TV & Film

'Behind The Candelabra:' Rob Lowe On His Character's Crazy Face And Fear It Would End His Career


Rob Lowe thought the script for "Behind the Candelabra" was great and he jumped at the chance to work with stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, who play Liberace and his lover Scott Thorson in the glitzy, perceptive movie, directed by Steven Soderbergh.

But Lowe's character in the HBO film, plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz, looks like a cat. A cat with shiny skin and lustrous, early '80s hair. The absurdity of the situation was not lost on Lowe.

"There were days when I would go, 'This is the end, for sure, of my career,'" Lowe said in a recent interview. "When I walked on the set and looked at Michael with his fat suit and caftan, Matt in his velour, butt-hugger shorts and Farrah wig, and me as Startz -- I said, 'It’s over for all of us. This is it.'"

The film is not a career-ender for anyone, certainly not for Damon, Douglas, Lowe and fellow cast members Debbie Reynolds, Dan Ackroyd and Scott Bakula. (Many will be drawn to "Candelabra" by the spectacle of Liberace's lavish shows and his gaudily appointed homes, but for me, the sight of Bakula's magnificent mustache was more than worth the price of admission.) Still, as Lowe said, the fact that no major studio would make the film, which follows the progress of Liberace and Throrson's glittery but secret relationship, is a sad comment on the state of the modern movie industry. As the actor noted, if the script for "The Outsiders" -- Lowe's first major film -- surfaced today, no studio would want to make it unless all the characters were zombies.

There are no zombies or vampires in the tale of Thorson, Liberace and their strange-looking plastic surgeon, but there's quite a bit of subversive commentary on the toxic nature of celebrity and the ways in which both fame and secrecy can distort intimacy and corrode good intentions. Startz may look odd, but he thinks he's actually helping his clients, and Lowe handles the strangeness of the man and the excesses of the era with the kind of light touch he also displays on NBC's "Parks and Recreation."

Below, Lowe talks about "Candelabra's" glittering surfaces and surprising depths, about how he transformed himself into the tight-faced surgeon and about the kind of LA guy he modeled his character on.

The following interview was edited and slightly condensed.

My first reaction on watching "Behind the Candelabra" was to think it was smart and interesting and fun. And my second reaction was wanting to speak to you, because you certainly made an impression in that role. Dr. Jack was a trip.

Thank you. I'm so glad to know that that character could punch through all of the amazing elements that are in that movie.

Can you talk a little bit about how you actually transformed into that character?

The makeup, as difficult as it was in terms of the pain level of getting my face pulled around and trying to find the look, was really tough, but we had a great visual team on the movie. I think that's the gang that Steven works with all the time, and they did a really good job.

But finding the character was more important even than the look, because I'm coming in to this after [the rest of the cast and crew] has been up and running, and the tone of the movie is so specific -- anybody could slip off the edge really easily. The tone is pushed right to the edge without going over the edge. Matt and Michael were there every day and had the ability to really get comfortable. I was just jetting in and jetting out, so I was a little concerned about fitting in to the movie in the appropriate way, if that makes any sense at all.

That makes a lot of sense. And I think that you make an excellent point, because the character is kind of comic relief, but the concerns that these men have about their appearance, and the fragility of their egos -- that's one of linchpins of the movie. I think you found the right tone, I guess that's what I'm trying to say.

Well, it's such a great screenplay, number one. So a lot of the battle is done for you by Richard [LaGravenese's] amazing screenplay. But my inclination was to lean in to the absurdity of it and the hypocrisy and the funny of the entire situation. That's the tone [in one scene] when I'm sort of looking at [Scott] like an alien. [Another director might] take you aside and go, "You know, I think that might be a bit much." And Steven was really game for bringing the comedy out.

There are definitely comedic moments, but you also feel sorry for these people, because it seems as though they're beautiful and wealthy and untouchable, but ultimately they're very insecure and they turn to drugs and plastic surgery to keep up a façade. So there's pathos there as well.

Right. That's what's so great about Michael's and Matt's work in this, and I tried to do it on my own end -- they're real people. They're not caricatures and they're not cartoons, and all of the things that could potentially make them freaks don't stand in the way of people being able to understand them.

When you talk about the specific things that were done to create that look, were there any prosthetics that were applied? Or was it a matter of pulling things around, as you said?

