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Of all his films, Rob Lowe wants you to go back and watch Bad Influence

Graphic: Nick Wanserski
Graphic: Nick Wanserski

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Rob Lowe is living proof that any young man can, with proper determination, grow up to play the president of the United States. Although he began his acting career in television, appearing in the ensemble of a short-lived sitcom (A New Kind Of Family) and turning up in TV movies and ABC Afterschool Specials, Lowe soon transitioned to the big screen, with his performance in 1983’s The Outsiders serving as a springboard into movie stardom. By the late 1990s, however, Lowe was back on TV in a big way, playing Deputy White House Communications Director Sam Seaborn on The West Wing, and he’s flipped back and forth between movies and TV ever since. Although Lowe has found his most recent successes in the world of comedy, thanks to Parks And Recreation and The Grinder, as well as finally playing POTUS himself in Killing Kennedy, this season finds him returning to drama as he joins the cast of CBS’s Code Black as a series regular.

[Note: This interview was conducted over a four-year period. It began when Lowe was in the process of promoting his role in the 2013 NatGeo film Killing Kennedy, continued when he was doing press for Fox’s The Grinder in 2015, and was completed by phone in conjunction with the season finale of his latest series, the CBS medical drama Code Black.]

Class (1983)—“Skip”

Rob Lowe: Random Roles? Oh, I saw Virginia Madsen do this the other day! Yeah. I saw Virginia Madsen do this the other day. [Laughs.] You see? I’m paying attention!

[The backstory: In her Random Roles interview, Virginia Madsen summed up her experience on the 1983 film Class as follows: “Ew. I don’t want to talk about that. Those guys were assholes. They were really shitty to me. It was bad. Bad memories.” Unsurprisingly, some instigator rushed to Twitter and sent out the link, tagging as many of the guys who appeared in the film as 140 characters would allow… including @RobLowe. —Ed.]

The A.V. Club: Do you remember what she’s talking about?

RL: Her big part in that movie required her shirt to get ripped off, and looking back, it couldn’t be a more egregious, vintage, lowbrow, 1980s Porky’s-esque, shoehorned-in moment. Like, you would never have that moment in a movie that aspired to be what that movie did today. So my guess is a lot of it is predicated on that, and justifiably so. You know, she and I had a really long relationship after that movie… Anyway, I was surprised to see that. But I love her, and I can imagine it was not much fun to do that big sequence with a bunch of laughing, ogling frat-boy actors. I mean, can you imagine putting up with me, [John] Cusack, Alan Ruck, and Andrew McCarthy at 18?

Killing Kennedy (2013)—“John F. Kennedy”

AVC: Did someone just come to you directly and say, “We’d like you to play JFK”?

RL: They did. And, you know, the auspices under which it came were really intriguing, obviously. Ridley Scott’s company makes great work in whatever arena, whether it’s movies or commercials or television. They just do really quality stuff, so you know it’s going to be quality. Then it’s based on a massive best-selling book, which is always helpful. And then the script was amazing and answered my question, “Why this? Why now?” And the “why now” is that it’s 50 years since the assassination, and the country needs to have and will have a conversation about that. And the “why this” is the construct, which I think is sort of ingenious. To take these two men, Lee Harvey Oswald and Kennedy, and meet them both on the same day in the same moment and see how disparate their lives were and intercut their journeys, knowing—like the Titanic—the iceberg is coming. It was just really clever storytelling.

AVC: What kind of challenges did you face in portraying an iconic figure like Kennedy?

RL: Well, that in and of itself is the challenge. He’s an iconic figure. And to make it even worse, he’s a hero of mine. And every actor will tell you that you can’t play heroes. And you can’t play villains. You can only play human beings. So the challenge is, how can you take someone who’s so emblazoned in peoples’ consciousness and make him a real person, yet still be aware that you’ve got to service the hair, the look, and the voice? And it’s finding that right mix. And Ginnifer Goodwin said it very well—we’re not doing the Hall Of Presidents at Disneyland. This is my interpretation of Kennedy. Much like you’ll go and see people’s interpretation of Richard III or any of the great characters. Every actor—hopefully you want them to bring what they bring to it, not what someone else has already brought.

AVC: Was there ever any point when they told you to pull back on the accent?

