Howard Kurtz on Being an Extra in Knife Fight: My All Too Brief Acting Career

Hanging with Rob Lowe on the set of a political film. By Howard Kurtz.

I’m having a drink with an Oscar-winning director about my upcoming scene with Jamie Chung, the star of such movies as The Hangover Part II.

“Be gentle with Jamie,” Bill Guttentag says. “She’s a sweet person.”

I hadn’t thought of myself as particularly dangerous, but then, as a total amateur when it comes to acting, I suppose I’m something of a wild card.

I’m in San Francisco to see how a movie is actually crafted and to grab a fleeting moment of silver-screen excitement by playing a blogger. The idea was sold to me as the cinematic version of a George Plimpton fantasy. (Plimpton was the writer who was briefly allowed to play quarterback in a Detroit Lions preseason game a half-century ago.)

Knife Fight, which examines the bloody backstage tactics of electoral politics, is the brainchild of Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist and former Clinton White House aide I’ve gotten to know over the years. The film, due out in the fall of 2012, stars Rob Lowe of The West Wing fame playing the Lehane figure, who traffics in scandal management while juggling Senate and gubernatorial campaigns. Lehane says the script, with its inevitable compression and composite characters, is 75 to 80 percent accurate in rendering the seamy side of his experience in politics.

The 22 days of filming began as the Anthony Weiner saga was unfolding and the John Edwards and Arnold Schwarzenegger love-child narratives were playing out. If fiction and reality were starting to merge—the movie has walk-ons by the likes of Alan Dershowitz and former John McCain aide Steve Schmidt—I figured it wouldn’t be much of a stretch for me to play the part of Trevor.

I got a call from the wardrobe person. I imagined assistants fussing over me as I tried on different ensembles. But it turns out indie films don’t have huge budgets and they wanted me to bring my own clothes. How deflating. I was told to show up with several outfits in case someone in the scene was similarly attired.

Wait a minute, I asked: Rob Lowe wasn’t bringing stuff from his closet, was he? Well, no, but fashion houses were willing to provide his clothes for the publicity value. Life is unfair.

I looked over my part. There were only a couple of lines. I pushed back: Couldn’t I say this or that? I was told to discuss it with the director. Clearly, my character needed development. Maybe I’d get my way by being difficult, in the grand tradition of temperamental actors.

After flying out at the expense of Delucafilms, I’m on the roof of a parking garage with a panoramic view of the fog-shrouded San Francisco skyline. I am also shivering on a wind-whipped, unseasonably cold morning as I watch the camera crew take forever to set up and the “second team” of stand-ins practice the driving and parking of cars that sets up the scene. Suddenly, as the crew grabs breakfast burritos, Hollywood doesn’t seem so glamorous.

Eventually Rob Lowe appears, looking impossibly handsome, along with Julie Bowen, the wisecracking actress from ABC’s Modern Family, who plays a reporter named Peaches. She is dressed in a jogging outfit of lavender Lycra and struggles to thread the wireless mike up her form-fitting top. “Wardrobe tries to make everything skin-tight and then there’s no place to stick things,” she tells me.

It is so cold that after each take, aides run out with heavy parkas and drape them around Rob and Julie. At one point she takes refuge in a parked car. Acting, I realize, is rougher than it looks.

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They start the scene, in which Rob surprises Julie and tries to talk her out of running a story about his candidate having had sex with a “smoking hot” masseuse. Julie walks to her white BMW convertible but has trouble opening the trunk. They try it again but Lowe muffs a line.

After the third take, Julie suggests that Rob interrupt her when he tries to head off the sex story by offering some dirt on the opposing candidate.

The white-bearded Guttentag, who had been watching on a monitor, huddles with them. “There’s a dynamic change in the scene,” he tells Lowe. “You’re turning the tables on her.”

“I’ve got to tighten the pace up,” Lowe says.

After two more takes, the director asks Julie if she feels good about her performance so far.

“Feel good about it? I’m a sycophantic people-pleaser,” she shoots back. “When you’re happy, I’m happy.”

One take blends into the next. Rob whips out his BlackBerry and sends Julie some photos of a television colleague at a Vegas party with women pulling up their shirts. Julie, in a closeup shot, flicks her fingers across her iPhone screen to enlarge the boobs, just for fun.

The scene ends, as it has on the previous seven takes, with Rob trying to entice the reporter into continuing the encounter by saying, “Room service?”

“Yeah,” Julie says, veering off script to detail what she’s going to do him sexually. Her banter has the crew cracking up.

Lowe, Bowen, and Chung are all doing Knife Fight for a fraction of their usual fees. The reason? The script is so much smarter than the usual “dumb shit” she reads, Bowen says.

“The sequences, the scenes, the speeches are the kind that actors kill for,” Lowe tells me in his well-appointed mobile trailer, the only one provided on this shoot. “I like the world—it rang very true to me. I had not seen this world dramatized.”

After playing deputy communications director Sam Seaborn on The West Wing series, Lowe grew friendly with the likes of Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Karl Rove, Peggy Noonan, Schmidt, and pollster Frank Luntz. “Knowing those guys made me want to do this. Their lives are fascinating.”

Lowe is particularly drawn to one speech in the film “where my character talks about why some of the things he does that he’s not proud of are a necessary evil. It’s a beautiful, interesting, counterintuitive original thought. Do the ends justify the means? As fucked up as it seems, as bad as it is, most people believe a leader can make a difference. It’s very easy to be jaded and cynical.” But in the film, he says, “underneath it is a hopefulness and a love letter to the system.”

Jamie Chung, who plays Lowe’s ambitious assistant, says there are few such roles for women: “She’s dealing with the moral truth of being an adviser, knowing what these men did and trying to cover up for them. With all that’s going on with Schwarzenegger and Weiner, you want to know what goes on behind closed doors. You want to be the fly on the wall that finds out what the hell they’re going to do.”

I gradually realize that while Washington’s nerd class is fascinated by Hollywood glitz, these actors are hungry to understand the nasty and convoluted world of politics, and that’s what drew them to a behind-the-scenes figure like Chris Lehane. Lowe and Bowen spend as much time asking me about media and politics as I do quizzing them about the art of movie-making.

Guttentag, who directed such films as Twin Towers and Soundtrack for a Revolution, says no major studio would make Knife Fight because it’s hardly a guaranteed blockbuster. He originally wanted to make a real-time documentary and spoke to two presidential candidates—whom he won’t identify—about the degree of access that would require. One candidate asked what would happen if he repeated a line in a debate that a strategist had suggested in a prep session.

“That sounds like a really good scene to me,” Guttentag said.

“No, that sounds like a bad scene where it looks like I’m just taking advice from aides,” the candidate replied.

After more than three hours at the parking garage, a fleet of vans moves the enterprise to a hotel restaurant where Lowe is to shoot a series of quick takes with people playing reporters. He keeps making suggestions: “Let’s move the white wine away and do the fries. I will gesticulate with the fries!” Guttentag is a director who welcomes the input.

“I’d put a little more juice into it, Rob,” he says after one line falls flat.

Lowe steps it up: “Perkins and his buddies are ratfucking Kentucky,” he declares. (They also do a G-rated version with “screwing” in case the film winds up on television.)

When two young actors take their seats at the table, Lowe decides one looks too old for the part and picks out a production intern named Lexy to fill in. “This is your moment,” he tells the bewildered-looking woman, grabbing her by the shoulders. “You’re gonna be in the movies!”

The scene begins. Lowe tells the fresh-faced rookies that he hears they’re the next Woodward and Bernstein. “Who?” the puzzled male scribe asks, drawing laughs from the producers no matter how many times the line is repeated. But Lowe isn’t satisfied.

“Should we do one where the ‘who’ comes slightly quicker?” he asks.

By late afternoon my date with destiny is approaching. I am driven to Base Camp, a series of trailers where an hour has been allotted for makeup and outfitting. My narrow dressing cubicle is smaller than a walk-in closet, with a sink and toilet, a faded, upholstered bench and a TV that doesn’t work. But the wardrobe ladies say I should just stay in the buttoned-down shirt and jeans I happen to be wearing, and the makeup woman says I can get beautified on the set (where it turns out I get just a quick powdering).

The “set” is a burgers-and-sandwiches diner called the Honey Honey Café, where Jamie Chung, in a green blouse and gray slacks, makes clear why Guttentag says she has “a fanboy base” (maybe it had something to do with her Maxim shoot). Chung, soft-spoken and unassuming, grew up in San Francisco, where her Korean immigrant family bought an Italian restaurant and kept the name Tony’s.

We do the bare-bones scripted version of the scene, which involves her leaking a story for my blog and me insisting that the material be exclusive. After having practiced it endless times, I blow the line only once.

Now Guttentag encourages us to forget about the script and ad lib the scene. During an earlier chat, I had casually used a raunchy term and he seized on it, encouraging me to work it into my brief burst of dialogue. (Hey, I’m not giving away everything in advance.)

Jamie and I try it a couple of times. She seems a bit low-key and I’m trying to exude the swagger of a self-important blogger. She reads me and adds a little punch to her lines. Guttentag gently tells me that I laughed too long at one of her comments. We run through it a few more times.

When I deliver the suggestive line, the diner staff laughs—that’s good, right?—and after a half-dozen tries, I get a smoldering look from Jamie Chung. I regard this as a small triumph in my brief and now-concluded acting career. I just hope it doesn’t end up on the cutting-room floor.