Rob Lowe Is Baring It All — Literally & Metaphorically — In His New Series, “Unstable”

    Rob LoweFULL LOOK: Louis Vuitton

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I — and many others — are about to see Rob Lowe in a new and very surprising way. Naked, vulnerable, raw. But mostly, you know, naked.
Before you raise an eyebrow and caustically say, “Didn’t you do your homework, woman? Rob Lowe has done the birthday suit thing before!” (several times, in fact, in the 1986 comedy About Last Night… and again, more recently, in the 2011 thriller I Melt With You), let me say you have not seen him naked in this way. And by “this way,” I mean literally and figuratively, weirdly and wonderfully, arms out, face tipped up, and saluting the sun with everything he has.

Lowe’s first “sun’s out, buns out” moment in 12 years is for a project that hits incredibly close to home: the new Netflix series Unstable, which he created, developed, produced, and stars in alongside his youngest son, John Owen “Johnny” Lowe. In Unstable, Lowe the elder, newly 59 as of St. Patrick’s Day, plays universally admired, eccentric, narcissist-adjacent biotech entrepreneur Ellis Dragon, a man who makes it his mission to make the world a better place. But when the series begins, Ellis is a little lost. He’s grieving the death of his wife, the one person who kept his head-in-the-clouds, dreamer self securely tethered to the physical world. He’s spiraling, and so his strict personal assistant, Anna, played by Sian Clifford of Fleabag fame, turn to the only other person in the world who can bring him back to earth: his estranged son, Jackson (played by John Owen, with some authentic art-imitating-life casting).

I watched the entire first season — which debuts on March 30 — in a day, gobbling up its quirky, addictive, comedic bites like chocolate bonbons, in stitches from the very first scene, when Lowe shows off his best Saturday Night Fever dance moves. The supporting characters are great, too, including a group of horny scientists and Fred Armisen’s needy therapist, whom Ellis kidnaps and holds hostage in his basement.

Without knowing what to expect, I should have realized that, of course, the series would be hilarious. For as handsome as he is, Lowe is funny, and he’s at his best when poking fun at his own good looks and stardom, neither of which he takes very seriously and both of which he brandishes like the best of comedic weapons. But as they say, there is strength in numbers. Together, Lowe and his son are a united force to be reckoned with. In fact, it was because John Owen so consistently mocked his father loudly and proudly on Instagram that the show came to be in the first place: the world at large found their interactions to be irresistible.

“The genesis of [the series’ creation] was that Johnny had been trolling me on my social media platforms, being very funny and very mean. It was not a bit, not a comedy thing; it was just something he always did. All of my boys have always taken the piss out of me,” Lowe explains fondly, continuing, “But Johnny was doing it on social media, and it started getting attention, to the extent that Good Morning America, Jimmy Kimmel, The Ellen DeGeneres Show — all of these shows started picking up on it and requesting interviews about the relationship I have with my son on the internet. And so [Johnny] came to me and said, ‘People are interested in this. I wonder if there’s a show in there somehow.’

Because it’s very rare when the audience asks for something — studios spend millions of dollars trying to figure out what the audience wants — and we wanted to figure out how to do it. So we came up to these characters and teamed up with [Emmy-nominated writer and producer] Victor Fresco — who is really the only adult in the room — who was able to make it much more accessible.”

Lowe knew what he didn’t want the show to be about, and that was a start. “I didn’t want to do a reality show about our relationship, or play a thinly veiled version of myself, like Larry David did so well with Curb Your Enthusiasm. I was like, What are they really responding to? And I came up with that people were responding to a known figure, with a son who sees that person just as ‘Dad’ and is frustrated by his dad as every regular person is with their own parents. The known figure had to be a little oblivious ― a benevolent narcissist who was maybe slightly out of touch with the real world. That was the stew of the soup,” he explains.

Rob Lowe
SHIRT & PANTS: Louis Vuitton
SUNGLASSES: Oliver Peoples
CHAIN & RING: Sheryl Lowe Jewelry

Photo Credit: Randall Slavin

So Ellis Dragon, a man more likely to bathe in a vat of glitter than breathe fire, was born. In Lowe’s capable hands, he is both a caricature and not: a guy you can easily picture going to Burning Man, taking ayahuasca to discover the meaning of life, realizing he could have done it better, and immediately booking himself on a mushroom retreat at Joshua Tree with Elon Musk.

