Rob Lowe chooses the straight and narrow path to achieve his goals

January 06, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

Rob Lowe has gone from the Brat Pack to the Brit Pack.

The one-time teen heartthrob, now 28, stars opposite British acting heavyweights Maggie Smith and Natasha Richardson in Tennessee Williams' Gothic one-act drama "Suddenly Last Summer," premiering tonight on PBS' "Great Performances" (9 o'clock, Channel 22).

Richard Eyre of Britain's renowned National Theatre directed the production, which was shot in London in September. (Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift starred in the 1959 film version).

Not a bad gig for a guy whose career nearly came to a screeching halt in 1989 after the publicity about a video he filmed while in Atlanta for the 1988 Democratic National Convention, showing him in compromising positions with a 16-year-old girl and a young woman.

He seems to have rebounded. The star of "St. Elmo's Fire" and ". . . About Last Night" has had a pretty good year: Besides "Suddenly," he played a slimy TV executive in last year's mega-hit film "Wayne's World" and made his Broadway debut -- to mixed reviews -- in the comedy "A Little Hotel on the Side."

In a recent interview, Mr. Lowe said after doing "Wayne's World" he wanted his next project to be something more in the "classical genre."

About that time, Andrew Lloyd Webber asked him to star in the coming Broadway production of his hit London musical "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat."

"It wasn't right for me, but it started this whole other arena opening up for me in terms of people sort of becoming aware of my work outside of movies," he said. In the case of "Suddenly," he said, Mr. Eyre was familiar with his movie work, "but was aware I was interested in the theater."

In "Suddenly," Mr. Lowe plays Dr. Sugar, a young psychiatrist who is invited to the New Orleans home of a wealthy woman (Ms. Smith) to determine whether her niece (Ms. Richardson) is insane.

Mr. Lowe said self-assuredly that he had no trepidation about working with such a distinguished cast. "I was really aware there would be nowhere to hide [on screen]," he said. "It would be for long, long stretches of time, Maggie and myself and Tennessee Williams or Natasha and myself and Tennessee Williams. I was aware of the challenge."

Mr. Eyre said that he wanted an American actor for Dr. Sugar, "particularly since we had two of the leading parts played by English actresses." Mr. Lowe, Mr. Eyre added, fit Williams' description of Dr. Sugar: "He is a young, intelligent doctor with perfect good looks. There are a fine number of actors who fit the bill. [Mr. Lowe's] instincts are remarkably good and he is a bright guy."

Another reason Mr. Eyre wanted an American was that the part of Dr. Sugar was a reactive one. "I can't think of an English actor who could have done that part as well because English actors on film always think if the camera is on them they have got to do something," he said. "Whereas Rob knows if the camera is on you, you just think and react. He is fabulous at doing that."

Coincidentally, "Suddenly" was filmed at Shepperton Studios in London, on the same stage that the Montgomery Clift version was shot.

Making "Suddenly" was an "absolute thrill" for Mr. Lowe. "There was a moment when I walked into rehearsal -- it was Richard

[Eyre], and Maggie and it was just us rehearsing hour after hour," Mr. Lowe said. "I was in heaven. As an actor, you dream to do this kind of material."

He smiled. "This isn't bad for a kid from Dayton, Ohio, who just wanted to be on stage," he said. "I'm from a place where acting meant you played Bill Sykes in the neighborhood production of 'Oliver!' "

Although Mr. Lowe performed in community theater as a youngster in Dayton, he has never appeared on stage locally. He said that it wasn't because he thought producers didn't take him seriously as an actor, but he was never given the opportunities. "They thought I was too expensive and wouldn't do it," he said. "They didn't know of my inclinations toward doing it."

He credits the advice of one of his idols, Paul Newman, for helping get his career on the right track.

"It was when I was at Williamstown [Theatre Festival] four summers ago," he said. "I did 'Three Sisters.' He was there with Joanne [Woodward]."

Mr. Lowe and Mr. Newman ran into each other in the men's room. "It was one of those great moments," he said with a smile. "He said, 'You know kid, I think it is so great you are here. Not enough of your peers do it and you know what? It's smart. It's real smart because it is the only way to sustain a career as a leading man.' Instinctively, I had known that, but to hear it from Paul Newman. . . ."

Mr. Lowe, who has written a screenplay and wants to direct, is now studying acting "more intensively" than any time in his career and has recently joined the famed Actors' Studio.

When he started out, he said, his main goal was to establish himself as a film actor. "I established my goals, so whatever I did, I did it right," he said. "Now, I have got to get this right as well. What kind of a career do I want to have for the rest of my life? I am going to follow the advice of someone I respect, like Paul Newman. It is the only way to go. That is really the plan."

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