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Jemima Kirke and Chris O’Dowd in a scene from HBO’s Girls. Photo by: HBO

Hollywood star Chris O’Dowd talks about 'Sapphires', his role in HBO’s 'Girls' and the meaning of St. Patrick’s Day

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Jemima Kirke and Chris O’Dowd in a scene from HBO’s Girls. Photo by: HBO

Chris O’Dowd is on the line with the Irish Voice from the New York hotel room that he’s just stepped into for the first time moments ago. An hour earlier his plane touched down at JFK. It’s going to be a busy week for the Irish star best known in these parts for his breakout role in the comedy smash Bridesmaids.

First up there’s his attendance at the American Ireland Fund Young Leaders party on Thursday, where he’ll receive the Spirit of Ireland Award.  Then he will attend the U.S. premiere of his latest film, The Sapphires, the sixties girl group movie that received a 10-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

Having just arrived in New York on Monday, it seems appropriate to congratulate him on being presented with the Spirit Award. “Thank you very much.  I’m feeling very honored,” he said.

Asked what the evening will hold, Roscommon native O’Dowd admits he doesn’t know. 

“Not a clue. I presume the night will entail some kind of a dinner, and I’m hoping there will be some kind of hula dancers. In the traditional Irish way.” 

In The Sapphires, which was written, directed and stars a cast and crew of indigenous Australians, O’Dowd, 33, plays a down on his luck Irish music promoter who takes his all-girl group on a trip to stardom. In the film his being Irish is another interesting layer of an already compelling character.

“The Irish diaspora, compared to its size, still feels like un-mined territory around the world. I love playing Irish characters that just turn up in places and aren’t necessarily explained,” O’Dowd says.

“We all know that we’re everywhere.  We’re the most traveled nation of people, so it never seems incongruous to me.” 

You see Irish bars in Kuwait, O Dowd explains, and no one thinks anything of it. “My sister used to work in an Irish bar in Abu Dhabi. I think that’s a very funny sentence,” the comic admits.

O’Dowd’s character in The Sapphires was originally written as an English guy, with no real reason for it, he says. 

“When I came on board we made him Irish because it felt like they’d find connection. In that time the Aboriginal struggle was at a similar stage to the Irish struggle, and so they become friends from having a common enemy. That made sense that he was Irish, and I enjoyed that aspect of it,” says O’Dowd.

At the festival screening of the film in Cannes O’Dowd got dressed up because the legendary producer Harvey Weinstein, who bought the rights to The Sapphires, had told him that at Cannes you wear a tie.

But O’Dowd is also Irish, which means unpardonably casual, and when he heard the opening bars of “Soul Man” playing on the red carpet he did what many Irish men have done before him -- he began to dance.  

“I was dressed really well and suddenly I felt so uncouth. The head of the festival came over and barked at me, ‘Stop that! This is Cannes!,’” O’Dowd recalled.

“I kind of thought for a minute that he was joking but then I thought, ‘Oh no – there’s no joke happening here. He does not appreciate my moves.’”

O’Dowd confesses he was thrilled with the dramatic audience response to the film. But it didn’t end there. 

“As happy as I was for myself, it was much touching because it is such a distinctly Aboriginal story, and I was sitting there with the director, the cast and the photographer, who are all indigenous Australians, and they were just so moved. It was beautiful actually,” he says.

Meanwhile, O’Dowd has a starring role opposite Brendan Gleeson in Calvary, the highly anticipated new Irish film from director John Michael McDonough, the talent behind The Guard. 

“I can’t really talk about it,” he says. “I mean I’d be happy to but the more that anybody talks about that thing, it will give it away and ruin it. It’s going to be great and Brendan Gleeson’s fantastic in it.”

O’Dowd has also delighted audiences in his turn in HBO’s Girls, the show that has become a cultural phenomenon. 

“Lena Dunham asked me to come and do one episode which was where I try and have a threesome with the two girls and it’s not very successful,” he says.

“The show was fun and I had a good time on it and I think they were happy with what I did because they asked me to come back.”

But O’Dowd explains he was a little worried because he wondered what his character, Thomas-John, could do after ruining things so gloriously.

“And Lena being Lena said, ‘Well, we’re going to have you marry one of the girls.’  I went back and did another four or five episodes and I imagine that would be it now,” he says. (His character had a quickie wedding with Jessa, played by Jemima Kirke.) 

“But after the comeback the last time you never say never. It’s a terrific show and man, it’s great writing.”

O’Dowd also turned up as an Irish guy in Judd Apatow’s recent comedy drama This Is 40. 

“I never asked Judd where he was supposed to be from,” O’Dowd reveals. “My character was some kind of a hipster. In my head he was probably a guy who had worked for a record label in London. 

“That’s not that weird, it’s in LA, and there are loads of Irish people in LA. Unless there’s a good reason not to make them Irish, I’m going with Irish.”

Meanwhile, a project that O’Dowd wants to shoot in Ireland soon involves a rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger tale. With the recession still so biting and emigration figures through the roof, he’s not sure if Irish people are ready to see the funny side of the collapse.

What’s remarkable is that O’Dowd can be a movie star all over the world and then want to nip home to film his Celtic Tiger drama. “I know, and I’m very lucky that I can do this. We’re doing this Moone Boy show that we shoot in my hometown of Boyle, Co. Roscommon and it’s a very grounding thing to do,” he says.

“I find it creatively very helpful, but also it’s a very good thing for someone like me who could get easily lost in the crazy film world in America without the ability to go home. I think it keeps the work fresher and more personal.”

The question he has about the Celtic Tiger years is, exactly how far can charm and chancing your arm get you? 

“I think it would be interesting to deal with a character like that. Who’s just a f***ing chancer. When you bring it down to brass tacks on the whole boom and bust in Ireland that’s what it comes down to,” O’Dowd says.

“That’s the problem, it’s just chancers. These guys down the country were bribing people to get planning permission, and politicians who served jail sentences came out of and prison their share of the vote goes up.”

O’Dowd, who married his long-term girlfriend, British comedian and host Dawn Porter, last year, hangs out with the brightest lights in Hollywood, but he’s keeping his focus firmly on home for two good reasons -- one, it’s a head check, and two, it’s an endless source of inspiration. 

“I think it’s true that every story is a local story,” he says. 

Asked in a parting shot if he thinks Americans understand the true meaning of St. Patrick’s Day he laughs, “Oh, I think they’ve gotten the message. It’s drunk Halloween.”

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