It’s a delight to watch Lowe go all in and totally commit himself to the role. He is fully realized in minutes: we’re first introduced to his character on magazine covers boldly emblazoned with headlines such as “Can this man save the world?” and “Ellis Dragon wants to f#ck plastic.” When we meet Ellis himself, he is in tears watching a YouTube video of a dog being pulled out of an icy lake, blubbering “It’s just so beautiful.” Minutes later, he’s in his underwear, dancing around his Malibu pad, the Pacific Ocean  his backyard. He’s moving and shaking to Scatman John’s infectious “Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)” — his routine one that combines  Hugh Grant’s jazz hands in Love Actually, Tom Cruise’s Risky Business sock slide, Chris Kattan/Will Ferrell’s A Night at the Roxbury head shakes, and something that’s purely his own. Whatever references he pulled, the most important thing is that he’s so obviously enjoying himself (or committed to making it look as if he is) —though it did take him a beat to get into the groove. “I was not looking forward to it,” he admits. “They had a choreographer and all that — but I was like, You know what, man, let me turn the music on and just do my thing, because it’s not supposed to be good. If I had to actually dance, if I had to do Black Swan, that would be something else. If I had to be John Travolta, that would be an unmitigated disaster. But lame, funny dancing I can handle.”
When I tell him he nailed it and that the audience would feel the obvious joy he brings to the scene, he smiles and notes, “You’ve got to commit. That is one thing I don’t have a problem with. The thing about comedy is that you just have to swing for the fences and not worry about where the ball is going to land.”

An apt choice of words, I think, especially given the aforementioned episode’s nude scene. “I’m always more willing to do things in comedy that I would never consider doing in drama,” he confides. “I’m up for anything. Being game, as they say, is the whole battle. [The writers] were like, ‘What about if you’re naked in the middle of your office?’ and I was like, ‘I believe the character would get naked in his office, for sure.’ That being said, it was definitely one of those things where I was like, Maybe six months ago I should have lightened up on the Häagen-Dazs, but it is what it is.”

It is great, especially because this particular scene takes place during daylight hours. Ellis is interrupted from his midday nudity by Anna, who has come to ask her boss a professional question. Shocked (and also not), she demands he cover himself up. When he’s ready for her to be out of his hair, he asks her to leave, sweetly and sadly saying, “Can you excuse me please? I’d like to be naked again and feel the cold air on my forlorn genitalia.” I mean. Comedic gold.

Outside of these two scenes, which Lowe knew would only further showcase his wonderfully quirky character, he had carte blanche to create Ellis and his world exactly the way he wanted to — which is a bit of a rarity in Hollywood. “The only limitations we have storytelling-wise is that we always need to hit the very small overlap between outlandish, the world-is-your-oyster possibilities, and the reality of grounding it so that it doesn’t become a complete cartoon and render Ellis totally unrelatable,” he notes.

He’s both confident and hopeful that Ellis will resonate with Netflix fans, — even if it’s a slow burn. “I mean, Parks and Recreation [which he starred in] was famously ‘meh’ for the first two years, and then it found its footing. It just took them longer than normal to earn the right to be as funny as they were eventually able to,” Lowe says. Of course he hopes that the show will return for a second season — not just because it’s his and he loves it, but because “the possibilities are endless: Ellis could be hanging out at the International Space Station or living in a mud hut in Papua New Guinea. He’s capable of anything, and that’s so rare to have in a character.”

Rob Lowe
Shirt + Pants: Nanushka
Tank Top: Mothfood Vintage
CHAIN: Sheryl Lowe Jewelry

Photo Credit: Randall Slavin

In as much as fans will love seeing the wacky and wonderful ways Ellis evolves, they’re going to relish seeing the similarities between Lowe and his new character. Like his free-spirited alter ego, Lowe says that he is “interested in the world, interested in people, very curious, very energetic, very positive” — but that what they’ll fall for most of all will be that interaction between father and son that initially won over the World Wide Web.

