Chris O’Dowd: From big Irish teddy bear to American hard man

The Boyle star on his tough-guy role in ‘Get Shorty’ and his county’s referendum journey

Phew, that’s a relief. I thought we’d lost Chris O’Dowd there for a minute. Not on the phone – the phone connection to LA is fine, if a little distant-sounding. But we were getting a bit worried that the Roscommon man was starting to lose his connection with his home country.

After playing Irish tech-geek Roy in The IT Crowd, and producing and starring in his own hit series Moone Boy, set in his home town of Boyle, Co Roscommon, O'Dowd suddenly seemed to disappear into the Hollywood sunset.

There he was in Lena Dunham's hit TV series Girls, and there he was again in Kristen Wiig's hit indie movie Bridesmaids, and in the musical comedy The Sapphires.

He still looked like Chris O'Dowd, but the accent had changed slightly, his Rossie brogue smoothed out by buff American tones. As his Hollywood career took off, he and his wife, the writer and TV personality Dawn O'Porter (she took the O' part of his last name when they married), moved to LA, where they now live with their two small children, Art and Valentine.


So that's it, then. Another Irish star sucked into the Hollywood machine. Soon he'll be wrangling dinosaurs in the next Jurassic World, or he'll end up in the Marvel Universe, dressed in some namby-pamby superhero costume. He certainly won't want to be hanging out with the likes of us again.

We needn't worry. There are no dinosaurs looming on the horizon (so far), and his role in Thor: The Dark World didn't require him to wear outside-underpants. The Chris O'Dowd who greets me cheerfully down the phone line is still a Rossie through and through (with a dash of Malibu). Unlike his character in The IT Crowd, O'Dowd is sports mad, avidly following his home county in the GAA, and glued to the telly for the World Cup.

"I'm all over it. I've got a bit of a bet going with a couple of mates, so I've got Brazil, England and Russia. I feel like we've had a reasonable start."

He’s already planning a lengthy family holiday back on the auld sod (he doesn’t call it that, by the way), just as soon as he’s finished wrapping up a couple of projects.

O'Dowd has just had his second successful series on Sky Atlantic, following the huge and deserved acclaim for Moone Boy. Get Shorty is "loosely based" on the Elmore Leonard novel that was made into a hit movie starring John Travolta. O'Dowd plays Miles Daly, a heavy for a Nevada crime ring who decides that his talents would be better employed as a Hollywood movie producer. The first series is on Sky Atlantic right now, and O'Dowd has just finished shooting the second series.

“It gets darker and dirtier and goes into some different places, and yes, it looks like it’s going to go into season three as well,” he says.

Anyone who has seen Travolta bust ass in the movie might wonder how on earth a big, cuddly teddy bear like O’Dowd could play a mob muscle, but he pulls it off with aplomb – and pulls the viewer along with him. And he’s happy he doesn’t have to try to replicate Travolta’s character, Chilli Palmer, in the movie.

“I’m a big John Travolta fan. Luckily the character I play is a different character, so thank goodness I didn’t have to try to be as slick as John Travolta. That would not have gone well.

“I’ve never walked into a room as a character and played someone other people feared. That’s been fascinating. The challenge isn’t necessarily doing the role yourself, but to get yourself into the mindset of how can I take the audience with me on this. I feel that it takes people probably a minute to readjust to that possibility that I’m a hard man, but once they do, people have really been going for it. It’s been great.”

Two clueless men

In Get Shorty, O'Dowd partners up with comedy actor Ray Romano, who plays a small-time producer desperately trying to cling on what little Hollywood clout he has left. Between them the pair make a comedic double act worthy of any blockbuster.

“He plays desperation better than any actor I’ve seen. I feel it’s a nice kind of a chemistry – two relatively clueless men trying to run Hollywood is a fun thing to watch. The cool thing about the show is everybody who watches a movie thinks they could do better. These characters play the voice of the audience who are looking at Hollywood movies and asking, why do you make so much shit?”

Romano is probably best known on this side of the pond as the voice of Manny, the sarcastic woolly mammoth in the hugely successful Ice Age animated movies (the franchise is threatening to outlast the next ice age). But fans of big cuddly teddy O'Dowd will be disappointed to hear that he is not now going to be voicing Tigger in Disney's latest upcoming live-action kids' movie, Christopher Robin.

"Yeah, I don't think that's going to happen. It's a shame. There was a minute in which I was going to do it, but then Jim Cummins, who's the guy who did the original, was doing Pooh, and I think the Disney people were like, it's kind of a nostalgic film, so they figured people would be pissed off if they didn't have the original voice. Which is fair enough. It's a shame, but I'm sure the movie is going to be great."

So we won't be hearing O'Dowd doing a bouncy Tigger voice, but we will soon be seeing him alongside Ethan Hawke and Rose Byrne in the film adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel Juliet, Naked, in which O'Dowd plays an obsessive fan who tracks down his musical hero, only to see him cop off with his girlfriend.

"But it's fun, it's Nick Hornby stuff, with themes of fandom and music obsession."

Delicious turkey

Netflix subscribers can catch O'Dowd in full flight in The Cloverfield Paradox, in which he ramps up his comedic persona to enliven an otherwise pedestrian sci-fi horror. It's almost as if he knows he's in a turkey, so he might as well party like it's Christmas.

He also can be seen with Andie MacDowell in a surprise critics' favourite, Love After Love, following the fortunes of a family coping with the death of their patriarch. The pair play mother and son, and there's a distinct oedipal edge to the storyline. "We have something of a tortured relationship, where the boundaries of parental love and lust are somewhat obscured."

That must have been interesting for any actor who might have lusted after MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral as a teenager.

“For sure. She’s a very beautiful woman. And she does a terrific job in the film.”

Just recently, O'Dowd tweeted that he was filming a date scene with Natalie Portman, presumably for the next Thor movie, prompting many of his followers to facetiously wonder where it all went wrong.

Next month, he starts work on series of 10-minute short films for TV made by Stephen Frears, and co-starring Rosamund Pike, called State of the Union, about a couple in marriage guidance counselling.

“There’s a suggestion that the next big move in television will be how long you want your shows to be. This somewhat archaic 60-minute and 30-minute format, which is really based around advertising revenue or what not, as people stream more and more. It’s kind of fun to be making something like about 10 minutes. You don’t know how it will go. It feels like it’s going to be good. It’s got a strong script.”

Progressive space

Roscommon is a changed place from the conservative county he grew up in. Roscommon-South Leitrim was the only constituency to vote No in the 2015 marriage equality referendum, and O’Dowd recently made a video pleading with his fellow Rossies to vote Yes in the abortion referendum.

He must have been pleased when his county did so.

“I was delighted. I mean, so many people put so much effort into it, and it’s fantastic to feel like part of the future. Obviously, with the marriage referendum, people were left a little disappointed, so it’s a big pick-me-up for progressives.”

It might, however, be too much to hope for that Roscommon will make it to the All-Ireland final in September, but O'Dowd is keeping his hopes up. And is it too much to hope that O'Dowd will write and star in another home-based comedy series?

“I’ve been trying to push a couple of different things in the last year or so. To be perfectly honest, I used to write a lot in my spare time, in between jobs. But in the last three years I’ve had two kids, so that’s kind of taken all the time that there was left. But now we’re coming out on the other side of the hurricane that having children provides, and starting to get used to the new normal. I definitely want to develop a project, definitely something set in Ireland, in the next year or so.”

In the meantime, says O’Dowd, Irish comedy is safe in the hands of our talented young writers and stars.

"There are so many great comedy writers coming through in Ireland right now. There's a collection of great women making some really funny stuff. Alison Spittle's doing great stuff. Aisling Bea as well. I haven't seen Stefanie Preissner's show, Can't Cope, Won't Cope yet – it's hard to get every show over here – but I'm hoping to get to catch up on everything when I get back."

Lost in traslation

Does O'Dowd have trouble explaining shows such as Moone Boy and The IT Crowd to his American friends?

"The way I explain Moone Boy to them is like, it's Roseanne mixed with Angela's Ashes. But you'd be surprised by how many people have watched it, because of all the different platforms. Moone Boy is on Hula over here. People are very familiar with The IT Crowd, particularly in comedy circles. People here are very familiar with Irish and British stuff – it travels well. Comedy is very universal. Moone Boy is a universal, coming-of-age working-class family kind of story. People can relate to that pretty quickly. Some of the Italia '90 jokes, they're maybe not that familiar with, or Mary Robinson getting elected, but for the most part it's been received pretty well. I'm alway surprised at how well it's travelled.

There's an Italia '90 reference that everyone will get in O'Dowd's Twitter timeline (@BigBoyler) – a black-and-white photograph, taken by Tony Conboy during that World Cup summer, showing a bunch of local kids in Boyle wearing their Ireland jerseys and waving an array of mascots. At the bottom right is a young Chris O'Dowd, imaginary friend not in shot.

“It’s a great photo, isn’t it? I think I must have been 10. I could probably name everyone in the photo. I used to live up there in a housing estate looking over the forest in the Curlew mountains in Boyle. They were a lot of the other guys I used to play football with, and I was friends with all of them for 20 years or so. It looks like we’re all having a blast.

“The kids will enjoy coming back to Ireland. They’re very excited. Art loves it, he’s got lots of cousins. So we’re just going to hand him over to our sister and go away for a couple of days. He’ll be happy out with his cousins.”

O’Dowd is secretly hoping that if the kids are immersed in Boyle life long enough, they’ll return to LA with thick, difficult-to-shift Roscommon brogues.

“Oh, that would be great. I would love that. We’re all going to be pushing that pretty hard.”