In Sunday’s CBS movie, “Take Me Home: The John Denver Story,” actor Chad Lowe paints a portrait of folk singer John Denver as a man more comfortable in the public role of all-American superstar than in the private role of all-too-human husband to Annie Martell Denver (“Sex and the City’s” Kristin Davis).
In his own life, however, the 32-year-old Lowe--who broke television ground in the early 1990s by playing one of the first HIV-positive characters to have a love life, “Life Goes On’s” sensitive Jesse McKenna--shares no such problem. Lowe’s anything-but-dry-eyed reaction to wife Hilary Swank’s best actress win at last month’s Oscars--and his good-natured response when she overlooked him in her acceptance speech--earned the Emmy winner the unofficial title of Best Hollywood Husband and reignited curiosity about his career.
Since the critically acclaimed “Life Goes On” left the air in 1993, Lowe has appeared only sporadically on television, including guest spots on such shows as “ER” and “Now and Again.” But when the script for the Denver project came to his attention, the actor became intrigued.
“I was skeptical because a lot of biopics are hit-and-miss,” says Lowe, taking a coffee break at Los Angeles’ Farmers Market en route to shooting an episode of “Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher.” “But I do think I have an innate understanding of John’s emotional life and the pain that can lead one to artistic endeavors. Underneath the crooked smile, the granny glasses and the goofy mop of hair was a guy who was struggling.”
Based on the singer’s autobiography, the film, directed by Jerry London, details Denver’s struggle to balance his heavy career ambitions with domestic life with Annie, his first wife and the inspiration behind the lyrical “Annie’s Song.” Denver is also portrayed as harboring unresolved anger toward his father (played by Gerald McRaney), an old-school military type who disapproves of his son’s artistic ambitions.
Lowe, who says he worked hard to try to capture Denver’s folksy speech patterns and aw-shucks demeanor on screen, tapped into his feelings about his own father, who because of divorce has lived away from the performer for most of his life.
“Take Me Home” executive producer Jon Cowan says Lowe was his only choice to play Denver. Once on the set, Cowan found the actor “cared about every word in the film. He’d have suggestions about the small nuances of a scene and we’d have these great discussions.”
Lowe’s acting resume goes back to age 15, when he decided to follow in the footsteps of older brother Rob Lowe (NBC’s “The West Wing”). But, adopting an approach to the business he got from Kevin Spacey, the actor says that he’s spent much of his career turning down so-so opportunities.
“An actor’s only real power is the power to say ‘no,’ ” says Lowe. “I’m really realizing the limitations of the actor; most movies are a director’s vision. . . . There were changes and interpretations made on our movie that I would have done differently [had I been the director].”
To that end, Lowe is using his perfectionism on the other side of the camera. His short film, “The Audition,” which Lowe wrote and directed and which stars Swank, can be seen as part of Showtime’s “Quick Flicks,” which are dropped into programming breaks. He’s also writing a screenplay that he hopes to direct.
“I have a deep, burning desire to tell things from my perspective--to explain, humbly, how I see the world,” says Lowe. “Any actor’s greatest enemy is bitterness, because you get all these opportunities and think it’s going to last forever--and when that goes away, you question where you came up short. I’ve struggled with that intensely and think I have a good perspective.”
Also inspiring Lowe is the breakthrough of Swank, his wife of 2 1/2 years. Far from feeling professional jealousy now that the “Boys Don’t Cry” lead has segued to stardom, Lowe seems delighted about life with an A-list wife.
“People always ask if it’s hard for me [that she’s had such success] and the answer is no,” he says. “She’s my best friend and her success is a validation.”
Lowe is comfortable admitting that he has no idea what he’ll do next. “I don’t really have anything lined up in the future,” the actor says. “But for the first time in my life, I’m at peace with that. I feel really good.”