“Even I get caught up in it,” he confesses. “When I was editing and watching an episode back, seeing the real father-son stuff hits very close to the bone. It’s the kind of stuff you could never have if you weren’t actually father and son. And there’s something wonderfully voyeuristic about it, about picking the spots where I go, Is he really saying that to me, Rob, dad, or is he saying that to me as Jackson, in character?

The easy part was that Ellis would most definitely give the same kind of ‘dad’ advice Lowe would give to both of his boys: John Owen and eldest son Matthew Edward. “All of Ellis’ advice to Jackson would be my advice, but the blown-up, on steroids, comedic version of it, like when I’m telling him to engage his core or asking him what’s up with his hair or outfits. It’s a great mixture of authentically real and also wonderfully blown out of proportion.”

And the best part of the show? That would be getting to show his kid the ropes, but as an equal. “Working with Johnny is great on so many levels. As a father, it’s an indescribable feeling. Look: since the beginning of time, dads have always wanted their kids to follow in their footsteps and go into the family business, whether that’s a law practice, a doctor’s practice, a plumber, or a shopkeeper — you name it — carrying on the family business is an American tradition, in a way. So, I love that part of it, but as a creator-actor-producer, to have a partner like that who also happens to be my son is amazing because we share the same brain when it comes to all things creative. We have the same sense of humor, we respond to the same things comedically, we’re irked by the same things … so if any issues come up on any given day, particularly when I’m doing two shows at once like I am now, I know that when I’m not there the show is in as good hands as it would be if I was there, and probably even better because he brings the one thing that I can’t to the table — and that’s the vision of youth,” Lowe explains.

The true beauty of it is that this happy mixture is his, and right now, the sky is the limit; the possibilities for expansion and creation are endless. “Think about it like you’re building your dream house: a lot of times, you come in and your house is a remodel, and that’s what acting is like. When I signed on to 9-1-1: Lone Star, it was a remodel; they wrote this part, and they cast me, and it’s good, but I didn’t design it. This time, I’m designing, so I might as well design what I want, and what I wanted was a larger-than-life, genius-slash-idiot man-child who is completely unaware of how he comes off,” Lowe shares, adding, “John Owen would be the first to tell you that I have all of those elements in my own personal life.” He pauses and grins. “He also says the best acting I’ve done on the show is that I’ve changed my hairstyle.”

Hey, you’ve got to give the people what they want, right?

Rob Lowe

Photo Credit: Randall Slavin

 ROB LOWE IS SITTING IN HIS TRAILER on the Fox Studio lot in Century City on a break from filming 9-1-1: Lone Star, his Jack Russell terrier, Oscar, perched above his head like an extremely fluffy hairpiece. “Just keep talking,” he tells me in hushed tones. “I want to take his picture, and he hates his picture being taken.”

When Oscar foils Lowe’s attempts at a cute family photo for the umpteenth time during our February Zoom, he gives up. “I’m gonna brag for a second,” he says. “I’m going to show you where I was this weekend.”

He holds his phone close to the screen to show a picture of him riding a monster wave. It appears as if he were surfing Pipeline in Hawaii, but he tells me the shot was snapped much closer to home, at the Kelly Slater Wave Co. Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California.
I squint at the photo, tell him it looks cool, and raise an eyebrow. “Was that a humble brag?” I ask.

He smiles. “Ah, to be humble,” he says. “Sometimes I think humility is overrated.” (Which, sidebar here, is totally a line that needs to appear in the second season of Unstable.)

Lowe tells me about this weekend diversion — one that he really didn’t have time for but went for anyway. “It’s one of the most technically challenging waves in the world, and I was one of the oldest guys there,” he admits.

I snort at him. He knows what he looks like, and “old” would not be the adjective anyone would use to describe Rob Lowe. Which I say.

His response: “People always ask, ‘What is it about you that makes you remain so youthful?’ And the answer is not genetics, although my dad does look young too. It’s the inquisitive, curious spirit I was blessed with. And I embrace that.” He pauses and adds, “It is the defining characteristic of a 2-year-old. ‘Daddy, why?’ Well, why not? I say. Seriously, all kids do is ask questions. So really, I’m really an overgrown 2-year-old,” he laughs.

