Julie Bowen Reigns as TV's Queen Mother
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. As we chat the Brown University graduate settles in with her kids, just awake from their naps, to play Legos. In moments like this, it’s easy to see the similarities between Bowen, 42, and Claire Dunphy, the beleaguered mother of three she plays on ABC’s Modern Family. Like Claire, Bowen is smart and witty, thrives in chaos, and is candid about motherhood. When her children were younger, she lamented having three kids in two years (she has a 5-year-old son, Oliver, and twin 3-year-old boys, Gus and John, with husband Scott Phillips) on late-night talk shows. “I did not always enjoy it,” she says of those first few years.
All of that changed as the kids grew, and she’s happier now, however chaotic caring for a brood of growing boys has made her life. And it is chaotic. “Most of the time they’re outside playing in the pool and swimming and running around,” she says. “We’re hyperactive around here.” The operative word being “we.” After filming on Modern Family wrapped for the season in late March, Bowen went on a self-imposed hiatus that consisted of spending time with her family. “The boys are finally at an age where I find them to be so luscious and fantastic that I don’t want to be away if I don’t have to be. We all love each other,” she says. “And at least two or three times a week they wish I would just jump off a cliff, and sometimes the feeling is mutual.”
New England Bound
That Bowen places such importance on family isn’t hard to believe when you consider her childhood: loving parents, two close sisters, safe neighborhood. She grew up just outside of Baltimore, where her parents still live, hamming it up with her sisters in backyard productions. At 14, she followed her older sister, Molly, to St. George’s School, an idyllic boarding school campus set among the Gilded Age mansions that dot the landscape of Newport, Rhode Island.
“Talk about fantasyland,” says Bowen. “I had someone ask me if I went to Hogwarts. It basically is Hogwarts. It’s so beautiful.”
Bowen sees the seaside towns in South Rhode Island as a picture of quaint New England life. “I really loved the tiny towns like Little Compton and Narragansett, and the feeling that, once upon a time, all those places truly relied on the ocean for food, commerce, everything,” she says. “There is a lot of New England that is tough and weather beaten, but it’s functional, and—to me—that makes it more beautiful.”
Though she didn’t explore it as often as the towns surrounding St. George’s, she and her friends made special trips into Boston. “My first trip to Boston was Oktoberfest and it was so much fun. I’m sure that’s because someone gave me beer,” she says. “I really wasn’t a degenerate, I promise.” Her other visits, which included traditional tourist activities like Head of the Charles, were more Roman Holiday than Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Bowen went on to study the Italian Renaissance at Brown University, and for all her talk of bootleg beer, she spent most of her time holed up in the library. “I was pretty nerdy,” she says. “I was kind of serious about school, so it’s ironic that later on I’d be in a profession where absolutely nothing is very serious.” Still, she had a life outside the library’s walls. She’d go to Spats for bar food and beer, Mutt & Jeff’s Pub for superlative sandwiches, and Ruby’s Diner (which has since closed) for broccoli pie. The acting bug that had hit her as a kid stayed with her through college, where she took part in theater productions. One of those performances landed Bowen her first job—a small indie film that fueled her desire to become an actress.
The Big Payoff
Considering how high her star has risen since Modern Family debuted in 2009, it’s easy to forget Bowen didn’t suddenly materialize on ABC’s doorstep one day. She’s been landing acting jobs since 1992, though she remained more or less anonymous until 1996. At that point, most teenage boys had her Happy Gilmore fantasy sequence memorized. (To jog your memory: long legs, skimpy lingerie, and two pitchers of beer.)
After a few forgettable movies and a short stint on ER, Bowen became a recognizable face to TV audiences in 2000 by playing the longtime crush of the main character on the show Ed. She played small roles in a few TV dramas, including Lost and Weeds, the latter of which featured Bowen’s character and a 17-year-old in a very family-unfriendly scene. From there, she spent three years as attorney Denise Bauer on Boston Legal. Somewhere in there, Bowen had become a household name.
And then came Modern Family. The show was an instant success with both critics and fans. Its clever dialog, skilled actors, and frank look at family dynamics fueled ratings, and in 2010 and 2011 it won a handful of Emmys and was nominated for even more. Bowen was nominated both years, and took home the award in 2011—a win that shocked the actress. “They said my name and it sounded to me like what I imagine a fish [sounds like] underwater. It was so slow motion [that] it was like Jooooooleeeee Bowwwwwen,” she says, lowering and slowing her voice until it sounds eerily similar to the ghost of Jacob Marley.
She accepted the award with shaky hands and near disbelief that she would now be referred to as an Emmy-winning actress. “[Executive 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—and in September 2012 she followed up that win with a second consecutive Emmy.
This might be pointing out the obvious, but Julie Bowen is funny. Not just her comedic timing or ability to translate killer dialogue into belly laughs. In real life, without a script by Emmy-winning writers in sight, Bowen delivers zingers. Today, she’s mostly self-depreciating, calling herself a “self-obsessed actor” and “older than time.” And when talk turns to running and the injury that turned the hard-core runner into a casual jogger, Bowen says, “I’m a shuffler—I’m like one of those old ladies that you see. It’s almost like, Does that count as running?” She’s speaking fast and with more energy than you’d expect from a mother with three young boys, but that’s Bowen: loud, animated, and totally candid. They’re the same qualities that made America fall in love with Claire Dunphy. Or, rather, they fell in love with Julie Bowen as Claire Dunphy, because she’s certainly one of the top reasons fans love the critical, often frazzled, nagging mother of three. One of her biggest fan bases, she says, is teenagers.
“The ones who hate their moms the most really like Claire,” she says. “The show gives them the opportunity to hate and love their moms all at once, which is how they really feel.” But her groupies are not just angsty teens; their mothers see Claire as a comrade in the battle that is child-rearing—all proof that the show’s pick-on-everyone attitude is paying off. “It’s not just, ‘Oh, parents are idiots.’ Nor is it just [that] kids are idiots,” Bowen says. “Everybody’s point of view comes through, so everybody gets to share in the laugh.”
And while it may not be hard to surmise that there’s little difference between the actress and the character— 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,” 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. That said, she has found herself viewing the world with fresh, parent-sharpened eyes. 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.’”
The shift has been gradual, and even Bowen is occasionally caught offguard by her own views. “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. And at those crossroads are mounds of diapers and towers of Legos, which Bowen’s boys have been quietly playing with for the past 45 minutes. Aside from soft chatter and a tear-inducing incident over a stuffed doggy, they’re content to just spend time with their mom. And Bowen is, first and foremost, Mom.
The show has been a boon to Bowen’s career, but fame, fans, and two Emmys aren’t the only reasons she loves her job. Bowen also treasures the regular work. “I’m so lucky to have a great TV job,” she says. “That’s such a gift, not to feel the pressure to be hunting down a job. I’m lucky as hell.” She’s also a fan of the schedule. When Modern Family is filming, she’s at the studio from 6 am to 4 or 5 pm, three to four days a week, eight months a year. (Compare that to past jobs that have included 16-hour days for 10 months out of the year.) And then, as if scripted by Lloyd and Levitan, Bowen explains how she spent her four-month hiatus: “Everyone else goes off and does fancy films, and 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.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DARREN TIESTE