‘Half the town leaves, then comes back. It’s like that, in rural west of Ireland’ – Chris O’Dowd on living abroad, midlife crises and the IT Crowd
‘I don’t want to look any younger, I don’t want to give people the idea that I’m fresh in any way.’
In 2009, Chris O’Dowd bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. Back then, he was known as the dishevelled, 6ft 4in star of The IT Crowd, playing work-shy Roy “Have you tried turning it on and off again?” Trenneman. On the cusp of 30, he’d just been told that, after three series of the Channel 4 sitcom, the show’s budget was being slashed. There was a threat that the next run would be cut down from six to four episodes. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, if I’m in a really big show on TV, and I can’t really pay my rent with what that would pay, then this isn’t a system that’s sustainable for me,’” he says, sipping from a bottle of fizzy water. Just as well, then, that the flight to America changed his life. He met his future wife there. And backstage at a Louis CK gig, he bumped into slacker-comedy king Judd Apatow. O’Dowd went on to star in three of the director’s Noughties comedies – Bridesmaids, This Is 40 and Juliet, Naked – as well as Lena Dunham’s Girls, which Apatow produced. Since then, O’Dowd has appeared in more than 30 other films and TV shows – often as men in arrested development – winning a couple of Emmys and establishing himself as one of the most in-demand Irish actors in Hollywood.
And yet, “Oh yeah, the lovely policeman from Bridesmaids!” is still the most frequent response I get when people hear his name. His role as Officer Nathan Rhodes, the sweet cop who has a meet-cute with Kristen Wiig’s baker Annie when he pulls her over for a broken taillight, was the moment he broke Hollywood. “That was weird,” says O’Dowd. “Girls suddenly being interested, or not interested, but being aware of who you were, was odd. I can’t say that it was a big draw or that I made much use of it. I’m sure it would have been a very different experience if I had been single, but I think I was mostly in hiding. Thank God all those days are behind me!”
O’Dowd is surprisingly chaotic company. He yells quite a bit. He bounces up and down in a large square armchair, his long legs crossed as if he’s a kid during carpet time. He’s somewhere in America, but under strict instructions not to disclose his location, for fear of revealing a secret project. “Help!” he shrieks, at one point. I knew O’Dowd would be funny, but he’s quicker and quippier than I expected. At the start of the interview, I tell him something has happened to Zoom, and he’s gone from appearing tiny on my screen to suddenly very large. “Story of my life. Too big or too small,” he says, not missing a beat.
The 43-year-old actor is on the line from his mystery location to speak about his new Apple TV Plus dramedy, The Big Door Prize. Adapted from the novel by the Louisiana-born writer MO Walsh, it tells the story of a small town that is forever changed when a mysterious “Morpho” machine appears in the local grocery store. For the same price as a cup of coffee, the glowing blue contraption promises to tell residents their “true life potential”. One shopkeeper is told he was meant to be a magician; a designer discovers she was destined for royalty. Everyone wants to try it – but not O’Dowd’s Dusty, a history teacher who turns 40 on the day the machine lands in his town. He may have no discernible talents apart from whistling and he’s only ever been in one relationship, but he tells himself he’s happy, and he doesn’t need a machine to tell him how to live his life. Eventually though, he cracks. What follows is a meditation on midlife crises and regrets, and the search for purpose and validation.
It wasn’t the biggest leap for O’Dowd. He’s feeling very 43. “I’m at this stage with my teeth where I’m really close to just leaving it up to science,” he admits, in a discussion about whether fizzy water erodes your teeth. “One is moving out towards this way,” he says, gesturing to the left of his face. “I need a root canal I think over here. I’m gonna give it another three to four years and then just say, ‘Take them out, baby, and give me what you got, science. Let’s build the most realistic face we can together!’” He is bellowing. “I don’t want to look any younger, I don’t want to give people the idea that I’m fresh in any way.” Dusty, he says, “is the cynic of the show, and he has that slightly flustered George Costanza, trying-to-work-out-how-TikTok-works-kind-of-energy that I feel like I can bring.” He drops in this reference to the Seinfeld character like a US native. Later in our conversation, he mistakes the social media app BeReal for a hashtag.
The Big Door Prize premiered on Wednesday, just eight weeks after O’Dowd’s good friend Jason Segel released his own Apple TV Plus midlife-crisis comedy, Shrinking. They met on the set of Gulliver’s Travels in 2010, and have been close ever since. Could O’Dowd have foreseen them both going on to do shows like these at the same time? “We definitely seemed like exactly the kind of people who would have midlife crises,” he says. “So I wouldn’t be f***ing shocked!”
In The Big Door Prize, Dusty’s marriage to his wife Cassie (Gabrielle Dennis) is in trouble. O’Dowd’s got previous in this department: he and Rosamund Pike both won Emmys for their portrayal, in 2019 BBC drama State of the Union, of a couple who meet at a pub each week before their marital therapy session. O’Dowd, who’s been married to Scottish-born TV presenter and writer Dawn O’Porter for 11 years and shares two sons with her, says his new show demonstrates how important it is for long-term partners to check in with each other. “With Dusty and Cass, it’s really interesting,” he says, “there’s a moment where he asks her a really simple question that he would never have thought to ask before. He just says, ‘Are you happy?’ And it takes her so long to answer that you already know things are f***ed. If it’s not dismissed, then it means that she’s thinking about it, and then he starts thinking about it.”
O’Porter, who popped the “O” on the front of her surname when she married O’Dowd, is apparently very laid back about her husband’s intimacy scenes. “I’ve always been shocked by how little she seems to give a s***,” he says, erupting into laughter. “I’m not saying I want her to be jealous, but you know…” His wife always meets his co-stars, and he wonders aloud if that makes it easier for her. “Anyway, I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to bother her at all. Genuinely. Not. At. All.” The laughter returns.
