In a sleepy town in the west of Ireland, Hollywood’s biggest rising star is dangling his feet in the lake where he spent childhood summers swimming and fishing.
If Chris O’Dowd doesn’t know every single local who comes up to ask for a picture, chances are he knows their uncle or granddaughter. But returning home to the small, picturesque town of Boyle after hanging out with Brad Pitt, Clint Eastwood and Jerry Seinfeld – they have all declared themselves fans of his breakthrough movie, Bridesmaids – was a strange experience at first for this gentlest of giants.
Old friends were unsure how to react towards the shiny new A-list Chris, worried that he might have changed. “It’s unusual and odd to find your friends, who you grew up with, being slightly awkward around you,” he confesses. “But I still find the whole thing weird myself, so I can understand why they do.”
“I deal with it by joking with them. If they ask me to meet up I’ll say, ‘Don’t you know who I am? Why would I come into town to see you? I’m famous now.’”
“I couldn’t sit down and be sincere and say, ‘I’m still the same me,’ because that would be even weirder.”
“It’s generally better if I try to get their names wrong, I think that’s fun, and offer them an autograph. Oh, yeah, they really appreciate all that.”
It’s a typically humorous response from this modest 32-year-old star, who seems genuinely not to have had his head turned by his sudden and international fame.
After abandoning a sociology and politics degree at University College Dublin, and applying to drama college in London on a whim, O’Dowd gained his first major role playing nerdy Roy in TV comedy The IT Crowd, written by Father Ted co-writer Graham Linehan. The film career that followed was hit and miss at first.
The 2009 Richard Curtis comedy The Boat That Rocked was critically ridiculed, and acting with a 120ft special effect in 2010’s Gulliver’s Travels made O’Dowd “feel silly”, while the same year’s Hippie Hippie Shake, starring Sienna Miller, has never been released following reported disputes behind the scenes.
It was only when O’Dowd was cast in Bridesmaids as lovable Officer Rhodes (it turns out director Paul Fieg is a big fan of The IT Crowd) that he was to break into the big time and win legions of (mostly female) fans. The film grossed $288 million, scripts flooded in and, with the world at his feet, a move to a sun-drenched Hollywood villa was surely imminent.
But modesty and artistic integrity, plus a yearning for home, led to the actor making a most unusual career move: spending the freezing winter at his parents’ home, where he co-wrote, produced and starred in a modestly budgeted sitcom for Sky1.
The semi-autobiographical Moone Boy, set in 1989 tells the story of 11-year-old Martin Moone (David Rawle) and his imaginary friend, Sean Murphy, played by O’Dowd himself. From the outset, O’Dowd was determined to film in Ireland to repay his home land for their support; he even rejected a fancy London premiere in favour of a bring-your-own-booze, family-friendly screening for 500 excited locals, roping in his co-stars Steve Coogan and Johnny Vegas, who drove themselves the 100 miles from Dublin for the event.
‘I’ve been blessed with a history of good characters to portray,” O’Dowd says. “My family is very funny and I was always fascinated with the people from the town.”
“That’s why it was nice to come back here: I would be nothing without the town. This is my favourite job I’ve ever done. I’m writing with one of my best friends, some of my friends are in the show, and I feel very connected to it, which isn’t always the case on a job.”
The shoot was an all-embracing affair, rather than a closed set with Winnebagos blocking the roads. Estate agents offered to lend empty properties for filming; B&Bs that were closed for the quiet season opened up to accommodate the crew; a hairdresser went on holiday but left his keys with a production manager in case anybody needed to wash their hair.
The whole affair was undoubtedly a world away from the multimillion-dollar sets O’Dowd has worked on before: “I didn’t have a trailer; I got changed in a toilet. We did things on a budget. We even shot some of it in my parents’ house, where I grew up, which was unusual – and cheap.”
O’Dowd’s Everyman attitude extends to his love life, too. At the end of last month he married Dawn Porter, a British TV presenter and writer he met via that most ordinary of tools, Facebook, while they were both living in LA.
His stag do was on a narrowboat in Bath; a typical night for the pair is less likely to feature a red carpet and more likely to involve friends round for dinner and a night in front of X Factor.
Porter laughs off her fiancé’s heart-throb status, saying it vindicates the decision she made before he started being noticed by other women.
O’Dowd himself refuses to believe women are attracted to anything but his Bridesmaids character: “Saddam Hussein could have played Officer Rhodes and women would have found him adorable. All the attention I get is because Rhodes is such a nice guy; it’s not me.”
It seems that returning to Boyle during such a crucial period of his career has not just kept O’Dowd grounded, but given him time to clear his head, too, surrounded by people he knows and trusts.
“We’re all weirded out by it,” he confesses. “We all say to each other, ‘This is so freaky.’ But everyone has been so supportive. I feel lucky to have come from here, not lucky to escape.”
“It really frustrates me when people talk about how surprising it is that a kid from Boyle has done something. Everyone’s a kid from somewhere, aren’t they? It’s not like I’m from a small town and everyone else is Prince William, and I’ve made it against the odds. What’s the difference between me and a kid from Dulwich or Hackney?
“The whole thing is so frustrating. It annoys me all the time. I’d hate for people to think of Boyle as being hickey or trite. Because actually, it’s the best place in the whole world.”