All of Hollywood is smitten with Chris O’Dowd, the computer geek from The IT Crowd whose low-key charm and effortless wit have won him some high-profile fans.
IN AN overdesigned London hotel, the beardy, tow-headed man striding across the glossy floor draws no stares or sideways glances. Even his very smart suit draws no second looks. In fact, Chris O’Dowd’s entrance is so low-key I start to panic that I’m about to flag down the wrong guy, and have to reboot a mental image of him as Roy, the shaggy IT Crowd computer nerd who answers helpdesk calls with, “Have you tried switching it on and off again?” before I can be certain I’m greeting the right man.
Hollywood has no trouble switching on to O’Dowd. Dining out in Los Angeles recently, he was politely approached by a woman who asked if he would mind posing for pictures with her daughter and some friends who were celebrating a 21st birthday party across the room. “When I went over, one of the dads stood up, and at that point I realised, ‘Oh my God, it’s Clint Eastwood.’ So there he was, going, ‘I really liked Bridesmaids,’ while I’m posing with his daughter, thinking, ‘Shit, Clint Eastwood knows who I am.’”
It’s hard to miss Chris O’Dowd onscreen this season; he has just finished his first self-penned sitcom, Moone Boy, for Sky, his Australian musical The Sapphires got a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, and at Christmas he reunites with Bridesmaids producer Judd Apatow for This is 40. His schedule is so tight right now that although he managed to marry Scottish TV presenter Dawn Porter in August, he says, “I don’t think we’ll be able to fit in a honeymoon until Christmas.”
Their London wedding was a refreshingly unglitzy affair. The starriest guests were Richard Madeley and O’Dowd’s IT Crowd co-star Richard Ayoade. Sapphires actress Jessica Mauboy sang Halo as the couple walked down the aisle, and Mr and Mrs O’Dowd tweeted a groggy first picture of themselves as husband and wife wearing romper-style tracksuits in front of a marquee in someone’s back garden.
O’Dowd is a compulsive and impulsive Tweeter. As @bigboyler, he announced his engagement in under 140 characters: “I’m fed up with all the sex and the happiness, so I’m getting married.” The full version is that he proposed to Porter (@hotpatooties) on Boxing Day last year while staying with her family in Guernsey.
More sensationally, a few days after their wedding he posted a picture of his wife in bra, pants and a negligée on Twitter, then quickly took it down after Porter intervened. “I was on my way to work and the photographer sent me the proofs,” he admits.
The picture was from a collection of Porter larking around with her bridesmaids, getting ready for the ceremony. “There are times for restraint and there are times to boast about your sexy new wife!” O’Dowd crowed to his 237,000 followers. His sexy new wife has since forgiven him, he says. “I think she found it sweet that I was so enamoured with her.”
It helps that O’Dowd has a winning way about him: big, slightly beery and bearish, and plays up his shambolic side. His workload in the past couple of years suggests a shrewd, ambitious personality – at one point he decided his weight was limiting his opportunities and shed around two stone – but the way O’Dowd talks about his career makes his progression from British TV sitcom to lead movie actor at 33 sound like a series of happy accidents.
He’s good at film auditions, he says. “I’ve nailed being in a room for 20 minutes,” he shrugs. “Four months on set, I’m a pain in the arse but people don’t get bored with me in 20 minutes.” Does he feel he’s a man on the rise? “Well the pay cheques are going up,” he allows.
He doesn’t need any encouragement to list the kind of jobs he would rather not return to. After leaving drama school, he worked in a call centre and a pub, and one of his first screen roles was playing the getaway driver in a TV drama, although he couldn’t drive. Three times he stalled the car at the crucial moment, and in the end they had to get another extra to drive off, wearing a curly wig.
Another job was in a commercial for a well-known brand of burger. “Here’s something I didn’t know – they don’t cook the burgers because that makes them shrink and they want them to look big in the ad. Instead they microwave them, then paint them with Bovril to look brown and tasty. But really, they are raw inside. “By the end of filming I’d had 40 bites, and I never forgot how it felt having to chew and spit them out. On my wall at home I’ve got a photo of that ad, to remind me to keep working.”
The Sapphires should help keep him off half-cooked for a while. A good-natured cross between Dreamgirls and Alan Parker’s The Commitments (“I’ve never been to a wedding where someone hasn’t got up to sing Mustang Sally”), it has become Australia’s biggest hit, with enough cheerful moxie to get a release worldwide in the run-up to the awards season.
Set in 1968, it’s the story of four aborigine women who have their country and western group recut into a polished soul act by their boozy Irish manager (O’Dowd) and become a popular girl group with the US troops during the Vietnam War. It touches lightly on the racial politics of the day, but essentially feels like a female-friendly hit, led by O’Dowd’s loose, likeable comic performance and backed up by four feisty actresses and a joyous soundtrack of soul covers.
The role of the manager was originally written with an English actor in mind, but in the aftermath of Bridesmaids the script was added to a pile sent to O’Dowd. “I was lucky Sapphires came along,” he reflects. “I was being offered a lot of versions of Bridesmaids so I was looking for something different. An Aboriginal musical ticked that box.”
Even so, it took two rewrites of the role before O’Dowd came on board. One late addition was supplied by O’Dowd himself, who felt the movie lacked a scene to explain the group’s transition from country and western to breast-beating soul. “So I wrote a scene where I’m at the piano talking about the difference between the two,” he says.
