Life as Chris Lowell


“A lot of the reason why I wanted to direct was I wanted to talk to actors the way I wished a director would talk to me,” explains 29-year-old actor Chris Lowell of his forthcoming directorial debut, Beside Still Waters. 2014 is a busy year for the Atlanta, Georgia native. Earlier this month, Lowell’s new comedy series Enlisted premiered on Fox. This week Brightest Star, the actor’s first feature film as the leading man, will open in New York and L.A. He’s currently securing distribution for Beside Still Waters, and will appear in the long-awaited Veronica Mars film (as Veronica’s rival love interest) in March. Over the weekend, he started rehearsals for a play based on Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous memoir, A Moveable Feast, which he just happens to have co-written with his girlfriend. Oh, and did we mention Lowell is a photographer who has shown his work at Stephen Cohen Gallery in Los Angeles and Jackson Fine Arts in Atlanta, and once co-hosted Photo L.A. with David LaChapelle?

Lowell’s ambitious schedule is not as sudden as it seems. He has been acting for almost a decade, appearing on mainstream television shows like Shonda Rhimes’ Private Practice, cancelled-too-soon cult dramedies, and Oscar-nominated films such as Up in the Air (2009) and The Help.

It’s not difficult to find things to talk about with Lowell, from his plethora of projects to his record collection to the family photos and bookshelves decorating his apartment. We spoke with him last week about almost everything.

EMMA BROWN: You mentioned you’re from Atlanta. Did most of your friends from home go to University of Georgia?

LOWELL: No—that was a big part of my upbringing that I think really shaped the person I became. There are a lot of “good ol’ boy” schools in the South: you go there, you go to UGA, you marry a girl that goes there, your children go there. The South is very insulated in a lot of ways—the beauty of the South is that so much of it hasn’t changed, it feels preserved, and the tragedy of the South is that so much of it hasn’t changed. My folks, I think, really wanted me to see a bigger world so they put me in the International School, which totally changed everything for me. When I was 16 years old, my geography teacher was going back to Kenya for the summer and was going to take anyone who wanted to go with him, so I spent the summer in Kenya. It was a very different way to grow up—especially in the South. I feel really lucky, like I got the best of both worlds.

BROWN: Do you have any siblings?

LOWELL: I have a wild number of siblings. I’m the oldest, and then there’s my brother Andrew, twin sisters, and a baby sister. Well, she’s not a baby anymore; she’s eight.

BROWN: Did you tease them when you were younger—tell them outlandish tales?

LOWELL: My sisters are all so much younger than me that I kind of grew out of that phase, but my little brother had to deal with the worst stuff. I loved to scare the shit out of him. When we would take flights anywhere, I would pretend that the plane was about to crash and that I was the only person who could save it. He has a terror of flying, which I’m sure I instilled in him, which is a horrible thing to do. It was never out of any malicious intent. It was entirely because I wanted to be a hero. I would make him do every play; act in all the little movies I was making when we were bored on our street.

BROWN: Did you make him play the female roles as well as the male ones?

LOWELL: I don’t think I did. So that’s pretty good. I didn’t Ernest Hemingway my brother. I owe him a great deal of thanks for his patience.

BROWN: Is anyone else in your family in the industry?

LOWELL: No, just me. And I like that. One of the things that, by pure happenstance, worked out in my favor is that no one else in my family is an actor or aspires to be, and most of my friends aren’t actors. Most of my friends are the people that I grew up with back in Georgia. It’s really helpful to be surrounded by a world that’s bigger than the entertainment industry.

BROWN: When did you decide that you wanted to be an actor?

LOWELL: I was a kid. I remember having a very concrete thought in kindergarten or first grade. The teacher was asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up? A fireman? A policeman? An astronaut? A vet?” And I remember all the kids picking their chosen career paths and I was thinking, If I’m an actor I can be an astronaut and a policeman and a firefighter. At the time I was so young that I actually thought actors were all of those things.

BROWN: The first thing I saw you in was the teen show Life As We Know It. I watched it with my mother in England.

LOWELL: I cannot fucking believe that. Really? We’ve been doing press stuff a lot this month and someone else brought up Life As We Know It and it made me so happy. That’s how I started taking photographs.

BROWN: I was wondering about that. I remember that your character was interested in photography on the show.

LOWELL: Life As We Know It was my first audition ever. It was all luck. I came to L.A. to go to film school at USC. I’d been in town for literally weeks; it was Labor Day weekend and my uncle at the time was living in Hermosa Beach. He invited me and there was a guy who was trying to get a job as a manager. He was just trying to collect actors so that he could say, “Look at all these clients that I could bring you.” I don’t think he even knew what he was doing. He was just talking to anybody. He helped me get headshots and then I met the boss of this company—this little boutique management firm. She was like, “We’ll send you out on a couple of auditions—we’ll see if you’re ready yet. Maybe we’ll hold you back and you’ll go to some classes.” So they sent me on this pilot audition, which at the time was called Doing It.