RL: No, but, you know, everybody was very interested in the accent. Even my collaborators were very curious to know if I was even going to do it. And I was, like, “You just can’t not do it.” I think everybody was worried that it was going to sound like the guy from… is it The Simpsons?

AVC: Mayor Quimby?

RL: [Laughs.] Yeah! But, you know, I worked with some great people, some linguists, which—I find linguists much more interesting than dialect coaches. Also, I think I have a pretty good ear. I mean, even just starting with, like, Austin Powers, where I did young Robert Wagner. People were, like, “How do you imitate Robert Wagner? What does he sound like? What does that even involve?” I think my thing is that I try and pick up on things that other people have maybe not picked up on. Because people have done Kennedy and done him beautifully, but I found stuff that I’ve never heard people do before that he did. And maybe it’s just because there’s more on YouTube now than there was 10 or 15 years ago, but I also listened to hours and hours and hours and hours and hours of Kennedy, and I sort of built it. And then I got on set and forgot it. [Laughs.]

But that’s what you want to do. You want it to just be real. And I think authenticity was better than—people always talk about when an accent doesn’t work, and the phrase you always hear is, “It was inconsistent.” But I’m going to let you in on a little piece of trivia. Here’s the truth. Kennedy’s own accent was inconsistent. In one speech on one day, he would say, “We’ll send a man to the moon in the next decade.” And then the next week, he would say, “We’ll send a man to the moon in the next decade.” So people are inconsistent. And it always kind of irks me when people talk about inconsistent accents, because people are imperfect by nature. So in the end, what you do is, you do an inhabitation and not an imitation.

A New Kind Of Family (1979-80)—“Tony Flanagan”

RL: You do your research, and I’m so sorry for you. [Laughs.] It must’ve been so painful. Um… one of the great hairdos. One of the great, great hairdos. I learned a lot. My first lessons in comedy, how to construct a joke, I learned from Eileen Brennan, who had unbelievable timing. I mean, I literally knew nothing when I did that show. It was the first time I signed an autograph, it was the first time I got fan letters, it was the first time people screamed when I came out. All the shows we did pre-airdate, and I’d come out—“Rob Lowe!”—and it was [Offers bored applause.] After the show aired? I came out—“Rob Lowe!”—and the place was, like, bedlam. And then the next week, they wouldn’t let anyone under the age of 20 into the audience. And I’m going, “So that’s how it works! Okay!”

AVC: What was it like being part of the weekly series grind for the first time?

RL: Well, it was such an extraordinary time. Michael Eisner’s wife produced it, and if you see Michael to this day, he will tell you that ABC has never had since, the ratings they had on that time slot. And I want to say, “Michael, you need to let it go. You’ve done okay.” [Laughs.] But with that as a proviso, they were so unhappy that, instead of canceling us, they fired the other family that we lived with on the show, and recast them and made them African-American. But they never explained it. They just aired the shows. So that was my first sort of introduction to “network think.” And it’s all been downhill from there.

The Stand (1994)—“Nick Andros”

RL: One of my favorite books of all time. I grew up reading it. Couldn’t believe they were going to make a miniseries and that I was going to get to be in it. And they wanted me to play the more traditional lead, Larry Underwood, the rock ’n’ roller guy who plays the guitar, but I wanted to play Nick. I thought it’d be more fun and more interesting. And they were, like, “Oh, okay!” So I ended up doing that. Stephen [King], who wrote the script himself, was on the set, and I was just so fortunate to get to know him. What a wonderful man. He may go down in history as the greatest American writer, pound for pound. I mean, I don’t know how you argue those stats, right? So I have a really fond spot for that. People still come up to me a lot and talk to me about that.

AVC: Were there any particular challenges to playing a mute character?

RL: Well, I had to learn American sign language. And I did stuff in it, stuff that was just for me and was fun, that I don’t think anyone would ever notice. The first time you meet Nick, he’s walking down a road and gets the shit beaten out of him and ends up in jail, and you know how sometimes when we’re alone we’ll hum to ourselves? I thought, “Nick would do that, but he can’t.” So I’m signing… I believe it was “The Long And Winding Road.” No one’s ever noticed, I presume, because no one’s ever said anything about it. You’re the first person I’ve ever talked to about it. And what’s even better is that we didn’t have to ask The Beatles for rights. Somehow I probably owe Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono money, though. I’m sure I’ll be getting a request for retroactive royalties as soon as this runs. [Laughs.]

