Credit: Richard Phibbs

You recognize him from Bridesmaids, The IT Crowd, Family Tree, Girls and plenty more, but Irish comic Chris O’Dowd has switched gears for his latest role.

He’s playing Lennie, the gentle half of a pair of migrant ranch workers who lead John Steinbeck’s classic Depression-era novella Of Mice and Men. In the newest Broadway revival of the play, O’Dowd makes his Broadway debut opposite James Franco (as the pragmatic George) and Leighton Meester (as a seductive, nameless flirt) in the Anna D. Shapiro-directed production, which opens April 16 at the Longacre Theatre.

Above, check out an exclusive first look at one of the most famous scenes in the play, wherein Lennie and Curley’s wife share a fateful moment in a barn loft. Below, O’Dowd chats with EW about the nerves behind his Broadway debut and how he clicked with Franco and Meester.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did your first preview performance compare to your expectations?

CHRIS O’DOWD: The day before, we had done a dress rehearsal which was the first time we had really run it properly, but it was just in front of a few family, friends, things like that. So there was a very generous crowd. We didn’t know how it was going to go down, and I think once an audience starts paying to see you, it’s a whole responsibility, a duty of care that you have.

Were you surprised at how nervous—or not nervous—you were?

I was surprised. I think we were all nervous going on, and I think that’s right. I think that you should be a bit nervous, otherwise I’m not sure it’s got quite the right energy. But, I would say I was amazed by how quickly it all just kind of came together. Once we got out there, it just felt like this is where we’re supposed to be, which is a great feeling when you’re onstage.

Take me into your headspace before each show. How do you get into Lennie?

For me, a lot of it is about the physicality. It’s a very physical character, and I think the way that he looks and the way he moves almost defines him as a person, so I’ll make a point to be on stage before the audience comes in and walk around a lot. I actually walk to work in the style of Lennie. That just helps me to find a slightly different center of gravity, and then I’ll put on some bluegrass music when I get into my dressing room, and I’ll work the first scene in my head and if James is around I’ll do it with him. Just to get those first few words in is kind of important.

It’s been a while since you’ve dusted off the skill set from your stage background.

I haven’t done a play in maybe five years, which feels like a long time, so it’s definitely a bit rusty and my voice is still getting used to making those sounds every night. It is a different kind of landscape, but it’s great.

You and James Franco had never worked together before, but it seems like your chemistry was instant.

I had a feeling that I would really like him, just because we have mutual friends and they had spoken highly of him and suggested I would get on well with him, and that has proven to be the case. We just hit it off, and I have a lot of respect for him as an actor and an artist, so you want it to work instantly. We have a similar kind of sensibility about stuff, but we have different styles that work and complement each other on stage, I hope.

One of the things your director Anna D. Shapiro has talked about is the humor you brought to the pairing. Where did that humor come from?

I feel like that was my doing. Why I wanted to do with this play, and perhaps what I’m trivializing is that I feel with Of Mice and Men, I wonder sometimes why George is with Lennie. I can think of loads of reasons why Lennie is with George, because he takes care of him and stops him from being dead, probably. But I’ve never really quite understood the reverse, and I thought it was my duty to make George enjoy Lennie’s company, and that made my job to try and make George laugh, and to try and warm him up, so it’s not just a kind of paternal relationship, it’s like a fraternal relationship. I feel like we’ve done a good job of that. There will be scenes, I hope, when people will watch it, and that’s the feedback that we’ve got so far, that you understand why these people hang out, and I feel like the comedy is a big part of that. If you feel like people are enjoying themselves, you understand why they’re living their lives the way they are.

You’re primarily known around town for comedy. What pressure are you feeling as you step into an iconic role like this?

I have to say, people come in with expectations. I’ve never seen a production of the play and I haven’t seen the film, so I feel a little bit unburdened by that, if that makes sense. I don’t have any idea how to “do it right.” [Laughs] I’ve never seen anybody do it so I don’t know what I’m doing is wrong, it’s only through instinct that I know if I’m doing it wrong. I don’t feel the pressure in that sense. I know that people come to it with a lot of expectation, but so far, we’ve only had audiences that have been amazing. I’m sure it’s because of James, but our audience is so much younger than the average kind of Broadway audience, which is great because the whole idea is that we bring these classic pieces to an audience that hasn’t seen them before. But I guess in a roundabout way, what I mean by that is, I don’t feel a huge amount of pressure, but I do feel like a huge amount of the audience don’t have the expectations that an older audience would. I feel very lucky.

That’s got to be a great feeling.

There’s an expectation definitely. It’s so great that I get to play a character that’s a truly great character. 99 percent of the characters that we play are only slightly interesting.

How did you find your chemistry with Leighton Meester?

We got on really well, almost from the get-go. Our first day of work together, we were in Chicago and I took her drinking. I thought that was important. That’s how I like to start all of my relationships. So, I brought her to Second City and we just hung out. She’s a great girl and really smart and very funny, and she’s doing a great job in the role. We have fun every night.

Do you ever have to apologize off stage for—

Killing her? [Laughs] Well, you know, there’s that weird thing where I have to… it’s so odd, but it’s quite a physical thing that happens, obviously, and I have to leave her, and I’m never 100% sure that she’s not actually dead.

A mark of great acting.

Exactly. A friend of mine came to the show the other night and they said they were genuinely concerned, which was great. They thought that something had gone wrong…which is kind of exciting!

Of Mice and Men opens April 16 at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre.

Of Mice and Men
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