Chris O’Dowd is at something of a career tipping point. Five years ago, he was ‘that guy from The IT Crowd who isn’t Moss’. Then last year Bridesmaids introduced him to international audiences as a charmingly self-effacing romantic lead. From those seeds, he’s branching out all over the place.
In the next year, the 32-year-old will appear in Judd Apatow’s mid-life crisis comedy This Is 40, act in new HBO series Family Tree by This Is Spinal Tap god Christopher Guest and this month front his first self-penned sitcom. Based on his childhood in Boyle, Ireland, Moone Boy tells of a simple child and his imaginary friend (O’Dowd) trying to make the most of life despite three scheming older sisters and the fact he’s a bit of a spacey oddball. So high is Sky’s faith in O’Dowd’s appeal that filming for the second series is already well underway.
Finding a date to actually sit down with O’Dowd proved next to impossible. The man is busy. But ShortList eventually locked him in a room for an hour to talk about sitcoms and an embarrassing encounter with Jerry Seinfeld.
Had you always planned to write a sitcom?
No. I did one of the Little Crackers for Sky [a series of Christmas-themed shorts by big-name comedy writers], and when they suggested doing a show I don’t think they ever thought I’d just continue that same story.
I think they thought we should do a comedy, probably with me playing the dad or something. But that didn’t appeal to me. I loved what we’d created and the tone of it. But they were really up for it… I’d done so much sitcom-y stuff that it hadn’t occurred to me to do one of my own. But I’m glad I did because I’ve enjoyed it so much.
Moone Boy is based on your life growing up in a small Irish town. What do your family make of you using them in the show?
I can’t imagine they’ll be upset, but at the same time I had a sister who was a little chubby when she was younger and she said to me, “Look, I don’t care about anything else but is the girl playing me chubby?” And I was like, “No… but she does have a little moustache.”
How much are the sisters in the show like your own? Did yours really force you to wear make-up?
Oh yeah, f*ck yeah. And much worse besides. There was a time when one of my sisters would pin me down and tickle me until I laughed and then the other one would spit in my mouth. We were going to put it in the show but we thought nobody would believe it. I think anybody who’s the youngest in [their] family will recognise the lengths that elder siblings will go to humiliate them.
You seem like someone who’s very laidback, but the success you have isn’t the sort of thing that just happens. Do you consider yourself ambitious?
To a big degree. You can be both. I’m 32. This should be the time in my life where things get a push on – making hay while the sun shines and all that. But yes, I definitely have a lot of things I want to do. So I’m not embarrassed or ashamed about having ambition and wanting to do things. If I wasn’t, then I’d still be working in a bar somewhere.
So where do you want to go next?
I don’t know what the next direction will be but I definitely want to keep on working hard. I feel like I’m being good at the moment. There’ll be times where I’m working on terrible pieces of sh*t with no idea what I’m doing, but now I have a clarity that if I drive myself then I could have a really good couple of years, then chill for a bit. I think I’m reaching that point where I’m sure I’ll turn people away from me because things are going well. I’m still the kind of guy who people are happy for because I’m an underdog. And that will run out really quickly.
Have you suffered a backlash yet?
Not really. But I can feel it brewing. It’s that thing of, “Is this guy in another f*cking movie?” And I think that’s inevitable. There’s just a thing with popularity where people think you’ve reached a certain point, regardless of what you’re doing. You become a target when you used to be a dart. It happens in every industry. A politician who shouts from the backbenches is a hero but as soon as he’s in [power] he’s a d*ckhead.
You were in Bridesmaids and you’re going to be in This Is 40, Judd Apatow’s next film. How do you get initiated into that gang?
I don’t know. I still auditioned for This Is 40, which was fine, and I had been working with Lena [Dunham] on that. Paul Rudd runs a record company [in the film] and we play the two employees. She’s kind of the good one and I’m the really bad one. So we got on well, then she asked me to do a part in Girls [Dunham’s HBO sitcom, which Apatow produces, arriving on Sky Atlantic HD in October]. So I don’t know how the relationship with Judd developed. I don’t think he’s ever had a plan for me. I think these jobs just came along and I made sense.
Do you feel that you’re an accepted part of that group now?
It’s a bit like being at a strange party. If you think of it as a family then I’m like a second cousin, maybe my father left under weird circumstances in the past. But it’s a very inclusive bunch of actors, so that’s been fun.
Is there any update on the planned, final specials of The IT Crowd? Do you all keep in touch?
I saw Richard [Ayoade] the other night and obviously he’s doing fantastically well. That group are just the best. [We’ve talked about doing another special], which would be great but timetable-wise it’s very tricky.
When did you realise you could do comedy?
I guess once Graham Linehan cast me in The IT Crowd I thought, “Well, I’m not terrible.” But I’m still intimidated by people I know to be funny, say Zach Galifianakis and Steve Carell. I had a little part with them in that Dinner For Schmucks film, and I went in and had a lovely time. It was a great job and I was pretty confident, then I watched them riff for three hours and I thought, “Wow, I’m way out of my league.” I feel very middle-of-the-road in certain company.
What offers do you get from fans who stop you in the street?
A lot of blowies [laughs]. I talk to a lot of people’s friends on their phones. People do not know how to use their phones. Absolutely no clue. I don’t know why they’re so eager to have their picture taken when they have no appreciation of how to use their own f*cking phone. I’m like, “I’ve got all the time in the world. No, you just read that text…” But people are very nice. I think the fact that I’m a 6ft 4in Irish guy with a beard means people aren’t necessarily going to come up and give me sh*t.
Does anyone make you feel starstruck?
Oh, for sure. Particularly when they’re people you’d never meet otherwise. I met Clint Eastwood. What the f*ck? And Jerry Seinfeld. I went to see him at The O2 and met him after. We had this really funny moment where we were having pictures taken. I’m quite a tactile person and I put my arm around him. And he said, “I don’t know if it’s necessary for a man to put his hand on another man’s waist.” So I can still manage to be terribly awkward in the presence of famous people.
Moone Boy starts on Sky 1 HD on 14 September at 9.30pm
(Image: All Star)