Why Rob Lowe Can't Stay Out of Politics

Talking with the actor and with the filmmakers behind the Tribeca-premiered new film, Knife Fight

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Few actors have more successfully bridged the gap between Hollywood and Washington, D.C. onscreen than Rob Lowe. From The West Wing to Parks and Recreation, Lowe is never better than when he's playing a character wrapped up in the machinations of politics and government.

So the veteran has been ideally cast as political strategist Paul Turner in the new movie Knife Fight, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday. Co-scripted by Democratic consultant Chris Lehane, and based on Lehane's experiences working with President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and others, the film follows Turner as he grapples with the scandals facing two of his clients at the close of hard-fought re-election campaigns.

Here, Lowe, Lehane and the film's Oscar-winning director/co-writer Bill Guttentag share their thoughts on political cinema and more.

What brought you back to the world of political entertainment?

Rob Lowe: When I got the script... what I loved was it felt real. It had all the things you want—funny, moving. I loved that this love letter wasn't cynical. So many movies in this space, and some of the ones I love—Wag the Dog, Primary Colors—there's sort of a cynicism about them. This doesn't have that.

Chris Lehane: I did an interview a couple weeks ago with NBC. It was a piece with Brian Williams on opposition research and how stories are worked, evolved and paced. There's a scene [in Knife Fight] where Rob has a conversation with a candidate and says her life is going to change. So they asked me, "Can you give us this speech?" So I did my version and they said, "That's good, but Rob is so much better than you are." And I said, "Well, there's a reason people pay money to see him onscreen." [laughs]

What's valuable about making movies like this, about the political process?

Lowe: I think the key to this movie is also the key to The West Wing, which is that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. We're here to entertain. We make you laugh, we make you care. This movie does that. But the added value is that it opens up the process to people who might not otherwise be interested, or have opted out, or what have you. At the end of the day, this movie, although people behave cynically in it, it's a love letter to the process.

Lehane: I would just add to that that one of the goals here was veracity. So people in my industry, on the politics side, could watch this and say, "Yes, that's actually how this really works."

Bill Guttentag: People who aspire to office, they're not saints and I don't think we should treat them as saints. But they truly impact your lives. It's that question, "Do you want smaller class sizes, or do you want more missiles?" Part of what you aspire to do in film is you're saying, "It's so important, but it's not eating spinach. It's funny, the guys in the room are funny and they're smart." So what we try to do is take Chris's great stories and through the prism of Rob's great acting you're trying to make this marriage that on one hand informs and advances and contributes to the public conversation. On the other hand, you hope you have some laughs and you might have a discussion with your girlfriend, or your boyfriend, or your kid, and say, "This is what goes on, for good or for bad."

Do you feel like the opposition research process gets a bad rap?

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Robert Levin writes about film and other entertainment topics for amNewYork, Inside Jersey, Backstage, and elsewhere. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online guild.

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