After The Sapphires came out, Jack Coyle at The Huffington Post compared you to Bill Murray, in the 70s for enlivening the film “with your winning charisma.” And I wondered how you felt about that comparison. I read that Murray is one of your icons of comedy and that you just worked with him this last summer on St. Vincent de Van Nuys.
Wow. I’ll take that! Yea he is, he’s one of my heroes. And I did. I briefly worked with him this summer and he was just the most charming and lovely man. So that just solidified him in my books as a cool dude. It’s a lovely comparison, of course I’ll take that all day, but I don’t know necessarily if it’s true. I’ve got a long, long way to go yet.
Who are some of your other inspirations for acting and how did you get started in the industry?
In terms of other people that I really enjoy watching, one of my heroes would be John C. Reilly. I feel like I could just watch him do anything. Philip Seymour Hoffman was a big hero of mine. Those guys were pretty great, and then you know someone like Will Ferrell who’s so consistently funny.
I went to university and while I was studying I joined the drama society and started doing plays there. Essentially, I stopped being part of the “yearly facility,” as it were, [and only] did maybe two or three plays there a month. It was a great way to just get used to it. You did dozens of plays and they’re not necessarily the greatest quality, but you really get so much stage time and you get your confidence. Then I went to drama school in London. I went to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts and that was more of a traditional, almost like Shakespearian teaching. And I guess I thought of myself as a dramatic actor then, so the fact that I went into comedy was a surprise. I had three or four jobs that were dramatic and I just didn’t see comedy as a realistic thing that I could achieve or an option. But I’m glad that it was.
What was the catalyst for the shift from perceiving yourself as a dramatic actor to a comedian?
I played a comedian in a film called Festival. And it was a comedy but it was a relatively dramatic role; there was a lot going on. He was an alcoholic comedian who wins an award at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival and I ended up winning a BAFTA in Scotland for it and then I got a lot more comedy roles from that. “The IT Crowd” came from that, and sitcom is the purest kind of comedy you can do. It’s such a set-up-and-joke scenario. There’s no room for interpretation – what you’re doing is trying to make people laugh. That’s the raison d’ être of the sitcom and I love that in it’s own way because it’s its own little art form. From then on it was a lot more comedy I would get offered, and once I got into the mechanics of how comedy worked I was fascinated by it. And then I got to work with Judd [Apatow] (This Is 40), Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), Lena Dunham (“Girls”), and all of those people over the last two years, which has been great.
What’s it like coming from a traditional acting school and going to people like Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow and Christopher Guest who really encourage improvisation? Especially for something like Guest’s “Family Tree” where the dialogue is completely improvised. Was that new to you, or did improv come naturally?
I guess it did to an extent. I hadn’t done improv on stage or anything before. I’d always done a little bit of it in some work I’d done, but not to the extent that we did in “Family Tree.” And that is quite a scary experience. But working with Lena and Judd, their scripts are already really strong so there’s definitely room to improv and those guys are so open to it, but there isn’t a huge need to do it, so the pressure isn’t as much, so you only do it if you feel like you’re going to add something to it. It’s a great scenario to do improv when it’s not totally necessary, where you’re hoping that you’ll add something to it but you’re not getting in the way. You often do it at the end of scenes and stuff so people can cut it out if it’s shit.
My last question for you: You played Gaelic football. Can you tell us a little about the athlete Chris O’Dowd?
Oh wow [laughs] yea! It’s a great sport and I still follow it. I played minor for Roscommon, actually all the ages – under 14, 16, 18, 21. And then I played in the Connaught finals and all that kind of stuff and, er, I guess I stopped playing once I really started enjoying Jamesons.
“Moone Boy” premiers April 24 in the U.S. on Hulu. Previews for Of Mice and Men begin March 19. Opening night is April 16 and the limited engagement runs through July 27 at the Longacre Theater in New York.