Chris O'Dowd: 'Fame hasn't changed me but it has changed the people around me'
The star opens up on why he had reservations about his role in the new film 'Calvary'.
Let's not beat about the bush. Chris O'Dowd has let himself go. His facial hair has run wild, from hipster beard to tramp-ish thatch. His head has been razored. And he's piled on the pounds.
That actor who went from lumbering schlub in cult TV series The IT Crowd to love interest in Bridesmaids? He's effected an equally remarkable reverse rebrand, going from butterfly to grub.
"It's been okay to get flabby around the edges," O'Dowd says before adding the proviso, "for a while. I think I've probably reached a limit now – I've put on a couple of stone."
But his wife, writer, presenter and novelist Dawn O'Porter, and O'Dowd's legions of new fans – the ones who love him as a bit of thinking-woman's crumpet in Bridesmaids and in Lena Dunham's critically acclaimed series Girls – can rest easy. This is not celebrity gluttony at work. It's the Method.
We've met in New York's Longacre Theatre. With businesslike briskness the big man from the small town of Boyle in Co Roscommon settles down to talk.
O'Dowd has a lot going on. Series two of his award-winning comedy Moone Boy has recently ended on Sky. It's a largely autobiographical show, with O'Dowd playing the imaginary friend of an adolescent boy.
He's co-writing children's books based on the series, and is preparing to make an American version next year, with a Christmas movie involving the same characters somewhere in between. But right now, O'Dowd is 10 days into a four-month run of the first Broadway adaptation in 40 years of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.
He plays Lennie, the mentally challenged, strong-as-an-ox "big baby" in this staging of the Depression-era novella. His opposite number is Hollywood polymath James Franco (the Spider-Man trilogy), playing Lennie's friend and protector George. The play requires O'Dowd to portray mental disability convincingly. The sweet, well-meaning Lennie knows neither his own strength nor social niceties – notably those relating to the opposite sex.
O'Dowd admits that he had a personal insight into the part: his 11-year-old self. At that age he was already a six-footer (he's now 6'3"). "Dude, I was enormous!" he exclaims. "And you don't know if you're gonna stop. At the time I remember thinking, this could be bad. I was like, 'God, am I gonna be one those weird 7' people?'?"
He recalls the discomfort of his body "feeling too big for me. And we discussed this in rehearsals. Because – spoiler alert! – I kill a girl in the play by accident, because I just don't know how strong I am.
"And I remember hurting people at that age in fights. You don't know how to control your body, and you're a big, strong dude compared to everybody else. So, yeah, I draw on that. You're ignorant about your own capabilities. It's frightening."
Did O'Dowd find it difficult to play a character that could so easily veer into comedy? "I try not to worry about stuff like the idea that it's hard to play a person with a disability," he says. "I'm just trying to be as honest as possible. I do have the exact thing in mind of what is wrong with the guy: I think he's got a mild case of Down syndrome. I've looked into it and it's hard to find any real consensus on it – Steinbeck never clarified it."
But enough about Of Mice and Men. O'Dowd's new film, Calvary, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (The Guard), is a brilliant drama set in small-town Sligo and centred on Fr James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson).
He is told in confession by an (anonymous) confessor that he was sexually tortured in childhood by a priest and now, in adulthood, he will have his revenge. That priest is dead, so he's going to kill Fr Lavelle instead. It will cause more public outrage if he shoots an innocent priest.
Calvary then follows the godly-but-wearied Father's day as he does his rounds of the small coastal community. He encounters a rum bunch of characters including a cocaine-sniffing surgeon (Aidan Gillen), an embittered alcoholic millionaire (Dylan Moran), and a butcher with a rumoured habit of beating up his adulterous wife. Any of them could be the killer-in-waiting.
O'Dowd is the butcher. He plays the character for some laughs but he's patently a man with inner darkness. It's a great performance from an actor best known for comic roles, and should recalibrate the view of those who might assume he can't "do" drama. And there's more to come. In Stephen Frears's keenly anticipated biopic of Lance Armstrong, O'Dowd plays David Walsh, the journalist who doggedly pursued the cyclist for a decade.
Still, O'Dowd admits he had reservations about signing up. "I heard John was doing a film about priests, and I thought, 'Oh f*ck, that's gonna be a real hatchet job on priests ... ' And I have really positive relationships with priests that I grew up with."
But then he read the script, and talked the matter through with McDonagh. "The idea of a story about a good priest who is not being served by the religion that he adores is, I think, a great idea."
And, I say, in Calvary, the pub landlord (played by Pat Shortt) is the voice of that hatchet jobbery. "Right. It's not blind to the way society is feeling about [the Catholic church] at the moment. But I do think it's a beautiful piece. It's an unusual film, it doesn't have a standard narrative structure," he says. "And I don't know if it'll be hugely successful. But I hope people do go and see it 'cause I do think it will spark debate."
If it doesn't, O'Dowd himself has already done that job for Calvary. In an interview with a men's magazine last month, the Catholic-raised actor branded religious doctrine "a weird cult". He stands by his comments, but insists, "I really wasn't trying to make a big statement."
Yet he is bamboozled by the Twitter storm resulting from other media's paraphrasing of his comments: "'Chris O'Dowd says religion is unacceptable!' No I didn't! And people go crazy about that. But what are you gonna do?" he says with a resigned shrug of the shoulders.
Prior to going off to university, he'd harboured no acting or comedy ambitions.
"I did politics 'cause I thought it would be cool to be a political speech writer. I like orators. The idea of being a rabble-rouser is something I've always been attracted to. And then in my first week in college I went to support a friend at an audition for a play and that was it – I just fell in love with it."
Post-university, he studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, then began working his way up the acting ladder.
Then, five years ago, he moved to Los Angeles. He'd not long met O'Porter (they married in 2012), and at a party shortly after their arrival, they were introduced to Judd Apatow, the man behind Knocked Up.
O'Dowd was then cast as the nice, handsome cop in the riotous, $300m-grossing comedy Bridesmaids (2011).
Apatow subsequently gave him a part in This is 40. Factor in his recurring role in Girls, and it is fair to say that O'Dowd has broken Hollywood.
He says he and O'Porter mostly manage to mesh their careers and schedules. "We make it work. 'Cause we don't have kids, it's a lot easier. And if we're ever lucky enough for that kind of s–- to come around I guess it'll be a harder thing to manage."
Has O'Porter, 35, forgiven him for tweeting a picture of her in her underwear?
"Eventually!" he laughs.
How long was he in the doghouse?
"It wasn't so bad," he insists, not entirely convincingly.
What, in turn, gets his goat? "Everybody asks: 'Do you think fame has changed you?' Well, for me it hasn't – but you know what? Everybody around me has. The way they look at me. I can be as normal and exactly the same [as I was], but everybody has altered their opinion of me based on what I do now.
"And that's unusual," he says, frowning slightly. "You're no longer allowed to be part of the human race because you're on TV."
- 'Calvary' is out now