Boyle to Broadway
The actor has been busy since Bridesmaids, and it’s made him eager to return to his roots as an actor and Roscommoner.
From the beginning of our conversation, Chris O’Dowd is enthusiastic. I only have my first two words out before he says, “Yes!” My first two words, “Moone Boy,” are the title of O’Dowd’s autobiographical coming-of-age comedy that is back for a second season after a near two-year hiatus and O’Dowd is rightfully exclamatory. As he will explain in a few seconds, the second episode of the second season aired hours before in Ireland and the U.K. and he’s on Twitter checking the reaction. It’s good.
Immensely personal and culturally aware, “Moone Boy” may be O’Dowd’s favorite project right now because it connects him to his childhood home. In fact, many of the scenes are filmed in places he knew as an adolescent, and most of the storylines are drawn straight from his own experience growing up in Boyle, Co. Roscommon. It is of course embellished with sharp one-liners and O’Dowd, now 34, playing the imaginary friend to Martin Moone, the fictionalized version of his 12-year-old self, which he claims he never had.
But “Moone Boy” is only the beginning of our conversation and O’Dowd’s burgeoning career. This year alone, he has four films making their U.S. premiers: The Double, an adaptation of a Dostoyevsky novella directed by Richard Ayoade, a former co-star in the U.K. hit sitcom “The IT Crowd” where O’Dowd had his first major break; St. Vincent de Van Nuys, a dark comedy in which he stars along with Bill Murray; Cuban Fury, which sees him partnered with both Rashida Jones (“Parks and Rec”) and Nick Frost (Shawn of the Dead, The World’s End) and promises a parking lot dance-off; and Calvary, the second feature by John Michael McDonagh (The Guard) and also starring Brendan Gleeson. Not only is O’Dowd appearing in these films, but beginning March 19, he will be on Broadway for a limited-engagement revival of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men as Lennie, a large but simple-minded migrant worker, opposite James Franco who plays George, Lennie’s short-tempered companion.
Since his appearance in Bridesmaids in 2011 as the handsome and huggable Officer Rhodes who falls for Kristen Wiig, O’Dowd has been in demand. Mostly, he takes this in stride, but recognizes the impulse to read too much into his characters as a reflection of himself. The roles he’s taken since his catapult to American fame three years ago have been mostly comedic, if bordering on melancholy. In 2012’s Friends with Kids he portrays with biting realism a husband trying to find the balance between reconnecting with his wife and enjoying alone time after the births of their children. And his performance as a washed-out cruise ship entertainer-turned-aboriginal soul-group band manager in the Australian film The Sapphires allowed him to demonstrate the full emotional range of a man struggling with his own mediocrity, using comedy as a crutch (a very funny crutch), and envisioning greater responsibility for himself.
But although he’s a funny man on screen, O’Dowd is deadly serious about his craft and the work that goes into it. In our conversation below, he talks about the genesis for “Moone Boy,” the importance of women in comedy, his ideal schedule, and why he stopped playing Gaelic football (which he’s only possibly joking about).
What made you want to go back to that time in your life when “Moone Boy” is set, or that period of transition in Ireland, the late 80s and early 90s, when you started the show a few years ago?
It was just after Bridesmaids came out and I felt like I needed to go back and do something that reconnected with home so that it didn’t get washed away in the madness.
And you studied politics and sociology at UCD.
Did that education influence the writing at all for “Moone Boy”? It’s a show about individual characters surely, but they’re often banded together or separated by their reactions to the political and cultural events at the time.
I guess so; I don’t know! I don’t know if there’s much influence from the politics side, but I am very interested in politics, and I did do an episode in the first season with the first female president being elected. And sociologically, I guess at that time in Ireland the biggest change I think is the nature of women’s roles politically and socially. I like the idea that the show has very strong female characters in it. Even though the main characters are male, the female characters are strong, independent women. So that I guess would be the only part of it.
And that comes from your own childhood growing up with your sisters and your family dynamic.
Yes, obviously it’s a very similar makeup in my family. My dad did the same thing as the dad in the show, my mum did the same thing, I had three sisters, so it is pretty autobiographical.
