Rob Lowe: From the White House to the Vatican

The former West Wing star talks turning to the Bible for his latest role in Sky1's You, Me and the Apocalypse

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As Rob Lowe welcomes me into his Winnebago, it’s a bit like entering the confessional. Lowe is on a break from filming Sky1’s You, Me and the Apocalypse, in which he plays a Vatican priest, and he’s still in full costume – a floor-length black cassock. “Why are there so many buttons down the cassock?” he asks brightly. “One for every year Christ lived.” (That’s a total of 33, in case you were wondering.)

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We’re taking shade in Lowe’s trailer from the bright Maltese sun. Lowe asks if the air conditioning is too cold for comfort, before offering refreshments that include nuts, chewing gum and fizzy water. It’s a winning combination of good cheer and thoughtfulness from such a big Hollywood star, and it seems unusually genuine. Even when faced with my most impertinent questions – about, say, his own religious outlook – Lowe’s face doesn’t register so much as a back-off-now frown.

So. That religious outlook. Lowe’s research to play Father Jude could, it turns out, hardly have been more devoted if he’d actually enrolled in a seminary. “It’s given me an excuse to do what I’ve always wanted to do – and probably should have done, a long time ago,” says Lowe. “And that’s read the Bible from cover to cover.” Really? “Yeah.” Including Leviticus, about goats?

“All of it.” Lowe was christened Episcopalian, his maternal grandparents were Methodists, but his wife is Jewish and both of their sons have been bar mitzvahed. “I’m, like, the melting pot,” says Lowe. And this recent immersion in Catholicism has, he says, given him a new perspective on religion.

“What I’ve really learned is that people’s faith can be as, sort of, rigorously active as my…love of…fitness, for example,” he says, slowly. “It’s like a living, breathing, physical, arduous, complicated, hard, rewarding, comforting place in people’s lives. It’s really fascinating.”

Fascinating, yes, but also an awful lot of preparation and effort to put into a TV show that – as Lowe himself says – is “a bit of a romp”. With Lowe’s good looks, which have barely faded since The Outsiders and St Elmo’s Fire made him a teen idol in the 19805, Father Jude may be the most handsome priest ever seen on British TV (with apologies to Richard Chamberlain in The Thorn Birds). He joins a disparate cast that includes two jailbirds – played by Will & Grace’s Megan Mullally, and Jenna Fischer from the US Office – who have escaped from an American high-security prison. Then there’s a mild-mannered English bank manager, played by The Wrong Mans’ Mathew Baynton, and a career soldier, played by Paterson Joseph.

They all have only 34 days until a comet crashes into planet Earth, causing an “extinction-level event”. And they’re all racing to get to a comet-proof bunker – in Slough. Indeed, the show’s hilarious original title was “Apocalypse Slough”. (See what they did there?) “I’d done a movie with Ricky Gervais, and I knew that Ricky had set the original Office in Slough,” says Lowe. “So that tells me everything I need to know about Slough, right?”

But Father Jude’s journey begins in the Vatican – hence this stint of filming in Malta, which is doubling for Rome. In his first scene – and ignorant of the terror to come – Father Jude is in his office, recruiting an assistant (Sister Celine, played by Gaia Scodellaro). “He’s literally the Devil’s Advocate, which is a real thing,” says Lowe. “Well, it isn’t any more. Pope John Paul II disbanded the office. But for 400 years, it was a real thing. Their job was to disprove false miracles, in the process of canonisation of saints.”

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It’s true: Pope John Paul II’s new system allowed him to canonise nearly 500 people – with nobody now on staff to challenge their “miracles” – compared to just 98 by all his 20th-century predecessors put together. Yet Apocalypse’s fictionalised occupant of the office is no saint himself. Father Jude smokes, he drinks, and he has a past that was “pretty complicated and dark”. He also delivers fiery one-liners with a dexterity that, when combined with his high office, is reminiscent of Lowe’s finest TV character – White House spin doctor Sam Seaborn in The West Wing.

“There are actors for whom it’s all about their face, and all about their physicality,” says Lowe. “My interest is in verbal dexterity, timing – and taking something that’s really, really complicated on the page, and making it look easy. That’s absolutely a hallmark of both Sam Seaborn and Father Jude.” Although Lowe left The West Wing with some acrimony – reportedly about pay, as well as Seaborn’s future direction – he now remembers it fondly.

“If I can say this removing myself from the equation, so it doesn’t look like I’m being an egomaniac, I think it’s the best show ever made. I really do,” – though he adds that when creator and lead writer Aaron Sorkin also left, “that was the end of it”. Is there any chance of a reunion? “I would do it, I would love it. I love that character.” In this fantasy reunion, Sam Seaborn might even be President. “Well, [President Jed] Bartlet [played by Martin Sheen] said he would. I would start there! Bartlet said it, and Bartlet was never wrong. But, you know, any West Wing reunion… there’s nothing without Aaron. It has to be. But he’s got so much going on. He’s the king of movies now.”

By contrast, Lowe has become a king of social media: he has 1.18 million followers on Twitter. On Instagram, he has just posted a photo of his wife, Sheryl, visiting him in Malta. His college-student sons Matthew, who attends Duke University, and John Owen, who is at Stanford, also feature in his photos. “My first day over here, the International New York Times had Duke on the cover of the sports section, and Stanford on the cover of the business section,” says Lowe. “Every once in a while, as a dad, you gotta go, ‘All right, that’s excellent.’”

Lowe’s rationale for his prominent social media presence is simple. “I have a relationship of 35 years with an audience and, for the first time ever, I can talk directly to them,” he says – and, it seems, he doesn’t suffer the online abuse that plagues many female celebrities. “I absolutely get Twitter trolls, for sure. But easily 90 per cent, if not more, is positive. If I get into politics, though? I’m taking my life in my hands.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9mybEO-Hb0Y

This year, Lowe has also launched his own skincare range, Profile 4 Men, whose website offers customers “Rob’s secret weapon”, a $39.50 under-eye cream, free with their first order. He voices 1980s police detective Dazzle Novak in a new adult cartoon, Moonbeam City. And he’s starring in a new American sitcom, The Grinder, as a TV actor who, having played a lawyer for eight years, decides to become a real one.

It is, of course, not to be confused with Grindr, the gay dating smartphone app. Lowe chuckles. “I know, I know, like the app,” he mugs. Then he adds, deadpan: “But I am ready to grind with you. I’m always ready to grind, that’s all I’m gonna say.”

At which point, I venture, it might be time to turn off the voice recorder. “Yes,” agrees Lowe, “you’re not going to top that.”

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You, Me and the Apocalypse begins on Sky1 tonight (Wednesday 30th September) at 9.00pm