Julie Bowen

Julie Bowen stars as the perfectionist mother Claire on ABC’s breakout sitcom“Modern Family.” (Bob D'Amico, ABC Photo / September 2, 2010)

On screen, Julie Bowen plays a perfectionist mom, a sane obsessive surrounded by slightly crazy compulsives: the father who married a hottie younger than her. The man-child of a husband she considers her fourth child. The pigeon- and hotel bedspread-fearing gay brother and, well, just about everyone else in her aptly named "Modern Family," last season's breakout TV comedy.

In real life, Julie Bowen is another mom but in a decidedly saner family — only her 3-year-old seems out of a sitcom, referring to his twin baby brothers as John and Other John. And forget perfection — at this point, she'll settle for the kind of sleep you get if you're not filming a movie with Kevin Spacey until 2:30 in the morning, five hours before you're due on the set of your aforementioned TV show.

"It's very glamorous, lack of sleep," Bowen says with her characteristically dry wit. "Everybody's doing it."

They may well be, but few are doing it as well as Bowen, whom Baltimoreans may know as the middle of Jack and Susie Luetkemeyer's three daughters — he's a commercial real estate developer; both are staples on the social and philanthropic front — who grew up in Ruxton and attended the Calvert School and Garrison Forest.

While Bowen has increasingly become a familiar presence on TV and in the movies in recent years, she is in greater demand than ever and is threatening to upend the three stages of Hollywood womanhood as tearfully outlined by the Goldie Hawn character in "The First Wives Club": "babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy."

After a series of girlfriend roles, from "Happy Gilmore" to TV's "Ed," the just-past-her-30s Bowen has graduated to more mature parts that take advantage of her sly smarts and comedic timing — but without leaving her babe-itude behind. She is, after all, in possession of a killer pair of legs, something she claims she inherited from her athletic father, but no doubt also earned from the running she has done since her cross-country racing days in school. In "Modern Family," she may well play the supermom, but she remains what the Brits call a yummy mummy.

Witness the Valentine's Day episode, for which she was nominated for an Emmy: She and her husband steal away to a hotel where, after a few martinis at the bar, Bowen gets naked under her trench coat — the belt of which gets caught in an escalator, trapping the amorous couple as they head to their room and seemingly everyone they know happens by and asks why she doesn't free herself by taking off the entangled coat.

The Emmy went instead to "Glee's" Jane Lynch, but Bowen still considers the role of Claire Dunphy a prize.

"Every job is your last one," Bowen said in a telephone interview last month, speaking between bites of sushi during a break in filming "Modern Family's" second season. "I suffer the terrible disease of low self-esteem. I got excited when I got to do in-house industrial films, for Lady Foot Locker."

That was a long time ago, but Bowen is refreshingly down-to-earth and self-deprecating for all her stardom — someone hilarious on her own and apart from one of TV's funniest group of writers. It is perhaps her close, real-life family — her "enormously supportive" husband, Scott Phillips, a software developer; their sons Oliver, John and Gus; her siblings and parents — that keep her grounded amid the heady Hollywood swirl.

Bowen professes not even to be "the cool one" of the Luetkemeyer siblings. They all live in California: Molly is an interior designer who has appeared on "Clean Sweep" and whose chic styling of Bowen's mid-century home was featured in InStyle magazine in April; Annie is a Harvard-trained infectious disease doctor at the University of California, San Francisco.

"She's in Ethiopia now setting up an AIDS study," Bowen says. "So when people say my parents must be proud of me? No."

Jack Luetkemeyer says otherwise. "It's sort of beyond belief where she's gotten. And she did it all herself," says the proud dad, who heads Continental Realty. "It's sort of an out-of-body experience for me — I know her of course as one person, and now I see her on screen as another person."

Bowen gets back to Baltimore about once a year, although with her kids, it's easier for her parents to come see her. They still live in Ruxton but also have a place in Santa Barbara that makes it convenient to see all three daughters.

"She's really one of my best friends," Molly Luetkemeyer says. "I think often people are obsequious to actors. Nobody else will say no; I get the privilege of being the sister who speaks her mind."

As children, they always were in plays, often of their own doing: "As the oldest, I always cast myself as the lead. I was Cinderella," recalled Molly, who continued to act in high school and college and then in New York for a time.

Julie majored in Italian Renaissance studies at Brown University and studied acting in England and elsewhere, thinking she would be a theater performer in New York.

"But it turns out I have terrible stage fright. It makes me sick to my stomach. I generally have to do some deep breathing, pop an Ativan," she jokes.

She eventually moved to Los Angeles, where she was cast in a soap opera and won recurring roles in shows such as "ER," as well as occasional movie parts. After "Ed," in which she played the love interest of the lawyer who returns to his small Ohio hometown, her TV career in particular took off, with appearances in such hits as "Lost," "Weeds" and "Boston Legal."

And then "Modern Family" came along. The show and its ensemble cast swept up multiple Emmy nominations in its first season, with Bowen's on-screen husband, brother and her brother's partner making up half of the nominees for best supporting actor in a comedy — and leaving her considering the dartboard method to decide which one she herself would vote for.

And, in her category, she was pitted against her TV father's trophy wife, Sofia Vergara, with whom she sometimes appears to be engaged in on- and off-screen catfights — all a joke, egged on by the stereotype that actresses can't get along, Bowen says.

"Someone that beautiful has to be high-maintenance, whom the other girls don't like," Bowen says. "But she is so nice and funny. Sofia and I love to give each other a hard time. We're joking."

With her irrepressible style — "I have a big mouth" — she's likely to say or do outrageous things. There was that now-infamous picture that she circulated of her twins nursing, one that, given the mom's-eye view of the proceedings, makes the tiny boys look like they're scaling their own, private Grand Tetons.

She's resigned to the unblinking eye of celebrity followers. "There's this entire industry of picking people apart, circling people's arm fat or, 'how could she wear those earrings?'" she says. "I'm on a strict gossip diet. No gossip websites, no gossip magazines. Otherwise, I find it paralyzing to exist."

Bowen filmed two movies this summer, "Jumping the Broom," in which she plans the wedding of a black couple, followed by "Horrible Bosses," the comedy with Spacey. Which, on top of "Modern Family," kept her dashing between multiple roles, including the one she plays in real life. Still, she sounds grateful rather than harried: "I'm incredibly lucky. I have a lot of people helping me, I'm not single-handedly raising three boys. People do my makeup, they bring me food."

As she chews another bit of sushi, though, a voice can be heard calling her back to work. With an apology and a promise — promptly made good — to call back, the real-life Julie Bowen disappears into her current screen version.

But there is one role in particular that she'd love to land some day.

"I want to do a movie in Baltimore. I'm putting it out there," Bowen says. "I would have a whole different relationship with the city if I could work there. I would love to see it from the vantage point of an actor."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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