Rob Lowe’s transformation into a crazy-faced ‘nip and tuck’ merchant in Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic Behind The Candelabra, has been widely hailed as “jaw dropping” albeit also “disturbing.”
It stars Michael Douglas as the famously outrageous pianist and Matt Damon as his considerably younger lover Scott Thorson. Since premiering at the Cannes Film Festival on May 21, it has since been received by critics with pretty much universal acclaim.
Now, Lowe, who starred in cult classic The Outsiders, Class and The West Wing, has revealed his transformation into a corroded plastic surgeon was achieved, and — to use his words — what it was like seeing “Gordon Gekko banging Jason Bourne.”
His character, Dr. Jack Startz, sports a bouffant 80’s hairstyle, enhanced feline eyes and suspiciously shiny skin. Despite the serious aspects of the Thorson-Liberace story — Liberace died of AIDS related pneumonia in 1987 and he and Thorson fought in court at the end of their five-year relationship — Lowe says the hilarity of not just his role but the whole project did give him pause for thought.
“There were days when I would go, ‘This is the end, for sure, of my career,'” the 49-year-old told Huffington Post.
“When I walked on the set and looked at Michael with his fat suit and caftan, Matt in his velour, butt-hugger shorts and Farrah wig, and me as Startz — I said, ‘It’s over for all of us. This is it.'”
Instead, Behind The Candelabra — which was dismissed as “too gay” by all the major studios when the project was shopped — is now winning plaudits for the actors involved, including Debbie Reynolds, Dan Akroyd and Scott Bakula.
In the film, Startz is asked by Liberace to surgically alter Thorson to look like Liberace. Huffington Post notes that Lowe doesn’t endow Startz with a typical ‘machiavellian’ overlay but as a complex transformer who actually thinks he’s helping his clients — a much more difficult feat to pull off.
On the make-up sessions required to become Dr. Startz, or as Lowe calls him, “a transgendered Bee Gee”:
“The makeup, as difficult as it was in terms of the pain level of getting my face pulled around and trying to find the look, was really tough, but we had a great visual team on the movie. I think that’s the gang that Steven works with all the time, and they did a really good job.”
On the cat-like eyes of his character:
“It’s tape and pulled behind my head. It’s literally what they used to do in the early days of cinema before there were facelifts for actresses. You know, Joan Crawford, her whole career was this, ” Lowe told EW.
“You tape, you pull around the back of the head, but you have to have a wig because it covers the elastic,” he added. “We did that, and I’m also wearing a dental piece and then I’m doing a couple of things, a couple of tricks with my own face, the way I’m holding it. Then of course the makeup is literally like Earl Scheib autobody paint sprayed on my face.”
On the level of pain involved in his metamorphosis:
“It was actually really painful, because being pulled that long and that hard for a 12-hour day, it gave me migraines.” Lowe says. “We shot during the summer. It was unbelievably hot. The wig, being pulled, it was definitely not the most comfortable experience physically for sure.”
On the prosthetics used:
“It was matter of pulling things around. I had new teeth that I used and they did this very specific type of makeup. There weren’t any photos of Dr. Jack Startz at that time — no one in the research department could find a great photo of him when we started.”
“So we sort of swung blind at it, and all we had to go on was the two lines in [Scott Thorson’s] book, Behind the Candelabra, that say Dr. Jack Startz was — I think the quote is ‘face pulled extremely tight and skin so shiny it made him look like a doll.'”
“The shiny skin was a great concoction of a very particular type of makeup.”
How he got into character:
“Well, it’s such a great screenplay, number one. So a lot of the battle is done for you by Richard [LaGravenese’s] amazing screenplay. But my inclination was to lean in to the absurdity of it and the hypocrisy and the funny of the entire situation,” Lowe says.
“That’s the tone [in one scene] when I’m sort of looking at [Scott] like an alien. [Another director might] take you aside and go, ‘You know, I think that might be a bit much.’ And Steven was really game for bringing the comedy out.”
On who Dr. Startz reminded Lowe of:
“I designed the whole guy after a sort of template of a man that I would see in the mid-’80s,” he adds, probably with a wink, “with semi-good seats at the Laker games. It’d be, like, an East Coast transplant — he’s that tough guy, but he’s been in L.A. too long, he’s drunk the Kool-Aid and now he’s really off the reservation. Of an indeterminate age and sexuality.”
On why big studios passed on Behind The Candelabra:
“It’s actually shocking, and it’s all you need to know about the current state of the movie business. And unfortunately, the story only gets sadder with the happy result of the movie.”
“It’s now pretty clear that if it had been a movie,” he adds, “it would certainly be on the best-of lists of the year and maybe nominated for best picture based on the reviews that it’s gotten. So here’s Hollywood passing not only on Michael, Matt, Steven and this amazing screenplay, but on an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often, to make one of the best pictures of the year.”
On what he personally loved about Candelabra:
“What I love about the movie is that it’s so outrageous, so over-the-top, and yet it’s completely based in reality. And you feel an emotional connection that often you don’t feel for characters that are as over-the-top as some of these are.”
“In my work as Startz I really wanted to make sure that this wasn’t a Saturday Night Live sketch character. This is a really fully rounded man. Otherwise it just wouldn’t work. It would just seem odd.”
On Liberace and whether his life and lifestyle as an outrageous-but-not-out gay man influenced others:
“The movie works on a bunch of different levels, and one of the more beautiful ones is, he was a trailblazer for artists who came after him who are comfortable [with who they are].”
“Not only are comfortable with who they are, but — and I don’t say this in a pejorative way — use who they are to be even more successful. As opposed to hiding who they are to be more successful.” Lowe muses.
“I saw a thing on the music business, on this Ke$ha character drinking her own pee. Can you imagine? That’s the era we live in now. And Liberace was afraid for people to know who he loved. That’s how far we’ve come.”
Behind the Candelabra airs 9 pm.EDT Sunday on HBO and hits UK cinemas on June 7.