How a geek inherited the mirth
Irish actor Chris O'Dowd at the Cannes Film Festival to promote Australian film The Sapphires. Photo: AP
IN JANUARY 2009, Chris O'Dowd bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. By this point, he was best known for his role in the British sitcom The IT Crowd, written by Graham Linehan (Father Ted, Black Books), and had acted in a few British films of varying quality - the 2005 black comedy Festival, Richard Curtis' The Boat That Rocked and the unreleased Hippie Hippie Shake, co-starring Sienna Miller. It looked increasingly as though O'Dowd might be yet another good British actor destined to drift along in roles of middling quality. He'd also just come out of an eight-year relationship. So he took a risk. He didn't have any ''highfalutin ideas'', he says. But, hey, why not?
The road to Hollywood may be littered with the dashed hopes of British actors, but O'Dowd is not one of them. He has already done very well, starring as the leading man in last year's comedy blockbuster Bridesmaids, which grossed $300 million worldwide. And now, at 32, he is about to make it very big indeed.
''Hiya!'' O'Dowd grins, lolloping into the White Cube gallery in Bermondsey, south London, on a wet Monday morning. In jeans, a hooded sweatshirt and blazer, he looks far more stylish than he does as The IT Crowd's Roy, a hangdog IT technician whose response to every query is, ''Have you tried turning it off and on again?''
O'Dowd plays the manager of the all-girl singing group in The Sapphires.
In person he is, if not classically handsome, then definitely attractive: boyish, trim and tall. But it took the American film industry to see O'Dowd's charm. In fact, since playing the romantic lead in Bridesmaids, O'Dowd has become something of a pin-up. When the trailer to his coming film, This Is 40, was released last month, the American feminist website jezebel.com complained: ''Not nearly enough Chris O'Dowd in the preview. NEEDS MORE CHRIS O'DOWD.''
''Yeah, there have been bits of that,'' he says, embarrassed. He waits a beat. ''Which is new.''
Last month he was in Cannes promoting Australian film The Sapphires, which will screen here in August. It tells the story of four indigenous women who were plucked from country Victoria to become an Australian version of the Supremes and later entertained troops during the Vietnam War. O'Dowd plays their band manager.
Friends with Kids, which is currently screening, could almost be a sequel to Bridesmaids. Not only does it feature many of the same actors - O'Dowd, Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm - it seems to pick up where the first film left off. In Bridesmaids, O'Dowd played an unlikely love interest to Wiig's maid of honour, Annie. Made just four months later, Friends with Kids - written and directed by Jennifer Westfeldt (Kissing Jessica Stein), who also co-stars - looks at what happens after the happily-ever-after wedding (answer: you probably have kids, who will probably ruin your life, at least momentarily).
The film focuses on six friends in their mid-30s, most of whom are adjusting to becoming parents. O'Dowd and his onscreen wife (Rudolph) are great at suggesting the kind of intimacy that can come only from long-term domesticity. In one scene, she follows him into the bathroom and continues to talk at him while he pees, then washes his hands. He turns around and wipes his hands on her cardigan, while the two keep talking.
O'Dowd nearly spits out his mouthful of water when I mention that scene. ''That was probably improvised, for sure. That's just, you know, life.''
It is, in fact, about to be his life. Six months after arriving in America, O'Dowd met British TV presenter Dawn Porter, who happened to be in LA at the time. They started dating and on Boxing Day last year, while staying with Porter's family in Guernsey, O'Dowd proposed. ''Her initial response was, 'F--- off', which I thought was encouraging.'' He smiles. The wedding will be in London at the end of the northern summer.
O'Dowd, the youngest of five, grew up in Boyle, County Roscommon, in the west of Ireland. Being funny was a form of self-defence against his siblings. He studied politics and sociology at University College Dublin, but didn't finish his degree. Instead, his energies went into student drama and after university he headed off to LAMDA (the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art). He got work quickly - small jobs here and there - but it was when he was cast in The IT Crowd in 2006 that he knew his life was about to change. ''Father Ted was so big, especially in Ireland. I thought, 'Wow, the new Graham Linehan! This is going to be huge!''
And then, within three months of arriving in LA, O'Dowd was cast in a big-budget movie, Gulliver's Travels, starring Jack Black and Jason Segel. But while it was a great job for him to bag, it was not a great film, nor does it sound a particularly great experience. ''I don't know if I could do [a big-budget movie] again,'' he says. ''I kind of enjoyed the experience, but you're so not in control of it. You're the horse rather than the jockey. You're just running aimlessly at comedy.''
He was also recovering from the end of a major relationship, but found a ''kindred spirit'' in Segel. ''We spent time together being, you know, single.''
What does ''being single'' mean? ''Being awful men essentially. Waking up either alone or with someone, but still feeling lonely. That's what I remember about being single. It's not for me.'' He didn't have to be an awful man for long. A few months later, he met Porter. About a year after he and Porter started dating, he took her to a stand-up night by American comedian Louis CK. Afterwards, the pair went backstage, where O'Dowd saw a familiar face.
''That's Judd Apatow!'' he whispered excitedly.
''Who's Judd Apatow?'' Porter asked.
''He's the reason I came to LA,'' O'Dowd replied.
Soon after, he auditioned for Bridesmaids, produced by Apatow and directed by Paul Feig. ''I honestly went to this audition thinking, 'There is no way I'll get this.' I knew other people were auditioning who I'd lost out to before, so I was kinda like, ahh, f--- this.''
As it happened, Feig is a huge fan of British comedy and had seen The IT Crowd, and Apatow is known for spotting comedians, casting them again and again, and turning them into stars. Segel, Seth Rogen, Steve Carell and Paul Rudd all owe their careers to him, and O'Dowd is now firmly part of Apatow's crew.
Like most of Apatow's favoured actors, O'Dowd looks how the average guy imagines he looks, yet has enough subtle appeal to make a woman feel rather canny for fancying him. And he is naturally funny, boyish but self-deprecating, which are also key Apatow traits. O'Dowd has just finished filming This Is 40 - the sequel to Apatow's best-known film, Knocked Up - in which he plays ''a hipster with skinny jeans, an ironic moustache, all that shit''.
He has just finished shooting Moone Boy, a part-autobiographical TV series he wrote, produced and stars in alongside Steve Coogan. The show is based on his childhood in Ireland and many scenes were shot in his mother's house.
He hopes one day to return to The IT Crowd, if not for another series, then at least a special. So is he surprised by how his life has turned out? ''Oh, yeah. Ten years ago, I thought by now I'd be a reasonable jobbing actor, or I'd have given up and found out what I was supposed to do with my life.'' He waits a beat. ''But this is better.''
■ Friends with Kids is screening. The Sapphires starts on August 9.
The Sapphires will have its Australian premiere at the opening night of the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 2. Tickets for the opening night are on sale now at miff.com.au