The Grinder (2015-16)—“Dean Sanderson”

AVC: You’d been looking for a comedy pilot prior to this?

RL: And developing, too.

AVC: What about this premise stood out to you?

RL: It was unique. It was a role I hadn’t seen before, and yet it was very accessible and relatable at the same time. I read scripts that have one or the other, but I rarely read scripts that have both. And it was laugh-out-loud funny.

AVC: You mentioned during the panel that you had at least one friend of yours say, “Oh, my god, I am the Grinder!” Has there been anything that you’ve worked on in the past where you felt like you were kind of living in the same world?

RL: Well, I showed the writing staff the opening credits to The Lyon’s Den, and they’re, like, “Oh, we’ll just use that!” [Laughs.] “We’ll just use that for the actual Grinder opening credits!”

AVC: How was it for you to find the right tone to play the character?

RL: It’s interesting that you home in on that, because there is a sort of delicate balance in that, because you don’t want him to be a douchey, entitled rich white male superstar, and yet he is in many ways all of those things! So I think that we were able to thread a very fine needle that’s harder to thread than it looks and create a character who has all those things, because that’s what makes him funny, while also making you love him and root for him, in a weird way. And there hasn’t been one whiff of any of the stuff that I really wanted to avoid or the things that were real possibilities of falling into with this kind of a character. It’s just great. He’s a larger-than-life guy, and I’m loving that people are loving him.

AVC: As far as casting your family on the show, did you have a hand in any of that?

RL: Oh yeah, I came in early as an executive producer on it, so I was in on every decision from the beginning, including having Jake Kasdan come on board, who I’m a huge fan of. We were lucky. Everybody responded to the script, all of the best actors wanted to come in and be a part of it, and we had great pickings. And Fred [Savage] was a particularly inspired choice, one that I believe that was Nick Stoller’s. I mean, think about the auspices of this show—Jake Kasdan of Freaks And Geeks, New Girl, and Bad Teacher, Nick Stoller of Neighbors and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. All of that pedigree? I mean, it was pretty easy to say “yes” with that kind of intellectual firepower behind it.

Crazy Six (1997)—“Billie”

RL: We shot every scene of mine in the entire movie in five days. All my coverage, everything. I left. They went back and shot everybody else around me. Insane. The part called for a handsome, coiffed cool guy romantic lead, and I showed up like you see him in the movie. And they let me do it.

AVC: Did you have the ’stache already ready to go?

RL: I brought an amazing fake beard and mustache. Wait, was it a mustache and a beard? It was sort of a Vietnam vet movie meets Sling Blade. I think.

AVC: Well, sure. That’s what the kids want.

RL: Oh, yeah. The kids love that combo!

The Hotel New Hampshire (1984)—“John Berry”
Contact (1997)—“Richard Rank”

RL: At the time, The Hotel New Hampshire was John Irving’s favorite adaptation of his work, which meant a lot to all of us who worked on that movie. It’s amazing to me that that was a studio movie. That was a summer studio release! If that doesn’t tell you how much the business has changed, nothing will.

AVC: You worked with Jodie Foster on that, and then you re-teamed with her on Contact.

RL: Yeah. I love her. She’s one of my favorite actors and people in the business.

AVC: I would think it would be a weird dynamic in The Hotel New Hampshire, at the very least.

RL: I mean, it’s a story that’s basically about incest. I say again: That was a summer studio movie. A summer tentpole movie. [Laughs.] I have such amazing memories, because Tony Richardson was such an amazing director, and the subject matter was so bizarre, and yet it was the most sought-after part at that moment. And then it had the good fortune to come out on the same day as Splash. [Sighs.] And the rest is history.

AVC: Did you have to fight for the part, given that it was so sought-after?

RL: You know what’s weird? For the only time in my career, I came in and met Tony for the part—I did not read, I just met with him—and in the middle of the meeting, he told me that I had the part. There was never, “Well, thank you, and we’ll have my people call your people.” There was none of that kabuki that goes on now endlessly for even the smallest role. He just liked me, knew I was going to be what he wanted, and that was the end of it. It was unbelievable.