BROWN: That’s the name of the Melvin Burgess book it’s based on.

LOWELL: Exactly. So I went in for the audition, got a callback, got another callback, and then a producer session, and then a studio [session]. When it came time to go to network, I didn’t have an agent yet. William Morris, who was representing a lot of the other actors, agreed to negotiate this one contract. I don’t think they thought I was going to book the job. Then I booked the job and all of a sudden I was signed with William Morris, doing a pilot, the pilot got picked up. It all happened really quickly—and that was a great thing, and also kind of a curse. I think the reason I actually booked the job was that I had no sense of the stakes. I was still a full-time college freshman. I remember being at my network test, waiting around—which is the worst part; typically that’s when people psych themselves out—and I was doing French homework. I think that saved me. The producers of the show, one of them was this amazing photographer, Gabe Sachs. Gabe took me out one day and he gave me this Lykke M3 camera and taught me how to use it. There’s no light meter on it, so he taught me how to read the light. He was like, “Any photographs you take, we’ll pay for all the processing and give them back to you.” And that’s really how I caught the bug. I have these crazy photographs of that cast—of Kelly [Osbourne] and Jon [Foster] and Sean [Faris] and Missy [Peregrym] and Jessica [Lucas]. Gabe and [one of the show’s writers] Jeff Judah are the same guys who worked on Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, and they were trying so hard to get all those actors parts on the show, because none of those actors were getting work. I remember Jeff repeatedly trying to get Seth Rogen a part, and the network just would not have it.

That was a great first job to have. We had a blast. We got banned everywhere—that’s why it got cancelled. It’s so funny to look back at it now and think of it as a “racy” show. Jessica Lucas sent me this email, and it was a list of the top 50 most controversial television programs—the most phone calls in saying, “You have to turn this off. This is a disgrace!” Number One was, like, a Family Guy episode, which is not a surprise at all. Then it was that Super Bowl with Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson. We were, like, Number Six on the list. It was the second episode—the episode where Jon sleeps with the teacher and the plot of my character is that I’ve been masturbating so much I think I have a tumor on my penis, which is ridiculous. But we loved it. It started becoming a point of pride for us. Every time we’d get shut down in a different territory—we basically lost the entire Bible Belt—we’d have a little party.

BROWN: I didn’t realize it was considered racy. The book was far worse than the show. It scarred me slightly: “I’m never talking to another boy again!”

LOWELL: The book was insane. I remember reading it and being like, “What the hell? I don’t remember this in the pilot…” It taught me a lot, because the show was really well received—it was a critically acclaimed show—and I think I learned really quickly that I much prefer to be on something that has a cult following, has the reviews, even if it doesn’t have the ratings. That’s exactly what Veronica Mars was.

BROWN: That was a racy show. I was trying to explain the premise to other people in the office: “In the first season, Veronica is trying to figure out who drugged and raped her and gave her chlamydia, and also who was having an affair with and subsequently murdered her best friend. Oh, and her ex-boyfriend might be her secret half-brother.”

LOWELL: Totally. That show was out of control! That whole world of Veronica Mars is so perplexing. I compare it to Blue Velvet. In Blue Velvet, it’s funny and melodramatic, but also terrifying and thrilling. The same amount of dramatic emphasis is given to everything: Is Laura Linney going to leave the high-school football boyfriend to make out with the new guy? The same amount of strings and fadeout is given to Dennis Hopper raping a woman and kidnapping her child. It’s so weird. I remember watching this Veronica Mars episode, and it was the same thing: Is Wallace going to cheat on the test? And then simultaneously there’s a guy going around raping women and then shaving their heads. It befuddles me. It’s fascinating. Artistically, it feels good to know that you’re working in a very unique universe. I feel like Life As We Know It was that way, and Veronica Mars, and frankly, I feel the same way about Enlisted, which is the new show. The reviews have been through the roof, which is very gratifying, even if we are hung out to dry on a Friday night, 9 o’clock time slot.

BROWN: Did you think Veronica Mars would be made into a film?

LOWELL: Only because of the fans. I’ve never known fans to be so passionate about anything. It constantly surprises all of us. Right when I joined in the third season, the CW had just been created and the fans hired a plane to fly in circles from Warner Bros. to UPN, which were merging, with a banner that said “Bring Veronica Mars to CW.” I knew there was always going to be an audience for it, but Rob [Thomas] and Kristen Bell struggled for years to make the film. They went down every single conceivable avenue before ending on Kickstarter. There were so many times when Rob sent an emails saying, “It looks like it’s going to happen!” And then a month later, it didn’t happen. So the fact that it actually came to fruition is pretty trippy. For all of us who were in it, it’s an excuse to get the band back together. We’re all about to go sign something like 5,000 posters and Kristen’s house, which, as miserable as that sounds, will be a lot of fun for us because it will be us, together, goofing off. I was a controversial character on that show, because I was breaking apart the big romance.

