Julie Bowen's Role as a Modern Woman
by tracey neithercott
Julie Bowen tears through her Los Angeles home, flinging her heels off as she rushes through the door. It is 5:37 PM, a full seven minutes after our interview was supposed to start. She is hardly late, but still apologizes at least three times for the delay. Now the kids are waking from their naps and are ready for some serious Mommy time. But Mommy’s on the phone. “They’re giving me the stink eye,” she quips. “But they’ll get over it.”
In the middle of such a commotion, it’s easy to find similarities between Bowen, 42, and Claire Dunphy, the often-harried mother of three she plays on ABC’s Modern Family. She is quick-witted and funny, fiercely protective of her family, and blunt about motherhood. It is no secret that having three boys in two years—she has a five-year-old, Oliver, and twin three-year-olds, Gus and John, with husband Scott Phillips—wore her out. In a moment of candor, she once famously told David Letterman that raising the babies was “pretty awful” at times. “I did not always enjoy it,” she says of her children’s younger years.
But that’s all changing as the kids grow older, and family time has been winning out over more work. It’s why on this June evening, even though she is on hiatus from filming Modern Family, Bowen isn’t on another set somewhere. “Everyone else [on the show] goes off and does fancy films,” she says, fielding a request for milk that squeaks through the phone. “I stay home and tie beach balls to the oak tree in the front yard so the kids have something to hit instead of me.”
Bowen grew up in Towson, Maryland, not far from downtown Baltimore. It was, by her account, an idyllic setting. In fact, Bowen refers to the suburb as “Fantasy Land” for its manicured lawns and upper-middle-class homes. Bowen was born the middle of three girls, and together with her sisters she created elaborate productions in their backyard. The acting bug bit her quite young, and the resulting passion for performance never left.
Though she has fond recollections of childhood, Bowen mostly remembers the so-thick-you-can-drink-it air during the sweltering summers. “At this time of year, it started to become [terribly] hot, and that is my overwhelming memory of Baltimore,” she recalls. “I started running, and I remember I’d get up before the sun got up because it got so hot there and so sweaty.”
Nevertheless, Bowen looks back on her childhood with nostalgia. There were those trips to DC for retail therapy, the days spent in museums eating tourist-y treats—dehydrated ice cream, like the kind astronauts ate, was a favorite—and the nights in Georgetown attempting to sneak into a bar as a ’tween. (Back then the legal drinking age in the District was still 18.) And, of course, there were trips to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and lots and lots of crabs, soft or steamed hard.
By the time she reached high school, the days of crab feasts were numbered. She left the area to enroll at an elite boarding school in Newport, Rhode Island, and then went on to study at Brown University, where she majored in Italian Renaissance studies, did theater, and nabbed her first role, in a small indie film—an experience that further fueled her long-held desire to become an actress.
Although her parents still live outside Baltimore, Bowen isn’t a Charm City fixture. She mostly sees her parents when they vacation in their Montecito, California, home, because traveling with three children under five is a lot like wrangling angry cats. That’s why she was excited to return to Washington for the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner this past April. “That was really wild because you didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “To have people of importance coming up and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we love your show,’ I thought, You’ve got to be kidding me.”
She was similarly shocked when she was invited to the White House to meet Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia. Over tea Bowen asked the girls about their summer plans (campaigning) and whether or not they raided the White House fridge during sleepovers (nope; it’s filled with “boring” healthy food). “You don’t ever think that those kind of things are going to happen in your life—ever, ever, ever,” Bowen says, her voice revealing more than a tinge of awe. “And certainly not as a result of being a big hambone growing up.”
As starstruck as she was meeting inside-the-Beltway types and key members of Washington’s glitterati, Bowen says she’s not overly political. She self-identifies as socially liberal and says she has been for years (“I love me a gay marriage”), but since giving birth to her children, Bowen admits some views have started to morph.
Her voice changes now to a decidedly serious tone, a stark contrast to the energetic, humorous air she has embraced in her star turns on Modern Family and Ed, the show that many television critics say launched her into the Hollywood stratosphere. “There’s the adage that if you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative when you’re old, you have no brains. I find myself somewhere at those crossroads,” she says. “There is this sense of wanting to protect your family. Right now I want them to have a childhood and I don’t want them to be exposed to everything so fast.”
