Interview with Rob Lowe

Rob plays Dr Ethan Willis, a U.S. Army colonel attached to the prestigious Combat Casualty Care research program. He joins the ER staff at Angels Memorial for the remainder of his enlistment after the Army pulls him from the battlefield in Afghanistan.

Rob Lowe as Ethan Willis

What it is like on the set of Code Black?

It's very exciting. The show is so big. We go through 900 extras a week. This set is 30,000 square feet, it's an exact replica of LA County Hospital and I've been on a lot of sets in my life but I've never been on one as beautiful and impressive as this - maybe the West Wing set, which was an exact replica of the White House. It's such an extravagant show; I'm having such a good time being part of it.

What made you decide to join it?

I spent the last five years doing comedy, four years in Parks and Rec and I did last year on the Grinder, which I loved every minute of it. It was a beloved show; it just couldn't find an audience. So I felt like I don't want to do a lesser version of a comedy and this came my way and I've never really done this kind of genre before and I love the writing and Marcia, so to work with her and Luis, was an amazing opportunity because they're some of my favourite actors and always have been. And then Michael Seitzman wrote this great character; just sort of a leading man's dream this character.

Tell us a bit about him...

The genesis of how this character came to be is that all of the cutting edge drama and technology is coming from the battlefield, that's where people are being saved for the last 15-16 years. So the way that new technology is implemented in the local hospitals is that they embed these battlefield special operational trauma doctors and they're here to teach it and show everybody how to do it and that's my character. And then they circle back in to the field. In fact today the person my character is based on is here. So it's based on real life, this is what happens, these guys exist, and they come right from Afghanistan or Iraq and they've been saving people from being blown up or sniper fire or every horrible thing you can imagine and they bring their knowledge and bring it back to the States.

That's being resisted by people who have set ways in a hospital... I think they're happy to see the technology and happy to have the manpower but this is a guy who's used to doing really advanced surgeries in the back seat of a HumV if he needed to. And there's no protocol on the battlefield, so it's definitely an adjustment and there's conflict about that. My character's thing is that whatever means justify the ends, I never get that right. And the hospital is a corporate place at the end of the day. So there is definitely some head bumping.

Again what I love about this show and my character is that it's all based on truth and there's a thing called the Golden Hour, which is that hour you have where something horrible happened to you where the battle was won and lost. And for years the thought was you have an hour to get them to help and now they're trying to change that thinking to you have an hour to get help to them. So in the first episode my character hears about this guy who is bleeding to death on the beach and I'm like why are we waiting for them to come here, I'll get on the helicopter to go to them and that kind of thing isn't really done. And it sets up this great helicopter stunt jumping in to the ocean (which the stunt man didn't fair so good). Well I was going to do it, I wanted to do it, I would have done it in two seconds and they kind of baited me in to it, they were like You want to jump out of the helicopter? I was like easy yes yes! And then when we got to do it they were like of course you're not going to do it! Insurance was probably not ok.

What sort of research have you done?

A lot of reading; the good news is that this all exists so you can meet the real people. I've met some of my real life counterparts and been down to County Hospital. The old version of it that this is based on is closed but it still exists, down to the linoleum on the floor and the graffiti on the wall, it's an exact replica. And then a lot of it is just learning the technology and the terminology. That's the fun of this show is that it is a really tough show to make but it's really fun and I've realised that I don't mind working hard, I just mind working bored and I'm never bored on this show.

Fancy handy work in the candelabra?

Oh yes it's a new career for me surgery! I maybe need to do a facelift or a head transplant! If you can think of any way for me to bring back Dr Starz from Behind the Candelabra, I am all about it. I think that man needs his own spinoff. It's a very different look...

Is it quite hard to adjust having done a lot of comedy?

Oh it is. The first two weeks were brutal because your sensibility is always find the funny and that's where I've been living for five years. And that is one of the things they want me to bring here but in the context of this tone which is very narrow windowed to be funny. But Willis is irreverent and he brings that devil may care attitude which is sort of unique to him on the show and certainly something I like to do but for the first two weeks all I could think about was what is the Parks and Rec version or the Grinder version because the Grinder's entire predicate was honestly based on if you were going to have a heart attack, wouldn't you rather have a heart attack next to Noah Wylie, an actor who played a doctor, rather than someone who wasn't a doctor. Now here I am and I'm an actor going you know what I could save some lives! It's funny how the world comes full circle.

The first season they went through a boot camp - did you?

Yeah we did. We had medical boot camp about a week before shooting. A lot of the actors came back for tune-ups and all of the new cast members, myself included were there and it was great, they had different stations set up. They had suturing and intubation, chest lines, you name it, we had it. My suturing is pretty good and my incubations are pretty good, for an actor who's spent his whole career trying to avoid props I'm kind of handy with the medical props. Who knows why?

Are you queasy?

No I'm lucky that way, it doesn't bother me, thank God. The sight of my own blood does though, like when it's draining out of me. But other people's fine, fake blood no problem.

Have you ever witnessed any medical emergency?

It's funny, I write about this in my second book Love Life where I talk about how weird it is to live the life of an actor. And how what you really are is a voyeur all the time. And it's not a happy story but it speaks to your question is that my wife's father had a sudden heart attack and was rushed to the emergency room and they were fighting to save his life doing exactly this kind of thing and we're sitting in the hallway in exactly the kind of scene that goes on here and in real life a hundred times a week. And I remember thinking when the door opened, we knew they were fighting for his life, and the doctor opened the door and walked towards us and the actor in me went remember this because you're going to have to play it one day. This is not a drill. And the doctor said I'm sorry we did all we could do. And when you live through that as an actor, that's the kind of stuff that you can't replicate, you can't rehearse, you use it and I write about that weird out of body experience of wanting to be there for my wife and experiencing it as my father in law and then the actor in me being very clinical about remembering all the details of the conversation so these doctors do that and it's nothing for them - they go and make themselves a cup of coffee. It's amazing. That's why it's so fascinating to play. We did a scene yesterday where I euthanised a 22 year old girl, a terminal cancer patient, who had been fighting to do it and there's a law in California that says you can't do it and that's what the storyline is and having those kind of experiences in life really inform how you play this big moments.