There’s a scene in the first season where Martin becomes an altar boy because they’re the cool kids at Mass, but then it turns out they’re actually involved in some light embezzlement, shall we say. Were you similarly part of an altar boy mafia?
[Laughs] I was an altar boy. And it did have kind of a cult-like quality to it. Because I think at that age it’s almost like your own language that you develop amongst your friends as a way to disassociate with the rest of the world. So I’m sure there was a lot of that and I’m sure that’s probably where that idea came from.
Is this the story you’d be telling if you had unlimited resources?
That’s a good question. I mean, I think we’re lucky in that we’re fairly well supported. TV’s tough to make at any stage, particularly back in Ireland because it’s expensive. But it’s the show I like doing above all else. It’s my favorite job, writing and directing the show.
I saw in an interview you gave elsewhere you said you turned down a few projects to work on this show. Is this something you think you’re going to transition into more, the writing, producing, and directing side of entertainment?
I’d definitely like to get behind the camera more as time goes on. I love acting, but I’m not particularly a fan of being famous. So I love the idea of being able to do acting in theater, and then maybe write and direct TV and movies. That would be a perfect world for me if I have the opportunity.
Speaking of theater, you’re coming up in Of Mice and Men. Which is a pretty big departure from your previous work. First, it’s on stage. And it’s a dramatic role; you’re Lennie. How did that come about?
Honestly, I just got the call asking if I’d be interested. And I said I very much would. And I got really excited about it and then it just went away. And then like three months later they said, “It’s happening. Like, soon.” So I jumped on board. There was no thinking time needed by me, I just love the play, and the opportunity to do something on Broadway was just something I’d been looking for anyway.
You’ve got kind of big shoes to fill. James Earl Jones was the last one to play Lennie on Broadway. Are you nervous?
I know! I am absolutely shitting it, yea. But I’m trying to keep it together. We’re just in Chicago at the moment. We’ve just done our first week of rehearsals. We come to New York next week, and it’s going to be terrifying. But yea, I’m really enjoying it. And it’s an equal measure excitement and hand-wetting right now, and I’m interested to see how that equilibrium balances out or takes over in the coming weeks.
Can you tell us a little bit about your preparation for the role?
You know, I don’t really know. I tried to find out exactly what to learn. And in many ways it’s kind of hard. There’s a lot of different thinking, a lot of people have different thoughts on it. But he is essentially a guy who is cognitively disabled so I’ve been watching all sorts of stuff and trying to nail down the physicality of it and the vocals. And also he is essentially kind of like a big baby; he’s constantly referred to as a bear and a baby, and I guess I’m just trying to measure all of that together and try not to over-think it.
It seems like there’s a lot of pressure for comedic actors to transition to more dramatic roles once they’ve established themselves in the public eye as comedians. Were you conscious of that when you chose to take on the role of Lennie?
You know not really. I do sometimes feel pressure to do dramas, but then I’ll read the drama in question and just have no interest in it. I think there’s such kind of mediocre dramas being bandied about, but I found it hard to get excited about it. But this piece of work is so beautiful that it was a no-brainer. But I do find it odd that in nearly every interview I would do I would get asked when am I going to do some dramatic acting. And I think comedic acting is very, very difficult, which is why so few people can do it well. And I doubt very much whether dramatic actors get asked when they are going to do comedic acting.
Why do you think that is?
That dramatic roles win the awards?
I guess so. I don’t even know what that’s about. You know, it’s like who can cry the best. I don’t know, like. Sometimes it’s great. And comedy in a lot of ways is a lot more difficult because in many ways it’s less open to interpretation. Something is either funny or it’s not; if people aren’t laughing, guess what, it wasn’t good. It’s as simple as that. Whereas I think dramas can get away with a lot because the shot looks nice.
Do you think in the films you’re doing you’re beginning to be perceived as being type cast? Or you’re being cast for a very specific supporting reason?