It was matter of pulling things around. I had new teeth that I used and they did this very specific type of makeup. There weren't any photos of Dr. Jack Startz at that time -- no one in the research department could find a great photo of him when we started. So we sort of swung blind at it, and all we had to go on was the two lines in [Scott Thorson's] book, "Behind the Candelabra," that say Dr. Jack Startz was -- I think the quote is "face pulled extremely tight and skin so shiny it made him look like a doll." The shiny skin was a great concoction of a very particular type of makeup.

Then as I was doing the camera tests, spending time in the makeup [allowed me to] discover interesting things, like when your eyebrows are pulled up like Jack's are, your eyelids are inclined to open. So with my eyebrows pulled up, [the effect] is really freaky.

I think what one of the most disturbing parts of the film is just the knowledge that people with this much plastic surgery can't quite close their eyes.

There are 10 lines in this movie that could be on T-shirts -- one of them is definitely when Liberace says, "Will I ever be able to close my eyes?" and Startz says, "Not exactly. You'll always be able to see people's reactions when they see how wonderful you look."

As an actor, that's a big part of your toolbox -- the facial expressions that you're able to work with. So was having with these limitations inhibiting? How did you work around that?

No, it actually was more freeing. Although his face is definitely frozen, I was able to find ways to look that just made Matt laugh. There's a scene where [Scott] comes to me -- he wants to have something additional done. The scene ends, and we are just literally making faces. I mean, that’s what I love about Steven. When I saw [the film,] I thought, "I can’t believe he not only put some of that in, but he underlined it." I mean, that scene just ends in the middle of us making faces. But it made Steve laugh and it made Matt laugh.

Matt wouldn’t even look at me. He really wouldn’t. He got the point where he would look at his feet while he acted with me. And we had a parlor game of who I reminded people of.

Who did Dr. Startz remind you of? Who was your leading candidate?

I designed the whole guy after a sort of template of a man that I would see in the mid-'80s, [guys with] with semi-good seats at the Laker games. It'd be, like, an East Coast transplant -- he’s that tough guy, but he's been in L.A. too long, he's drunk the Kool-Aid and now he's really off the reservation. Of an indeterminate age and sexuality.

And really, really tan -- like, he has an almost frightening tan.

Yeah. Absolutely. If Margaret Mead in her heyday were to come and do an anthropological look at Los Angeles, absolutely, that is a very specific type. Happily or unhappily, I think they may be endangered.

I hope not. I live in the Midwest, and I come out to LA a few times a year and I just love to see these kind of people, in a weird way. I call them the gargoyles, and I say that with fondness, because it’s just not something that I see in my everyday life. And I kind a love that they enjoy their own look, you know? They seem to be happy, I guess.

Oh, absolutely. Are you kidding me? Dr. Jack -- he’s the cat's meow.

Quite literally. He looks a like a cat.

Yeah. A little bit. He’s got a little cat thing going, and yet he talks like he might be more at home in "Goodfellas." He’s like, [Brooklyn-esque voice], "I can do that." It’s a weird [mixture].

I mean, literally, there were days when I would go, "This is the end, for sure, of my career." When I walked on the set and looked at Michael with his fat suit and caftan, Matt in his velour butt-hugger shorts and Farrah wig, and me as Startz -- I said, "It’s over for all of us. This is it."

"This is the end of our careers, but what an ending."

I was like, “We used to be hot guys. What has become of us?”

As much as there’s that element of just complete bizarreness to what was going on, the film has this interesting subtext too. This is also something I saw in [Soderbergh's] "Magic Mike" -- the idea of men being being insecure about their bodies or how they're treated a certain way because how they look. I think Steven has done something really subversive, in that he's wrapped up these questions in this candy-colored, shiny package. But there's something serious at the heart of this film, some ideas about intimacy and celebrity and how people are insecure even within that cocoon.

I agree. That the film would have levels that are deeply surprising is not surprising, because Steven is the smartest guy in any room he’s in and operating on a completely different level.

Steven had so many ideas that he put into this, and it has such a high-level cast. Is it kind of sad to you that this kind of film could not find a home at a big studio?