He’s interested in everything, and he thinks it’s served his four- decade-long career well. I would have to agree, because Lowe has truly done it all, with roles that run the gamut of mediums, from film to television to theater. He has been nominated for two Emmys, six Golden Globes, and four Screen Actors Guild awards, winning two. He has starred in classic movies such as St. Elmo’s Fire, The Outsiders, and About Last Night…, as well as fan-favorite television series such as The West Wing and Parks and Recreation. He’s had scene-stealing moments in projects like Behind the Candelabra, Austin Powers, and Tommy Boy; has written two memoirs, Stories I Only Tell My Friends and Love Life, both of which are New York Times Best Sellers. He took his first memoir and made it into a touring show called Stories I Only Tell My Friends: Live; hosts the highly acclaimed podcast Literally! With Rob Lowe; stars in and produces Fox’s 9-1-1: Lone Star; and is the only actor to date that has ever owned a major movie studio in Miramax.

Rob Lowe
JACKET: Louis Vuitton

Photo Credit: Randall Slavin

But it’s that innate sense of curiosity that has led to all these diverse ventures, and he’s sure that it will be this that keeps his career going until the very end. And it has the added bonus of serving as a never-ending fountain of youth, so there’s that.

Now he’s telling me that, thanks to Ellis, he wants to explore some woo-woo. “Listen,” he says seriously. “I really want to do a sound bath. I want to know what happens when they hit those gongs. I’m so down for that!” When I ask why (not going to lie, it sounds kind of dreadful), he responds, “Well, again, it’s my curiosity more than anything. It’s like, there’s almost nothing you could think of that I wouldn’t be curious about. I’m always fascinated when I meet people and I ask them, ‘Hey, did you hear about this?’ and they say, ‘No,’ and go right back to what they were doing. That could never be me. As with anything in life, not only do I want to know about it, but I want to experience it.”

He says this curiosity has led to the greatest moments of his life ― shared experiences with family and friends that were born of a desire to know more, to do more, to be more. “The greatest luxury in life is the ability to make and create your own memories. It’s going to Bora Bora or the Marshall Islands with my wife and kids, and just being together. Or doing things like going to the Wave Ranch. It’s creating an adventure, memories, and having the ability to do that with the people you love — that’s what it’s really all about for me — it’s the best part of life. Because you have to be willing and curious to create those memories. You’ve got to get your ass off the couch; you have to live to live. And I’ve never, ever regretted extending myself to go and try something new — never.”

“Is that the secret to your success?” I muse, and he nods. “It is, 100 percent. There’s a fearlessness, a level of commitment, a curiosity that leads you to make career choices. Listen, designing a show about your own life would be a no-fly zone for many people, and it’s not something I wanted to do necessarily. But I was like, Drive through it. Drive through the fear; drive through the insecurities. People have always thought I’m this, or I’m that, but you’ve just got to keep moving forward. I reached a point a while back where I figured the jury’s in on me, you know. The jury’s been in for years and they love me, hate me, whatever it is. But it’s like, [these opinions don’t really affect me] one way or another anymore, so I might as well be doing what I like to do. And ironically, the more I do that, the better it works.”

Case in point, his two current roles. They couldn’t be more different, and they also couldn’t be more him. Having that kind of freedom? Well, he wouldn’t change it for the world: freedom is power.

“I’m back as a fireman today. I’m the fire captain. I’m gonna go save some lives,” he says happily. “It’s really the best. I get to be an iconic romantic hero one day and a nerdy, super geek, tech dad another. It’s the yin and the yang. It’s surf and turf, it really is. They say you can’t have both.” He smiles, looking like the curious 2-year-old kid he has inside, the kid that’s having his cake and eating it, too. “I’m having both.”  

Rob Lowe
SHIRT: Louis Vuitton
SUNGLASSES: Oliver Peoples RING: Sheryl Lowe Jewelry

Photo Credit: Randall Slavin