The Lowell Lens

This story appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below. 

Story by JAIME LIN WEINSTEIN Photography by COLBY BLOUNT Styling by BELINDA MARTIN Grooming by NYLZA YEPEZ Photography Assistant: CAROLINE PETTERS Shot on location at The Broome Hotel. 

“What I think is so beautiful about it, is it had to literally be held and touched by real hands,” Chris Lowell says, explaining his choice to use film rather than digital for his directorial debut, Beside Still Waters. I’m getting a technical lesson in filmmaking, but the passion in his voice makes the words come out like poetry. “And then on a purely philosophical level,” he continues, “the film is all about this character dealing with nostalgia and his past. And film (especially super 8 and black and white), the moment you see it, it immediately feels nostalgic. It feels like something from a bygone era, and I really wanted to bring that energy to the film.” Since sentimentality, for so many, is expressed through saturated Instagram filters and ’90s remakes, it’s refreshing to hear a young man speak with reverence for the past rather than romanticism. 

Maybe the idea of yesteryear isn’t as alluring when your current year looks like Lowell’s. It’s been a busy season for the Georgia native, most well-known for playing Stosh “Piz” Piznarski in the cult-hit “Veronica Mars” and William “Dell” Parker in ABC’s “Private Practice,” and performing roles in Oscar-nominated films such as Up In the Air and The Help. He starred in a new comedy series “Enlisted” that premiered on Fox in January, and his first feature film as the leading man, Brightest Star, was released the same month. He did a press tour for the long-awaited Veronica Mars film that hit theatres in March. His photography exhibit, “Thirty-One Days,” opened at Jackson Fine Art Gallery in Atlanta over the summer. He started rehearsals for the world premiere of The Debate Society’s play Jacuzzi opening Oct. 13 at New York City’s Ars Nova, and he secured distribution for Beside Still Waters through Tribeca Film that has set a Nov. 14 limited theatrical release. (Did I mention that he also produced and co-wrote the indie dramedy that claimed the Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2013 Austin Film Festival?) If you’re not feeling like an underachiever yet, you might when you learn Lowell will turn just 30 years old while this issue is on stands.

All too often I read of a new, young actor achieving success in the industry due to a famous parent or sibling (eminent offspring include Minka Kelly, Alexander Skarsgard, Dakota Johnson, Chris Pine and all four actresses who star in “Girls”); Hollywood nepotism thrives these days. But Lowell has never been one of them. Perhaps that’s why, despite such an impressive résumé, a sense of “normality” abounds. Evidence of this pervades his personal narrative — one that he shares openly, answering questions genuinely, without calculation. Like when I ask about his audition for “Veronica Mars” and he mentions getting arrested in South Carolina. “I was 21 years old. I had just been on this insane road trip ... I was kind of in a wild, sort of loose part of my very early 20s,” he explains sort of matter-of-factly, no shame detected. “I had taken the spring of that year off to go back to college (at the University of Southern California), and it was coming toward the end of summer and I got a phone call from my agent.” It only took one read with producer Rob Thomas for Lowell to secure the role fans know as “Piz,” Veronica Mars’ love interest introduced in the third season.

While that season would be the television program’s last, the Veronica Mars movie began production five years later (in 2013) after an incredibly successful Kickstarter fundraising campaign, the same method Lowell would eventually use to secure funding for the distribution of his own film. “There are a lot of Veronica Mars fingerprints on the movie ... one of the climactic scenes in the film was actually taken from one of my favorite memories with Kristen (Bell) ... and when I think about the Kickstarter campaign that we did, Kristen and Jason (Dohring) and Ryan (Hansen) are in the damn video that I made! And so much of the support that came for Beside Still Waters came from the Veronica Mars supporters, which was very flattering.” Lowell ended up more than tripling his initial fundraising goal, which was surpassed on the second day of the month-long campaign.

The film was inspired by his family’s lake house in North Georgia and the time he spent there with friends. “It was the place that, growing up, we would always escape to,” Lowell remembers. “It was the first place that any of us went skinny-dipping or drank alcohol or had our first kiss. It just kinda had this real mysticism to it ... It was always a landmark for us as friends.” In 2011 his family decided to sell the home. Faced with saying goodbye to what he considered the epicenter of his youth, Lowell decided to move back and live there for a month while working on the script for the movie. The film stars Ryan Eggold (“The Blacklist”) as Daniel Thatcher, a young romantic who experiences difficult times and recruits his childhood friends to relive the days of their youth. “It’s kind of my love letter to this chapter in my life,” he says.

Writing the script seems to have been a cathartic practice — allowing him to reflect on and let go of that time — as seen through his main character acting as an extension of his psyche. But the decision to make a film inspired by his own life provided more than catharsis it turns out. “I think for me going forward as a filmmaker, I always will probably tell stories that are personal to me,” Lowell surmises. “Only because when the going gets tough, it’s nice to have a true north. It’s nice to have a part of you that always knows what the story is about and what it should feel like and what it means.” 