Everyone who sees the film will remember this sequence. Both types of music are about loss, notes O’Dowd’s manager. “But country and western is just about sitting at home and whining about it. Soul is about standing up and taking back what’s yours.”
It’s one of the most inspiring music moments since The Commitments discover a stocky ginger Irish man can sing like James Brown. But it is also a nice, generous scene, with O’Dowd penning funny comebacks for his co-stars instead of hogging the limelight. “That was the director,” he deflects. “There was no ego on the film, which was great. We could all lob in our ideas.”
Had he known much about the treatment of Australia’s indigenous people before making the film? “I barely knew where Australia was,” he deadpans. “I Googled hard.”
At the same time as filming The Sapphires, he was also working in LA on another project, so he alternated weeks between the US and Australia and took a crash course in musical skills while commuting. “I only did a little bit of singing but the piano stuff was tricky. I learnt it on an iPad app on the plane, so it’s really playing by numbers. I may sound all right but I have no idea why.”
Yet again, like Bridesmaids, The Sapphires places O’Dowd in the middle of a female world, “and I’m comfortable with that. I grew up among strong women so I know what it’s like to be loved and humiliated in a heartbeat”.
It’s another reason why he scoffs at the idea of being a heartthrob. “Women aren’t going, ‘I want to do that guy,’” he offers. “They are more likely to want to hang out with the nice cop from Bridesmaids or have him date their sister.” That was the big difference Bridesmaids made to my life. When I was in The IT Crowd and Gulliver’s Travels, it was teenage boys who recognised me.”
Male fans of Bridesmaids still take him by surprise. Besides Clint Eastwood, he also discovered Jerry Seinfeld had liked the film when he went backstage this year after Seinfeld’s gig at the O2. “We had our picture taken together, and because he had been nice about my work and I’m a friendly guy, I put my arm around him for the shot. And he said, ‘You know, it’s not necessary for a man to put his hand on another man’s waist.’ Which was awkward.” O’Dowd allows a comedy beat. “So I slipped it around his arse instead.”
There are no actors in O’Dowd’s family. He grew up in Boyle, where he says the main choices were working at the MBNA call centre or the fish factory, and his family were what he calls an “arty-drawy” lot. His father was a signwriter who played guitar at night and sang in local pubs, while his mother raised five children before becoming a psychotherapist. O’Dowd’s three big sisters would alternate between hugging and teasing their youngest sibling, and one favourite trick was to put make-up on him while he slept, then let him go to school unaware. “If they were particularly cruel, they would make it kind of subtle, like a bit of blusher or smoky eyes, so it would appear to be a choice I had made.”
Moone Boy is a version of that childhood in smalltown Ireland. Co-written with his friend Nick Murphy, it centres on 11-year-old Martin Moone (David Rawle), who is also the youngest in a large family, with O’Dowd as his imaginary friend Sean, who counsels him through bullies, Catholic confirmation and girls. The show was made on such a stringent budget that O’Dowd did his costume changes in the bathroom and stayed at his parents’ house during the shoot, but he’s clearly proud that it has already been given another two series, with the second season in the can – “we had to be quick before the kids grew up”.
He would like to do more writing, but despairs slightly of finding time, as even press interviews have to be squeezed between filming Calvary with Brendan Gleeson during the day and editing Moone Boy at night. Then there’s prep for roles like the Nick Frost Cuban Heels, for which he spent five hours a day for two months learning salsa dancing. This did yield one social benefit, however, allowing him impress Porter on the dance floor at his wedding. “Yeah, I had some moves,” he says, shyly. “I thought I would have a natural skill, but I don’t. I’m like a salmon flapping on the pavement – but at least the flapping is now rhythmic.”
Another project he would like to fit in is a farewell to The IT Crowd. In terms of breaks, it was as important as being cast as an obnoxious stand-up in Annie Griffin’s Festival. She made him write and perform routines and gave him his first nude scene. His reward was a Scottish Bafta. Even at 25, he already had a gift for irreverent comedy. “Look,” he said as he accepted his prize on stage in Glasgow, “It’s almost like a real Bafta.”
The IT Crowd built on his new confidence with comedy, although he was no shoo-in for the role of Roy. The series writer and creator, Graham Linehan, had wanted to play Roy himself, then decided an Irish voice would bring too many comparisons to his last work, Father Ted. “But Chris did a fantastic audition,” recalls Linehan, “so it seemed silly to fight against it.”
There are quotably funny lines in The IT Crowd but most of O’Dowd’s finest moments sit between dialogue and expression where surreal daftness can be relished, such as the episode where Roy is caught using a disabled toilet and lies his way out of embarrassment so convincingly he is loaded into a minibus with a group of wheelchair users and sent off to Manchester.
IT Crowd fans include Bridesmaids director Paul Fierg, who decided Kristen Wigg’s love interest didn’t need to be American if he could be played by Chris O’Dowd. Abroad, O’Dowd is still surprised to find how well it sold outside English-speaking countries. “Czech people come up to me in the street and say, ‘Hello, Roy. Photo,’”
O’Dowd is patient with both Czech fans and Scots journalists who want to tell him how much they love The IT Crowd, and gentle when he breaks it to us that there’s little chance of a fifth series. “The problem is that Richard (Ayoade) is making another film, and Katherine (Parkinson) has a family, so we’re all being really busy. But I don’t think we said goodbye and I’d love to do something more with those characters. I think we need closure.” n
The Sapphires is released on 7 November
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