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

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.”

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!”

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.”

Her husband’s unflappability was surely tested when Bowen almost had their first child on the set of Boston Legal, during a scene in which her character was also delivering a baby. “I was pretending to be in labor, grunting and groaning. They’re like, ‘Cut!’ and my water breaks, and I’m standing in a puddle,” she remembers. A teamster was assigned to rush her to the hospital, but Bowen insisted that they first swing by her house so she could wash her face and change into street clothes. Her reasoning: She was afraid the admitting staff “would think I was Froot Loops, showing up in my own hospital gown with full hair and makeup.”

When Bowen and Phillips learned two years later that she was carrying twins (which run in her family), she confesses, “I was terrified. I did not want twins as a second go-around. I should have been much more cautious. I should have had . . . half sex?” On top of her emotional reaction, she recalls endlessly fielding questions from those who assumed the twins had resulted from in vitro fertilization. “Everybody asked me, ‘How many did you put in?’ and I’d be like, ‘Just one penis. Thanks!’

“A friend said, ‘You are the right one to have sons,’ ” says Bowen, who classifies herself as “jocky,” running six miles a day and swimming laps at the Y. But despite her physical fitness, she had a life-threatening health scare almost 11 years ago. It began when her younger sister, Annie, a Harvard-trained physician, noticed that Bowen’s pulse was abnormally low and urged her to see a heart specialist. Soon after, Bowen received a diagnosis of hypervagotonia (which causes her heart to beat too slowly) and was outfitted with a pacemaker. When the doctors broke the news, she remembers having “a big crying fit” about needing a device that’s “for old people.” Since then, she’s come to realize how lucky she is that a serious medical problem could be remedied in a way she considers “no big deal”: Every six months, she goes for a checkup; every seven years, she has surgery to replace the heartbeat--regulating part of the apparatus. “That’s kind of a pain. It’s a full operation,” she says. “They give you a new pacemaker but [not the wires that carry the electrical signal] so they don’t have to actually go into your heart.”

Bowen is grateful to her sister for the medical call and also for pep-talking her through the difficulties of having three children under the age of five. When she’d phone her sister, crying, Bowen remembers, “she’d say, ‘Put on your hard hat and don’t look up.’ ” Bowen also realizes how lucky she is to have plenty of help. When the twins were very young, two nannies were on duty; these days one works the morning shift, and another takes over for the afternoon. But by Bowen’s own mandate, weekends were nanny free. “I have three kids. I should know how to take care of them,” she says. Nonetheless, TGIF soon lost its shimmer. “We’d be like, ‘Here comes Saturday. It’s going to be a long-ass weekend.’ All we did was poop patrol for 48 hours. When Monday would come, we’d be like, ‘Thank God.’ ”

The pandemonium of her everyday life is now a staple of her wisecracking talk-show appearances. Sometimes, though, she misjudges when audiences will laugh along with her. Once, on Lopez Tonight, Bowen showed a snapshot of herself double-nursing the twins, provoking an Internet uproar. “I thought it was funny,” a dismayed Bowen protests. “You didn’t see nipples, just this blurry picture of two heads stuck to my boobs. I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ You couldn’t get me out of the house for about a month after that. I felt so embarrassed and misunderstood.”

Bowen, who enjoys being provocative, was less embarrassed by the Weeds arc that threw her into a tryst with a teenage boy (played by series regular Hunter Parrish, 24). “That was so fun,” she says. “No one ever casts me as anything other than the good girl. Weeds was like, ‘Yeah, you’re going to be the pot-dealing cheese-shop lady who’s having sex with a 17-year-old,’ and I was like, ‘I am so happy!’ ” Yet Bowen admits that, confronted with the on-set reality, “I did not feel good about having fake oral sex with a 17-year-old on top of a cheese board. So I decided, ‘Look, this day is happening, and it may as well be fun.’ For [sex] scenes, you wear this weird flesh patch over your business, as it were, so you look like a Barbie doll. You’re nothing but smooth, flesh-colored parts. So I walked on set and immediately dropped my robe and showed everyone Barbie. And they all start laughing, and now everybody is relaxed and you can have some fun.”


LOOKING back on her career, she is, as always, simultaneously funny and pragmatic. Has she ever wondered why it took so long for her to achieve a big success? “No!” she says. “I always thought I was lucky to work at all. I’m keenly aware of the odds of succeeding in our business, and to me, paying your rent and being financially independent is success.” Nor does she fret about past choices. “Honestly, I feel like a lot of times, the only really bad choice you can make is one that closes doors. I’ve managed to keep a lot of doors open,” she says, then offers an inventory: “I haven’t burned bridges. I have good relationships with the people in my life, both professionally and personally. If I wanted to chuck it all tomorrow and move to Michigan and live on a farm, I could do that—and I don’t think anybody would be mad at me.”

For the moment, she is not only happy with her frantic schedule but also proud of her altered priorities. “I’m constantly shocked that I am successfully taking care of this family and that I’m capable of putting their needs in front of mine,” Bowen says. “I don’t think I could have done it in my twenties.” Her life, she notes, is good, and she is puzzled when others suggest she should push for more. “Why is ‘good’ the enemy?” she asks. “Why push it past good?”


MARGY ROCHLIN profiled Kate Walsh in the April issue of More.


Want MORE? Check out our profile of Mary J. Blige. 


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First Published Thu, 2011-07-28 08:40

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