It’s actually shocking, and it's all you need to know about the current state of the movie business. And unfortunately, the story only gets sadder with the happy result of the movie. It’s now pretty clear that if it had been a movie, it would certainly be on the best-of lists of the year and maybe nominated for best picture based on the reviews that it’s gotten. So here’s Hollywood passing not only on Michael, Matt, Steven and this amazing screenplay, but on an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often, to make one of the best pictures of the year.

I’m both encouraged that HBO did this and also, as you said, very discouraged that it was so hard for this particular film to get made. You would’ve thought studios would be just dying to have this cast and this kind of story.

Dying. But, you know, I went to a movie last night, and I don’t really go see "movies" anymore, because they’re not made for me. Why would I? I get the message that [movie marketing is] trying to say, and that message is, "We’re not interested in you." And you know what? I’m in a place in my life where I go, "Message received, delivered and accepted."

That said, I actually did go see a big movie last night. And I had a great time, but I realized it literally is Disney World. It's like, when you would go to Disney World and sit in a kind of theater you’ve never been in before, with seats up to the rafters and they’d give you [special] glasses. It has nothing to do with the era where you would go to a theater and see "Network" or "Heaven Can Wait" or "The Electric Horseman" or "The Way We Were." It has nothing to do with that -- it’s Disneyland.

I was just thinking the other day, would a movie like "Kramer vs. Kramer" or "The Outsiders" get made today?

"The Outsiders" would be made if, instead of disenfranchised youth, we were disenfranchised zombies or vampires. And Francis Ford Coppola would not be directing it, that’s for sure.

Liberace's [life], as weird as it is, actually makes you think about your own life. And the movies that the studios make are designed for you to not think about your life.

Running through “Behind the Candelabra,” there's this sadness about how Liberace was ultimately trapped by his life. His connections to other people weren't fully realized and it was sad that he couldn’t truly just be himself and own who he was.

Yeah. The movie works on a bunch of different levels, and one of the more beautiful ones is, he was a trailblazer for artists who came after him who are comfortable [with who they are]. Not only are comfortable with who they are, but -- and I don’t say this in a pejorative way -- use who they are to be even more successful. As opposed to hiding who they are to be more successful.

On The Huffington Post, I saw a thing on the music business, on this Ke$ha character drinking her own pee. Can you imagine? That’s the era we live in now. And Liberace was afraid for people to know who he loved. That’s how far we’ve come.

Turning to your work on "Parks and Recreation," was signing on to do that show part of a conscious effort to turn your career more toward comedic projects?

It was really just embracing the opportunity to be able to do both drama and comedy at a high level with people that I love. It was always a dream for me to have the kind of career where I wasn't pigeonholed as a dramatic actor or a comedic actor. And to get to that point you have to be able to actually do both. So when the opportunities came up to focus more on comedy, I was really happy about it. And I’ve been really blessed to work with amazing collaborators, because it’s easier to be funny when there are really funny people around you.

It seems like next season when the show comes back Chris might be faced with fatherhood along with Ron Swanson, and it made me wonder, would Chris and Ron be the kind of people who trade parenting tips, or just kind of secretly feel horror about how the other person is raising their child?

Anytime Chris and Ron are together it always makes me laugh. One of the things I like about "Parks" just in general is the combinations of characters -- it’s one of the rare shows where you can put any two characters together and it’s gold. Whether it’s Chris and Ron, Ann and Chris, Ron and Tom. The sort of mix and match -- all of it is genius. So I’m really looking forward to seeing how not only Chris and Ron handle it, but how everybody handles it, because every character brings so much. It’s going to be a cool year.

I enjoy the fact that the writers are really willing to put the characters through changes. Chris went through kind of a crisis and had a lot of therapy last season.

Chris had a huge arc last year. I mean, he was one step away from sanitarium at the beginning of the year. And now he’s laissez-faire about stuff that [previously] would’ve put him in bed for a week.

What's interesting is that he seemed very together when he first joined the show, and then he was revealed to be kind of a mess. That’s a great arc.

I’m glad you like it. Chris has been such a tremendous gift. I've been doing a lot of traveling, and when you get out of Hollywood and you meet people who are actually watching the show, their enthusiasm is so gratifying. It really is.

Note: I review "Behind the Candelabra" and talk about it in depth with critic Ryan McGee in this week's Talking TV podcast, which can be found here, on iTunes and below.

"Behind the Candelabra" airs 9 p.m. EDT Sunday on HBO.

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