John Owen Lowe

With his new Netflix series Unstable, John Owen Lowe is establishing himself as an exciting force in the comedy landscape.

John Owen Lowe is a true multi-hyphenate: a writer, producer, and actor. Since pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Stanford University, he has stepped into Hollywood with grace, fortifying an impressive CV with parts in The GrinderHoliday in the Wild and Grace Point. Now Lowe takes what he’s learned as a student and rising actor and applying his smarts and talent to the Netflix series Unstable.

As the force in creating Unstable, a sitcom about a charged father and son relationship, Lowe has sublimated into art a personal lifelong struggle: having to navigate constant comparisons to his highly successful “old man.” The dad in question here is Rob Lowe – yes, that 80s coming-of-age heartthrob, the charmer from Wayne’s World and The West Wing, the actor whose film debut was, casually, a Francis Ford Coppola picture – yes, that Rob Lowe. But John isn’t standing in anyone’s shadow – he’s creating his spotlight. With Unstable as his brainchild, he’s coming into his own, translating emotional intelligence into a narrative with real heart (and a healthy dose of derision towards his pops). Both wacky and tender, Unstable is resonating with families everywhere. And though maybe not quite a panacea for all his childhood trauma, I imagine transforming long-felt anxiety into a hit Netflix show has some healing benefits.

Now, in an attempt to minimize the perceived scope of their privilege, some young stars with famous folks (the beneficiaries of “Nepo Baby” status) get defensive and somewhat cagey about their access to opportunity. Refreshingly, with Lowe, you don’t get any of that posturing. With a head screwed on right and a readiness to prove himself, he is all gratitude and work ethic. John Owen Lowe chats with 1883 Magazine about all things Unstable: the pinch-me disbelief ahead of its release; personal fulfilment; rejuvenating wholesome TV comedy; the fruits of collaboration and working with industry icons.

 

Congratulations on your new series Unstable. I know you’re fresh from last night’s Netflix premiere, how are you holding up? Are you overwhelmed? How are you feeling?

I’m feeling very overwhelmed, still. It’s very surreal to be there while other people watch something that has become so close and personal to you; having created it, and wrote for it, and acted in it. I don’t know… For lack of a better metaphor, as cheesy as this sounds, it’s like showing off your kid, and everyone can make fun of your kid if they want to!

 

Yeah, it’s a very brave thing to put yourself out there like this, creatively and personally. You were very involved in every element of this process and you wore a lot of hats: acting, writing, executive producing. Being so involved in all of those elements of the production, how gratifying has it been to see this labour of love finally come to fruition?

Oh, I’m so filled with gratitude. I’m still kind of in shock. It’s still so surreal and it’s hard to grasp the full moment until someone snaps you out of it. Whether it’s your family or friends who are seeing it for the first time, or some of the folks we worked with at Netflix, or some of the people that have worked with Rob and me from the start, pointing out, like, holy shit, we’re at the premierePeople are seeing it, people are enjoying it, people are saying things, that’s when it kind of dawned on me at that moment and I’m still, just now, as I’m still waking up, understanding that oh my god, people saw the show last night [laughs].

 

Well, I hope you can ride the high for a while! You co-created the series with Victor Fresco and of course your dad, Rob. What was the creative spark behind the story?

Well, the genesis of the idea, was that I started to notice that people got a kick out of, or enjoyed, being a part of how I like to make fun of my dad very publicly. That’s always been a very important and personal activity for me because it keeps his ego at bay, and it’s also how I show love. When we noticed there was some sort of general entertainment value around that for people and relatability, and so many children going, “oh God, my dad or mom annoys me too” and so many parents going, “I just can’t be cool to my kid, I can’t figure out what’s cool in my kids’ eyes!” — that was when we were like there’s a show here, and I took it to my dad and Victor.

 

It’s a fun dynamic you leaned into there. Unstable is first and foremost very entertaining – the wit doesn’t quit – but it also weaves together a lot of different threads, one of which is the theme of grief, and it forms a really strong emotional core for the show. What made you want to unpack grief on screen?

