'I always felt like I was the funny friend of girls that I fancied' - Chris O'Dowd reflects his teen years
Chris O’Dowd ambles into a café to meet me a week before he turns 39.
But by his own biological calendar, that birthday is long gone. In O’Dowd years, he’s already 52. “It’s like, ‘Am I not f**king 40 yet?’ I turned 39 when I was about 26. I feel like I’ve been very old for a very long time,” he says, squinting his close-set eyes. “I was the youngest and last kid [of five], left at home as my parents were breaking up. As a 15-year-old, I took on the behaviour of the man of the house. I was a child-man. That’s why I’ve played a lot of man-children.”
His overgrown boys have included tech slacker Roy Trenneman, his breakout role in Channel 4’s cult comedy The IT Crowd, record label jerk Ronnie in Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, and an assortment of oafs (not least a bad boyfriend in Girls). But since his turn in Bridesmaids in 2011, O’Dowd has become a regular in Apatow’s Hollywood gang of everymen. It was Apatow who suggested O’Dowd for the role of his latest emotionally stunted male: Duncan, a narcissistic music nerd in the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked.
This is the first of two projects with Hornby. “I’m starting to feel like his muse,” he says chuckling, but he’s keen to dis-identify with the Hornby-esque male. “I don’t have the arrested development of his characters,” he insists. “I was brought up in a matriarchal household. My mother is a therapist, so we had mature conversations about behaviour and identity. Hornby characters believe, ‘You are what you like’. That’s increasingly part of the male psyche as we are clutching for an identity. We were told for centuries that our identity was tied up with machismo and now we are seeing that machismo has a lot of drawbacks.”
O’Dowd’s public image as the affable Irish slacker who merely stumbled into breaking America does not exactly tally with his dynamic CV. But he’s still conscious that “today’s cockerel is tomorrow’s feather duster”. On his writing desk at home in LA he keeps a photo of a “spit bucket” full of 30 half-masticated burgers for an ad he once did, to remind himself that his success is “not just a given”. He admits to suffering less from impostor syndrome than “an Irish inferiority complex. The British can be a bit snooty about Irish people, even now. They’ve seen the danger of the Irish that the Americans haven’t. Americans just see the Irish as jesters.”
It doesn’t bother him, he says, that he’s still seen as a comic actor despite a raft of dramas over the last five years. But some things do. In fact he can get quite riled, for starters, on the subject of Catholicism. In 2014, in John McDonagh’s Calvary, he played a wife-beating butcher wreaking vengeance on the church for being sexually abused by a priest as a boy. O’Dowd didn’t track down historical Irish victims for his research, he tells me, partly because he already knew so many. “They are not that uncommon. I know many people who priests have exposed themselves to.” He is a vehement atheist, and says the “small turn-out” for Pope Francis’s visit to Ireland in August is “the shape of things to come. For hundreds of years, the Catholic Church provided an identity for Ireland at a time that we were suppressed. The need is no longer there. So if they are going to keep f**king kids, they are in trouble.”
The state of oratory is another one of his bugbears: he once wanted to be a political speechwriter. “Theresa May is such a terrible speaker. There’s so much verbosity and such a lack of creativity. Obviously in America, it’s become so juvenile. Taking ideology out of it, the conversation is dumbing because it’s so poor in its execution.” And Brexit: “Increasingly I’m like, ‘F**k the People. F**k you, if you didn’t get that they were lying to you’. It’s like a clown told me a story and I chose to believe it… It’s such a low ebb of human civilisation, a really dangerous time for Anglo-Irish relations. Boris Johnson wants a bridge to Ireland? What’s that going to solve?” Suddenly he stops, worried about moaning.
O’Dowd was born in Boyle, Co Roscommon, to Sean, a graphic designer, and psychotherapist Denise. He was left to the tyranny of his three sisters at 11, after his older brother left home. They amused themselves by painting make-up on their sleeping brother before sending him to school. As a survival mechanism O’Dowd developed a “big personality” in tandem with his fast-growing body. “I was 6ft tall by the time I was 11. I was a looming, towering figure of ridicule”. He played Gaelic football for the county. But, he says, he was never a “Jack the lad”.
By 13, he was already helping raise his 17-year-old sister’s baby. “I always felt like I was the funny friend of girls that I fancied. I found a position of comfort in that.”
By his own account, O’Dowd stumbled into acting after he accompanied a friend to an audition at University College Dublin, where he was studying politics and sociology. He paid his way through drama school with hod-carrying: “It was a very odd time: I’d get up at 5am to work on a building site, then go to a flamenco f**king class.”
There followed breaks in theatre, Vera Drake (2004) and a three-year stint on Irish drama The Clinic. But it was his role in The Festival in 2005 that brought him to the attention of Graham Linehan, who was casting for The IT Crowd.
Since the series began in 2006, the image of “techies” has gone from basement to virtual rock stars. “Our perception of what IT guys are has changed from Bill Gates to Elon Musk.” He’s not entirely sorry that Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have been “getting their comeuppance” recently. “I just think that it’s odd that people who seem so socially stunted have got so much control over our lives.” In 2009 he took a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, where he stumbled upon the “naturalistic” comedy creator Judd Apatow backstage at a Louis CK gig. “I said, ‘F**k me, that’s Judd Apatow. I think he’s the reason I came over here.”
The other life-altering encounter in Los Angeles was with Scottish TV presenter and writer Dawn Porter; she changed her name to O’Porter when they married in 2012. There were only brief bachelor days before then, with co-star Jason Segel as his wingman. They once tried to pull the same girl with “verbatim the same text. It said, ‘Why don’t you swing over and we’ll pop open a bottle of vino on the deck’. We’d been hanging out and drinking a lot, so we must have started sharing a vernacular.”
Segel is godfather to O’Dowd’s first son Art, three, brother of one-year-old Valentine, and is a regular at the O’Porter’s weekly Sunday roasts for 20 in West Hollywood. O’Dowd has little tolerance for British cliches about LA. “People think that everyone in LA lives in Beverly Hills and has surgery. It’s the same as when Americans talk about the British as if everybody knows the Queen.”
He’s currently in pre-production for Hornby’s State of the Union, a TV series co-starring Rosamund Pike, following a couple in marriage counselling.
He was reminded of the salad days of his own marriage while unpacking boxes at their new London home. “We found some tea towels printed with a picture of us dressed as bridezillas for Halloween, and Paul Newman’s saying, ‘Keep the arguments clean and the sex dirty’. Now everything else is dirty.” Perhaps, despite two kids, Hollywood stardom and twinkling charm, O’Dowd is discovering you can’t have everything.
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