By Dave Ongie, News Editor
Editor’s Note: Johnson City native Matt Lowe has spent nearly 20 years as a working actor in Hollywood. This is the second installment in a three-part series on the triumphs and trials he’s experienced while navigating the ultra-competitive world of show business.
Matt Lowe was a bit nervous, and it had nothing to do with the fact he was preparing to be on the business end of a taser.
After all, the tasers on the set of the long-running CBS drama NCIS don’t pack an electrical punch. But the show is like a well-oiled machine, and that can be tough for an actor dropping onto the set for a one-week role.
“They’ve got this thing honed into a science,” Lowe said. “You’d better know exactly what you’re doing and hit your mark.”
So Lowe was all business as he rehearsed a scene that would culminate in him being shot with a taser, falling to the ground and being apprehended by the police. He was totally committed as he convulsed and threw his body backward onto a crash pad. Then Lowe saw a hand reaching down to help him up, and that hand belonged to Mark Harmon, the star of the show.
“He said, ‘Hey, I just wanted to introduce myself. My name is Mark. Welcome to the show. I think it’s going to be great today,’” Lowe recalled. “He totally helped me up.”
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After leaving his support system behind in the mountains of East Tennessee, a series of helping hands have reached out and lifted Lowe up just when he needed it most. Not all of those helping hands have belonged to famous actors, but the generosity of those around him has kept Lowe going at critical points in his journey.
Lowe admitted to going through his share of growing pains during his time at DePaul, but he had teachers, friends and classmates in Chicago who helped him adjust to city life.
“I definitely had a number of mental leaps to overcome, and that’s just the age I was at, too,” he said. “There are a lot of growing pains that go along with just becoming a man.”
Following his time at DePaul, Lowe’s adjustment to life in Los Angeles was also very difficult. From the get-go, Lowe found himself struggling to make ends meet while trying to get his acting career off the ground. In those early days on the west coast, Lowe was living on a friend’s couch and working a pair of jobs while trying desperately to land auditions.
Lowe spent his weekday evenings selling printers at OfficeMax and his weekends pulling 12-hour shifts in a factory in Chino. Suddenly, a young man who had grown up spending a good deal of time on his grandparents’ dairy farm found himself on the other end of the milk industry – in a windowless factory that produced the caps that go on the top of milk jugs.
“It was depressing at the factory,” Lowe said. “I had to wake up before the sun came up and drive, and then I was in the factory all day. So I would wake up, go to work and come back and would not see the sun on the weekends.”
Weekdays were reserved for auditions, but those were few and far between at first. Lowe filled his time by taking improv classes, but his dream seemed to be fading as he found himself short on his monthly rent payment on more than one occasion. However, a merciful roommate gave Lowe the time he needed to get caught up.
“It was very hard to find an agent and to find people who believed in me,” Lowe recalled. “I was living with this guy from Georgia, and there was a month or two I got behind on rent. I was like, ‘Buddy, please, I’ve just got to catch up with the paychecks.’ And he was like, ‘Don’t worry about it.’”
That act of grace gave Lowe some time to find more solid financial footing. Pretty soon, he was presented with an opportunity to gain his Screen Actor’s Guild card, a must-have for any legitimate actor. Unfortunately, that process would prevent him from keeping his new job waiting tables, but the director of a play Lowe was appearing in was there with another lifeline. Her husband directed commercials, and she offered to get Lowe on as a production assistant on one of his shoots.
It was another blessing, but this one came with a heaping side dish of resentment. When Lowe showed up on the set of a shampoo commercial with no experience and no clue what the job entailed, the director made it be known to the entire crew that Lowe was there to stay.
“My wife wants you to hire him. He’s never done it before,” Lowe recalled the director telling the rest of the crew.
Lowe could sense his new co-workers rolling their eyes as production started. His first job was easy enough – drive a vanload of people to the location for filming. But as he navigated a winding road in the Hollywood Hills, Lowe wrecked the van.
“I remember being so freaked out because I thought I was going to have to pay for it,” Lowe said with a laugh. “ I didn’t realize there’s insurance.”
Despite the inauspicious beginning, Lowe showed up the next day and the day after that. Slowly but surely, he earned the respect of the people he worked with and received an invaluable education on how sets function and how to blend in with the army of professionals it takes to produce anything from a 30-second commercial to a feature film.
Lowe said that education has served him well over the years as his acting career finally gained momentum. His first onscreen appearance in a television show came in 2003 when he played a man in a superhero costume in The District, a drama starring Craig T. Nelson. The first TV commercial he appeared in was for Pepto-Bismol.
With a little help along the way, the jobs have kept coming, and Lowe is grateful for the opportunities he’s had to grow professionally.
“I’ve been blessed,” Lowe said. “God’s been faithful and it’s been kind of one thing at a time.”
In next week’s final installment, we’ll look at the important role license plates have played in Lowe’s life, his surreal experience of trading jokes with Andy Sandberg and the roots he’s managed to put down in Los Angeles while staying true to his East Tennessee upbringing