Chris O’Dowd is bewildered – by the bewildering rise of Chris O’Dowd. “I’m trying to explain this extraordinary life change that I’m going through,” says the man once known to British audiences as the bloke from The IT Crowd, but now recognised the world over as the Irish funnyman from the Hollywood smash hit Bridesmaids.
“It feels like it was three weeks ago that I was working on a building site in London – and things are so, so different now. I think I’m trying to explain that, at least to myself. It’s like I’m kind of amazed by my own circumstance and I literally can’t figure out where everything went so right.”
Right now his face is almost everywhere. The BBC is throwing a whole lot of weight behind Family Tree – a semi-autobiographical sitcom about a man in search of an identity, co-created and co-written by Christopher Guest of Spinal Tap fame.
Sky is throwing even more behind O’Dowd’s last sitcom outing Moone Boy – the second series is under way and the broadcaster recently hosted an O’Dowd screening at the Kilkenny Comedy Festival, which felt like a major movie premiere, so hysterical were the crowds.
Having just finished promoting The Sapphires – a movie about a 1960s girl group in Australia – he’s also had a major role in Lena Dunham’s cult US TV hit Girls, and will shortly return to the big screen, playing magazine mogul Felix Dennis in Hippie Hippie Shake, as well as snagging a role in big-budget action sequel Thor: the Dark World. It took him seven years to get his first 18 roles and two years to land the same number again.
From hod carrier – he regularly lumped bricks on building sites in London to supplement his occasional acting work – to Hollywood, O’Dowd’s explosive success has taken even the star himself by surprise. “I literally didn’t think about it until I was nominated for a Rising Star award at the movie Baftas last year,” he muses. “When I went to the TV Baftas, it was great, but I was sitting beside one of the judges from Dragons’ Den and behind the guy who’s hosting Countdown. He kept telling us to shut up because we were talking.
At the movie Baftas I was sitting behind Brad Pitt. And you think – oh… this is a whole different thing. And let me tell you, Brad Pitt didn’t tell me off at all. He was perfectly charming.”
So what happened? Where did this O’Dowd onslaught begin? Back in 2011 he was the closest actors get to a working Joe. He’d been beavering away in Channel 4’s The IT Crowd for four years, contentedly accepting that a cult show about nerds was unlikely to award him Housewives’ Choice of the Year, had a bash at Hollywood with the largely unsuccessful Gulliver’s Travels and was trying his hand at a bit of BBC drama when he answered a casting call for a new comedy called Bridesmaids.
The signs weren’t good. The film was a slapstick comedy written by and starring women – as far as the industry was concerned that made it a guaranteed flop.
And then, out of nowhere, the film – and O’Dowd – became a global smash. Even the handful of reviewers who dismissed the film gave O’Dowd the thumbs up – which particularly surprised him, as he’d assumed his accent would annoy at least one or two people.
“Having a guy with an Irish accent made the film slightly unusual,” he explains. “I thought American audience would just find it weird. But now I guess we proved the point — they didn’t find it weird to the tune of $300 million…”
Within a year of that $325 million box office take he was filming Moone Boy and had auditioned for US comedy egend Christopher Guest to star in Family Tree. Fortunately, it doesn’t appear to have gone to his head. He is very engaging and slightly overwhelmed – although this could have something to do with our interview taking place the day after his return from Glastonbury. Unlike some actors – who break through with a key role but take all the credit themselves – he’s happy to praise his good fortune.
“I don’t know if Moone Boy would have happened – particularly so easily – if Bridesmaids hadn’t happened,” he admits amiably. “If you’re going to make a show that’s very personal, the audience needs to know who that person is. Which is sort of mad to say when you mean yourself.”
It’s especially mad because none of this was part of the plan. He grew up in small-town Ireland – Boyle, Roscommon County, population: 3,000. His parents were solid lower- middle-class grafters. Dad was a signwriter and Mum stayed at home until all five kids grew up when she became a therapist. The only link to showbiz was a tenuous familial connection to Boy George O’Dowd. Chris intended to have a career as a political speechwriter but stumbled into University College Dublin’s amateur dramatics society when he went there to study politics.
He loved it – “the misfits and the cast-offs and people rejected by every other university society” – and ended up flunking his exams, then heading for drama school in London. “My parents had five kids and I think by that stage they were just so tired, so very tired, they said, ‘Just do whatever – we’re sure it’ll work out in some way.’”
He thinks his break was down to Bridesmaids director Paul Feig loving The IT Crowd. But the movie’s producer, the hugely influential Hollywood player Judd Apatow, disagrees. Apatow is the mastermind behind most of the hit comedy movies of the past ten years – including Anchorman, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. He’s also the guy who helped Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller launch their careers, and the executive producer of Girls.
“Chris O’Dowd’s one of my favourite actors,” he says simply. “He always comes through. I saw him in The Boat That Rocked, the Richard Curtis movie, and I really liked him. When he read for Bridesmaids he was so charming and funny. The fact that he’s Irish was just a strong choice.”
Lena Dunham agrees. “He does exactly what you ask for and then adds this bit that you couldn’t see coming but turns out to be just what you needed,” she says. “Judd sticks with people and keeps calling them back and you know Chris is one of his favourites.”
The final rich pot of irony at the end of this rainbow of good fortune is O’Dowd’s love life. He was only in LA and able to audition for Bridesmaids because he was fleeing a broken heart in the UK. While there he went to a party where he met TV presenter Dawn Porter – now his wife Dawn O’Porter. (It was her idea to take the “O”. He seems equally bemused and proud.)
“I remember her very clearly – because I was sober,” he chuckles. “But also, I knew her off the telly. She had no idea who I was, which gave me the advantage. I had a little more… I knew what to expect, I guess.”
They’re both back in the UK now and living in south London – although he admits they’re on the verge of buying a house in LA. For a start he gets fewer IT department employees picking him up on The IT Crowd’s inaccuracies over there.
“I used to say that before Bridesmaids came out I could happily walk around a Mothercare without ever being recognised,” he quips. “But that’s no longer the case. Not that I have any necessity,” he adds hurriedly – eager to quash any potential rumours about an O’Pregnancy.
As for the future, he says, “I’m definitely conscious that I need to stretch myself because the parts that I play a lot, they’re very common, you know, and there will be plenty of actors lining up to take them from me.” He gives a little laugh. “So I think in the next year I need to go much further, which is tough. I can imagine there’ll be kidnappers and thugs. But you don’t want to jinx the roles that gave you so much good fortune. “It doesn’t do to ride your luck. Even if you’ve got the luck of the Irish…” and he bursts out laughing. “See? I can use every cliché in the book if you want…”
Family Tree starts tonight 10pm, BBC2