The Specials (2000)—“The Weevil”

RL: I love that movie. I love James Gunn. I always sort of suspected that he would do well for himself, and they tell me that he has, in fact. [Laughs.] It was sort of the first movie where I really got to let my comedy freak flag fly. And everybody in it made me laugh really hard. I wish more people had seen it. But it was always going to be an underground, underdog kind of movie. But I love when people bring that up, because it’s very early, vintage James Gunn.

Suddenly, Last Summer (1993)—“Doctor Cukrowicz”

RL: One of the most unpronounceable roles in the modern-day theater day canon, and one of the most boring! [Laughs.] Because it was basically a role where you have two diva actresses—Maggie Smith and Natasha Richardson—and my role was to say, “And then what happened? Tell me more.” But I wanted to do it was because a) it was Tennessee Williams, a great writer, and b) it was Richard Eyre, an amazing director. And to work with those two amazing women! We rehearsed it like a play for a month, and then we shot it over the course of… I believe it was 10 days. All live, basically. Long, uninterrupted takes. And for me, a lot of it is me going head to head with Maggie Smith. And anybody who’s ever had that opportunity never forgets it! It’s a real career highlight, and it was everything I ever thought it would be, and more.

AVC: What was she like off-camera?

RL: Hilarious. Just funny, and brings new meaning to the phrase “doesn’t suffer fools.” She has just the most amazing, dry timing of anyone ever, I think. I think everyone’s always known about it, but with her resurgence on Downton Abbey, a whole new generation has been introduced to it, which is just great.

Dr. Vegas (2004-06)—“Dr. Billy Grant”
Code Black (2016-17)—“Dr. Ethan Willis”

AVC: How’s your experience been on Code Black this season, given that it was already in its second season when you joined the case? Not that you haven’t jumped onto pre-existing shows before.

RL: Yeah, I kind of pride myself on coming onto things that are well-oiled machines and finding a way to bring what I bring and fit in, and raise it to another level if I can. And this has been another one of those really fun success stories, much like Parks And Recreation, although obviously on the other side of the comedy/drama equation.

AVC: And on that note, it’s been awhile since you’ve done a medical drama. Not since Dr. Vegas, in fact.

RL: Yeah! I mean, about the only good thing I could say about Dr. Vegas was that it was fun working with Amy Adams. [Laughs.] I like to feel I picked somebody great as my leading lady and was borne out. Oh, and I learned how to snap on a medical glove very easily. So I think everything was leading to Code Black.

AVC: Code Black definitely doesn’t feel like a typical CBS medical drama.

RL: Well, first of all, it doesn’t look like any other CBS show… and I don’t mean that as any sort of judgment. It’s just unbelievably unique, it’s gorgeous, and it looks like a film. You know, I went from doing something that was very original, sort of subversive, and specific in its voice—The Grinder—and loved every minute of it, but having done that, I was anxious to do something that had more broad appeal and to embrace the good things about that. Because there’s good things about both. And to your point, medical-genre shows have been around forever, they will be around forever, and I think this is a great iteration of the next generation.

AVC: Just as a quick sidebar, since you mentioned The Grinder, it had to have been heartbreaking when Fox pulled the plug.

RL: Yeah. Critics loved it, and the people who watched it loved it. I never heard anybody say, “It wasn’t for me” or “I don’t like it.” That’s a case whereif I can say this in all humilitywe delivered a fucking awesome comedy. And for whatever reason, they were not able to find an audience for it.

You know, there’s an argument that maybe it was better suited for streaming or cable. I don’t know. I still like to think there’s a place for smart, subversive, original comedies on networks. That’s what I grew up loving. Whether it’s 30 Rock or The Office or Parks And Rec… I don’t know if those still work on network today or not, but The Grinder did not. But the great news is that it lives on on Netflix. And weirdly enough, I still hear as many people talk about it today as when it was on, thanks to Netflix.

But William Devane was amazing—that we were able to reinvent an acting legend as a comedy star—that’s very gratifying. And Fred Savage, well, he’s America’s sweetheart, like I always say. [Laughs.] One of the funniest, nicest, most decent… I love him like a brother. And that chemistry that we had is very, very hard to find. We were lucky to have those 22 episodes. I’m unendingly proud of it.

AVC: So where do things stand for Code Black? Do you have a sense if a third season is on the horizon?

