Julie Bowen's Moment in the Spotlight

Her own water broke while her character gave birth on Boston Legal. The internet lit up after she showed a tv audience a photo of herself breast-feeding twins. During her 20-year career, Julie Bowen has always played it her way—and now, on ABC’s megahit Modern Family, her intelligent quirkiness is paying off.

By Margy Rochlin
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Photograph: Peggy Sirota

For the pilot, however, the producers had to hide her eight-months-pregnant belly, which spurred various Bowen relatives to suggest turning each concealment gambit—folding laundry, popping her head around a doorway—into a drinking game. (“Every time you realized that Julie was doing something to hide her pregnancy, you had to drink,” says her older sister, Molly.) As the show progressed to becoming a series, Bowen’s bosses were surprised by her adroit physical comedy, how she seemed instinctively to know the facial expressions and gestures that could turn her frazzled, hypercompetitive, insecure, loving wife and mother into a scene stealer. “We knew she was a beautiful woman who was funnyish,” says Levitan. “But we can’t say we saw her being laugh-out-loud funny. She blew us away with the level of complexity and neurosis that she brought to the part.”

Not unlike her TV character, Bowen radiates so much internal energy that she seems to be in motion even when she’s sitting still. She’s a gesticulator and a foot tapper, and her pale, angular face seems always to be changing expressions. “That’s my husband, Scott. He emerges from the cave!” she shouts when her handsome brown-haired spouse, Scott Phillips, surfaces from his office in the couple’s basement. For the next 10 minutes, the two make light jokes at each other’s expense. She teases him about his difficulty explaining what he does for a living (he writes computer codes), and he expresses surprise that she has actually managed to prepare lunch. When Phillips pads quietly away, Bowen says with clear adoration, “He’s so mellow.” Then, after a reflective pause, she adds, “Unless he’s playing beer pong. He plays beer pong with a seriousness that this sport does not deserve.”

She is equally in awe of her on-set husband. “I could cry just talking about Ty Burrell,” Bowen says. “This is a man who lives in Utah. In this industry, most people are committed to Hollywood or Beverly Hills or Malibu. This is a man who is committed to Utah. He is also the scariest person I’ve ever worked with because he’s so good that you don’t know what is going to come out next.” For his part, Burrell quickly noticed that Bowen “is not afraid to look bad. I think in particular for women in Hollywood, that’s not an easy thing, to be willing to make yourself look ugly for a joke or be completely out of control in a way that isn’t flattering. And Julie always does that. She’s all in—there are limbs flying everywhere.”

Bowen learned how to get a laugh early on. Raised in an affluent suburb of Baltimore, the middle daughter of commercial–real estate developer Jack Luetkemeyer and his homemaker wife, Susie, Bowen hovered on the edges while alpha sister Molly took center stage. “We were complete hams,” says Bowen about the elaborate backyard productions the three siblings would write, direct and cast.
She appeared in high school theatricals, but when she went on to Brown, the university’s theater department was so famously competitive that she began to be intimidated by performing. Shifting her focus back to an earlier interest in fine art (her parents had always pegged her as a painter), Bowen eventually majored in Italian Renaissance studies and spent a memorable junior year in Florence: “I was completely living this Italian life, speaking Italian, dating Italian boys and drinking buckets of wine. It was lovely.”

 

EMBOLDENED by her sojourn, she returned to Brown and tried out for a student production. Not only did she land the lead, but when a Brown graduate came to campus looking for an ingenue to star in his grant-funded independent film, Five Spot Jewel, it was Bowen who walked away with the part. She didn’t get paid but loved the experience of acting in front of a camera, soaking up all the blunt advice that her equally young director had to offer: “I liked that he told me to stop rolling my eyes. He gave me direction that made me realize, Oh! Pull it together, woman!”

First Published September 6, 2011

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