The phrase ”bounding into a room” gets thrown around a lot. But what does it look like, exactly? On a recent rainy afternoon, Chris O’Dowd shows us as he arrives at a restaurant in New York City’s East Village. There’s a downright Tigger-like bounce to his step, a swing in his arms, and an instant warmth to his grin as he tucks his lanky 6-foot-3-inch body behind a too-small-for-tall-people bistro table. His Irish brogue is loud and cheery, and turns a few heads. ”Is that the guy from Girls?” whispers a thirtysomething man a few tables over. Yes, the 33-year-old actor played the ill-fated husband of Jessa (Jemima Kirke) for five episodes of the HBO series. But you might also recognize him from 2011’s hit Bridesmaids, in which he played sweet Officer Rhodes, love interest to Kristen Wiig’s hapless baker. Or from last year’s Friends With Kids, in which he played a flustered dad. Or perhaps, if you’re a fan of culty British television, you know him as the laid-back Roy from the series The IT Crowd, which launched his career.
But if you’re still not sure how to place him, don’t worry — you’re about to see quite a bit more of him. The actor currently stars as the hard-drinking but lovable manager of an aboriginal all-girl singing group in 1960s Australia in The Sapphires (rated PG-13, see review on page 59), a feel-good indie that roused a jaded Cannes crowd to a lengthy standing ovation during last year’s festival. He’ll also star on the highly anticipated Family Tree, an HBO series from improvisational-comedy giant Christopher Guest (Best in Show) that debuts May 12. To say that O’Dowd’s won over the comedic upper echelon in Hollywood is a bit of an understatement. ”He’s amazing in the show,” says Guest. ”It’s crazy! It’s just beyond anything I could have imagined. He has this ability to not only be a funny person and improvise well, but people care about him, and he’s so sweet. It’s a combination of [qualities] that’s pretty rare.”
Judd Apatow, who worked with O’Dowd on Bridesmaids, Girls, and last December’s This Is 40, agrees. ”People keep asking me to describe Chris and his appeal, and I find it impossible,” Apatow writes in an email. ”He is too many things at the same time. He’s funny and dramatic. Dashing and a cad. Warm and dangerous. He’s great on script but can also improv his ass off. He can’t be defined because he does so much really well.”
Bridesmaids director Paul Feig puts it more simply: ”Chris O’Dowd is one of those guys I’d watch read the phone book.”
O’Dowd looks both pleased and abashed when told of such high praise. ”Oh, no, they didn’t! Oh, they’re all liars,” he says before breaking into another happy grin.
O’Dowd was raised in Boyle, Ireland, the youngest of five children. He was close to his family, and remains so, despite the teasing he received growing up. ”I didn’t get beat up as much as ridiculed and embarrassed,” he says over a panini and Bloody Mary. His older sisters liked to dress him up in their clothes, and he in turn developed crushes on their friends, ones he deemed unattainable as a six-foot-tall 11-year-old. ”I was a weird-looking creature,” he says. ”I’m just glad that I stopped growing. There was a moment where I thought I’d have to live in a special house. I didn’t want to be the guy who had to have shoes made.”
He discovered acting on a lark. During his first year studying politics at University College Dublin, a friend asked him to come along on an audition, for support. ”To be honest, I’d had a couple of drinks,” O’Dowd says. Before he knew it, he was cast. ”I loved it. I really threw myself into it.” He spent the rest of his days at college producing plays, a time-consuming pursuit that he blames for his failure to graduate. Next came drama school in London (”I never graduated that, either”). Then he slowly began booking roles — and after he nabbed the role of tech-support worker Roy on the popular British sitcom The IT Crowd, which ran from 2006 to 2010, people in Hollywood took notice.