RL: Well, everybody feels cautiously optimistic. You guys probably know this stuff better than I do, but everybody was celebrating our [ratings] this week. I mean, we got 10 million viewers. I also have heard off-the-record rumblings that there’s another network that would put it on the schedule in the fall immediately if they had the opportunity. So I think Code Black will stay around, but I’ve been surprised before!

Mean Jeans (1981)—“Tucker Toomey”

RL: [Laughs.] I mean, listen, the wardrobe alone… I remember Tucker Toomey was named so because “T’s are funny!” And if Garry Marshall says it’s funny, by god, it must be so.

AVC: At the time, were you excited about the possibilities with the pilot, or did you sense even then that it might go nowhere?

RL: Well, I was… 15? And Garry Marshall, who had many, many seasons in the sun and a very long career, was in the middle of the brightest of all his seasons—I think he owned network television—and it was his next thing, and he was directing it. And I thought, “If there’s anyone who can bring comedy out of a designer jeans shop, it’s gotta be Garry.”

Living In Peril (1997)—“Walter Woods”

RL: It’s a very interesting cast. It’s always a good day when I get to work with Jim Belushi, who I adore. He and I have a great thing going, and a really weird, offbeat story. It’s the type of movie that I don’t even know if it would be made today. Just a very odd film. But a very fun movie.

AVC: Based on the trailer, Dean Stockwell seems to be playing off what he’d been doing in Blue Velvet.

RL: Yeah, it’s very Lynchian. Well, it aspires to be Lynchian, anyway. And I think that’s probably why they wanted Dean to be in it. I do know that the greatest thing about it was that Dean was able to make it okay for me to come in at five in the morning and start smoking cigars immediately… and through the entirety of the day!

Parks And Recreation (2010-15)—“Chris Traeger”

AVC: There’s a claim on IMDB that you and Adam Scott first worked together in a film called Winding Roads.

RL: No, I don’t know that one. By the way, every once in awhile, there’ll be something on IMDB where I’ll go, “I never was in that!” [Hesitates.] “Was I in that?” Look, I am getting on in years, and I have a very extensive IMDB page, and I cannot keep track of my own credits. But that said, that one I don’t remember.

AVC: Well, your character’s name is listed simply as “Partygoer,” so it’s suspect.

RL: [Laughs.] You know, the really good thing about my career is that I never went through a phase where I played characters who had names like “Partygoer,” “Waiter,” or “Guy #1.”

AVC: That’s definitely something to be proud of.

RL: Listen, I think so. Like Ty Cobb said, it ain’t braggin’ if you’ve done it!

AVC: With Chris Traeger, how realized was he as a character when you came in, and how much did you bring to it?

RL: I was never really totally sure about that until, as a wrap gift, Mike Schur, the brilliant writer-creator, gave me a framed copy of his notes that he took at our first meeting. [Laughs.] Now, I don’t know if this is him thinking of the character or him saying this is who he thought I was in the meeting, but it was, “Unendingly positive, super-healthy, and says ‘literally’ a lot.” So the whole “literally” thing was in it from day one, which I had no idea about until I got that.

AVC: And that’s become such a defining trait that, when I mentioned on social media that I was going to be talking to you for Random Roles, at least a dozen people said, “You literally have to ask him about this.”

RL: That’s how it happens! I must have overused the word. I go through phases where I’ll overuse words. S.E. Hinton, who wrote The Outsiders—she and I have been in contact for the 50th anniversary of the bookand she said, “You still owe me the 10 dollars that we bet that you couldn’t stop saying the word ‘gnarly.’” [Laughs.] So apparently Sodapop Curtis said “gnarly,” and Chris Traeger said “literally.” Every decade I have a favorite phrase I can’t stop with.

AVC: Well, if you’ve got to have a signature word for the ’80s…

RL: [Laughs.] And to go from “gnarly” to “literally,” that shows I’m growing up, right?

The Outsiders (1983)—“Sodapop Curtis”

AVC: Speaking of The Outsiders, that was a defining role in your early career. How familiar were you with S.E. Hinton? She was already well-established by that point.

RL: She was! I was not familiar with the book at that point, though. Interestingly, The Outsiders had not reached the point where it is now, where it’s required reading in sixth and seventh grades. In my sixth and seventh grade, we did not, but today everyone does. Legitimately. I almost said “literally.” [Laughs.] But so that was all new to me. It’s been fun to be a part of that ride, where it’s become on the level of Catcher In The Rye in terms of people’s required reading in schools.

