If you’re standing on a Hollywood film set playing opposite Jack Black, you might be tempted to conclude you’ve made it as an actor. But not Chris O’Dowd. The 29-year-old from Boyle, Co. Roscommon has an Irishman’s caution about counting his chickens.
“I’ve seen so many actors on top of the world fall off a week or two later,” he tells the Irish Voice. “It’s a practical thing. I think you’re only as good as your next project so I won’t be patting myself on the back just yet, you know?”
But he has every right to be pleased with himself, nonetheless. O’Dowd recently won the role of Edward Edwardian, the English-sounding military leader of the Lilliputians in the film version of Gulliver’s Travels.
The film, a knock-about comedy on an epic scale, is currently being shot in London. O’Dowd plays Black’s main rival and arch nemesis. In a bit of casting that Jonathan Swift might have appreciated, it’s the Irishman who’s the villain of the piece.
“In Gulliver’s Travels I play the military commander of the Lilliputians (the nation of six inch people that Gulliver towers over). He’s a comedy baddy engaged to a princess (played by Emily Blunt) and he tries to kill Gulliver (played by Black). A lot of mayhem ensues.”
O’Dowd admits he’s completely wowed by the epic scale of the big-budget Hollywood film.
“It’s a very big set and it’s filled with a very fun group of people. But there’s also a lot of freedom in it creatively and I’m having huge fun making it. Being this sort of posh prancing English style of commander barking orders and running around is about as much fun as you’d imagine,” he says.
Part of O’Dowd’s appeal is his unlikely sex symbol status. Although there’s no doubt that O’Dowd is very good looking, he’s still very approachable, and not at all the kind of humorless alpha male Irish actor type more commonly plastered all over a Hugo Boss commercial, say. There’s even an online group now, the O’Dowdles, who spend all their free time enumerating his charms.
Asked if he thinks he’ll become the next Colin Farrell or Jonathan Rhys Meyers he sighs and says, “I will need sharper cheekbones.”
None of the romantic attention seems to have gone to O’Dowd’s head at all. Partly it’s because of his decidedly unglamorous origins. Boyle, Co. Roscommon is about as far from the bright lights as it’s possible to get and O’Dowd, the youngest of five brothers and sisters, was actually on a fast track to a life in Irish politics long before the silver screen ever called him.
To hear him tell it though, all he did was simply trade in one kind of show business for another.
Says O’Dowd, “I was a student in University College Dublin studying politics and I planned to become a political speech writer. But somehow along the way I discovered the UCD Drama Society and I discovered I could have huge fun prattling around a stage.
“I got really into it. Eventually I decided that I liked it so much I applied to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) to study acting.”
O’Dowd’s typically cautious Irish parents insisted that he first finish his UCD politics degree before making a go of the acting life, but they were totally supportive of his choice from day one, and he’s deeply grateful to them.
“They loved the idea of me becoming an actor and they were always completely behind the whole thing,” he says.
“I think seeing me in a few shows helped. I was in a touring production of The Playboy of the Western World around Ireland and they came to see me in that and in other productions. That let them know I was serious.”
After leaving LAMDA, O’Dowd worked in a series of temp jobs in London as he struggled to find his big break. Picking up theater work, he befriended British actor Richard Ayoade, who suggested him to casting agents for a new series on British television, and it turned out that two would be become famous at the same time on the same show.
When Graham Linehan, the eccentric Irish genius behind the anarchic comedy show Father Ted, was looking for a young actor for his new comedy The IT Crowd he thought of O’Dowd himself.
“He had seen me in a little cameo in Vera Drake, the Mike Leigh film, and although I had a tiny part he remembered it,” says O’Dowd.
“I didn’t know Graham, I’d never met him before but of course I knew his work, and I liked the grumpy IT technician character he created.”
In the role, film directors discovered he was a natural in both comedy and drama, and that versatility got him noticed right away for larger projects.
O’Dowd’s transition from the small screen to the silver screen happened remarkably quickly. This year he’ll be seen in the highly anticipated The Boat That Rocked, which charts the rise of pirate radio station Radio Caroline, a rock station based on an offshore boat that beat the strict licensing laws of the sixties by remaining far from land.
Co-starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Kenneth Branagh, who are widely considered to be two of the finest actors in the world, just to find himself among the cast is a vote of confidence in the emerging Irish actor.
This year O’Dowd will also be seen in another sixties based comedy called Hippie Hippie Shake, co-starring Cillian Murphy. The film charts the countercultural publishing industry scene of the sixties, and it takes us on a wild ride through the tumultuous decade.
Naturally funny, and a much more subtle actor than many of his contemporaries, the range of roles O’Dowd is winning is positioning him as both a serious and comedic lead actor.
Says O’Dowd, “This week I’m spending all my time trying to kill Jack Black. My character works closely with Jason Segel to bump him off. It’s mad fun really.”
Things are going well for O’Dowd and he sounds on top of the world, but you can also hear how hard he’s working – three films in one year and in July he’ll star on the West End in Under The Blue Sky, a play by David Eldridge.
Even as our interview concludes the costume department are knocking loudly on his dressing room door to call him back to the set of Gulliver’s Travels to shoot pick up scenes. It doesn’t leave him with much time to catch his breath.
Says O’Dowd, “I get over to Ireland every six weeks or so to see the family and hang out at home. I’m the youngest in the family and all the older ones are having babies now, so it seems like I’m always coming home for all the main religious festivals and christenings.
“It’s like the one time I get to relax now. But I can’t complain, I’m being paid well and the work is fun. Working on this scale is something I have to say I enjoy.”
And if all else fails he knows he can still fall back on his Irish politics degree from UCD.
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