Chris O’Dowd, the hilarious Irish charmer who shot to international fame after his starring role opposite Kristen Wiig in “Bridesmaids,” hasn’t paused for a second after becoming a comic hit stateside. The former “IT Crowd” star has become one of the most formidably dependable scene sealers in the Judd Apatow camp of actors and comedians with roles in last year’s “This is 40,” Jennifer Westfeldt’s indie comedy “Friends with Kids,” and a recurring role in HBO’s “Girls” as Thomas-John, the slimy, insecure Wall Street husband of Jemima Kirke’s Jessa. Somewhere in there he also managed to find the time to take the lead role in Wayne Blair’s Australian musical “The Sapphires,” which has been pleasing crowds on the festival circuit and will be released by The Weinstein Company on March 22nd.
The true story follows an aboriginal all-girl soul group as they face racism in 1968 and are ultimately selected to travel to Vietnam to perform for U.S. troops. O’Dowd plays their surly, drunken manager, and has been winning high praise for his performance from even those critical of the film. Indiewire sat down with him to talk about juggling dueling shooting schedules on “This is 40” and “The Sapphires,” and his roles in upcoming films, such as John Michael McDonagh’s follow-up to “The Guard,” “Cavalry.”
Obviously this is an adaptation of a musical, but at the same time your role seems perfectly suited for you; it’s kind of the prodigal Chris O’Dowd role where you have this rascally Irishman who’s also a dashing gentleman. I was wondering how familiar you were with the play or how much the role changed from the play to the film; did it just happen to be this perfect where the role called for you exactly?
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I hadn’t heard anything about the project before, neither the play or the real people, or any of that. I knew it was a true story when I was reading it, which was very attractive. And the role was slightly different on the page: he was an English guy, he was more stuffy and it kind of made sense to rough him up a bit and to– that challenge of a guy being useless is much more fun than a guy whose just a bit inept. A guy who’s actually self destructive is quite fun to play. So we probably made it a bit more like that. And I probably punched it up a bit and made it a bit funnier than it was originally written. I’m not sure in the play how big the part was. I think even reading the film script it was probably more of a secondary character and it kind of grew as time went on.
Was he based on anyone?
As far as I know he was an amalgam of a few different people. So obviously the girls are very specifically based on the girls. They had a manger, but as the original Sapphires have since told me, he did not have a drinking problem. They had an Irish uncle, so we kind of put some of that into it.
Your character doesn’t have many singing scenes, but do you have a musical background at all? Was the idea of being in a musical something that drew you to this?
I do love the music of the time and I think as you do with music you go through different phases, you listen to, you know, grunge or whatever. And at the time I was reading the script I was listening to a lot of Sam Cooke’s gospel stuff and was really drawn into that. So it did feel kind of kismet that the film just kind of landed then. But I don’t have a musical background. I do come from quite a musical family. I think all Irish people do to an extent. Everybody has a song in them. I only sing briefly in the film, and it’s not something that I feel hugely comfortable with but I think what I lack in tune I definitely make up for in volume.
Had you played piano before?
No, I had to learn piano for the movie. I was actually the last one to get cast so we didn’t have a lot of time to properly learn the piano, which would’ve been fun. I learned piano-by-numbers where I knew how to play two songs. And I knew how to play those songs but not why it was working.
Well, you do have a great keyboard face in the movie.
That, that I practiced more than anything.
Well, it’s pretty legit. Very convincing.
Fake it ’til you make it. I watched quite a lot of videos of people actually playing piano. Which sounds weird. But in concerts and stuff. And that’s all you really need to do. Closeups of hands doesn’t really matter.
There’s kind of a lot of firsts in this movie for you. To the best of my knowledge this is the first time in a movie where you’re like running away from explosions and getting shot at. Though now you’re in a McDonagh brother movie, so I suppose that could’ve changed.
Yeah, no explosions in that. That’s like a priest movie. But yeah! I think I actually did some walking slowly through explosions in “Gulliver’s Travels.”
On page 2, O’Dowd talks about working on “This is 40” while simultaneously shooting “The Sapphires”…
Oh, didn’t even think of that one.
You were not alone in missing that one. But that is quite fun. That whole thing feels totally incongruous with the type of actor that I am so I kind of like doing it.
Is it something you would like to do more of? Dramas and action movies?
I think I’ll do more dramatic stuff and I think I have some stuff coming out that’s a bit more dramatic. I don’t know if I’d do an action movie because I don’t know if I could keep a straight face honestly, I just think it’s so silly. Like I love watching them but I can’t imagine me doing one. Actually, you know what I’ve done, just for fun because I didn’t think there was any way that I could be in a superhero movie, so I’ve done a scene in the new “Thor” movie, just for that. I just do like one scene, which was quite fun.
I was just thinking, a lot of comedic actors that are in the same walks as you are, like Mark Duplass and Chris Pratt, were both in “Zero Dark Thirty” for instance.
Oh yeah, Mark’s in that!
Yeah, and they both play kind of straight roles.
Hey, I think comic actors are the best actors. I think they’re much more transferable then when you see dramatic actors doing comedy, you can fucking see it. Because it’s such a mess. So I think that comedic actors are more versatile.
One thing I noticed watching the movie is your facial hair in it–
–Is exactly the same as in “This is 40.”
