He may mostly divide his time between LA and London, but Chris O’Dowd has lost none of his ‘Boyleness’ – a surprisingly universal appeal across his glittering stage, screen and TV career
‘Enjoy the birthday,” I say to Chris O’Dowd, as we wrap up the Zoom. At the start of the conversation, O’Dowd had mentioned that he was going home to Boyle, Co Roscommon the next day, to celebrate his father’s 80th birthday.
“Thanks,” he says, “I’ll give him your regards.”
“Good,” I reply, “because he’ll be expecting that.”
He laughs and it makes the concluding of a Zoom with a complete stranger a little less awkward and ridiculous.
Or maybe more ridiculous, I think immediately after, remembering the London PR person who was also on the Zoom. Did she think it was a bit weird – or did she think that maybe all Irish people know each other and each other’s 80-year-old fathers? She’s working with Chris O’Dowd, is the ultimate conclusion, so she probably gets it.
Chris O’Dowd’s Irishness, undiluted by nearly a decade living in LA, sometimes allows us to imagine that we – his people – are the only ones who get him. It’s part of our national obsession with claiming people – and in O’Dowd’s case, it can blind us to the fact that Hollywood and international TV and movie audiences get him too.
In fact, they don’t just get him, they thoroughly enjoy O’Dowd, with his dry, self-deprecating humour and even his fine Co Roscommon accent – which, he says, he always tries to use in his work.
On our Zoom, he’s in London, where he spent part of the summer in Nick Payne’s play Constellations with Anna Maxwell Martin (star of Motherland and Line of Duty). He’s enjoying a few months off, while his wife Dawn O’Porter writes a new book, and his two sons Art (6) and Valentine (3) “will do a term” in London before they go back to LA.
It’s also a chance to see Dawn’s Scottish father, and even a chance for them to come back and forth to Ireland with greater ease than has been possible in the last couple of years.
Ireland felt very far away during the harshest times of the pandemic, he says.
“I found it very strange. We would talk to people at home, and in that way, it didn’t matter where you were because no one was allowed to see anybody anyway – but even knowing that, it felt particularly hard because California is so f**king far away.”
A lot people felt very strongly the reality of having emigrated, I say. “Yeah,” he agrees, “that’s definitely how you feel. Like, ‘Oh, I’m not just away for a bit.’
“In California it was action stations from the start, and it felt like there was no let-up. It seemed to come in surges everywhere else, but it was intense there. Maybe it was because Trump was still in, and then the BLM protests, but it just felt like there was this kind of madness. It was a mad year. Like, you’re not in Kansas anymore.
“You’re definitely not in Boyle anymore,” he laughs.
The youngest of five children, Chris O’Dowd was brought up by a sign-writer father and a counsellor mother. His first love was GAA and he played football at under-16, minor and under-21 levels, his county career finally ended by a recurring knee issue. He went to UCD but did not finish his degree in politics and sociology, before moving to London where he studied at Lamda drama school.
It was as Roy Trenneman in The IT Crowd on Channel 4 in 2006 that O’Dowd had his big breakthrough, and he appeared in that for seven years, during which time he also wrote and starred in Moone Boy, a semi-autobiographical gentle comedy set in Boyle.
Bridesmaids in 2011 broke him into movies. He played Rhodes, a US police officer with the flattest Irish accent any American audience had surely ever heard. The beauty of it was that Rhodes’ Irishness was irrelevant. O’Dowd wasn’t playing Paddy for laughs and his accent wasn’t a big deal.
Except here in Ireland, where we love anyone who doesn’t forget that it was far from Hollywood they were reared.
“I like to keep my own accent if I can,” he says, “because it’s one less thing to worry about. And I feel like it’s representative. You hear other Irish accents more, like a lot of people from the North, but you don’t get a lot of midlands-stroke-west-ish kinds of accents.”
O’Dowd’s great talent is that he combines to likeable effect being down to earth with doing fantastically well in a sophisticated and notoriously cut-throat world. Watch him on any TV chat show, and he has an almost effortless ability to turn high-falutin’ situations – dinner with Bradley Cooper – into a mortifying self-effacing joke (his wife stole Cooper’s cutlery).