Well, I think, everybody has different forms of coping mechanisms. For me, and in talking about it with Victor and Rob as well, in walking through pain or grief or any sort of hurdle in life, humour is one of the crutches or mechanisms we use to cope. I think pain and laughter kind of do go hand in hand in many ways because they’re like the opposite ends of the spectrum, but the spectrum is a circle so they’re kinda right next to each other. I think it never interested us in making a one-dimensional show or one note – just flat out all one thing, or all another thing, you know?

Super dark comedy? No, we weren’t into that. Super light-hearted with no darkness and no reality? No, we weren’t into that – we kinda wanted to make it feel like a real-world, grounded comedy like we used to see on TV, and in doing so we wanted to capture some real emotions in it.

 

 

 

 

You achieved that. In creating such a well-rounded show, as you mentioned, very relatable dynamics emerge, and I think audiences will find a lot of catharsis in that – namely, in the tension between father and son. Your character Jackson wants to be accepted for who he is, and have his autonomy respected by his self-involved father. What made you want to place that particular type of strained family dynamic at the show’s centre, as well as the idea of expectations and trying to appease your parents’ ideas of success?

Well, I think that’s one of, if not, the most relatable, core, interpersonal dynamics at the heart of the show. I think it’s something that has loomed so large in my life for so long and that I’ve had to spend so much time coming to terms with the psychological ideas around it. Maybe I’ll never live up to expectations, maybe the expectations never even mattered, maybe I’m the one setting the expectations.

I knew I wanted to make that a centrepiece of the show. I also think that, in co-crafting it with Victor and with Rob, one thing they all wanted to lean into as well was: how can we make this incredibly niche and highly specific, circumstantial relationship which is a father and son, where the father is a very well-known public figure, and the son who doesn’t enjoy the attention his father gets? How do we lean into the relatability of that? And I think that’s where we found it — in the expectations and that interpersonal dynamic.

 

You’ve crafted such distinct, charming characters and very sharp dialogue in the show that I’m sure it will spawn many a reaction GIF and meme; in terms of the writing process, how did you decide what tone you wanted to strike? You mention balancing the comedy with the darker elements of grief, what was it like building the warmth along with the irreverence?

The truth is: leaning on some very talented writers in our writer’s room and letting Victor take the reins as the showrunner for our group. Everybody as a united front — all of the writers — deciding that we wanted to make people laugh as much as we could, and make people think as much as we could. Once we all had the same mission statement, we were off to the races!

 

Amazing! The show also has a very impressive cast. Alongside yourself and your dad, there’s Fleabag’s Sian Clifford, whose acerbic, intense sarcasm is just an absolute treat to watch, and you’ve also got a certain comedy legend onboard, who I won’t reveal for spoiler purposes for readers. It’s just such a stacked cast! What did you enjoy most about working with such a dynamic group?

Well, first of all, Sian Clifford is a pro. She is so good, so professional, so funny and so smart. I love her, I’m obsessed with her. And all of the younger cast mates in the lab: Luna and Ruby, played by Rachel Marsh and Emma Ferreira are fantastic; our Malcolm, Aaron Branch – is a breakout star! And then we have various characters that start to populate the world around our regulars, that are so crucial to our show and raise the bar so high – like Frank Gallegos who plays Juan is so, so, so funny, and the twins, Chad and JT, are amazing, and Christina Chang as Jean is wonderful. And last but not least, a very, very special man, who … you know what? I’m not afraid to say it: Fred Armisen! He is the funniest human being in the world. They literally couldn’t use my coverage, they couldn’t use my takes when he was riffing because I was laughing the entire time.

 

Oh man, everyone is so compelling and the chemistry is potent, you all bounce off each other so, so well! There is also a playful musical element throughout the show, with spontaneous singing and jam sessions. Your character Jackson is a flautist, and as a former flute player myself, I was pleasantly surprised to see this niche representation on screen. I think in pop culture right now, it’s just you and Lizzo who are flying the flag for flautists, so that’s pretty fun company! In your real life do you have a passion for music? What was it that inspired that aspect of Jackson’s characterization?

Well, first of all, I love that you gave Lizzo her credit because she deserves credit for sure, for that, but yes! I am a musician, I’ve been playing the piano and writing music as a hobby for over 20 years, and I love it, it’s one of my most important outlets, creatively. And Victor is the flautist. He was a flautist growing up so it was his idea – once we knew that we wanted to make Jackson a musician and make that an important part of his life, it was from the wonderful mind of Victor Fresco, that he said let’s make this man a flautist!

