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Interview: Rob Lowe Brings a Gun to a Knife Fight

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Actor and Author Rob Lowe. Portrait by Leslie Hassler.

If Mother Theresa were a secret hoarder and Gandhi sniffed glue, would it make their idealism and the transformation they brought to millions any less valuable?

This is the question that political strategist Paul Turner (Rob Lowe) faces as he tries to get his candidate another four years in office, in the film Knife Fight. Rob Lowe (The Outsiders, St. Elmo's Fire, About Last Night, Wayne's World, West Wing, Brothers and Sisters, Parks and Recreation) with his quick-draw delivery and insider knowledge of how public image can work for or against you, is a total natural for this role; at once wise, witty, and extremely funny.

Turner's candidate, Eric McCormack (Will and Grace) playing a Kentucky Senator (reminiscent of John Edwards) complains, "I thought the only way for me to lose this election was to get caught in bed with a dead girl... or a live boy!" Turner is running out of time to turn this scandal around for his candidate, leaving him no option but to warn his assistant, "We're going to the mattresses!"

Bill Guttentag, two-time Oscar winning director, (You Don't Have to Die, Twin Towers) initially wanted to make a documentary about what goes on behind the closed doors of politics. But after realizing that he would never be allowed access, he decided to make a fictional account instead and enlisted one of our most savvy political strategists, Chris Lehane, to co-write the script with him.

Bill says, "Everything is planned in politics. Things just don't happen. They are planned by invisible hands." This movie is the Wizard of Oz, if we were allowed behind the curtain to sit next to the man with his hands on the controls. Or, as Chris calls it, "The room BEHIND the room".

The film boasts a very talented cast: Lowe's character is aided by Richard Schiff (West Wing) as his shady operative, his idealistic, sharp, asian, lesbian assistant and powerful acting newcomer Jamie Chung. Eric McCormack plays the scandal-ridden Senator Becker, Saffron Burrows (Boston Legal) plays Becker's wife, Julie Bowen (Modern Family) is an ambitious reporter, and Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) portrays an idealistic doctor who wants to run for office. Even legendary lawyer Alan Dershowitz (Reversal of Fortune, Chutzpah) makes an appearance.

Given that Bill and Chris collectively probably know everyone in both politics and Hollywood, did either of them fear that the people they had known would recognize themselves in the story? Chris says that the film's "characters are really mosaics"; tiny parts of many people. But he also joked that "Many people in office, elected officials and candidates have found themselves in similar scandals, so on some level they would probably all recognize themselves!"

In life, Chris speaks so quickly that you can almost see the wheels of his brilliant mind turning; if only our eyes could register something moving at the speed of light. It's easy to see why he was selected to be the Political Advisor to President Clinton and the Press Secretary to Vice-President Gore. If he ever chooses a side, you'd better hope it's yours.

During the making of this film, a political scandal of almost every variety came to light: Anthony Weiner, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Schwarzenegger and even John Edwards. It was a very "life imitates art, imitates life, imitates art" moment. The only scandal they stepped away from filming to watch was Weiner-gate: Anthony Weiner was a very promising U.S. Representative, serving NY's 9th Congressional District, until the day that he accidentally tweeted his, well, wiener. Chris says, "We called the lunch-break that day, the Wiener Roast!"

Which of course begged the question of whether one of the best political strategists of our time felt he could have kept Anthony Weiner in office. "Yeah, I do actually. He needed full disclosure at the beginning, with all the embarrassing and unflattering details. Not a good story for him, certainly, but one that would have been survivable. The public has the ability to be extremely forgiving; they understand that people make mistakes and they'll enjoy it, the same way that we rubberneck when there's been an accident on the road. If they had presented it in an honest and straightforward way? Wiener could have survived. It's not exactly the crime, it's the cover-up."

Chris and Bill have a book coming out December 1 and available for Pre-Order, published by Macmillan, called The Ten Commandments of Damage Control. A kind of non-fiction version of the movie, which discusses the Weiner case, and many others.

Chris laughs as he remembers being told that Rob Lowe played him better than he played himself. But isn't this the gift of the great performer? Spinning someone else's facility with language into gold? With this expectation, it is something of a shock to meet Rob Lowe. Yes, he has backed his favorite politicians over the years, but many famous actors lend their names to causes. How much does Rob Lowe really know? A huge amount, as it turns out. Lowe is incredibly smart, very articulate, and extremely knowledgable about the world of politics.

Many famous actors, in person, are uncomfortable as themselves, and as a result, slightly withdrawn. Some even look like they're in physical pain when asked to talk about themselves; like they've been forced to eat some very exotic and slightly poisonous seafood. Lowe is the opposite. He's had a career that started early and has now spanned some decades. Not that you'd ever guess it to look at him.

