Rob Lowe on his character’s look in Behind the Candelabra ‘it gave me migraines’

These are photos of Rob Lowe in character as Liberace’s plastic surgeon, Dr. Startz, in the HBO movie “Behind The Candelabra.” If you haven’t seen it yet you might assume that it’s a comedy, but it’s not. Lowe’s character just stands out amid a sea of campy, kitschy bling and over the top costuming. I can’t do justice describing “Behind the Candelabra.” It’s wonderful and it feels realistic. Overall you get the sense that you’re peering into Liberace’s world as seen through the eyes of his young idealistic lover, deftly played by Matt Damon. It’s a glittering fantasy that only Liberace could create. Parts of it are hard to take. There are semi-graphic sex scenes that seem awkward, but the most cringe-inducing are the plastic surgery scenes. They really show Lowe’s hack tight-faced surgeon slicing into Matt Damon and Michael Douglas’ faces. Lowe has explained that those scenes were done with real-life replicas, and that he felt like he was slicing into cadavers.

Startz was a real surgeon who operated on Liberace and his lover, he was sued multiple times for damaging patients and eventually committed suicide. (That’s not a spoiler.) There are no known photos of Startz (Update: Here is a photo, thanks to Eddie for the link. Rob said on Ellen that there were no photos of the man.) Lowe and director Steven Soderbergh just went by descriptions of the doctor in the book the biopic was based on, written by the man Damon plays, Scott Thorson. Lowe wanted to go extreme with Startz, and Soderbergh was supportive. In a new interview with EW, Lowe explains his character and how he was inspired, and gives some insight into the film:

This interview has some spoilers for Behind The Candelabra

How much of the eyes were prosthetic and how much of the look was you having to squint and work at it?
In the long meetings where we were testing, doing makeup tests, I just sort of was playing with different ideas with how to hold my face and came upon the realization that with the eyebrows pulled up as egregiously as they are, if I closed my lids, it looked so freaky, because you can’t do it in real life. Like if you right now were to like raise your eyebrows, your eyes open. There’s no way they can’t open. So with my eyebrows up but with my eyes closed, that just looks bizarre because you can’t do it in nature.

How did they lift the brow? It looked like a temporary facelift.
It’s tape and pulled behind my head. It’s literally what they used to do in the early days of cinema before there were facelifts for actresses. You know, Joan Crawford, her whole career was this. You tape, you pull around the back of the head, but you have to have a wig because it covers the elastic. We did that, and I’m also wearing a dental piece and then I’m doing a couple of things, a couple of tricks with my own face, the way I’m holding it. Then of course the makeup is literally like Earl Scheib autobody paint sprayed on my face.

That could not have been comfortable.
It was actually really painful, because being pulled that long and that hard for a 12-hour day — it gave me migraines. We shot during the summer. It was unbelievably hot. The wig, being pulled, it was definitely not the most comfortable experience physically for sure.

Once you started preparing, what did you base your character on?
Obviously there’s the book that the movie was based on [Behind the Candelabra by Scott Thorson], and there are the references to Dr. Startz in the book and they have amazing research throughout the whole movie. But when it came to Dr. Startz, no one could find anything other than what appears in the book. In the book he’s described as pulled unbelievably tightly and his face almost looked plastic. That was a very good leaping off point. In my first conversation with Steven, I was trying to get a sense of what the tone of this movie was going to be because I had a very specific vision of how I wanted to play him, but how I wanted to play him wouldn’t fit in 9 out of 10 movies.

How did it fit in this one?
Happily, when I asked, “Steven, what’s your appetite for me really going for it?” he said, “My appetite is full. Sky’s the limit.” So the end result is the version of Dr. Startz that you see in the movie.

Your character is the major comedic element of the movie, but at the same time he’s very disturbing and sad.
Well Dr. Startz did blow his brains out. We do know that. So there is that element underneath of a guy who is trying to make himself something he’s not. Which by the way is one of the main themes of the entire movie, weirdly enough.

Was it on the forefront of your mind to make this character extreme but also not a joke?
What I love about the movie is that it’s so outrageous, so over-the-top, and yet it’s completely based in reality. And you feel an emotional connection that often you don’t feel for characters that are as over-the-top as some of these are. In my work as Startz I really wanted to make sure that this wasn’t a Saturday Night Live sketch character. This is a really fully rounded man. Otherwise it just wouldn’t work. It would just seem odd.

In a shocking and at times hard-to-watch movie, the only parts I covered my eyes for were the plastic surgery sequences that you had to perform.
Those were hard to do. We had full upper-body realistic casts of Michael and Matt. And they looked like they were dead. I once had to research a role and had to go to a morgue and hadn’t really seen that kind of thing before and what you realize is that dead bodies look like Hollywood wax figures. When I would come into work, it was very disturbing because it looked like Matt and Michael were dead and lying on my table. And we had the surgeon consultants. All that work you see is actually me doing it. It looks like it might be inserts, but it’s actually me. So if you want a cheap, easy facelift, I’m your man. Although I can’t speak for the results.

[From Entertainment Weekly]

That’s what got me about the film – that it was outrageous, but it had a sense of realism at the same time. Rob Lowe’s character stood out of course, but that was extremely relative in this movie. I’m away from home and had to watch it online on HBOGo, but I’ll watch it again on television in HD. This is a film I want to own and see again and again. Also, I didn’t realize that taping up women’s faces was common in early cinema. I remember hearing that Marlene Dietrich used to do it, though.

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57 Responses to “Rob Lowe on his character’s look in Behind the Candelabra ‘it gave me migraines’”

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  1. marie says:

    there is no way I’d let a dude that looks like ‘Joan Rivers the early years’ cut on my face, he’s creepy looking. Good job Rob

  2. Nev says:

    He’s a beautiful man.

    • Liv says:

      He’s really hot, but the photos of him as Dr. Starz are super creepy! Ugh! If I want to see how my face will look after a lifting I just have to tape it? Can’t believe it!

  3. smee says:

    Agree! Agree! Agree!

    Just when I thought I couldn’t love RL anymore than I do – this! So great he’s having a “come back” – altho he might have caught “literally” from his character on Parks & Rec 🙂

    The entire cast and production were perfection. Michael Douglas was an amazing choice for the role of Liberace. Highly recommend seeing this, whether you think you’re interest in Liberace or not!

    • Sassy says:

      What a great movie. Fascinating characterizations by all the actors. You would never know it was Debbie Reynolds playing the mother. And Ackroyd – faultless. Rob Lowe should get an award – could it be an Emmy since Oscars aren’t given for TV Movies. Thanks to Eddie for sending the picture of the real Dr. Startz. The article was also very informative. I remember the disfigured face of the realtor. It looked like her face was melting.

  4. GiGi says:

    OMG. I was so hoping you’d cover this! It was amazing – a revelation! We watched it twice. The film should win awards just for makeup and costume. Michael Douglas was so good – he really nailed a lot of Liberace’s persona – his voice, the way his mouth curled when he talked.

    But Rob Lowe – we had to rewind his parts and watch them over and over – we were dying! He actually reminds me a lot of that Dr. Brandt everyone goes to – he is all pulled and waxy, too!

    Great movie overall!

  5. Anname says:

    Totally entertaining movie, we loved it. Now I want to read the book it’s based on.

    • MrsAtaxxia says:

      The book was just re-issued, both in paperback and kindle formats, I just bought it on amazon 🙂

  6. judyjudy says:

    Oh my gosh, I have to see this!

  7. mkyarwood says:

    Pros. I LOVE his actor character on Californication. This is going to be big for Michael Douglas, I think.

  8. Seagulls says:

    With simulated surgery, this isn’t the movie for me. Well, I’m enjoying the still shots!

    • poppy says:

      i was a very very short bit (but i had to turn away), only a few minutes.
      don’t let it keep you from watching.
      matt damon’s tanned butt scene was hysterical enough to counter balance the brief gruesomeness.

      • Spooks says:

        I wish surgeries were portrayed more realistically in movies. Was this one any good?

  9. Jayna says:

    I forgot it’s premiere date on HBO was this past holiday weekend. Ci had been anticipating it and then with the holiday forgot it.

  10. j.eyre says:

    The comment about it being over the top but not a joke is right on the money. The opulence and grandeur never go too far into satire. And the performance are all truly amazing. Outside Michael Douglas, Rob Lowe was my husbands favorite – you cannot take your eyes off him.

    I thought the sex was much tamer than what people are talking about. I think it is because they are heterosexual males. The surgery scenes are brutal – look away brutal. But you see what the director is trying to say.

    I, personally, found the story just okay. I did not learn anything I didn’t know and I was not a big follower of Liberace, just grew up in the 70s/80s. But the performances, sets and overall it is worth seeing.

    Again – Michael Douglas – they should just cancel award season now; he was Liberace. Brilliant.

  11. t says:

    “But when it came to Dr. Startz…he’s described as pulled unbelievably tightly and his face almost looked plastic.”

    They should have just gotten Bruce Jenner to play the role and saved Rob Lowe from his temporary-facelift-induced migraines.

    • TheyPromisedMeBeer says:

      Indeed – after Bruce’s tour de force performance in that seminal classic Can’t Stop the Music, it is criminal that he wasn’t even considered for this.

  12. Eddie says:

    There is a picture of Dr. Starz in this article about him from

    I loved the movie. I also read that this film is being released in theaters in England (not on TV like in the states).

    I kept thinking, how much did they PAY Michael Douglas to walk around looking like this – especially the scenes without his shirt on.

  13. poppy says:

    very enjoyable film.
    the production, the acting… amazing.
    sad story but soderbergh has a light hand. there’s enough laughs and enough love to keep it from being a drag.
    properly entertaining.

  14. MsAubra says:

    I kept chuckling and squealing each time they showed him! He best get a supporting Emmy nod out of it, poor thing! LMAO

  15. fabgrrl says:

    Gotta see this film!

  16. Rumorhasit says:

    Initially glanced at the header and thought, how cool, they are covering the Arrested Development Netflex thing from Sunday night.
    It took several glances of the other pictures for me to realize that’s not Lucille Bluth.
    This movie was really something. The sets and performances, everything was really over the top. The barking dogs in the background of so many scenes was unsettling. Were they ok, was someone checking on them? was he an irresponsible owner?
    And was Debbie Reynolds playing his mother? If you see this movie for nothing else, check out the casting. Scott Bakula. Dan Ackroyd. Really amazing. And nearly unrecognizable. Like Rob.

  17. TG says:

    I wishing I hadn’t watched it. I can’t Unser some of those scenes now in my mind. Rob was great though as the creepy doctor and he has redeemed himself from the campy serial killer policeman he played on one of those lifetime channels or TLC. Don’t know the difference. Michael Douglas was amazing but as for Matt Damon’s character I couldn’t figure out his angle. Was he really bisexual or was he just looking for money? Isn’t he in jail now. I felt bad for him the sneaky way Liberace kicked him out of his life.

  18. LAK says:

    Plastic surgery in early hollywood history was brutal. There are numerous documentaries and books about it.

    It is amazing what the studios put those actors through. Men and women.

    Ps:- Before she resorted to cheek implants (or is it fillers?) Madonna was rumoured to be using the method Rob Lowe is describing to give her a tight and unlined jawline and cheekbones.

    • The Original G says:

      You can buy the supplies on ebay, still. It’s rumored that this is the source of Lohan’s disappearing and reappearing chins.

  19. hadleyb says:

    They still tape and makeup artists do all sorts of crazy tricks for red carpet, photo shoots, interviews etc.

    Yes photoshop is of course used but you would be so surprised to find out what they really do. Crazy stuff.

    I have many artist friends and the horror stories they tell me of how models/ actors really look in real life is not always pretty. One actresses face starting falling during a red carpet. I would die.

  20. truthful says:

    I sooo enjoyed this film, I too, will watch it again.

    over the top just like “Lee’s life”

    I saw an interview w/Scott Thorson, he’s in jail and he hopes that “Hollywood” will take up money for him and get him out of jail. he’s pretty ill too.

    In Scott’s real pictures of yesteryear, you can see where his cheeks look soo fake.

    good movie and worth the wait, seems like it took forever for it to come out.

  21. MonicaQ says:

    I did a summer as a mole in the coroner’s office in HS. Surprisingly I still had to turn away for the nose job scenes and I’ve seen autopsies. Aie.

    It (the movie) was so over the top and yet so…tragic in a way. I found myself disliking and loving Liberace at the same time. I loved it.

    And the only thing that made me go, “Oh god no!” was when Scott was eating and Liberace kissed him before he could swallow. Let him finish, chewed food oh god noooooo.

  22. Haha says:

    I really enjoyed this movie, and Michael Douglas should win every award out there. He was incredible.

  23. Ncboudicca says:

    Sadly I haven’t seen the whole thing yet due to circumstances beyond my control – got as far as his mom dying, and that’s it. Amazing costumes, make-up, set design, acting, everything. If this movie doesn’t sweep every Emmy it’s eligible for, it will be an injustice!

  24. Emma - the JP Lover says:

    I loved both Michael Douglas and Matt Damon (Hey! MD and MD! :)) in “Behind the Candelabra.” They were very believable. What phenomenal actors. 🙂

  25. RHONYC says:

    that last pic of Lowe is ‘the’ money shot.

    he is still so unbelievably foine! hard to imagine he’s got like grown ass kids.

    Mmm, mmm, mmm. 😉

  26. Laura says:

    Gosh he looks like Demi Moore!

  27. some bitch says:

    Watched the film last night, loved it but it also made me feel very sad. The costumes and sets were incredible.

  28. Dhavynia says:

    The movie is so good. The acting is perfect and yes RL really stands out. The whole thing is sad because this man now sits in jail and if I read correctly in an interview from jail he does not want to be bailed?

    I see how even in death he wanted to keep an image but I remember seeing pictures of him when I was younger and he made Elton John look manly in comparison. If people thought he was straight back then then they still think he died of heart failure.
    Liberace sure liked them young and this man had plastic surgery because Li wanted him to look lime him! I read he had the chin implant removed since. This man was no saint but he was way too young and his life turned upside down by an old perv who got rid of men when they got ” too old”. There was obviosly lots of damage done, he had good foster parents who knew his lifestyle and he had dreams of becoming a vet. I guess thats the Hollyeood way

    • HappyMom says:

      The creepier thing is how young Scott Thorson actually was when he got involved with Liberace: 17! Shudder.

  29. palermo says:

    Saw the movie and didn’t like it at all. Too many nude scenes, the way “Liberace” talked, everybody was just too over the top.

    • Sassy says:

      That was exactly how Liberace talked. I am assuming you meant his voice, not what he was saying. Michael Douglas nailed the voice.

  30. PortlandJan says:

    Rob Lowe was perfect in this role. He did more than catch the look and mannerisms of the times; the character had a certain reptilian quality that he showed to perfection.

  31. The Original G says:

    I’m loving an entertainment thread that’s about a real film and real performances, not just today’s pap shot of K-Trash! Thanks all!

  32. BravoCueen says:

    Amazing movie. All I could remember of Liberace was over-the-top performances and my father’s outrage at the nation’s first public “palimony” case. I learned a lot more about him (although my father is still Archie Bunker incarnate. I definitely plan to get the book now. MD and MD were fantastic. Rob Lowe stole the show. Debbie Reynolds and Dan Akroyd were fabulous. I will watch this again. Like most, I skipped the surgery scenes. YUCK

  33. Gia says:

    I loved the movie too! Watched it last night online. Douglas was very good, but I really thought Damon stole the show. I bought it, you know. I found his character so believeable and authentic. I also can’t believe that no movie studios would pick up this film!? There is such utter garbage getting produced in Hollywood, but they wouldn’t touch a ‘gay’ movie?? Sad. oh, and how amazing is it that people thought Liberace was straight back in the day!!! lol. Travolta needs to hire his team!

    • Ncboudicca says:

      Would be nice if someone picked it up and distributed it overseas as a theatrical film? Does that ever happen or is it a situation of “if it starts on tv then it only shows on tv around the world”?

      • LAK says:

        It’s getting a theatrical distribution outside USA.

        Gia – Don’t blame the studios. Blame the audience. There is a lot in this film that wouldn’t go over with the audience. TV is more accepting of theatrical taboos since their money isn’t contingent on audience receipts. It allows for more risk. That’s why everyone has gravitated to TV.

        And I am not talking about the gay storyline since Hollywood has produced several acclaimed films that have been oscared with gay stories or themes eg MILK.

        If the same people who watched this film on TV, watched it at the theatre, the message Would be received in Hollywood, and more films like this would be made.

        It’s an uncomfortable truth, and it’s easier to blame studios when the fact remains that studios are responding to audience demand. Eg FF6 whose BO success will bring FF7+ until it stops making money. Ditto franchise making money, whatever the genre.

      • Gia says:

        To LAK – I actaully read a quote from the director where he said the studios found the film “too gay” and that’s why they wouldn’t take it. If i can find a link i’ll post it. Milk was tame, with some good old fashioned homophobia for good balance.

        A lot of movies are made that are gambles for the studios. So many times I have heard Oscar contenders telling the story of how their incredibly successful movie almost didn’t get made. Sometimes the studios THINK they know audience demand…but they don’t always get it right.

        EDIT: Here’s a link

      • LAK says:

        Gia – I am not disputing the reason given by the studios for not backing this film. Steven Soderbergh has been very vocal about it for for months now.

        ….but, the bottom line is all they care about. The audience controls the bottom line. If it makes money, Hollywood will make it [and it’s sequels].

        BTW: many Oscar contenders aren’t studio films. They have the studio logo because that’s the distribution company, but the filmakers have to raise majority [if not all] of the finance outside the studio system, and that’s a struggle. The ‘gamble’ taken by the studios is usually AFTER the film has been made or nearly so. In such cases, it means the studio can find an audience for the end product, which may be completely different from the original concept that they refused to finance.

  34. OriginalNose says:

    Good lord this movie was perfect. Lowe, Douglas, Damon – all of them. It was a pleasant surprise to see Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s “fixer/agent.”

    Best moment of my might watching it was when my very Cis-identifyinf boyfriend just goes, “Okay, I can get Scott, even being with Scott, but Liberace just seems like a vicious, mercenary leather sack.”

    In the beginning, he asked, “Are we just going to watch Matt Damon and Michael Douglas make out for two hours?”

    Hook, line, and sinker.

  35. Sarah says:

    What a great movie that was! I couldn’t believe how Rob Lowe looked. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only person who thought he looked so disturbing

  36. Trashaddict says:

    The whole LIberace thing weirded me out when he was alive, and I have yet to understand what was the intended target demographic for this movie (nah, I don’t normally think that way, but Hollywood certainly does). Sounds like strangeness going past the realm of fun and into the realm of uncomfortableness.

  37. Ellie66 says:

    If u see pics of Scott Thorsen now he looks just like Liberace. He said he had the chin implant removed. Poor dude he has anal cancer and is in jail.