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?

Lehane: It is a cynical process. Sometimes it involves hard shots or low blows. But ultimately there are enormously important things at stake here. I have had the enormous privilege of working with people who in some small way I may have helped get elected, who I think have made our country and the world a better place. That may sound corny, but it's why I get up in the morning.

Lowe: It speaks to the thing that I first realized when I got involved in this process around The West Wing time: The dirty little secret is, all the people in politics, even the quote-unquote bad guys, care a lot. That's really what you learn at the end of the day.

Have you found that there's been any sort of a shift in recent years in the nature of political movies and television, in terms of the issues being depicted onscreen?

Lowe: The only thing I can see is Hollywood is very much fixated on equality when it comes to marriage. You very much see that being dramatized. Not just in movies but on television shows, in a huge way. It's a big issue. Ten years ago, it might have been a different issue, but right now I think that seems to be the one that makes its way into storytelling. ... Not to get too highfalutin about it, but when people talk about America in decline—and that irks me on every level, no matter how it's couched—what people always forget is our secret weapon is our art forms dominate like no other. Always have. And we're lapping everybody. So we have the ability to reach people and change people and shape their consciousness through a business that I'm happy to be in because of that.

Guttentag: As I'm sure you know, the U.S. has a surplus balance of trade with virtually every other country in entertainment. It's one of the largest exports that the U.S. does. Entertainment can be used for tremendous social effect. After Sideways came out, sales of Merlot declined and Pinot noir went up. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth [enhanced] this perception of global warming. It works in negative ways. Over half the people smoking start because of seeing it in the movies, because a movie star smokes, and of course half of them will die from smoke-related disease. But it's an enormous megaphone, and that megaphone, as Rob suggested, is a great, great thing.

How do you handle the responsibility that comes with that megaphone and treat it with the seriousness it demands?

Lowe: I think you still have to keep your eye on the ball and remember what's important. And that is, tell good stories, be honest. And if being honest means being ugly, if honest means being provocative, that's what you've got to do. If you do all the traditional good storytelling behaviors, what you're referring to takes care of itself.

Guttentag: There's that classic quote from Louis Brandeis, which is "sunshine is the best disinfectant." Again, this is not medicine. It's not eating spinach. We think it's entertaining, we think people will like it, but we're throwing a lot of sunshine into a previously dark room.

Lehane: I think people come to have a good time. They're having dessert and the dessert happens to be somewhat healthy.

Lowe: It's like this amazing gluten-free chocolate cake.