He references this preference for intimacy in relation to his creative endeavors more than once, especially when on the subject of photography. Lowell learned to take pictures during his first pro- fessional acting job — a role on the 2004-2005 television series “Life As We Know It.” One of the show’s producers, Gabe Sachs, gave Lowell his first camera (a Leica M3) and taught him how to shoot on film, which is all he shoots today. Lowell talks of his love for street style photography and “seeing the art in the everyday,” as well as his ventures in shooting portraiture and how that work has been defined by his relationship with the subject. “For me to take a portrait of someone, I either cannot know them at all, or I have to know them very, very well. Otherwise it’s impossible for me to know if I’ve accurately caught them, or what I feel like is the true version of them,” he says. Models take the place as his least favorite subjects: “Because as a model, you have these masks that you wear and these expressions that you adopt to communicate your version of an idea, and for me, as a photographer, I feel like when I see those I can recognize them as not being the person, but simply this idea of a person. And it drives me crazy.” 

This makes me question how he feels about being a “model” on the other side of the camera for his photo shoot, traipsing between corridors clad in three-piece suits, lounging in the backseat of taxi cabs wearing plaid and a fedora, posing with his camera on stairwells — in summertime in New York City. “I feel like I’m like a subject that I would hate. And I always feel this great amount of sympathy for whoever’s having to take my portrait because I know I can’t make it easy,” he confesses. “Acting is one thing cause the whole point is to forget that the camera exists, and it’s very rare that you ever have to look into camera. Having my portrait taken, I find that I’m probably a terrible subject.” And yet, while on location at The Broome Hotel, Lowell seems at ease, fearlessly pushing through situations outside a normal comfort zone (see: jumping into the air with high-flying leather cape action during oncoming traffic for a dozen takes or so). “It was great being surrounded by a bunch of Southerners in New York,” Lowell adds.

The South has played a big role in his life — personally and professionally. He remembers being so excited at the opportunity to go back for The Help. An idyllic casting, it seems, as his sentiments toward the Southern disposition mirrors that of Kathryn Stockett’s (author of the eponymous novel), found neatly tucked in verse of her best-selling book. “I went to a book reading with Kathryn ... and she read this beautiful afterword that she put in the novel about being born and raised in the South and leaving ... and you suddenly realize in hindsight just how incredible and important a place that it is.” The moment Lowell moved to Los Angeles he was able to appreciate the pace and beauty of the South and how thankful he was for having been raised there now that it’s merely a small image in the rearview. He waxes poetic about the region as if it were a long-lost friend he hadn’t seen in years — the kind you might forget about when life gets in the way, but once you reconnect it’s as if no time has passed. Traces of Southern hospitality still linger. He sent an email to our photographer after his shoot thanking the entire crew — even down to production assistant by name — a rarity.

When he’s not posing for the cover of a magazine, he’s in rehearsals for his theatrical debut in JacuzziDirected by Obie winner Oliver Butler and starring Tony nominee Peter Friedman (Ragtime), the play is set in a Colorado ski chalet in 1991 where “the lifestyles of the rich collide with the lifestyles of the aimless.” (And there is actually a hot tub on stage.) Lowell’s role was written for him by the company of actors known as The Debate Society who he met when he was a part of the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab back in 2011. “To me, you’ll never beat performing on the stage. I think it’s the actor’s medium,” Lowell says. “And there’s the immediate gratification of having an audience. So you can totally feel that energy, which is like the best high ever.”

I ask if he gets the same gratification as a musician, too, but Lowell is quick to deny that he is, or ever was, a “musician.” (But I’ve seen the Youtube videos. Lowell plays a fine harmonica.) “That was what I was doing when I got arrested, playing in that band!” Lowell exclaims. He tells the story of getting robbed while travelling through Turkey and Israel with a friend in 2005 and instead of calling their parents for help, they had “this screwball idea” to play music in the streets for money in order to live out their last four days abroad. “And so we had such a fun time doing it that the next year we were like, ‘Lets see how far we can stretch it’.” With his friend’s mom’s minivan and $200 in cash in the front seat, they drove from Atlanta to Montreal and back, pulling into towns along the way, going to bars, asking if they would give them 50 bucks or free food and drinks to play. “They all said no,” he continues. “Then we would go play in the streets and we camped out or we would meet people and go stay with them. I mean it was a wild, wild ride.” While the details were left vague, my imagination was left satisfied after learning a charge of “disorderly conduct” resulted from “something to do with scaling the side of a hospital...”

Sounds like it could be the basis of his next film, I suggest. “Believe me,” Lowell says, “I’ve already discussed it with my writing partner.”