That includes curse words, sex, and drugs. She tells the story of watching a music video by one of her sons’ favorite musicians. It was pretty typical: girl sings, sexiness ensues. “The kids were like, ‘Mommy, where did that lady’s clothes go?’” she says. “I’m like, ‘That’s an excellent question. She is very cold, let’s change the channel. Boy, I hope she doesn’t catch pneumonia. Let’s change the channel.’” As a teen, Bowen rolled her eyes plenty when parental restrictions were added to CDs; as a parent, she appreciates them.
The shift has been gradual, and even Bowen is occasionally caught off guard by her own views. “I do find myself in fits and starts going, ‘Wow, I’m kind of conservative about some stuff now that I never thought I’d be conservative about,’” she says.
Bowen stresses that her sometimes-conservative sociopolitical leanings haven’t prevented her from working on material that’s appropriate only for adults. In fact, her résumé features some work that’s decidedly racy. She worked steadily if not somewhat anonymously in Hollywood until 1996, at which time teenage boys began playing her sexy fantasy sequence in Happy Gilmore on repeat. (You remember: long legs, skimpy lingerie, and two pitchers of beer.) She was in a few minor films before landing a role on the small screen that made her a household name. In 2000 she joined the cast of a more wholesome show, Ed, where she played Carol Vessey, the long-lost high-school sweetheart to Tom Cavanagh’s title character. Some may also remember her as the wife of Matthew Fox’s character Jack in Lost. And premium cable junkies know her for a memorable turn on Weeds, where she took on the role of a pot-dealing cheese shop owner who had a steamy scene with a 17-year-old.
Then, in 2009, she won a role on Modern Family. And everything changed.
The show’s honest look at family dynamics won over critics and viewers across America and pulled in great ratings, in the process winning 11 Emmys in its first two seasons (twice named Oustanding Comedy Series). Bowen herself has been nominated twice, taking home the award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy in 2011. “They said my name and it sounded to me like what I imagine a fish [sounds like] underwater. It was so slow-motion, like, Jooooleeee Bowwwwwwwen,” she says.
She accepted the award with shaky hands and near disbelief that she would now be referred to as an Emmy-winning actress. “[Producers Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan] said, ‘Julie, you don’t have to do it in public, you don’t have to let anyone know, but sometimes when no one’s awake in your house and you’re just about to go to bed, it’s okay to smile because you won an Emmy.’” So she does.
On the phone or in person, Julie Bowen is funny. Sure, the writers of Modern Family, who have taken home two Emmys for their witty dialogue, feed her some killer lines. But even without a script, Bowen can deliver zingers. Her jokes are self-deprecating—she has called herself both a “self-obsessed actor” and “older than time” in the hour we’ve been chatting.
There is no question that Bowen is the reason high-strung Claire Dunphy is America’s favorite mom. She somehow makes the nagging, critical mother of three pitiable, even lovable. She’s not afraid of physical comedy, and her facial expressions alone generate belly laughs.
And while the actress and her character share some attributes—the loud voice, the nonstop energy, the funny quips—Bowen says the similarities end there. “The reality is, Claire is a mom who has older kids. And she was written by people with older kids,” says Bowen, who was pregnant with her twins during the pilot. A lot of what Claire deals with on a day-to-day basis doesn’t resonate with Bowen—yet. “I might grow into a Claire, but I’m definitely not dealing with the issues of sex and boys at school,” she says.
Instead, Bowen’s changing diapers. And building towers out of Legos, which her boys have been quietly playing with for the past 45 minutes. Aside from soft chatter and a few important interruptions (“That was an announcement on Gus’s behalf. He wanted to let you know that he farted”), they’re content to just spend time with their mom. And Bowen is, first and foremost, Mom.
“The boys are finally at an age where I find them so luscious and fantastic that I don’t want to be away if I don’t have to be,” she says. “It’s such a gift to not to feel the pressure to go hunting down a job right now. I’m just lucky as hell.”
photography by darren tieste; Styling by Brad Goreski; Makeup by Fiona Stiles at The Wall Group.; Hair by Laini Reeves at traceymattingly.com; Manicure by Beth Fricke using OPI for artistsbytimothypriano.com
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.