistry. We still have it. He and I still have it. We have a great chemistry.

You can tell that the two of you still have chemistry and as a West Wing fan, it was exciting to watch.
RL: I suspect that anybody who remotely liked The West Wing will like Knife Fight.

The West Wing. Parks and Rec. Knife Fight. What draws you to the political arena?
RL: What all of those things have in common is really good writing. Parks and Rec as it turns out – when I went and met with them about bringing me on, they said that they designed Parks and Rec to be the comedy answer to the The West Wing, which I never knew. They’re huge West Wing freaks. And they said, “if the drama took place in the White House, where would the comedy take place – I know. The parks and recreation department in Pawney, Indiana.” When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. I guess I ended up where I was meant to end up. I think rhetoric is a big part of politics. How people speak. How they communicate. It’s an area where writers can really let fly. That’s what I love as an actor, to be able to do that.

If a project has a political bent to it, is there a certain tone that you look for? The West Wing was a great show but it was an idealized version of politics.
RL: It has a very different tone than Knife Fight, which was the good news. West Wing is earnest in the best way possible. Knife Fight is a satire, which I love. I love me some great political satire. I love Primary Colors — that movie is genius. I actually like it a little better than Wag the Dog, which is the one that everybody talks about, although I do like Wag the Dog. So it’s more in that family than in The West Wing family.

Knife Fight is a satire, as you said, but in the end your character grows a heart, so to say.
RL: It’s got a little Jerry Maguire in it – which is one of my favorite all-time movies. It is a little – you know how they [give you recommendations]? “If you like this movie, you’ll like…” This would be if you liked West Wing and you liked Jerry Maguire and you liked Wag the Dog and you liked Primary Colors, you’ll like Knife Fight.

If your character hadn’t warmed up a bit in the end, would you still have been interested in playing the character?
RL: I don’t know. The end speech he gives to his young protégée when he describes what it’s like when your guy wins made me well up when I read it. It made me well up when I did it. Because what he’s revealed to be, what I know all of those people to be – no matter how hardened. No matter how cynical. No matter how jaded – at the end their all true believers. Every last one of them. To the extent that they become cynical or jaded is only a way to protect themselves from the inevitable defeats that you’re going to eventually have in that life. I have yet to meet a mercenary in politics.

Have you met many politicians?
RL: I’ve met them from every level – from the top to the bottom, from the right to the left. I’ve met from Carl Rove to George McGovern and they’re all patriots. Every last one of them.

Knowing all of those politicians and being drawn to political roles, have you ever toyed with the idea of entering politics?
RL: I love the idea of it. I think though – I’m such a centrist that in this [political] climate – if you look at all of the centrists over the years, all of the people that I’ve admired over the years, they’ve all been drummed out. Now it’s more partisan than it’s ever been and it doesn’t seem to be getting better and that would be a drawback. And I have so much still to do in entertainment.

Look, there’s a great history of people in my business who have made really great marks [in politics]. Everybody from Reagan to Al Franken, who is, I think, going to end up being a great senator – he may already be one, for all I know. So, who knows? Who knows?

You’ve done TV and movies both and you’ve done a lot in both realms. Is there one medium that you prefer over the other?
RL: They’re both great. I don’t think there will ever be anything better than being in a big, fat hit movie. That’s still the ultimate. Unfortunately, the definition of a big, fat hit movie has changed a lot since I’ve been in the business. Now there are more big, franchise-driven types of things, which I’m a little less interested in. And I really do think that pound for pound, day in and day out, the best writing for an actor is on television. You look at Breaking Bad or Homeland — honestly, I had a better experience watching Homeland this year than anything in a movie theater. Anything. What does that tell you? I also think that I’m lucky enough to be on a show that’s as funny or funnier than anything I’ve seen in a movie theater.

What would your ideal role be? Have it you played it yet? Is it something you’re still looking for?
RL: I do have something that I’m trying to put together. It’s a beautiful eight-part Civil War miniseries where I would play Ulysses S. Grant. It called Grant vs. Lee. It’s amazing. It’s written by Michael Beckner who wrote Spy Game for [Robert] Redford and [Brad] Pitt, along with a lot of other great movies. I would love to get that done. We’re trying to set it up right now. The Civil War is just the gift that keeps on giving in terms of drama.