Rob Lowe on His Number-One Rule for Storytelling and Why He's Debuting a 'Director's Cut' of His Memoir in Mesa

Rob Lowe presents a director's cut of his memoir.
Rob Lowe presents a director's cut of his memoir.
Sam Jones

Did you know Rob Lowe spent his senior year in high school becoming a father?

Okay, not in real life but in the cautionary tale, Schoolboy Father, an installment in ABC’s Afterschool Specials series. That drama aired back in 1980 and was one of his earliest roles. The ‘80s were a good decade for the actor, who made movie upon movie, most of them pretty big hits, like The Outsiders, Class, About Last Night, and The Hotel New Hampshire.

He showed that he could be both snarky and serious. His drive and his chops have kept him working steadily since. Lowe's had plenty of lengthy runs on some quality television shows, too. You might know him as Chris Traeger from Parks and Recreation or Dean Sanderson on The Grinder. Your older siblings might like him from his days as Sam Seaborn on The West Wing.

Basically, If you've watched television the last 40 years, there’s probably a Rob Lowe show you've watched.

Of course, working in show business doesn’t come without a lot of stories: some poignant, some funny, some juicy. Lowe thought it would be great to tell some of his in a book. In 2011, he released Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography. It outlines a life lived nearly entirely in the world of entertainment, going back to his days as a child actor in Ohio. It’s loaded with a mix of career-related tales, as well as moments from his at-home life, away from the spotlight. He followed that with Love Life, which offers another round of insightful stories from his history.

Now, Lowe has decided that he is ready to fuse his penchant for sharing his experiences with his love of storytelling to deliver his stories to a live audience. He will be at Mesa Arts Center for a one-night-only performance on Friday, May 12. We caught up with him to find out more about why he’s doing this, what show-goers can expect, what else he’s up to, and why he chose Mesa.

Hi. How’s Rob Lowe today?
Excellent, thank you.

So, you’re coming to Mesa and only Mesa?
Yep. Everybody says one night only, but I’m the only one who really means it [laughs].

Why Mesa? No offense to Mesa, of course. It just seems so specific for the one-night-only event.
It’s the theater. It’s fantastic. It’s beautiful, and it’s a great audience base. You know, I wanted somewhere where I could really talk to people. I didn’t want to do N.Y. or LA or Chicago. I just wanted to talk to real people.

I see. I thought maybe you had some family here or something.
Nope, not yet, but I’ll figure it out, give me time [laughs] – maybe even by the time the show’s done.

People are jazzed; the books have been so well-received.
They have. So, the impetus for the show is twofold. The books have been such a good experience for me and they continue to stir conversations with fans, and I wanted to take that to the next level. The other thing is I just wanted to be out of the bubble of Hollywood and Manhattan and just be out and interacting with the people who enjoy my work, so Mesa fits — it ticks a lot of boxes.

What made you want to take your personal stories to a live audience? Have you done any storytelling events at all?
I haven’t, but I love being onstage. It’s where I started. Most recently, Aaron Sorkin and I did a revival of his play A Few Good Men in London. It’s really hard to find time to commit to a theatrical run, so I wanted to find time do something for myself that would be fun and challenging, and also interesting to the audience. I also wanted it to be something that I could do whenever I wanted to keep my chops up in terms of being live on stage. I think that’s a critical muscle for an actor to work. I’ve gotten feedback that people want to hear the impressions, they wanna hear me tell the stories. I am also bringing other surprises. It’s not just a live reading of the book. In fact, there are very few stories planned for that night that are in the book. It’s more of a leaping off point to take it to the next level. I look at it as more of a look behind the curtain at all of the movies and TV shows I’ve been in, and also what I’ve observed from being in the culture from a very special vantage point for four decades.

Are you hoping to make this a regular thing?
If I enjoy it as much as I think I’m going to, then I would want to do more of them. One of the great things about the entertainment business right at this moment is there are no rules and there are so many different platforms if you’re a legitimate storyteller. This is one area where I’ve always admired people who’ve done it, I’m a fan of many people who’ve done it, and I always felt like I had something to offer, much like the book. I’ve always loved celebrity memoirs – I’m a big fan. I always felt like I would like to dip my toe in that pool and do my own example of that.