BROWN: Would fans get angry with you?

LOWELL: I think that people loved the show so much that just seeing someone affiliated with it, I am sort of off the hook. [But] since the film was announced, they’ve been hyping up the love triangle and I’m getting a lot more nervous about going into a crowd of Veronica Mars fans. I basically go in and immediately say, “I’m supporting Logan and Veronica” to temper any death threats.

BROWN: Tell me about your new film, Brightest Star.

LOWELL: We shot it in November and December of 2011, here in New York. Then in 2012, with those same producers, I made my directorial debut. It’s definitely the first time that I’m on screen a lot. Watching movies like The Help or Up in the Air, where I’ve got a few scenes here and there, it’s great because your scene comes on and you get a little bit nervous, but then it’s over and you can enjoy the rest of the film. With this, it’s kind of overwhelming to see that much of yourself and, because we had so little money to do the film, my entire wardrobe was all my clothes. Probably everything I’m wearing right now is in that film. In that sense, it feels like the lines are blurred a little bit. But I really admire the scope of the film. I think it was a really brave movie in how Maggie [Kiley], the director, wasn’t afraid to not have my character be a squeaky-clean hero. It’s so much more fascinating when you have a love story that doesn’t end the way you expect it to, and when you’re not completely decided on the lovers themselves.

BROWN: Would you call it a love story?

LOWELL: It sounds like a love story, but I think I would call it more of a coming-of-age character study. Even to use the word story is too much, because it really breaks all narrative rules, it just sort of moves.

BROWN: Your character is never named in the film; did you come up with your own name for him?

LOWELL: Yeah, I had a name in mind, but it’s for me. It’s mine.

BROWN: He makes some questionable decisions throughout the film. What would you say to your character if he were your friend?

LOWELL: When I was watching it recently, I just kept wanting to say to my character: “Take accountability for your actions.” He has a lot of “get out of jail free” moments because of his naiveté, his ignorance, and I think that would really infuriate me.

BROWN: When you made your directorial debut, Beside Still Waters, did you cast your friends? Or did you audition people?

LOWELL: I think there’s this assumption that when you know somebody who’s making a film you have an in—you have a leg up. I can say with great confidence that I was much more critical of the people I knew than of the people I didn’t. Just because I know what they’re capable of, so the bar is set so much higher for them—unfairly, frankly. Really the only person who I knew who was cast was Beck Bennett, who was my roommate freshman year of college. He’s one of those people that the moment you meet him you can just see this talent coming out of his pores—he just leaks it. Ironically, at the time I really had to fight for Beck to be in the movie, and he now is blowing up. He’s on SNL; he’s everywhere. And when people watch the film, I think he’s the one that people most enjoy seeing on the screen. But I didn’t know most of the cast going in and I think that was important, because the film was inspired by the people I grew up with and the place where I grew up, and there’s this danger of just trying to recreate that instead of telling this new story. These actors need to have their own rapport; I didn’t want them to try to imitate something else. I wanted them to create it in and of itself. When we did the table read, Emma Stone was reading it—I had all my big actor friends come because we were workshopping it. And of course the producers were like, Can you get these people? But I think one of the biggest detriment to films—especially reunion films—is a lot of the time they’re just stacked with celebrities, and when you’re watching it, you’re like, You’re not old friends! You’re from this show; you’re from that movie. I wanted people to believe that they could actually have a history together. I really encouraged them to get together in New York and L.A. before we all met in Michigan. When we were in Michigan, I had them all come early so we could do rehearsals together and they all stayed in the same place and cooked meals together, played games together, and did every debaucherous activity that exists in the film, except for everyone sleeping with one together. Thankfully that didn’t happen, because that also happens plenty of times on film sets. I really think that chemistry off-camera was imperative. I wanted it to be the kind of movie where the moment you walk out you call someone you haven’t spoken to in a long time: “Let’s go grab a drink. I miss you.”

BROWN: Do you have any photography shows coming up?

LOWELL: I think I’m going to have another show at Jackson Fine Art this year, which will be the “31 Days” series. The inspiration was the house where we grew up in Georgia. My folks sold it a few years ago and I had a complete meltdown—it was really the epicenter of my youth. So I moved back there for the 31 days of escrow and did this whole series in the house.

It’s very humbling going to Jackson Fine Arts, because their clients are Sally Mann and Elliot Erwitt and Henri Cartier-Bresson—these photographers who are so inspiring and intimidating. I think part of the reason I sell so well there is because clients will come in and say, “I only want to look at silver gelatin prints,” so they pull out a Robert Frank image: “This is a damaged image, but it’s $75,000.” Then they’ll say, “Do you have anything cheaper?,” “We have one guy who still prints silver gelatin.” They’ll pull up my work and it’s so dramatically cheaper that I think they’re like, “Oh yeah, yeah, I’ll take this one.”