Given that we've watched him for so many years, of course when you speak to him you feel like you already know him. We all do. But the remarkable thing about him, is that he makes you feel like he already knows you. His fame, for him, equals a kind of powerful short-hand, where you're continuing a conversation that you have somehow already begun.

He has an ability; a kind of warmth and connectedness about him that transcends words of description. Whatever "It" is? He has it. And however it is that we are all made, either by lightning bolt or assembly line, Rob Lowe probably has a little more "it" than is really fair.

Chris Lehane talks about the last few weeks of a presidential campaign being like a "Knife-fight in a phone booth." And then there is the larger question of: How do you help a personally flawed political candidate who has the potential to do enormous good?

The thing that attracted me to the movie was a speech about exactly that issue. How can I believe in some of these politicians with their enormous flaws? And my character, for him, the answer is: If having flaws discredited you from public service, what would you say to FDR, who carried on an affair his entire career?

It has been speculated that all of the presidents may have had affairs, except Nixon and Truman.

And, we could argue, that maybe they should have!

(laughter) I always joke that no one would have Nixon.

(laughter) Exactly!

With political candidates, sometimes it seems that those with the greatest strengths often seem to have a kind of Achilles heel. Do you think we all as humans have an Achilles heel, or do you think that those who run for political office have a kind of largesse, in both areas?

I think it's that huge strengths beget huge weaknesses. I find this also goes for people who are successful in drug and alcohol rehabilitation. That their very flaws are also their greatest strengths. You don't get one without the other, I find. You see this in those two areas most explicitly: People in politics, and people in recovery.

How did this project first come to you?

Bill, who co-wrote the script with Chris, reached out to me and sent me the screenplay and I recognized Chris's name immediately. (Lowe has been involved on a political level for years) I was really intrigued to see what Chris would have written. I was a little reticent about playing something in the political world-- just because I had a great run on The West Wing, and even on a show like Brothers and Sisters, I played a political figure. But this was behind the scenes; behind the curtain. I was the guy making it all happen. The world view and the arias that they wrote had such a mix of feeling authentic--- like the people who wrote this really knew what went on behind the scenes, as opposed to a screenwriter trying to imagine it.

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Actors Jamie Chung, Richard Schiff, Rob Lowe. Writer/director Bill Guttentag, Co-writer Chris Lehane. Portrait by Leslie Hassler.

That's exactly what makes this so fascinating. You don't have a political strategist, you have the political strategist; the Clinton administration advisor. If anyone were to know what went on in "the room behind the room" it's this man.

And he really comes across in the script and in turn it's also very funny. What I really like about this film is that movies in this genre, even the ones that work like Wag the Dog, have a kind of cynicism at their heart. And even though the characters behave cynically in Knife Fight, as a lot of people do in politics, what I like about this project is that it's an unabashed love letter to the process. And that's really rare. A lot of political films have this feeling to them "Oh, aren't we jaded, aren't we cynical?" And this film has a very optimistic heartbeat.

The title of the film is Knife Fight, which implies dirty and underhanded tactics. However, in this case, it's the dirtiest fight to achieve the most noble means; help for millions.

Exactly. It's funny, you've picked two things that I state explicitly in my two favorite speeches in the movie.

This film really outlines that our great leaders are our greatest gifts. But in the new world of circus-media, what they're doing in their bedrooms and in their private lives is taking precedence over a larger importance -- what they do for us.

It's an imperfect process full of imperfect people. But it's still the best process, and often-times, it's filled with the best people.

That's wonderful. Your director Bill said something interesting: that whatever scene we see politically is "controlled by invisible hands" plotting it. So your character is, in essence, the invisible hands.

Chris -- you know, one of his nicknames and this is meant as both a compliment and as a representation of how feared he can be is "Master of Disaster"! I'm playing the idealized version of Chris. He's willing to go to any lengths to get his guy elected. But what people don't realize is that he really believes that the ends justify the means because the guy is going to do great things for masses of people. Some might quibble with the things Paul's willing to do, and that's the fun of the film and the provocateur movie element, but the character's point of view is, "If I've got to blow away three or four people to save three or four million people, I can sleep well at night. I can live with that."

We also have the character of Penelope, played by Carrie Anne Moss (The Matrix) who wants to enter the world of politics but is almost naive and extraordinarily pure of heart. Can someone actually be too good for politics?

Initially, that's the reason that Paul wants to work for Penelope. He flat-out says, "You're too good a person." They're running a clip on David Letterman tonight where my character says "This is a blood sport." If you want to get into politics, you have to be the sort of person who would "bring a gun to a knife fight." If you are not willing to do that, stop before you begin.

Do you feel like this film is about balancing the means with the ends?

At the end of the day, that's absolutely what it's about.

See the Knife Fight Trailer

Book Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control

Rob Lowe's Autobiography, Stories I Only Tell My Friends: