MOONE AND BEYOND
Things are going well for Chris O’Dowd, the Roscommon boy who admits that he drifted almost by accident into acting. From a half-hearted career in minor GAA, to a lacklustre college career that saw Amy Huberman’s mother drive him to exams, he’s now making
If anyone has spent time standing in goal on a muddy GAA pitch, it probably hasn't occurred to you that ne t-minding is the ideal preparation for Hollywood stardom. But ac tor Chris O'Dowd, who spent his youth between the sticks for Boyle GAA Club, Boyle Celtic FC and Roscommon, certainly thinks so. “You don't become a goalkeeper unless you enjoy the whole surroundings of pressure and laziness. It is very much like being an actor — it's the perfect combination of huge pressure and then massive laziness, with large periods of inactivity.”
The gangly Boyle man is certainly playing a blinder in his chosen career. TV success playing Roy Trenneman in cult comedy, The IT Crowd, led to stratospheric achievement in Hollywood, with star turns in movies such as Bridesmaids, The Sapphires and Gulliver's Travels.
The safest hands in Boyle is incredibly disarming in person, being really chatty and open. Dressed in a floral shirt and cord jacket, he has the look of a second-tier comedian rather than a member of Hollywood royalty. Just off the plane, he orders a pint as we begin our chat. “I just realised that I didn't bring a fecking iPhone charger. Disaster!” he says.
Once a power source has been located, he tells me what he's been up to. The 34-year-old is here to promote the second series of his Sky 1 comedy series, Moone Boy, which hits our screens next month. It's this project — based on his 1990s upbringing in Roscommon — which is the most dear to him. Winning an award for Moone Boy was the proudest moment of his career so far.
“I was very proud when the show won an Ifta last year. We always wanted to make a show for a family, and we won for Best Entertainment Show against The Voice and those weekend entertainment shows. I kind of love that.”
Chris gives off the impression that he just drifts into things — whe ther it ’s goalkeeping or acting — but when he does focus on something, he immediately makes a big impression.
“I was a midfielder, under-14 and under-16, for the county, and then I started drinking and kind of lost interest, but was still interested enough to play. When I got around to minor, with the Leaving Cert, and drinking, I became a goalkeeper, because you didn't have to be really fit and tallness helped.”
His career highlight was turning out as goalie for Roscommon against Mayo in the 1997 Connacht Minor final, which earned him a star turn on The Sunday Game. He also maintains that acting was something he just drifted into as an extracurricular activity while studying in UCD.
“I hadn't that much of an interest in it, to be honest. I had done some school musicals, but, at that stage, I think I wanted to be a lawyer and realised I probably wasn't bright enough, and was into law because I really liked the show LA Law. Later, I realised, after looking into a legal career, that it was really boring and the only bit I really liked was the LA bit. So I did that.”
Chris became friends with Amy Huberman while they were both studying in UCD, and it sounds like Amy's mum took pity on the wayward Roscommon lad in those days. “I remember Amy's mum bringing me to my exams in the car,” he laughs.
“I think I got drunk and twisted my ankle, so she drove me to all my exams — and I still managed to fail most of them! I never graduated. I got a place, at that stage, in acting school in London, and didn't have that much of an interest.”
O'Dowd attended the prestigious Lamda drama school in London — managing not to graduate from there, either — but, by that stage, his career was beginning to take off. “I got a bit of work at the start. I was working in building sites, bar work, as well as telesales and all that, and then I did this film about priests. Even though it didn't make any impact as a film — it was called Conspiracy of Silence — and Hugh Bonneville from Downton Abbey was in it.
“Hugh very kindly set me up with his agent afterwards, even though I had only met him a couple of times on the shoot.”
Even though he was London-based, his first big break as an actor was in Ireland back in 2003. “Then The Clinic happened, which was the first regular job where I didn't have to have another job. I really enjoyed it.
“Being with Amy was loads of fun, and Norma Sheahan and Aisling O'Sullivan. I learnt more from Aisling than any other actor I have acted with. She's terrific,” he says.
“I learnt an awful lot, particularly how to work quickly, as we'd be shooting 10 pages a day with very few takes. It was very high quality for most of it and I really enjoyed it,” adds Chris.
His big English break came in 2006, when he was cast in Graham Linehan's new sitcom, The IT Crowd. “When they were auditioning, I just wanted to get in the room as I was a huge fan of Graham's. I think he was almost specifically looking for not an Irish guy. He'd done so much with that, and it took a bit of convincing, but it worked out great.”
Does he ever have a feeling before he does a project that something is destined for success or failure?
“I had a feeling before we started The IT Crowd that it was going to go great because
it's Graham Linehan and Ash Atalla, who did
The Office. And then we did our first series — which didn't go amazing — and I thought, ‘Oh, shit. I'm going to be the guy in the first Graham Linehan sitcom that didn't work!’ That was worrying, but the show got better and we got better, and I'm very proud of it.”
For all his laconic charm, Chris is actually very focused on his career, and it strikes me that he was constantly pushing himself to the next level, rather than waiting around for things to happen. This is certainly what propelled him after The IT Crowd.
“Then I started doing a couple of British films that weren't great,” he says. “Then I felt, ‘I don't know what the next move is here and don't feel like I'm progressing.’ There were a lot of sideways steps here. I was really enjoying it, but felt I wasn't getting better and the projects weren't getting any better.”
So what kept him going when he felt he was in a rut? “Lack of other options. I'm not qualified to do anything else! I've never finished a course I've started. I also love acting and felt that I'd be good at it, but there is that moment where you say, ‘What am I going to do?’
“The IT Crowd was great, but I felt I was not getting the kind of opportunities that would make things much better, so I just went to LA.
“I had an agent and a manager from a pilot five years before that, but hadn't done anything since,” says Chris.
But he felt that the stars were aligned the moment he got to LA — for a number of reasons. “It was mad. I had come out of a long-term relationship, and I was feeling very open to the world and open to opportunities. You know, those times in your life when you — for whatever reason — are in a zone. ‘I'm the best version of myself this month’, that kind of thing. The other 11 months you could be rubbish — and it happened that month when I had to be good at my job.
“I was good and so I got a few jobs, things like Gulliver's Travels, which I got within three weeks of arriving, and that kind of led to another job.” That ‘other job' was a part in the movie,
Dinner for Schmucks, acting alongside Steve Carell and Paul Rudd. Now Hollywood was really kicking off for Chris O'Dowd.
“I got the Dinner for Schmucks thing. At that point, you're starting to work with people you really love, like Jason Segal, Jack Black, and then Paul Rudd, Steve Carell and Zach Galifianakis. You're kind of seeing that it's not that far, even though you're playing a small part. They're like you and have a similar sensibility. This isn't mental that I'm here doing this.”
And then the movie Bridesmaids happened in 2011, when Chris landed the plum role of a cake-loving cop alongside Kristen Wiig. “I had a real feeling that I wouldn't get it. When you arrive at these auditions, there's a sheet outside and you see the other names. I said to myself, ‘I should go home!' Honestly, what I went in thinking was, because it was quite a big part, ‘You're not going to get it, but there might be something else in the film.’”
But it turned out that the film’s director, Paul Feig, was a big IT Crowd fan, Chris’s audition went great and he ended up getting
‘I don’t get very nervous in audition situations. I get nervous in other situations, where I have to talk to a group of people’
the part of Officer Nathan Rhodes. Besides massively boosting his profile, his role in
Bridesmaids means he's now free to use his Irish accent in movies as well. “I went into the Bridesmaids audition and did it in an American accent, and they said, ‘Don't worry, do your own.’ And the fact that the movie went well meant I will never have to worry about it again. If I had gone in and the whole audience had watched the movie, and they said, ‘What the fuck is the guy saying?' then that would have been problematic. I'm always arguing to have Irish accents in things, and now people opposed to this have no argument.”
Does he ever get nervous in auditions or performances? “I don't get very nervous in audition situations. I get nervous in other situations, where I have to talk to a group of people,” he says.
Chris's parents are a big influence on his life, and Moone Boy is clearly based on his Boyle childhood. They've always been supportive, but his dad, Sean, can be overzealous when it comes to supporting his son's burgeoning movie career.
“My dad's always on the radio! Dad's terrific and he's very open with the press and everything, and, one day, he was being interviewed by the Irish Independent, talking about a job that I hadn't signed up to yet! And so I called him.
“I told him there was talk about it, but he shouldn't mention it until it was done and dusted. Then he says to me, ‘Hold on, hold on. I can't talk, Chris . . . I'm just on the radio.’ Then I thought, ‘Just leave him to it!’”
His dad's job, when Chris was a kid, had
a pivotal role in the first series of Moone Boy. “My dad was a printer and used to do the election posters. I had such a visceral memory of the faces of the politicians all over the house, because he had run out of places to dry the posters.
“It was a very surreal thing. I had the sinister looks of Padraig Flynn everywhere in the house growing up!”
Moone Boy was a spin off from Sky 1's Little Crackers comedy-drama shorts, which saw well-known names recreate episodes from their own childhoods. O'Dowd had written a one-off episode called Capturing Santa, which Sky liked, and they developed the
Moone Boy series from that in 2012. “I did the short with my friend from college, Nick [Vincent Murphy]. It was about my family. When we did the show, it went really well and we had a good time doing it. Sky were happy with it. I think what they wanted was for me to play the dad in a sitcom and I wasn't interested in doing that, and I also loved the world I had created in the short.”
