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Rob Lowe portrays President John F. Kennedy in National Geographic’s “Killing Kennedy,” which will air Nov. 10.

Lowe relishing his rejuvenated career

To talk about Rob Lowe, one cannot ignore his face, which appears to be an object lesson in symmetry, in everything scientists have learned about what makes babies naturally smile and how far noses should be from eyes.

It’s an uncomfortable truth about which Lowe can do nothing, which shaped his public trajectory, and which used to annoy him. “What do you want me to do?” he would think, glowering at casting directors who thought him too pretty for this role or that one. Lowe has “the face that Michael Jackson’s surgeons always seemed to be chiseling their way towards,” wrote one Australian journalist in what might be the best description of a modern search for aesthetic perfection.

He’s older now. Up close, his periwinkle-twinkle eyes are lined with delicate tracks that don’t show up on television screens. He gives hugs that feel like dad hugs – caring and chaste, pat-pat-pat – to people he’s met only once. He’s practicing authenticity now – he uses addiction recovery words such as “flawed” and “gratified.” He laughs frequently; he has learned to be self-deprecating; he comes across as uber-sincere.

And he’s wearing fake teeth – they’re Chiclet-sized, they’re a wall of blinding white – for his latest role as John F. Kennedy in a made-for-TV movie “Killing Kennedy.”

All the better to eat you with, except Lowe doesn’t bite – not anymore, not since he’s wrung out the Hollywood spin cycle and somehow become an elder statesman of fame.

Career redemption

“Castro. Castro. Caaaastro. On the beach?”

The words roil around the fake teeth in Lowe’s mouth, transforming into Boston putty, coming out chowdered. He sits at an oak conference-room table, surrounded by extras, practicing. The camera is not rolling. His mic is still on. A few days ago, his teenage son tweeted, “My dad won’t stop doing his fcking JFK voice #makeitstop.” Lowe thought it was hilarious and has been quoting the tweet ever since.

It’s late June and “Killing Kennedy,” the TV movie produced by the National Geographic Channel, is filming in Richmond, Va., five months before its scheduled nationwide premiere Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. The hallways of the state capitol stand in for the 1960s hallways of the White House. In this scene, Rob Lowe, playing a Missile Crisis-era Kennedy, will learn that the Cuban leader is down on the shore himself, with the tanks.

“This may sound like a funny request,” Lowe calls out between takes, “but is there a smaller pencil? This one is brand-new, and this is sharp.” He knows that Kennedy had a nervous tic with pencils, and it will look more realistic if the utensil appears to have actually been used. “I could maybe take a pen, but – no, he always used a pencil.”

It’s nearly impossible to play John F. Kennedy well. The president represents the most Washington of Washington characters – the dignity, the shenanigans, the tragedy, the public commodification – but 50 years after his death, parodies have drowned out the real thing. Encounter Lowe, 49, in his deep-parted pouf of a Kennedy wig, and it’s easy to giggle, until you fact-check his appearance and remember that this is exactly what Kennedy’s hair looked like. “Killing Kennedy” follows the last months of the president’s life, toggling back and forth between his work, his home life – Jackie is played by Ginnifer Goodwin – and the life of Lee Harvey Oswald.

It’s also nearly impossible to accurately pin down Rob Lowe, who himself has become less of a person and more of an ur-type, one of Hollywood: a rise, a fall, a rehab redemption, attractiveness that borders on parody. A time capsule to mid-1980s manhood. He was an original Brat Packer, playing saxophone in a Georgetown dive in “St. Elmo’s Fire.” After years of handsome-guy TV roles and movies, he was reborn three years ago – jolted by the same NBC-sitcom heart paddles that revived Alec Baldwin’s career – as a comedic genius on “Parks and Recreation.”

Through it all, he was almost a leading man, but wasn’t quite, or isn’t quite – somehow his name never got the billing that his face looked like it deserved.

“I’d always sort of felt like maybe one day I would play one of the Kennedys,” he says in his trailer, barefoot in loafers, smoking a cigar that he says is both for the character and for enjoyment (those teeth!). His brother Chad’s first role, he says, was playing Bobby Kennedy in something.

“I can kind of look like (the Kennedys), and also I’m at a point in my life where I’m old enough to play leaders.” He shrugs. “Characters with more substance. All of us hopefully have more substance as we go on our life’s journeys. That roles are coming to me with more facets is great, and it happens to all actors.” The Kennedy role, he says, “doesn’t say anything special about me.”

