It's a warm morning, and the front door to Julie Bowen’s home in one of Los Angeles’s woody canyons is open. Not slightly ajar but wide open, the kind of open that sightseers on Hollywood tour buses dream about.
“I’m in here,” a voice calls from somewhere deep inside the house.
When Bowen is finally located, she’s on her knees in the kitchen with a spray bottle of cleaning fluid in one hand and a sponge in the other, scrubbing frantically at something on the stainless steel refrigerator. A trio of red hook-on high chairs are clipped to the island (she has three sons: Oliver, four, and twins Gustav and John, two), plastic toys are strewn across an adjacent room, and the smell of quiche is in the air. Bowen is dressed like a woman with a lot on her plate: loose cotton blouse, slip-on sneakers and a pair of denim cutoffs that showcase her long legs. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail. “I used to be much more uptight because I like things to be neat,” she says, waving helplessly at the upheaval. An unfiltered talker (“I blabber incessantly, and then I apologize for it later,” she once told Conan O’Brien, by way of defining her conversational style), she soon begins second-guessing her decision to invite a reporter over at a time when her home is uncharacteristically kid free. “It’s quiet,” she says. “But then I’m like, She’s going to think that I live this life of leisure. Like I lounge about my house.” No one who knows anything about the 41-year-old Bowen would mistake her for a couch sprawler. Nothing if not tenacious, she’s worked steadily for two decades on cult TV shows like Ed, Boston Legal and Weeds, playing smart, complicated, type A beauties who often have an aura of life-didn’t-turn-out-the-way-I-planned sadness. But not until last year and her hit ABC series Modern Family (she’s been twice Emmy-nominated for the role) did she achieve the kind of breakout success most actresses latch onto in their twenties or not at all. And the roles keep rolling in. Between Modern episodes, Bowen found time to film two movies: Jumping the Broom, in which she plays an African-American couple’s hand-wringing wedding planner, and Horrible Bosses, a comedy in which she is the trophy wife of a brutish Kevin Spacey. Bowen is getting it all—the big career, the accolades, the family—at just the point in life when she can not only handle it all but also put it in perspective.
It helps that the role of Claire Dunphy, the stressed-out mother of three she portrays on Modern, reflects some of the challenges in her own life. She was drawn to the sitcom, Bowen recalls, by a scene in the pilot script in which Claire and her exasperating, self-described “cool dad” spouse Phil (Ty Burrell) talk about scheduling. “There’s a soccer party and a birthday. It was so straightforward,” says Bowen, who then happened to be pregnant with her twins. “At the time I only had one kid, but with two on the way, I was always hearing talk about golden mystical baby things and precious time. And I was like, ‘Who the fuck are you talking to?!’ This isn’t golden and mystical. If you could see me naked, you would weep. I weep on a regular basis. Children are like crazy, drunken small people in your house.” So when presented with the pragmatic Claire, Bowen says, “I really related to this woman. It was like, ‘You’ve just got to get it done.’ It doesn’t mean she doesn’t love her family. She wasn’t getting condemned [by the script] as a bad mother. This was the lead mom, and she wasn’t romanticizing parenthood.”
At the time, Modern producers Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd felt as if they’d met half of female Hollywood and were still struggling to find Claire, a role Levitan says was “surprisingly challenging” to cast. “She had to be so many things—tough, vulnerable and kind of a ballbuster with Phil—but you still had to love her,” he says. “With Julie, there’s this instant likability: She’s funny, self--deprecating, and she’s gorgeous.”