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Chris O’Dowd: ‘It feels like a very rich time in Ireland for culture’

Moone Boy creator talks about LA life, meeting Brad Pitt and writing through lockdown

On lockdown learning:

I definitely learned that I’m a social person who likes to be out and about. I’ve got two little lads and we got to hang out a lot and I suppose we probably wouldn’t have done that so much. And now, sure, I don’t need to see them again for years.

On living in America through Black Lives Matter protests and the presidential election:

It has been so intense in terms of the California of it all. It's just been non-stop because obviously we had the protests and then the riots and then it goes into fire season and everything's on fire for a while, and then it was the election when everything was on fire night and day. And the pandemic through all of it, it felt very hard being so far away for all of the normal reasons of being worried about your family at home and then suddenly you are very remote and you feel like, who even am I if I'm not at home? But then you've obviously got your own family to take care of and you need to stop worrying about it so much and leave homesickness behind.

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On leaving Ireland for LA:

Well, for me the biggest move was leaving Boyle at all. Weirdly, LA because of earthquakes is a very low-rise city... so you can see the sky and it feels more like the west of Ireland than living in London did, often. It’s a slower pace of life here than it would have been in London

On acting for stage:

I’m about to do a play again now and whatever endorphins you get from other people laughing or leaning in… Whatever the feedback to a performance is… It must be some kind of affirmation that you want or didn’t know you wanted. But it feels great.

On being cast in humorous roles:

I think that humour and music and compatibility are big currencies in Ireland. So, when you’re the youngest in a family of five, that kind of currency gets poured down and making each other laugh is definitely a huge part of growing up. And mam and dad are funny. So, I think that once you see people even want to attempt to be funny, you give it a value.

On Moone Boy being partly styled on his Roscommon family:

It’s kind of like a cartoon version. So, there’s loads of similarities in that my dad was a sign writer and I had three sisters and obviously it was set in Boyle… I think the dynamics within the group were broadly similar. In real life, my family are much lovelier, kinder people, but that’s just not so fun. So, you kind of obviously make up a lot of the comedy.

On Moone Boy as a cathartic process:

I don’t know if there was a catharsis because I don’t necessarily know that there was anything that I was trying to overcome … I was more like mining then, playing whack-a-mole. It felt more like this is a fertile area rather than, oh, I’m going to get some sh*t off my chest.

On writing instead of acting:

I just didn’t do it for years because I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere with it. But I really missed it and I always considered myself a writer. And then the opportunity came up as it often does when you have a success. Bridesmaids had come out and then suddenly it was like, oh, it’s easier to get stuff off the ground.

Acting is really fun but it does feel sometimes like you are playing the fiddle in the orchestra or at least the trombone… At the coalface of the creative process is really where you want to be, coming up with ideas and bringing them to the world. Creating stuff is so much fun.

On almost always having an Irish accent in American movie roles:

I’ll change the accent if it doesn’t make sense. But I meet Irish people all over America, so it makes no sense that you wouldn’t have Irish characters pop up all the time. And from a personal point of view it’s just one less thing to worry about.

On recognising that Bridesmaids would be a breakthrough movie:

If I’m totally honest, I never read the script. I’d come off The IT Crowd and got far too involved, I’d be wrecking the writer’s head or whoever’s head asking for line changes, doing bits and pieces. So I asked my agent to send me the script but just with my bits in it and tell me if the script is good, and that was it. And I went in and I had a clarity of purpose… I think that’s kind of why it worked.

If I had watched or seen what Melissa McCarthy was doing, I’d be like, oh sh*t, I need to do that… That’s like cracker box funny and I’m going to get left behind. And I probably would have tried too hard.

On it being a Hangover type film but for women and girls:

These were real comedic stalwarts on American TV for a long time, and I do think that we don’t appreciate maybe in Ireland or in England how big Saturday Night Live is over here. It was suddenly giving a platform to these incredibly, incredibly funny women. So, that was kind of exciting.

On using humour as a filter into other roles:

Well, I think humour in its finest form is some kind of rejection of the norm. Humour is in some way trying to be subversive. Even if it’s being broad or warm or whatever, it’s still trying to subvert whatever reality we’re going through.

I feel like there must be some combination between those two mindsets. I’ve got a film coming out this autumn and it’s with Melissa McCarthy again and we’re married, but we lost a kid in it and the dark and light was certainly on show a lot in terms of that kind of a process… There’s certainly a strand in people who value comedy and the way that they approach the darker aspects of it.