But Chris overlooked one crucial factor. If they couldn't find the right kid for the title role, it would be Moone without the boy. “Because we saw so many kids that weren't great. And we're like, ‘I don't know if the show works.’ And then we found David on some random day in Athlone.
“We had a really great casting director, who just went down the country, because I didn't want any Dublin kids. David had done bits of theatre and stuff, but had never been on camera before, which was kind of the perfect thing, and he was great at learning lines.”
David plays Martin Moone, the youngest child of a family living in rural Ireland. Chris plays Sean, who is Martin's imaginary friend. “David's parents are lovely, too. I met him earlier on today,” Chris says. “I was trying to do some sort of joke to him, and he says to me, ‘Is this going anywhere?' He’s still only 12 — that's just too developed!”
“David has three older sisters, which I had as well. We have a very similar upbringing. They're very helpful. One of them does all his lines with him every night,” he adds.
Chris is a self-confessed control freak, and he is his own worst critic about
Moone Boy. “When I'd watch the first series of the show, I'd kind of giggle along with it, but I don't know if it's getting the big belly laughs that I wanted.
“I can be a nightmare: ‘What the fuck is all this?’ ‘Can we cut all of this?’ I am pretty hard on the show. It's just to make sure that it is going somewhere,” he says. What can we expect in the new series of
Moone Boy then? “The big thing that we wanted to alter a bit was to get outside. I really like Series One, but it's very interior. I think it was great at setting up the characters, but, when you think of your childhood, you think of the summer and being outside. It felt right that they should go on more adventures.” Moone Boy Series Two sounds like
Huckleberry Finn on the Shannon, with laughs. “We have a couple of episodes outside,” Chris explains. “They build a river raft and stuff, and go out and meet a weird man on an island, and then there's a golfing episode. I also wanted to make the jokes bigger, with bigger set pieces.”
There's also a very funny Italia 90 episode, which I had a sneak preview of, and it's well worth a look.
A third series of Moone Boy has also been filmed, and that's due for broadcast before the end of the year. “I directed the third series and I want to see how it feels,” says Chris. “I would be very surprised if this was the end. Who knows? Maybe Christmas specials, a film, the books.”
O'Dowd and his Moone Boy collaborator, Nick Vincent Murphy, agreed a six-figure deal in November to write two children's books based on the show.
“There will be lots of jokes, and we hope that parents will want to steal the books from their children to read them, too,” says Chris.
There are other developments, too. The first Moone Boy series is now being broadcast on the American online streaming service, Hulu, and they are also in discussion about US format rights. “I'll write the first couple of episodes, but I'm not convinced that it would work. I think the way to go with these things is to make a whole new show.”
As well as his successful on-screen telly and movie appearances, Chris also has a thriving career doing voice overs for animated movies and TV cartoons. He had a star turn in the recent movie, Epic, as a snail called Grub who could swallow his eyes. Was that fun to do?
“In a funny kind of a way, it is fun, but it's quite regimented — more so than I thought it would be. The material is fun, but, when you haven't seen any of the artwork, it's kind of complicated and I don't really know what's going on. And, because I'm a control freak, that's not ideal.
“I was shooting Moone Boy while I was doing Epic, and so there came a point where they needed me to do stuff and I couldn't do it, so they flew to Spiddal and recorded some of it in the TG4 studio, which was terrific,” Chris adds. He also stars in the kids’ TV version of
Monsters v Aliens. “I am Doctor Cockroach,” says Chris. “It's the same sort of process, but a lot more stuff because it's a TV series, and I've done about 30 scripts so far. I have a lot of lines, saying things like, ‘I don't know what we're doing!'“
Chris has been happily married to writer and TV presenter Dawn Porter since August 2012. Rather than taking her hubby's name, she meshed their surnames, and now goes by the surname O'Porter. They live in Bermondsey, in south London, with a dog named Potato and a cat called Lilu.
“Yeah, south London is home, and she's loving it,” says Chris. “We go down to Boyle a lot and fly into Knock, but she hasn't been in Dublin that much. I got a text recently, when she was on a trip to Dublin, saying, ‘I've just fell in love in Dublin', which was nice, because I'd like to force her to live here at some stage.”
Does he have any plans to move back to Ireland? “Not yet. We're having a great time, and we'll be in America a bit more this year. We’re going where the opportunities are for a while, and then move on to the next stage.”
Whatever the next stage is, I'm sure we'll hear it first — from Chris's dad!
‘I had a real feeling that I wouldn’t get the part’ — O’Dowd with ‘Bridesmaids’ co-star, Kristen Wiig, at the Baftas in 2012
‘We have a very similar upbringing’ — O’Dowd with ‘Moone Boy’ co-star David Rawle at the Iftas in 2013
‘I’d like to force her to live here at some stage’ — O’Dowd with his wife, Dawn O’Porter, at the Iftas in 2013