Nothing to prove

Lowe will play almost anything. Cheerfully, willingly, with the can-do, happy-to-be-here attitude of the Midwesterner he is. (He was born in Charlottesville but raised in Dayton, until his mother brought him and his two younger brothers to Malibu, Calif., when Lowe was in grade school.) He comes across as someone who wants to be liked.

He’ll do comedy, he’ll do drama, he’ll do oily, he’ll do dry. He’ll shellac his eyelids frozen and skyward to play a Botoxed plastic surgeon in HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra,” and he’ll slick on a caterpillar of a mustache to play alleged wife-killer Drew Peterson in a 2012 Lifetime original movie. He’ll make himself the punch line, again and again: “Wayne’s World’s” villain, too slow for Mike Myers’ patter; “The West Wing’s” Sam Seaborn, accidentally sleeping with a call girl.

“What did you think of Drew Peterson?” he asks in his trailer, appearing delighted that anyone saw the movie. “I’m not a brand snob. I’m not. I don’t care if it’s on Lifetime. I don’t care if it’s on NatGeo, I don’t care if it’s on HBO, it makes no (bleeping) difference to me. If there’s an opportunity for me to explore something, I’m going to take it. ... If an actor is a real, substantive actor and is not all propped up with publicists and editors and most-beautiful-list placements and who’s hot and who’s not, then you should be able to work anywhere. With no compunction.”

Lowe is not Daniel Day-Lewis playing Lincoln in a Spielbergian Oscar dream, he’s Rob Lowe playing Kennedy in a made-for-TV movie based on a book in Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing” series. A jaded take would be to see the role as a mark of a perpetual B-list actor, but Lowe’s choices are also what have humanized him.

“I might not have felt this way earlier in my career, but at this point I feel like – and I guess there’s no real way to say this without taking a chance of sounding self-satisfied – but I guess I don’t feel like I have anything left to prove anymore.”

He’s putting it all out there now, which is something more easily done now that he’s put it all out once before, in his 2011 memoir “Stories I Only Tell My Friends.” Some critics said he glossed over the juicy stuff, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a celebrity memoir as reflective about what it means to be famous in the 21st century.

He takes readers through all of it: divorced parents, early successes with “The Outsiders,” a punch-drunk reaction to fame that left him “using MTV like a home-shopping network,” perusing videos for attractive women and having his agent ring up their agents.

And that was before Lowe’s lowest points: before the romantic dalliances – Melissa Gilbert, Princess Stephanie of Monaco, Nastassja Kinski – before a string of underperforming roles made him all but disappear from the major box office, before the transformative stint in rehab at the age of 26 that ultimately dried him out.

He married his wife, the makeup artist Sheryl Berkoff, shortly after, and they’re married still. Two kids.

Being authentic

A few weeks after “Killing Kennedy” wrapped, Lowe sits in a Manhattan hotel suite. He’s in town for business, just for the day, flown cross-continent the day after dropping one of his sons off at a Stanford summer program. The teeth are gone, the wig is gone, the costume is gone – he’s in shirt-sleeves and jeans, snacking on apricots from an artfully placed fruit tray.

Here’s something about Lowe: The one thing he almost never does is play beautiful. No romantic leads for him, not for years.

The closest recently is “Parks and Recreation’s” Chris Traeger, a perfect physical specimen whose looks are balanced by an unsavory fear of physical imperfection: He is desperately trying to stave off decrepitude with diet, exercise and relentless positivity. (He and co-star Rashida Jones will be leaving midseason. “Our show,” co-star Nick Offerman deadpanned after the news came out, “just got 65 percent less good-looking.”)

It seems like it has to be an intentional choice, as if playing up his face would be just too much.

“Here’s what’s weird,” he says. “And I don’t know what it says. But given free rein, with really good writing, all of my characters become nerds.”

He thinks it’s a Midwestern thing. He’s reflective now, in the deep hours of the afternoon. What his characters are no longer matters to him as much as it once did. Paradoxically, he says, “My work got better when my work wasn’t the most important thing in my life. My family supplanted that.”

As for dealing with fame, the Kennedy kind or otherwise?

“The answer is trying to be your authentic self, as opposed to being ‘on.’ I believe I’m a good person. I believe I have something to offer. I know I work really hard at what I do – I know I’m a flawed man, like everyone else. But if I can be authentic, it will be better than just being ‘on.’ ”

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