On his latest writing project:

It’s basically another small-town show but where a big show comes to film and there’s an alien abduction. Whether I end up in it or not, I don’t know, but I’ve written a part for myself. I really enjoyed the process of writing it. I had very little to do at the time and it occupied me entirely, which I am very thankful for. I got in – and Blindboy talked about this – this fantastic creative flow for a few days and got most of the work done when I’d been kind of prepping it for months and months. That feels great at the end of a lockdown where you feel like you’re at half-mast all of the time.

On staying in touch with Ireland:

I don’t stay tuned into Irish politics too much because I feel like there’s enough politics in my head but I try to stay in tune with cultural stuff that’s going on. So many funny people coming through. And writers and… It feels from abroad anyway like a very rich time in Ireland for culture.

I’ve been blown away by the social media element of the comics coming through. The videos and stuff that they’re putting together at kind of short notice and everything looks produced and the idea is strong and it’s really impressive… it does democratise the idea of entertainment.

On being famous:

I probably think about it a lot less than you’d imagine. I think in Ireland and maybe in London to an extent it would be more pervasive and something that I would notice more. But here it just doesn’t really come up that much. And I suppose I’m used to people recognising me for a few years, so you just presume that half of the people will. I’m such a family man now really that there’s not that much… Everything is fairly prosaic. So, the fame element just doesn’t really come into it too often.

On religion:

I was an altar boy and I had fun doing that. And we had lovely priests growing up but I just never had faith, so I’m not religious.

On using the word ‘Feck’ in Moone Boy:

We had a whole debate about the word ‘feck’. It even went down to me going through the legal papers of a lawsuit brought against Bulmers for an ad where they argued the word ‘feck’ in Irish is not derived from the same version as the word ‘f*ck’ and therefore it’s an entirely different word. It worked for Bulmers, I think, but Sky were less keen on it. In the end the argument was more if we use it then we have to put the show on after nine o’clock because of the watershed thing.

On Irish friends in California:

It’s strange. I lived in London for years and I played a little bit of GAA over there but for the most part I wasn’t part of a big expat community. But here, there’s a guy from Clare across the road, a guy from Clondalkin up the road. I hang out with my mate from Meath all the time. And it’s great, particularly because we’re so far away. We let a few Brits in occasionally but it’s a good core group of maybe a dozen and a half Irish people. And it’s good because a couple of them own restaurants and bars, so it’s a nice vibe.

On having no trace of an American accent:

Over the years, you find yourself using kind of American versions of words. And some of them I think are better. Like I think sidewalk and trunk are just better words because they’re more descriptive of what it actually is, so I try to use whatever word I think is the best one… It really gets on people’s nerves. If I was to say trash or sidewalk on the Late Late Show they’d go f**king bananas… I don’t feel like Fassbender gets that sh*t, you know what I mean?

On meeting Brad Pitt:

He's nice. I met him very briefly. I did an anecdote on David Letterman about how I met Brad Pitt at the Baftas and introduced him to Dawn [O'Dowd's wife] and Dawn shook his hand and at some stage we broke away from the conversation and we were heading to our seats and I looked down and Dawn was still holding one of his fingers. And I pulled her towards the seat and she said, 'I held him, I held him for like 49 seconds'.

On Brad Pitt’s version of the story:

He said, ‘This is how I lost this finger.’

Who would play him in a movie of his life:

I could get Paul Mescal to put on a couple of pounds.

On acting for TV and film:

TV, I feel, ends up being much more about the character, and film is much more about narrative. In TV you do have to love that character enough to know that you might have to play it for seven years. I suppose a big difference between working at home and working here is you have to commit for so long.

I remember when we did The IT Crowd there were no contracts or if we signed one, there was no option saying you have to come back and do it more and more… Over here, you have to sign for a long time, so you have to be in love with it all. I loved the Get Shorty character because he felt like he could be a high-status character or a low status character depending on what happens to him.

On his Get Shorty character:

He’s the most dangerous person in the room. Which is definitely not a type of character that I’ve played before. And I was scared, I think, just by the prospect of having to be still and not do very much because all of the scariest people I’d ever met are like that rather than being particularly reactive or performative.

On the dunes in Enniscrone:

If you ever get the chance, running up those dunes is serious… It feels like it’s just entirely vertical, and so you make your kids run it and that’s them done for the day.

Highlights from a conversation with Patrick Freyne as part of the Irish Times Summer Nights Festival