Happily, one of them was Feig. When the director was casting Bridesmaids, O’Dowd came in for an audition and Feig recognized him at once. ”I lost my mind,” Feig says. ”Everyone else was like, ‘Who’s that?’ I fawned over him.” O’Dowd read for the part of Rhodes with an American accent. But the director, used to hearing O’Dowd’s natural voice on The IT Crowd, asked him to do it again in his Irish accent. ”It was just like this home run,” Feig recalls. ”There were some A-list actors I was looking at for that role” — he declines to name any names — ”but Chris was so good he blew everybody out of the water. The chemistry between him and Kristen was through the roof. When he left the room we all looked at each other and went, ‘That’s the guy.”’
O’Dowd remembers it differently. ”I was sitting outside, and there was this sign-in sheet so I could see all these f—ing names ahead of me, and I thought, ‘Well, this is a waste of time,”’ he says, laughing. ”There were some really good people. So I thought, ‘I just want to make sure that it goes well enough that if something small comes up in another film that maybe they’ll think about me for it.’ That was the height of my ambition going in.”
We all know what happened next. Bridesmaids became a monster hit, grossing nearly $300 million worldwide. ”It was” — he snaps his fingers — ”this instant thing…. It changed everything.” (Even his then girlfriend, Dawn Porter, whom he married last August, was impressed. He recalls her turning to him and saying, ”That’s the best movie I’ve ever seen.”)
In the immediate wake of Bridesmaids‘ success, O’Dowd realized two things: He wanted to write something personal, and he wanted to sign on to another film before heightened expectations got the better of him. So he began working on Moone Boy, a British TV show shot in his Irish hometown — occasionally in his mother’s own house — that he writes, directs, and stars on (he hopes it will eventually become available in the U.S. on Hulu). Then came The Sapphires. Director Wayne Blair saw Bridesmaids in its first week and knew he’d found the perfect actor for his fact-based drama about an aboriginal version of the Supremes who embark on a concert tour for U.S. troops in Vietnam. ”I walked out of the theater and started ringing every producer,” says Blair. Soon after, O’Dowd was Down Under playing the group’s manager. ”I’m much more comfortable on a small set ’cause I’m used to it,” O’Dowd says. ”And Australians and Irish are similar, particularly aboriginals. We’ve been oppressed by the same group of people, you know, so we get to bitch about them a lot. That’s fun.”
The Irishman’s invasion has only just begun. He’s already wrapped Calvary, in which he plays a butcher opposite Brendan Gleeson’s well-intentioned priest, and Cuban Fury, a comedy about competitive salsa dancing featuring Rashida Jones. And he’s hoping that the cameo he filmed for Thor 2 makes the final cut. ”I figure I’ll never [otherwise] be in a superhero movie,” O’Dowd says. ”I don’t know what I’m allowed to say, but essentially I go on a date with Natalie Portman. That was the sell, and that’s all I needed to know.”
But his biggest shot at fame might be Family Tree. He stars as a recently dumped, unemployed man who traces his genealogical roots after inheriting a mysterious box of items from a great-aunt. ”It’s loosely based on my own experience looking into old boxes that my dad left when he died,” Guest explains.
As with all of Guest’s work, there’s no script — something not every actor is equipped to handle. ”It’s terrifying,” admits O’Dowd. ”I come from a sitcom background, so I’m used to ‘What’s the quickest passage to a punchline?’ This is something else entirely. It’s almost like suppressing the urge to be funny a lot while also constantly trying to be funny. It’s tricky.” According to Guest, the actor needn’t have worried. ”I just got a sense from talking to Chris that he could do it,” Guest says. ”And he does it as well as anyone I’ve ever known — and I’ve been doing this myself for a long time.”
It’s not always easy juggling multiple projects around the globe. O’Dowd often finds himself away from the London home he shares with his documentarian/writer wife, who now goes by the name Dawn O’Porter, and their dog, a rescue Jack Russell mix. ”I try to think about what will things be like when we have kids and all that,” he says of his packed multicity schedule. He smiles and stretches out his long legs. ”But I’m having such a nice time. I’m just trying to make hay while the sun shines.”