Chris O’Dowd has been a star in Britain for years, headlining several TV series including the hit comedy “The IT Crowd,” where he played a charmingly befuddled computer-services tech. He became the “It” man to stateside audiences (women especially) as Kristen Wiig’s love interest in the smash “Bridesmaids.” He plays a recurring role on HBO’s “Girls.”
But his debut as a bona fide film star comes with Australian musical comedy “The Sapphires.” The 33-year-old, 6-foot-3 Irishman plays the manager of an aboriginal girl group singing soul hits to U.S. troops in Vietnam. It’s already a hit Down Under and may well succeed worldwide.
The youngest of five children from the small town of Boyle, O’Dowd knew early he wanted a performing career. His home’s most famous citizen is the late Maureen O’Sullivan, who played Jane in the Johnny Weissmuller “Tarzan” films.When she was in her seventies she returned for a visit, and the town staged a parade in her honor.
“I think I was four years old when I saw this woman on a float in a parade. I thought, ‘I want a parade,’ ” he said by phone from New York City. “I’m sure the fact that I’m now in this industry is not totally coincidental.” Endowed with the famous Irish gift of gab, he is puckish, unrehearsed and prepared to spin a yarn at a moment’s notice.
“People think we’re the world’s best storytellers because of the way we tell them. Truth is, we have the best stories,” he said.
O’Dowd intended to have a career as a political speechwriter but stumbled into his university’s amateur dramatics society. He found it appealing and diverted his course to drama school in London. He spent the first five years of his career commuting between rehearsals and building sites. “I had no skills, so I was a hod carrier,” lugging bricks up and down “bloody stepladders” on his back.
His luck changed with a four-season run on “The IT Crowd.”
In 2009, coming out of a train wreck love affair, he bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. Within weeks he landed a featured role in the Jack Black retelling of “Gulliver’s Travels,” playing a pushy suitor to Lilliput’s princess. It was a colossal flop.
He auditioned for his career-making “Bridesmaids” role with no idea that he had a chance in Hades. “I was excited to meet Kristin, I thought that would be fun. And I’m a huge fan of Judd [Apatow, the producer]. What I was hoping to get out of it was maybe that in a movie where there was a smaller part they would consider me for it.”
“The Sapphires” is O’Dowd’s first turn as a film’s male lead and his first chance to rock out on-screen. Quoting novelist Roddy Doyle’s love letter to Motown, “The Commitments,” O’Dowd said, “ ‘The Irish are the blacks of Europe.’ There’s definitely some kind of parallel. Soul music is about loss, oppression, suppression. Irish people over the years have certainly undergone plenty of that.
“Soul music was huge when I was growing up,” O’Dowd continued. “I love the music in this film.”
In “The Sapphires” O’Dowd acts opposite Deborah Mailman (“Rabbit-Proof Fence”), who plays the toughest of the singing quartet, the one who’s always ready with a sharp reply for O’Dowd’s character. “She’s a favorite of mine. She’s such a quality actor. In real life she’s the sweetest person. I’ve never seen her raise a voice to anyone. It’s a testament to her skills as a performer that she can pull off a battle ax that well.”
O’Dowd is preparing the third series of “Moone Boy,” a British sitcom he shoots in his old Irish hometown. They still haven’t staged a parade for him, he noted. “What’s a guy got to do?”