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TORONTO — Earlier this week I had the opportunity to interivew Chris O’Dowd, the Irish actor who is best known to American audiences as the most prominently featured male character in last year’s blockbuster Bridesmaids, but who has actually put together a slew of impressive performances over the last few years, none better than the one that he gives in Wayne Blair‘s Australian film The Sapphires.
The musical dramedy, which chronicles the rise of an Aboriginal soul group’s rise to prominence under the tutelage of a wacky manager (O’Dowd), had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where it received a 10-minute standing ovation and THR‘s film critic described O’Dowd as “one of the most effortlessly funny actors working today”; then had its North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this month, where it was a fan favorite and I called him “utterly wonderful”; and is now charming a whole new audience north of the border at the Toronto International Film Festival.
O’Dowd was born in the west of Ireland, where music and art were much more a part of his childhood than films. He went to college in Dublin, where he studied politics before starting becoming involved in school plays and falling so in love with acting that he abandoned his degree. He went directly to drama school in London, and soon began getting professional jobs. Among his “big breaks”: a part in Mike Leigh‘s Vera Drake (2004), which offered him his first exposure to improvisation; the Scottfish film Festival (2005), which allowed him to show off his comedic talents; and then the sitcom The I.T. Crowd (2006), which aired on Great Britain’s Channel 4 and exposed him to a large audience for the first time in a substantial part.
Around 2008, O’Dowd took “a slight leap of faith.” An eight-year relationship in London had recently come to an end, and he “just kind of needed to get out of the country,” so he decided to head to America “to try to sell my wares.” Nearly five years later, he still can’t quite believe that people stateside are interested in buying them. “I don’t think that [an international career] ever seemed likely; it still seems unlikely,” he says. “This whole, kind of, working in America stuff is relatively new and very surprising.”
Equally surprising to him is how closely associated he has become with the genre of comedy; he was, after all, classically trained in Shakespearean dramatic acting. It quickly became apparent, though, that he has a quick mind and good timing, and so he has been increasingly called upon to provide laughs. In fact, he has become a bona fide member of big screen comedy’s most revered club: Judd Apatow‘s frat pack.
Shortly after O’Dowd moved out to Los Angeles, he and his then-girlfriend/now-wife attended a Louis C.K. gig, and afterwards, while hanging out backstage, he spotted Apatow across the room. When he pointed him out to his girlfriend, and she asked who he was, he gave an answer that surprised even him. He recalls, “I didn’t realize it until it came out of mouth, but I said, ‘Well, he’s kind of the reason I’m here.’ He is our John Hughes or whatever. It’s that kind of brand of comedy that he works on, where it’s really funny and everything, but also I believe all of the relationships, all of the characters are truthful and honest, and I love all of that.” O’Dowd says he “didn’t have the guts to even say hi to him at that time,” but would meet him before long.
When Paul Feig was casting the Apatow-produced Bridesmaids, O’Dowd got a call to come in and audition. He says, “To be honest, I went into that audition with no expectation of getting the job; I actually went in thinking, ‘I just hope I make a good impression.'” But it turned out that Feig was a big fan of The I.T. Crowd, dug the audition, and passed on his impressions to Apatow, who invited O’Dowd in for a meeting in his office the next day. The actor laughingly recalls, “The whole meeting I had with him he never mentioned the fact that I’d gotten the job; he just kept saying, ‘This is gonna be a really fun film, you know, it’s gonna be so great.’ And I was like, ‘If I haven’t got the job, man, you’re really rubbing my nose in it.’ But it turned out okay.”
The phenomenal success of Bridesmaids paved the way for the other comedic projects of which O’Dowd has been a part since, including the film Friends with Kids, which starred many of Apatow’s regulars; the TV show Girls, which Apatow produces; and This Is 40, which will be released this December and mark Apatow’s long-awaited return to directing. Of his involvement in comedy, he waxes, “I love it — I just love comedy. It’s such an art, and when you get to work with people who are masters you learn so much.” He adds, “It’s one of the few genres that people appreciate in a very body-moving way — like, horror and comedy are the only two things where you either recoil or come to you, and I love all that. I know it kind of sounds silly, but it’s nice to actually move people — literally.”
Interestingly, though, The Sapphires, a tiny Aussie film with a first-time director and no other “name” stars, was the first project that he took post-Bridesmaids, when he was more in-demand than ever before. He recalls, “I was being offered a lot of stuff of a similar ilk to Bridesmaids but without the kind of craft, so I wanted to get away and do something very different, and maybe do something a bit smaller where I could show my own voice a bit more. So,” he cracks, “an Aboriginal musical seemed to fit the bill.” He was sent the script two weeks after Bridesmaids was released, and said yes to it even though he doubted that it would ever be screened outside of Australia — maybe in New Zealand or England, under the best of circumstances — or that it would make back its money. “I felt like I hadn’t seen it before,” he says of the script and story that inspired it, “and,” he adds, “I love all of that kind of music.”
He brought more to the project than just his knockout performance. (“A good bit of it is improvised,” he acknowledges.) He also quickly sensed that Blair and his co-writers “aren’t overly precious and aren’t driven by their own egos; they’re happiest for [the film] to just be great,” so he began sharing with them ideas — some comedic, but many dramatic — about how they might improve certain scenes. He wrote lines for himself and for his four principal female co-stars. And he injected an energy and life into the film without which it simply wouldn’t work.
Of The Sapphires‘ reception in Cannes, Telluride, and now Toronto, O’Dowd says, “I’ve got no frame of reference; I’ve never done the festival circuit before.” All he knows, he says, is that it’s a film he loves — “Sometimes you end up promoting a film that you like but you’re not invested in in an emotional way, but I am with this film, so it’s kind of a treat” — and he looks forward to seeing how it plays once The Weinstein Company figures out when it will release it stateside. (It’s already the highest-grossing Australian film of the year in Australia)
Life, in general, is busy at the moment for the actor, who got married less than a month ago. Aside from his promotional duties for The Sapphires, which will soon be supplanted by his promotional duties for the aforementioned This Is 40, he is working on two television programs: an autobiographical show called Moone Boy for Sky TV and an HBO show called Family Tree that he’s making in collaboration with Christopher Guest. “I’m very much trying to make hay while the sun shines,” he says. For better or worse, he may wind up with a lot of hay, because the sun doesn’t look like it will be setting anytime soon.
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