He seems very loved up. On Instagram and Twitter, alongside pictures of his “proper handsome bastard” of a dog, he shares screenshots of funny texts from O’Porter and loving Mother’s Day tributes to her. “All in all… an absolute hoot. Love you in my bones,” he posted on their 10th anniversary.
The week we speak, he’s been tweeting about Gary Lineker’s BBC impartiality row. “Always worth remembering that their ‘absolute’ aim is to make you hate the BBC,” he wrote of the Conservative government, “so they can manipulate public apathy into a workable path to privatisation. It’s working 100 per cent so far. In football terms, the current situ is s****y ownership. Don’t jettison your club. Once it’s gone…” (O’Dowd is a supporter of Liverpool FC, a club almost as widely loved as the BBC.) He is very animated on the topic of BBC impartiality when I raise it. “Gary should be allowed free speech, and it’s been proven time and time again that it wasn’t even against their own code of ethics, so him being suspended is f***ing ludicrous,” he tells me. “But the fact that it’s been turned into such a circus is much more fascinating, because that’s deliberate. [The Tories] are wanting to absolutely defund the BBC as much as they can, they’re wanting to turn people against it, and they’re using this because they think it will work… and it probably will in the long term.” Of course, it was the BBC bosses themselves who suspended Lineker, but it opened a can of worms about the political influence of the government on the corporation, with Tory donor Richard Sharp as chair and former Conservative Party candidate Tim Davie as director general.
“I really don’t want to get into a big political interview,” O’Dowd says, “but the way the current government in Britain is behaving towards refugees is very worrying, and I think it’s absolutely correct that people in the public eye, especially people like Gary who is such a flagship for the BBC, should say something about it. These aren’t normal times. This is very unusual behaviour on behalf of the government, not on behalf of the f***ing sports presenter.”
We should all get together and do an ‘IT Crowd’ special
While he has strong views on the Tories and the BBC, he is slightly more on the fence when it comes to controversies surrounding the show that made his name: The IT Crowd. The scruffy comedy, about a ragtag team of IT workers played by O’Dowd, Richard Ayoade and Katherine Parkinson ran for four series on Channel 4 from 2006 to 2010. It had – and still has – a cult following, but it made headlines a couple of years ago when a 2008 episode was removed from All4 over accusations of transphobia. Its creator Graham Linehan, who was also behind adored sitcoms Father Ted and Black Books, has made repeated, online attacks against the trans rights movement in recent years.
When I raise the issue of the axed episode, and of Linehan’s views, O’Dowd leaves his seat, and the frame, to get another bottle of fizzy water. After a few seconds, he returns. “I’m not going to get into the views of the writer, because you should ask him, but in terms of the episode, I’ll be honest with you – I can’t remember it very well at all,” he says. “It was 15 years ago and I barely watch the stuff, let alone rewatch any of it. I didn’t feel connected to that storyline because I wasn’t in it, so I would never have had a conversation about it, and I don’t remember there being any controversy at the time. Like at all. It must have been at least five, six years later until anybody even brought it up again. So, in terms of being controversial, that hasn’t been part of my life. I hear that they took it off. Grand. I couldn’t give a toss if I’m honest, if it’s really offending people, you know, then absolutely, why not? But in terms of the rest of it, I don’t know, I think it’s up to people to make up their own minds.”
Of his co-stars, he says he has “so much love for” Ayoade, and that he and O’Porter have dinner with the actor and his wife, the actor Lydia Fox, whenever he’s in London. He says he hasn’t seen Parkinson in a few years but that he hangs out with Noel Fielding a bit more often because their partners are also friends. “I’d love to see them all, we should all get together and do a special or something,” he says.
It could happen – O’Dowd and O’Porter, who split their time between California and the UK with the boys, are in the early stages of “slowly moving back to London”. Part of the appeal is it would mean O’Dowd would be able to spend more time in Ireland. He grew up in Boyle, a small but busy town at the foot of Ireland’s Curlew Mountains. He is one of five and was terrorised, in a loving way, by his older sisters after his older brother left home. “My sisters are the absolute best, and I genuinely credit much of the success I’ve had by where I came in the family,” he says. “I read that the percentage of actors who are the youngest in the clan is disproportionately high. Wildly so. While I’m sure the ‘thirst for attention’ is a big factor, I also think it’s probably healthy for people who portray people to have spent the first few years of their lives as observers, watching people.” In his teens, he was big into Gaelic football, and was a goalie for the Roscommon team (the equivalent of playing for a Premier League club like Leicester City). He went on to study politics and sociology at University College Dublin, before ditching that and moving to the UK aged 20 to attend Lamda (the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art).
“It has occurred to me that I’ve been an immigrant now for way longer than I was at home, so you do feel like you’re living out of a suitcase at different periods in your life,” he says. “I’ve seen that happen so often that I could kind of characterise that as a default, you know, I’ve had so many uncles and aunts and cousins who’ve left. Half the town leaves, and then comes back. It’s like that, when you’re from a rural west of Ireland place.” He chuckles. “That made it all sound very much like ‘Hotel California’. ‘You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.’”
O’Dowd has been blown away by the recent boom in Ireland’s TV and film industry, from success stories such as Bad Sisters and Derry Girls to Oscar nominees The Banshees of Inisherin and The Quiet Girl. “The legwork of so many is bearing fruit and I couldn’t be prouder,” he says. “On a personal, selfish level, I love seeing young actors coming through, knowing they’ll need someone to play their disapproving father or conman uncle…” He can’t resist one last quip for the road. “I have the costumes and expressions ready and waiting, in storage.”
‘The Big Door Prize’ is out now on Apple TV Plus