University News

Modern Family star entertains crowd with college stories

By
News Editor
Thursday, October 25, 2012

Julie Bowen ’91 was sitting in the makeup room of her first acting job when she realized she had nothing to say. She had no prior acting experience and no future bookings – the topics of choice for the girls around her. But then somebody mentioned “the world,” and suddenly Bowen had something to add.

“Hairdressers dropped combs. Mousse clanked to the floor. Heads turned,” she said. How did she know anything about the world? “I went to college,” Bowen told them.

The “Modern Family” star addressed a packed Salomon 101 last night in a Brown Lecture Board question-and-answer with Lowry Marshall, professor of theater arts and performance studies. 

“Most people have never had the luxury of this,” Bowen said of a Brown education. “You’ve been in this amazing, wonderful, academic, social, psychosexual bubble.”

The differences between her academic background and aspects of her life as an actress create some existential tensions, she said. In two-hour spray tans for work, “I’m naked in front of someone sort of lying around, and I’m like, ‘I went to college,'” she said. “I feel like I’m betraying something from my past.” 

Bowen had a lot to say about her said she lived in the Rockefeller Library during her years at the University. ” “I lived in the Rock … I did everything all students have ever done,” she said, pausing to raise her eyebrows. “But I did it in the Rock.” Students were permitted to smoke in the A-Level of the library, she said. “Why would you go anywhere else? You were a flask away from an academic party.”

If Bowen could relive her Brown experience, she would engage more with her professors, she said. “I was in awe of my professors. Maybe a little more than I should have been.” 

When she first arrived at Brown, she felt overwhelmed by the sense of individuality all of her peers seemed to share, she said. Everyone around her seemed to open the course catalog and know exactly what they wanted, she added. 

“But the great thing about Brown as you all know is the concentration requirements are very – what’s the word? – malleable?” she said. Once she returned from studying abroad in Florence, Bowen found that she was close to completing a concentration in Italian Renaissance studies. 

“As a blonde, 20 years old, in Italy – you don’t have to pay for shit,” she said to great laughter. But she quickly added, “But I was really studying! It was hard!” Marshall asked her what she learned abroad. “You heard the part about the free stuff, right?” Bowen joked.

An actor’s life forces confrontation with different ideas about sex and gender, Bowen said. 

Marshall asked Bowen, now married to real estate agent Scott Phillips, about her thoughts on dating actors. “I was fooled by every actor trick,” she said. “They threw out the easy, ‘I’ll come to your hotel room and we’ll run lines.'”

Bowen said an actor who had attempted to “run lines” with her once told her, “a relationship is a two-car garage, Julie, and an actor’s ego takes up a space and a half.” The statement is mostly false, she said, but it can ring true when actors date actors. The demanding lifestyles and occasional “hall passes on making out with co-stars” can lead to trouble, she added.

Having a college education sets her apart from actors whose lives have focused only on acting, she said. Bowen did not study theater at Brown because she was too intimidated by the department, she said, though Marshall pointed out she did perform in a few campus productions. It was not until after her graduation that Bowen really set her mind on acting and began studying the craft, she said. When she arrived in Los Angeles, she realized her four years at the University distinguished her from most other actors who “do walk around with a shiny mirror ball revolving around their head that sort of informs everything they do,” she said. 

Bowen said the acting life is not as glamorous as some people perceive it.  “The not-so-dirty secret is when you’re an actor on a production with more than ten dollars behind it,” she said. “You are a prop with legs, and they will do anything they can to keep their prop in the pen. If they could cut your legs off, they would. But they can’t, so they bring you coffee,” she said.

She has one primary piece of advice for aspiring actors and actresses. “Create your own content,” she said. Those who can work on their own keep busier and enjoy more jobs, she said.

Bowen took her own advice when she was cast as Claire Dunphy in “Modern Family” – a part she considered somewhat characterless, she said. “I got the job, and I assumed it was going to be essentially a showcase for these incredibly intelligent guys that I was working with … and my job was to sort of coming in like the Greek chorus and be like, ‘and now they have a fight.'” 

But Bowen said she kept quiet and felt grateful for the opportunity, and soon found a way to create more of a role for herself. “I got to use this other actor on set – the camera – and that became my person,” she said. 

The cast of Modern Family gets along “grotesquely well,” Bowen said, describing co-stars Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the brothers she never had. The large size of the cast prevents members from getting sick of each other, and the children in the cast keep the atmosphere from feeling like “an adult cocktail party,” she said.

Marshall posed the question of what’s up next for Bowen. “‘Modern Family’ will end at some point,” Marshall said – and was abruptly interrupted by Bowen snapping, “Hush your mouth.” 

Acting has its frustrations, Bowen acknowledged. But she added that as time goes on, fewer and fewer people present themselves at auditions because many grow wearied by frustration. “Pace yourself for the long war,” she said. “Whatever that means for you.”