AVC: Given the cast, it seems like the set would’ve been just pure testosterone.

RL: It was. And it was very competitive, in the best possible way. Full of love, full of companionship and fellowship, pranks and practical jokes and ball-busting. And I think it really forged who I am as an actor, and it’s one of the reasons why I keep being drawn to big ensembles where I’m surrounded by strong, successful actors or personalities. Because that was my initial foray into moviemaking.

AVC: Were you any more familiar with Francis Ford Coppola when you got the film? Because when we talked to C. Thomas Howell, he was, like, “Well, I’d seen The Black Stallion, but that’s about it.”

RL: Well, what was great was that Tommy never gave a shit about Francis, which was so funny. I mean, he just truly didn’t give a shit. And it was just palpable. And hilarious. And I think Francis got off on it. The rest of us were in awe and petrified and all of those things. I mean, Francis was on the cover of Time Magazine for One From The Heart and for owning a studio, and he was fresh off of Apocalypse [Now] and The Godfather films, so he was at the absolute top of his game and legend.

AVC: Were you surprised at the success of the film? Because Coppola was certainly a name, but at the time, no one in the cast really was yet.

RL: No, I think we all knew we were making something special, because well, it was Coppola! And at that moment, everything that Coppola did was going to suck all the oxygen out of the room. So we knew we were doing something that would make an impact, because of Francis, but I don’t think we were surprised by how well the movie did, but I think we would all say we were surprised at how well we all did coming out of it.

Youngblood (1986)—“Dean Youngblood”

AVC: You re-teamed with Patrick Swayze from The Outsiders for Youngblood, but you also worked on that film with someone else we spoke with for this feature: the late Ed Lauter.

RL: Oh, I loved Ed.

AVC: How was he to work with? He was a true character actor.

RL: He really was. He was an actor’s actor. I love working with that class of actor. You know, they come in, they do it, no bullshit. There’s no artifice, there’s no fanciness, they’re just honest and tough and direct. In the business of acting, those are the actors that make the trains run on time, you know? There’s nothing without them.

AVC: How did you enjoy the skating?

RL: Hated it. [Laughs.] I don’t like any sport where you’re already exhausted when you’re done putting on the equipment. But that said, once I got the equipment on and was out on the ice, I loved that. I loved hitting people, being hit, skating. I love the exertion and competition, so that was all great. But it’s a lot of work putting all of that shit on! Give me a surfboard and let me just paddle into the ocean.

The West Wing (1999-2006)—“Sam Seaborn”

RL: Well, that’s the best character that’s ever been written for me, certainly. By far. And it’s a timeless show, one that’s having another resurgence now, with people so in an uproar politically. You would not believe the amount of feedback I’ve gotten in the past two or three months over people binge-watching The West Wing. Most of them have binge-watched it countless times. I watched on CNN just a few days ago, and there’s Sam Seaborn, talking about moving the press out of the West Wing. [Laughs.] Yeah, The West Wing and The Outsiders are the gifts that keep on giving.

AVC: You’ve talked about this elsewhere, but looking back, do you regret leaving the show when you did?

RL: No, actually, if I had to do it over, I’d do the same thing, because lost in the shuffle of it is that Aaron [Sorkin] left the same year I did. And I would not have wanted to be on The West Wing with somebody else writing it.

AVC: Allison Janney told us that she was the best walk-and-talker on the series. Do you concur?

RL: Allison Janney is the best actor on the series, period, so I’ve got to give it up for A.J. You know, Allison is one of the few actors I ever worked with who is incapable of hitting a false note. Martin Sheen would be breathtakingly brilliant and then fucking terrible within the space of two takes. Allison was always a genius… and never knew what the fuck she was talking about. [Laughs.] Which was great. She could not tell you the difference between Aleppo and Toledo, Ohio. And she didn’t care. It didn’t make one bit of difference.

AVC: And still sounded authentic every time.

RL: Amazing, right? And she could memorize anything. All of those C.J. press-briefing monologues? She would memorize those in the makeup trailer!

Tommy Boy (1995)—“Paul Barish”

AVC: Why aren’t you credited in Tommy Boy?