Not really, considering what I’m doing right now, no. Definitely people think of you in certain ways and that’s absolutely fine, but the roles I’ve got coming up they’re all very different, so it hasn’t really been my experience. I’m often drawn to similar things, but no, I feel like I’ve been given plenty of opportunities to do other stuff. You know you have to be careful not to do the same thing over and over again. Right after Bridesmaids and all that, I tried to avoid doing another romcom, and then tried to avoid another kind of sitcom like “The IT Crowd.” You know, try to get behind the camera and then go on stage. You have to actively diverge from what you’ve done before; it won’t just happen.
After The Sapphires came out, Jack Coyle at The Huffington Post compared you to Bill Murray, in the 70s for enlivening the film “with your winning charisma.” And I wondered how you felt about that comparison. I read that Murray is one of your icons of comedy and that you just worked with him this last summer on St. Vincent de Van Nuys.
Wow. I’ll take that! Yea he is, he’s one of my heroes. And I did. I briefly worked with him this summer and he was just the most charming and lovely man. So that just solidified him in my books as a cool dude. It’s a lovely comparison, of course I’ll take that all day, but I don’t know necessarily if it’s true. I’ve got a long, long way to go yet.
Who are some of your other inspirations for acting and how did you get started in the industry?
In terms of other people that I really enjoy watching, one of my heroes would be John C. Reilly. I feel like I could just watch him do anything. Philip Seymour Hoffman was a big hero of mine. Those guys were pretty great, and then you know someone like Will Ferrell who’s so consistently funny.
I went to university and while I was studying I joined the drama society and started doing plays there. Essentially, I stopped being part of the “yearly facility,” as it were, [and only] did maybe two or three plays there a month. It was a great way to just get used to it. You did dozens of plays and they’re not necessarily the greatest quality, but you really get so much stage time and you get your confidence. Then I went to drama school in London. I went to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts and that was more of a traditional, almost like Shakespearian teaching. And I guess I thought of myself as a dramatic actor then, so the fact that I went into comedy was a surprise. I had three or four jobs that were dramatic and I just didn’t see comedy as a realistic thing that I could achieve or an option. But I’m glad that it was.
What was the catalyst for the shift from perceiving yourself as a dramatic actor to a comedian?
I played a comedian in a film called Festival. And it was a comedy but it was a relatively dramatic role; there was a lot going on. He was an alcoholic comedian who wins an award at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival and I ended up winning a BAFTA in Scotland for it and then I got a lot more comedy roles from that. “The IT Crowd” came from that, and sitcom is the purest kind of comedy you can do. It’s such a set-up-and-joke scenario. There’s no room for interpretation – what you’re doing is trying to make people laugh. That’s the raison d’ être of the sitcom and I love that in it’s own way because it’s its own little art form. From then on it was a lot more comedy I would get offered, and once I got into the mechanics of how comedy worked I was fascinated by it. And then I got to work with Judd [Apatow] (This Is 40), Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), Lena Dunham (“Girls”), and all of those people over the last two years, which has been great.
What’s it like coming from a traditional acting school and going to people like Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow and Christopher Guest who really encourage improvisation? Especially for something like Guest’s “Family Tree” where the dialogue is completely improvised. Was that new to you, or did improv come naturally?
I guess it did to an extent. I hadn’t done improv on stage or anything before. I’d always done a little bit of it in some work I’d done, but not to the extent that we did in “Family Tree.” And that is quite a scary experience. But working with Lena and Judd, their scripts are already really strong so there’s definitely room to improv and those guys are so open to it, but there isn’t a huge need to do it, so the pressure isn’t as much, so you only do it if you feel like you’re going to add something to it. It’s a great scenario to do improv when it’s not totally necessary, where you’re hoping that you’ll add something to it but you’re not getting in the way. You often do it at the end of scenes and stuff so people can cut it out if it’s shit.
My last question for you: You played Gaelic football. Can you tell us a little about the athlete Chris O’Dowd?
Oh wow [laughs] yea! It’s a great sport and I still follow it. I played minor for Roscommon, actually all the ages – under 14, 16, 18, 21. And then I played in the Connaught finals and all that kind of stuff and, er, I guess I stopped playing once I really started enjoying Jamesons.
“Moone Boy” premiers April 24 in the U.S. on Hulu. Previews for Of Mice and Men begin March 19. Opening night is April 16 and the limited engagement runs through July 27 at the Longacre Theater in New York.