Since this is a new avenue for you, do you think the audience reaction will determine if this will be a regular thing. Or maybe you’d just let it help you shape or reshape the show?
I think you hit the nail on the head there. I mean, the audience reactions are critical — in the end, that’s what it’s all about. One of the things, though, that I learned while doing 186 consecutive shows of A Few Good Men was to not ever mistake silence for lack of attention or boredom. Every audience acts in totally different ways. We would have a couple of different lines in that show that would get huge laughs eight out of 10 times, and then the other two times, dead silence. Each audience has its own personality, and you can’t judge Friday night’s audience like Wednesday’s audience. This is a long-winded way of saying that I try to go out in front of people with no expectation of reaction and as long as it’s an authentic experience, whether it’s quiet or noisy or raucous, that’s beside the point.

You’ll be telling new stories at the show that aren’t in the book?
Yeah, sort of what I like to call the extended director’s-cut versions. I have a story of going to the Playboy mansion the first time as a testosterone-addled, kamikaze-drinking 20-year-old kid, which in the book is more pared down, so for the show, it becomes more of a centerpiece. There’s some pretty good impersonations of some people I met there which really come to life when you see them in person. I think a lot of it is that it will be interactive and personal. I’m gonna do a Q&A, which I love. I actually do a lot of speaking around the country, for charity and things like that, and inevitably the Q&A is where everyone has the most fun.

Your many years of interview experience is showing, I was just going to ask if there’d be a Q&A and you beat me to it. You’re making my job easy today.
[Laughs] I am a sound bite machine!

Telling the stories has to have been somewhat cathartic for you. Is that why you decided to follow up your first book with another? Hollywood life has to be pretty intense.
Writing the books and doing this show serve a number of things for me. One is that it reminds me of why I got in this business in the first place – to be a storyteller. And to transport people to a different time and place out of their daily lives, at the same time reminding me and the audience that everyone’s a lot more similar than you think. I’m going to tell a story about meeting Tony Blair, but at the end of it you’re gonna come away with “he’s just like me,” and I think that’s a cool thing to be able to do.

Has anything you’ve written about negatively impacted any of your personal relationships?
No, because I have a very specific recipe in writing the books — you name the name, you dish the gossip, you don’t shy away from the stuff that, let’s face it, everybody wants. But you do it in a way that’s very high road so no one gets hurt. The number-one rule is this: In any given story, the person who has to come out looking the most ridiculous has to be me.

That’s a great formula. It doesn’t read like an expose. If you have more stories, will it be a book again? Or have you thought about other platforms; possibly a podcast?
I have thought of all of it, and actually this show was in lieu of the third book. Hopefully it will evolve. In Mesa, I’m going to learn a lot. I’m definitely going to learn what’s more and less interesting. Like with the book, I’m always shocked that the most repeated, most shared, most talked about thing I wrote is something I almost didn’t write because I thought nobody would care because my experience is too common. It’s the essay about sending my son going to college. It was a complete eye-opener. I almost didn’t write it. Plenty of people send their kids to college, what’s special about my experience? But, I did it and to this day people stop me all the time to talk about it. People have said that it moved them and helped them get through their own experience sending their son or daughter off to college — you only learn that stuff by putting it out there. My hope is that Mesa will teach me what works and then this will be an organic, living, changing thing that I can keep doing, whereas a book is done when you’re done with it.

I read you have an interesting new TV project in the works.
I’m really excited about it — talking about working in different arenas. I’m a big fan of unscripted television like Deadliest Catch, Ghost Hunters, and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, so I created a show that my sons and I are doing together where we get to travel the country to investigate things whether Sasquatch is real or what the most haunted building in the U.S. is — all those things I grew up being obsessed with.

A myths and legends kind of thing?
Yeah, legends and mysteries. It’s a bit like that old show In Search Of that I grew up watching. It’s going to be on A&E in July. We just finished it and we had a blast. It’s called The Lowe Files. It was really fun. If nothing else, a great opportunity to spend time with my boys having great adventures. By the way, we found some crazy stuff. Nothing in the show is faked, so there are some episodes that people who’ve seen the show cannot believe we’ve found what we’ve found; they think we must have faked it. There are other episodes where we didn’t find anything, and that’s half the fun of it. It’s really authentic, and it’s fathers and sons on a crazy adventure that few people get a chance to do.

Sincerity and authenticity seem to be a part of your mission.
It’s not only my mission in my work but also in my life. I’m sober now 26 years, and each year you learn more and more. As I’ve marched the road of recovery, I’ve realized one’s life work is to live their authentic life — not the life that their parents want for them, or their spouse, or anyone — but the life you’re meant to live. Things I do in my career help me to advance that investigation in my personal life.

Rob Lowe is scheduled to perform at Mesa Arts Center on Friday, May 12. Tickets are $30 to $165 through the Mesa Arts Center box office.

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