RL: There was a kerfuffle. I don’t think [David] Spade or [Chris] Farley had ever done a movie. And I think they wanted to bill me beneath them or… Ah, I don’t know what it was. But I said, “Listen, let’s not fight about it. Just don’t bill me at all. I don’t give a shit about it one way or the other!”

AVC: How was it working with them?

RL: I loved them. When I had my Comedy Central roast, David was my first choice to be roastmaster, because I adore him. He’s funny as hell, and nobody is meaner. So it’s exactly what I’m looking for in a friend. [Laughs.] So I love him to this day. And Farley was a dear friend, and we remained close right up until the end. You know, there was nobody more fearless comedically than Chris. And that’s saying a lot, because I’m friendly with a lot of funny people. But Chris—I would consider him a comic animal. With the emphasis on “animal.”

AVC: Tommy Boy is such a quotable film, too. I literally just found myself breaking out the “walkie talkie” line a couple of days ago. And, yes, I know I just said “literally.”

RL: [Laughs.] Literally! See? But I know, there are so many great lines. People say to me, “Did you eat paint chips for a living?” Or, “These shoes are worth more than your life.” And the one I get all the time is, “Brothers don’t shake hands, brothers gotta hug!”

St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)—“Billy Hicks”
About Last Night… (1986)—“Danny”
Wayne’s World (1992)—“Benjamin”

AVC: It seems like Wayne’s World and Tommy Boy were kind of the one-two punch that helped begin your transition into being accepted as more of a comedic actor.

RL: Yeah, but it was all from hosting Saturday Night Live the first time [in 1990]. I just had such a great time, and I had such a simpatico relationship with Mike Myers. And Lorne [Michaels]. I’ll always be grateful for Lorne, who saw me as funny. I mean, I’d done light comedy. In some quarters, About Last Night… is a romantic comedy. So it wasn’t like I’d been doing Sophie’s Choice my entire career. But for whatever reason, nobody had really given me the room or the ability to be out and out funny. And Lorne and Mike and Chris and Dana [Carvey], that crop really helped me do that. And that paved the way for Parks And Rec and The Grinder, the Comedy Central Roast, and that whole side of my career.

Some of the ’80s movies I did are sort of museum pieces. St. Elmo’s Fire is great as a sort of kitschy, “Oh, my god, I can’t believe we wore that” type of movie. But About Last Night… still stands up for me. Like, I’m as proud of that today and still have the kind of faith in it today to show it to a young couple as I did when it came out.

AVC: And a script co-written by David Mamet.

RL: David Mamet, Tim Kazurinsky, and Denise DeClue, who adapted it. Between the three of them… I mean, it’s always down to the writing. You’re only as good as your writing.

Bad Influence (1990)—“Alex”

AVC: Is there a favorite project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

RL: I think Bad Influence is one. In fact, yeah, I’d say it’s probably Bad Influence. It was a little company that released it, it was really ahead of its time… I’m really proud of it. And it’s Curtis Hanson. He’d directed a small movie before that, but it was his first directorial work that really worked. Helmut Newton shot the ad campaign. It’s [James] Spader at the top of his game, right after Sex, Lies And Videotape. It’s sexy. It’s weird. It’s dark. The characters are great. It was David Koepp’s first big screenplay. It was actually a writing sample that was around town to get David work at the time, and Steve Tisch—now the owner of the New York Giantsfound it, loved it, and together we put it together. But I’d say that would be the one I’d tell people to go and look at if they haven’t seen it.

AVC: It also had a great soundtrack, including Lloyd Cole’s “Downtown.”

RL: Yeah, right? It was really weird. You know, it’s also a great snapshot of underground L.A. at the beginning of the ’90s. And yet it doesn’t feel dated.

Sex Tape (2014)—“Hank”

RL: Such a fun part. That’s how Jake Kasdan and I ended up doing The Grinder together, because we had such a great time on Sex Tape. I just had such a blast coming up with this corporate dweeb, a sort of nerd who was also doing coke and listening to death metal and was obsessed with Walt Disney art. I just felt it was a type of guy you hadn’t really seen before, and I was so happy with how it came out. [Laughs.]

AVC: Of course, you had to know going in that people would instantly go, “Heh. Rob Lowe. Sex Tape.”

RL: All the more reason to do it, right? [Laughs.]