He’s just one of us, and doesn’t dress that up – but he’s also succeeding in a world that more polished lads could only dream of. You don’t get on in the world without smarts and Chris O’Dowd is no daw. Which brings us to why we’re talking on Zoom.
It’s connected to his association with Redbreast Irish Whiskey and Robin Redbreast Day (it was November 12). With BirdLife International, the whiskey company created a special edition of their Redbreast 12, with a pretty bird-feeder that hugs the shape of the bottle, to attract the common birds that their campaign seeks to protect.
O’Dowd has made a short video, and for every view it receives, Redbreast will donate 25c to BirdLife International, an affiliate of which is BirdWatch Ireland.
“I didn’t know an awful lot about the struggle to keep common birds common,” O’Dowd admits, “but I did a little bit of research and 40pc of bird species are declining. That doesn’t feel like a good sign. So being able to get involved seems like a bit of a no-brainer, really, with a product that I liked and a cause that needs attention.”
Since Bridesmaids, O’Dowd has worked steadily on both sides of the Atlantic. He has starred in Girls, the TV series of Get Shorty and films such as Molly’s Game and St Vincent.
He won an Emmy in 2019 for his role in State of the Union, written by Nick Hornby and directed by Stephen Frears, about a man in couple’s therapy with his wife, played by Rosamund Pike. (In pre-publicity, O’Dowd characteristically joked that Pike’s character could have chosen better in the partner stakes.)
He has been married to novelist, TV presenter and director Dawn O’Porter for nine years, and she took the O’ of his name when they wed. O’Porter is the surname they have given their children.
Their life in LA – pre-pandemic anyway – was characterised by entertaining big gangs of friends with kids in tow at weekends, when O’Porter would cook and kids would mill around.
A lockdown appearance on Louis Theroux’s podcast revealed that the O’Dowd/O’Porter/Theroux families are very close (through their children, originally), and while O’Dowd doesn’t admit to living a starry LA existence, they live well – though he misses the GAA.
“Not yet,” he says, when I ask if his boys play over there, “but I think they will. There’s a GAA club that I played for over there, until I realised that I can’t...My knees aren’t good enough anymore. And the ground is so hard! It’s not like Roscommon. Definitely you miss that kind of stuff. I’ll bring them out in a year or two, I’d say, but now, they just wear a lot of GAA gear.”
He was sent a load of jerseys from Ireland recently, O’Dowd explains, and laughs at the idea of his two lads knocking around LA in the county colours.
“They haven’t a clue what they’re wearing, but it makes my heart skip a beat,” he says.
That said, O’Dowd doesn’t go in too much for bringing the boys up yearning for the old country. After all, his wife is English, she was brought up on the Isle of Wight, her father is Scottish.
“We love living in America,” he says. “I don’t know if we’ll live there forever. Probably when the kids get a bit older... One of them is still in nursery and the other one’s in first class and they have pals there and pals here [in London], and then they’ve got a bunch of cousins and stuff in Ireland.
“We’re incredibly lucky that we get to move around a bit, but you do get to a stage where the kids need grounding and we’ll probably get there soon.”
In the meantime, they’re enjoying London, where they still have a place. After our interview he’ll take the family dog Potato for a walk, but admits beforehand he’s looking forward to the few days in Ireland with his family.
There will be “a few dinners” for his father’s significant birthday, he says, but no surprise party. His father would hate that, and O’Dowd says he would too.
“And my nephew is in a band,” he declares, with delight. “He’s playing Róisín Dubh’s in Galway, so I’m going to go and see that spin out with pride.”
Do these family bookends make him feel old? I ask.
“God, yeah,” he laughs. “They really are both milestones. Either end of the spectrum and here I am in the middle. I think I’ve felt old for so long, it’s not just a sudden thing.”
He’s not complaining and it seems like a fairly nice place to be, where Chris O’Dowd is at – enjoying life everywhere, no matter where he is.
For Chris O’Dowd’s video for Redbreast 12 and Robin Redbreast Day, visit redbreastwhiskey.com