Were those filmed at the same time?
Exact same time. So it was tricky, every ten days I would fly from Sydney to LA and vice-versa. Shoot a few days on “This is 40” and then back to Sydney, and then to Saigon. It was hard going.
So you did actually shoot in Vietnam? That’s kind of rare, I know American productions don’t really ever get in. Do you think it was because you were an Australian production?
I think so! I remember when we were driving through Saigon, and it was cool because they could close off roads and stuff- they were great actually, and it was a cool place to film – but when we were there in our big American army trucks, I did kind of feel like just standing up and going, “We’re back!”
But I managed to suppress that urge.
Could’ve made for a great special feature on the DVD.
I would’ve been shot. It would’ve been funny for all of the three seconds before I was shot. I’d love to go out on a joke though.
That’s a very incongruous experience, being there one day and LA the next. Were you ever in the pool with Megan Fox and having PTSD flashbacks, like “this reminds me of when I was in ‘Nam, under fire.”
[Laughs] Yeah, I would’ve shot that scene and then been back in Sydney the next day. It was a very surreal time. What I liked about the facial hair thing was in “The Sapphires” everybody had mustaches, it was that kind of period. But in “This is 40” it’s ironic.
Yeah, it’s kind of a hipster stache.
On page 3, O’Dowd talks about season 2 of “Girls” and “Family Tree,” the new Christopher Guest series…
To switch over to “Girls” on that note, obviously in these last few episodes you haven’t been featured as much as Jemima has kind of been absent while she had her baby. Are you coming back at all, or is that plot over?
I wouldn’t have thought so. I think… You know, it’s one of those things, I went to do one episode of the show which is where I try to have a threesome with the girls. We just had so much fun that Lena asked me to come back and do some more. When she suggested I come back I was a little bit like, “…how? How does that character com back? In what possible situation?”
Yeah, I think a lot of people had that thought.
And she’s like, “I want you to marry one of the girls.” That’s fucking insane! What are you talking about? And she said, “No, no, it’s going to be really fun.” And so I came back. And it kinda worked! Because, I think, Jemima’s character is kinda nuts as well, you kinda buy it. I can’t imagine that my character will come back but after experience, never say never. It’s great, it’s such a good show. I’ve just been catching up on it this week, actually. I just watched that recent one where Hannah goes and lives in that guy’s house-
With Patrick Wilson.
Patrick Wilson, right! It’s just some of the best television; it’s so great. She’s such a talented girl.
Were all of your scenes in “Girls” tightly scripted? Now that you’re in “Family Tree,” the new Christopher Guest series [upcoming on HBO], I’m curious about your background in improv.
It is to an extent but they do let you go. Because I do so much ranting in “Girls,” a lot of stuff just comes out. Like I think all the Mary Poppins stuff I think I kind of made up on the day. Lena’s cool with it, but it’s so well scripted that you don’t even need to improvise. It’s just if you’re as self indulgent as I am you do it. And with Judd’s stuff there’s bits of improv, but the Christopher Guest thing is just a totally different experience. It’s very challenging because you have to be so focused all of the time, otherwise there’s no scene if you don’t come up with something. It’s very well structured. Chris and Jim Piddock wrote a great script in a sense where, you know, it’s a really great story. So all you have to do is come up with the jokes. The thing that I found hardest is I come from a sitcom background and the grammar of that is what’s the shortest route to a punchline. That’s not the way that Chris works. So it’s almost trying to not be gaggy and funny, but also be really funny. Which is tricky. But it’s one of the most fun things I’ve done, he’s amazing.
Some of your first roles were for Mike Leigh. Does that kind of prepare you at all in a sense, or is it two completely different types of improv?
It is! Mike Leigh’s thing is interesting because you improvise the day before and then he writes down everything that yousaid, and then when you shoot you shoot word for word what you said the day before. So it’s not like an on camera improv. But it’s all part of the game, I suppose. It’s all very useful in terms of learning how to do that kind of stuff and the different ways people work, from someone like Judd who just works so quickly on his feet and has a good education and Chris who’s just the funniest person I know. It’s an education.
Coming off of your series “Moone Boy,” [on British network Sky1] which you wrote, is writing still something you’re interested in? Do you have anything else that you’ve written in the works?
We just shot the second series of “Moone Boy,” which I’m in the edit for now, and I’m writing the third series which is shooting this summer and I’m going to direct that one as well. So I’ll probably get behind the camera a bit more. I’d like to write a movie next that maybe we shoot next summer, but I don’t have any idea what it would be. So I probably need to get going with that.
I’ve got like five bad ideas. I just need one great idea and I’ll be set.
So you’re obviously extremely busy. There’s a number of projects I could ask about. I do want to mention “Friends with Kids,” from last year, as I think it was incredibly underrated and a pretty great little comedy.
Thank you, I think so too! I really like that movie. Those guys are so great in it. Adam [Scott] is so great in it. I wish kind of more people had seen it, just to see his performance if nothing else.
Are there any other upcoming projects that you would want to mention?
I’ve got “Cavalry,” [the John Michael McDonagh film] coming out sometime in the Autumn. But “The Sapphires” is terrific and I hope it finds an audience because I think it’s a very unique. It’s a very fun look at oppression.