LOS ANGELES — John Owen Lowe was 11 or 12 when he first realized that his father wasn’t quite like the other dads. So what was it like to grow up with a father this famous, this problematically handsome?
“How about ‘unbelievably’ handsome?” John Owen’s father, Rob Lowe, 59, interjected from the other end of a sofa in a Netflix conference room in early March. His son grimaced.
The short answer: Not great, especially for a kid with social anxiety. “I remember thinking, I didn’t ask for all this extra attention,” John Owen Lowe, 27, said. “But the truth is, nobody wants to hear you complain about that.”
A few years ago, he found an alternative to complaining. He began to troll his father on social media, dinging him for each humblebrag. “The subtle art of taking a selfie in front of ur Emmy nominations,” an early comment on one of Rob’s thirst traps read. Others include “Maybe skip chest day for awhile” and “Plz god no.”
The elder Lowe took the mockery in stride. Eventually he helped to give it a new platform. He had tried to dissuade both of his children — an older son, Matthew, is now a venture capitalist — from pursuing careers in the entertainment industry. But after John Owen graduated from Stanford, with a degree in science technology, he announced that he wanted to write and act. While writing on “9-1-1: Lone Star,” the Fox emergency responder drama starring his dad, he began to suspect that their barbed dynamic was actually pretty funny. So funny that it just might undergird a show of its own. The elder Lowe immediately signed on as a creator and executive producer.
That half-hour comedy, “Unstable,” created with Victor Fresco (“Better Off Ted,” “Santa Clarita Diet”), debuts on Netflix on Thursday. Rob stars as Ellis Dragon, a volatile biotech guru grieving his wife’s death, with John Owen as Jackson, the son brought into his company to steady him. The show exaggerates their personal relationship for comic effect — in reality Rob is more self-aware and John Owen is less mean. But according to both men, it doesn’t exaggerate all that much. And it may have improved that relationship, if only up to a point.
“I have learned to treat him with some level of respect that feels earned,” John Owen said. “But then they call ‘cut’ and he’s like, ‘If you wear your hair like that, people aren’t going to take you seriously.’ And I’m like, ‘Now it’s time for you to get lost.’”
In that small conference room, with John Owen in a baggy dotted suit and Rob in a tight, white T-shirt that set off his ridiculously blue eyes, the two men discussed family, trauma and the idea that despite its billionaire, high-tech trappings, “Unstable” is mostly just a story of a child deeply embarrassed by his parent.
“The secret weapon of the show is how relatable it is,” Rob said.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
John Owen, when did you realize that your father was famous?
JOHN OWEN LOWE It isn’t something you’re born knowing. But there is a time where you go, ‘Oh wait, my existence isn’t like everybody else’s.’ Probably around fifth or sixth grade, I remember looking back and re-evaluating certain things. Like, oh, it’s not a normal experience to get nervous to walk a red carpet with your dad when you’re 8 years old.
When you were growing up, did he behave differently in public?
JOHN OWEN There’s not that big of a difference. There’s just not.
ROB LOWE I came into acceptance of living a public life really, really early, because I’ve seen two types of people: They either come to terms with it and embrace it or they don’t. The don’t crowd is not for me. My heroes are the people who wear it well.
JOHN OWEN There’s a certain type of celebrity who’s like, “Just treat me like a normal person.” And I’m like, “But you’re not! You aren’t a normal person. Your life is the furthest thing from normal.” So don’t give me this spiel, because it’s fake. Rob, on the occasional night that he’s feeling it, he’ll say, “Let’s go giraffe.” And we’ll go to a place where he might be seen.
ROB Because you can’t walk a giraffe down the street without people pointing.
John Owen, when did you start making fun of your father in public?
JOHN OWEN I’ve made fun of him my whole life. It’s our love language. He made it really easy for me to do it publicly when he started to become more present on social media — that was when I found it impossible to not chime in. Like when you took a non-ironic workout selfie in front of your Emmy nominations, I had to say something.
ROB First of all. I will never, ever, ever——
JOHN OWEN ——win an Emmy.
ROB ——take an ironic workout photo. You just wait. You get north of 50, there’s no more irony left.
JOHN OWEN I don’t think you know what irony means.
Does his social media persona actually embarrass you? Or do you just enjoy trolling him?
JOHN OWEN It’s not a bit. This is very real. He’s very, very embarrassing.
Is it funny to you, Rob, or does it hurt?
ROB I love it. You have to understand, one of the highlights of my life was my Comedy Central roast.
JOHN OWEN He’s a really good sport. I will give him credit there. I’ve said some cutting stuff to you before, for sure.
ROB The more cutting, the more I like it.
How did “Unstable” come about?
JOHN OWEN I was writing on “Lone Star.” The proximity to my dad was driving me insane, the idea of never escaping his shadow. I had a weekly phone call with my manager and agent where they basically served as de facto therapists. I would say, “I’m going crazy. I’ll never separate from him. Is this my destiny?” They would laugh at my pain, but I thought to myself, Maybe there’s something interesting here, like, this might be a show. Then we got Victor Fresco involved, who really helped us structure it.
So you made a Netflix show as therapy?
JOHN OWEN It’s wildly cathartic for me. For sure. First of all, I get to make fun of him on a public platform. But it’s sweet and rewarding, honestly, to act with him.
How close are both of you to your characters?
JOHN OWEN Pretty close.
ROB Pretty close.
JOHN OWEN Ellis is like 90 percent Rob, truly. I do believe that.
ROB It’s definitely my worldview and essence, on steroids.
What are some of the other inspirations for Ellis?
JOHN OWEN Elon Musk. Because he’s an insane person and keeps failing upward.
ROB The other was the Zappos founder [Tony Hsieh], who was obsessed with fire and eventually died in a fire. It was just the notion of these brilliant, amazing geniuses, who always have to keep pushing and testing and searching.
What has it been like working together so closely?
JOHN OWEN We do have a seamless work flow. I’ve worked with him in different facets before this, but this is the most hands-on we’ve ever been. I’ve never shared carrying a show with him.
ROB Watching Johnny do the hours was amazing. He’s like a hothouse flower. He’s like, “I’m so tired.” I’m like, “Bro, you’re in the prime of your life.”
JOHN OWEN I learned a lot from him on “Unstable.” How somebody in that position carries himself, when so many people are counting on you to deliver day in and day out. I was impressed. That’s as much of a compliment as I’m going to give you right now.
And what was acting opposite him like? Because this man, he’s a brick wall of charisma — it’s a little shattering.
JOHN OWEN He does have a lot have charisma. In a scene, if people aren’t bringing it, he’ll suck attention into himself. He’s a black hole of energy and positivity. I use that. There’s two ways to match an actor doing something like that: One is to try and meet them where they are; the other is to just let them go. And that’s really what Jackson’s doing, because that’s what I do in real life around him. Even in the writing, I’ve helped craft set pieces that are built for him to be the spectacle.
Has it given you anything new to troll him with?
JOHN OWEN Where do I even begin? He may have had to read a line off a cue card. I have that cue card in my car. I’m keeping it.
And what has it given you, Rob?
ROB I get to do what is probably one of the last great network hits [“9-1-1: Lone Star”], then I get to do this and fulfill my goofy, nerdy comedy side. It’s the dream. It’s literally the dream.
JOHN OWEN It’s Rob’s world. We’re all just living in it.
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