Her indoctrination into the darker side of acting came with her first professional gig, the ABC daytime series Loving. In the surreally skinny realm of soap opera, she was cast as the pudgy sidekick. “Between scenes, [a costar] would say, ‘Can you believe how fat you are?’ ” Bowen recalls. Rather than allowing her confidence to be sapped, she sought support from the segment of the showbiz community that forever bears silent witness to the talent’s bad behavior. “I thought, Go talk to the crew, and you’ll find out that they hate her, too.”
What she also realized is that while her beauty might have set her apart in Baltimore, in the entertainment industry she was just one of the crowd. “Hollywood is nothing but every prom queen and cute girl in America,” says Bowen. “People like to pigeonhole blondes as the cute girl next door. I was never good at that. I was always better once they let me be a bit acerbic or have just a touch of a dark side.”
Somewhere along the way, she dropped her word jumble of a surname, Luetkemeyer, in favor of her middle name, Bowen—but not because she thought her original handle would make a clunky screen credit. “I had this idea that I would probably fail and that that would be Julie Bowen’s problem and I’d just bury her and go back to being Julie Luetkemeyer,” she says.
Until the mid-’90s, Bowen’s résumé documents years of small, promising gigs (guest spots on hit shows such as the teen drama Party of Five) and big breaks that fizzled out too quickly (her first series, Extreme, about a search-and-rescue squad in the Rockies, was pulled after seven episodes). When she landed the part of a golf-tournament publicist in the big-screen sports comedy Happy Gilmore, perhaps her greatest challenge was to generate some romantic sparkle with Adam Sandler’s character, a maniac golfer with a horny preadolescent’s view of the opposite sex. But Bowen wasn’t stressed. “For me to manufacture sexual chemistry? No big deal,” she says, pointing out that she could meet a costar, such as Matthew Fox or Paul Rudd, and within minutes be kissing him passionately on camera.
Bowen was living a real-life romantic comedy of her own by the time she began appearing on NBC’s New Jersey-–filmed Ed (she played Carol, the hometown crush of the lead character). Bowen had been cycling in and out of live-in relationships, all of which she entered “starry eyed and thinking, This is it!” and all of which ended, she says, with dashed hopes and packed bags. The actress admits her ideal man at the time was a reaction against her preppy, country-club upbringing: She liked bad boys who played off her less-than-confident side or, as she describes it, sparked an inner dramatic monologue along the lines of, I love you—do you love me? Are you going to leave me? Did you cheat on me? “I was at the point where I was labeling my CDs as I moved in. It was like, ‘It’s easier when we break up. You know this isn’t going to last.’ ”
Guys like Phillips weren’t on her radar; the only reason they met was that a cousin of hers had fixed them up. On their first date, in January 2003, a blizzard was raging, says Bowen, but dinner went so well, “we closed down the restaurant.” They’d been a couple a few months when Phillips suggested they move in together, which for Bowen triggered fears that the relationship would crash and burn just like the others. “So I said, ‘No, I like you. I don’t want to mess this up.’ ” Six months later, Phillips proposed, and in 2004 they married and relocated to Los Angeles.
On Modern, Bowen and her TV husband’s individual neuroses somehow fit together into one functioning parental unit. But Phillips and Bowen are a more conventionally perfect couple. “He’s the coolest cucumber you have ever met,” says sister Molly. “He is so chill, such a great counterpoint to Julie.”