 

Well, it is a very engaging character quirk! A lot of the plot in the show unfolds in the offices and the lab of the biotech company that your dad’s character runs. As a lot of the zany dilemmas are navigated there, and key friendships and romances develop in the space, I see Unstable joining the esteemed pool of great workplace sitcoms, alongside the likes of 30 RockThe OfficeBrooklyn Nine-Nine etc. What made you want to establish that work environment as a key setting in the show?

Oh, that question makes me so happy! I hope that our show can be remotely as impactful as those shows. They are some of my favourite shows you named – and that’s also the answer to your question! That’s why it’s a similar sort of structure with our twist on it because I miss the days of that style of comedy on TV: the serious, funny, quick-moving, but also light-hearted comedy – that is my favourite, and that’s what I think we were trying to pull off.

 

 

 

So following on from that point, with the biotech company on a mission to mitigate greenhouse gases, the show sort of Trojan horses in some productive points about climate change. Was it a challenge infusing the scientific jargon into the script? I think it was very deftly done – you were a convincing scientist in the lab!

Oh, thank you! It was challenging at times – Google becomes your best friend. We had a lot of talented writers, and also I had a little bit of a science background – I worked in a stem cell biology research lab for four summers before I started pursuing writing, so it didn’t translate completely to biotech, but it did help me get a sense for the science world as a whole … but yeah, the most truthful answer is a lot of googling! [laughs]

 

Fair dos! [laughs] In Unstable, obviously you and your dad are front and centre, and, working with family is not for everyone, but you have collaborated with your dad, Rob, on several projects now, from Docuseries The Lowe Files to sitcom The Grinder, so I’m wondering what you think is the key to that professional relationship working so well? Aside from your trolling that keeps him humble!

The key is that we have.. well there are a few different answers, but the most honest answer I can give is that we have very, very similar tastes when it comes to our professional work life: what we enjoy watching, what we enjoy doing, and so we work in congruence as a cohesive unit very well, very naturally. The other key is a lot of therapy, and that’s pretty much it!

 

I’m also curious if the almost meta demands of your real dad playing your fictional dad ever feels strange? Do you feel that’s a healthy blurring of lines between fiction and reality? Have you become accustomed to that now? [laughs]

I don’t think you ever become accustomed to that, truthfully – I think that’s the healthiest take! [both laugh]

 

In your previous acting credits, as well as in Unstable, you have demonstrated such natural comic timing; I’m wondering if comedy has always been a creative lane you wanted to explore and if you see yourself continuing to exercise that muscle in the future projects?

Yes, I would say that. I love and have a background in writing drama on TV as well. I have been fortunate to experience a variety of projects, with a variety of tones, but at this moment right now, I find there’s nothing more fun than comedy; there are projects that can be equally as rewarding but not quite as fun. I’m having the time of my life on this show and I can see myself doing more of it in the future and doing more of other stuff too!

 

Well, I’m excited to see what that looks like in the future! Looking back now at the whole process, from Unstable’s conception to completion, was there any formative learning experience you had that you will carry with you for the rest of your career?

It’s tricky. I would say that — and this is my real sort of lamest, most cheesy, cliché moment that I will say — this was my genuine dream. Watching it come to fruition is that sort of utmost reminder to never give up on your dream and bet on yourself, you know? Bet on yourself! The final piece of that is to stay grateful because I’m just so, so, so, grateful. It’s a product of hard work, but it’s also a product of luck and an immense amount of help from others.

 

That’s such a thoughtful answer. Well, I’ve got one last question for you before we wrap up: ahead of Unstable’s release next week, what do you most hope audiences at home will get out of watching the show?

I hope that they will not only laugh but also feel inclined to maybe reach out to their parents or children and give them a hard time, but also reconnect!

 

Amazing, you hit that pillar of poignancy! It is such evocative viewing. I know that I had such a pleasurable time sitting with the show and really connecting it to my own life and experience, and chuckling along the way too. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. This is the very first interview I’ve conducted so I’m very grateful for your time and your insight!

Aw, you were incredible! You were wonderful, thank you.

 

Unstable is streaming now on Netflix.

 

Interview Lucy Fitzgerald

Photography Jonny Marlow / Netflix

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