From The Screen To Broadway: Chris O'Dowd Takes On 'Of Mice And Men'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, the Irish actor Chris O'Dowd, was introduced to a large American audience through the film "Bridesmaids," in which he co-starred as a police officer with a crush on Annie, played by Kristen Wiig.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRIDESMAIDS")
KRISTIN WIIG: (As Annie) I didn't know that you could be a cop here if you weren't a citizen.
O'DOWD: (As Rhodes) You can't.
WIIG: (As Annie) No?
O'DOWD: (As Rhodes) No, no you can't. But they made a special dispensation because I'm so tough and strong...
WIIG: (As Annie) Oh, right.
O'DOWD: (As Rhodes) ...And handsome.
WIIG: (As Annie) Oh, OK.
GROSS: O'Dowd is also known for his role in "Girls," as the finance guy who was briefly married to Jessa. His films include "This Is 40" and "The Sapphires." He's been in several British TV series, including "The IT Crowd." He created and costars in the British comedy series, "Moone Boy," which is shot in his home town in Ireland and is based on his memories growing up there. The second season was recently released on Hulu. Now O'Dowd is on Broadway, starring in the revival of the theatrical adaptation of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice And Men." He's nominated for a Tony Award in the category, best actor in a play. "Of Mice And Men" is about two migrant farm workers in California during the depression. Lennie, played by O'Dowd, is big and strong but mentally slow. George, played by James Franco, does the thinking for the duo. We have a brief recording from the show, which we can share with you. Franco's character, George, speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OF MICE AND MEN")
JAMES FRANCO: (As George) With us, it ain't like that. We got a future. We got someone to talk to who gives a damn about us. We don't got to sit no ballroom blowing in our jack just 'cause we ain't got no place else to go. Them other guys gets in jail. They can rot for anyone else gives a damn.
O'DOWD: (As Lenny) (Laughing) But not us. And why? Because - because I got you to look after me and you got me to look after you. And that's why. (Laughing).
O'DOWD: Chris O'Dowd, welcome to FRESH AIR. How did you get the part in "Of Mice And Men"?
O'DOWD: Well, I just got a call about it. You know, it was one of those, where I got a call to ask whether it'd be something I'd be interested in. I jumped at it, and then it went away. And I presume that they went back to their first choice...
O'DOWD: ...As is often the case. And then, thankfully, that fell apart. And I came back on the horizon and jumped at it again.
GROSS: I'm wondering why they thought of you. It's not like this was Judd Apatow's "Of Mice And Men."
GROSS: You know what I mean? Like, I don't know that people in America really associate you with drama.
O'DOWD: No, sure. And I'm not a hundred percent sure of the answer of that myself. I know that the director, Anna Shapiro, has seen a good bit of my work. And I think she had seen a drama that I had done, called "The Crimson Petal And The White" and saw something in it. And also something in some of the comedy stuff that she felt it was a right - it was a good fit, thankfully.
GROSS: So what is your interpretation of the character that you play? I remember when I read it - I guess I was in high school or something - I felt like, well, he is strong, but he's not very smart. But you know, you get older and you realize, well, he probably has some kind of, like, cognitive disorder. So what's your take on him?
O'DOWD: Well, like that, it's hard to know, because he's not - Steinbeck never specifies exactly what is wrong with him. So it is open to interpretation. So I decided to take somebody that I knew for my life, who was actually neighbor of mine in London, who had mild down syndrome. And essentially mimic him, particularly physically. So I always felt like whatever I was doing, whether it was good or bad, it was always - at least, it was honest. Because it is a bit of a minefield when you're tackling somebody with any kind of behavioral disability or cognitive disorder. And I felt like, at least, it would be true, then. I've gone for that.
GROSS: In the roles I've seen you in, physical strength is not the main attribute of the characters that you've played. Whereas your character in "Of Mice And Men" is stronger than he even understands, which, of course, gets him in serious trouble. Do you feel like you're using your body differently in this role? And that you - did you change your body for the role?
O'DOWD: Yeah. I put on maybe 20, 25 pounds, because he's a very big guy. Now I'm a tall man anyway. I'm maybe 6'3", 6'4", which probably doesn't come across on screen. But when you then put on another 20 or 25 pounds and also bulk up - I wore, like, shoulder pads - it's - I look pretty intimidating on the stage. And I definitely feel like I'm using my body more than I have in a very long time. I always would scoff at people, when they were doing theater, complaining about being tired after working for three hours a day. But I'm - my body is in bits. I'm going to physical therapy every week, because of these weird positions I find myself in.
GROSS: So it hurts?
O'DOWD: It's - yeah, it's pretty intense. It's also - there's some fights in the show. The movement of it - I find that I take up body positions aren't natural to me, but feel very, very natural for the character. And I think my muscles are still working out how to deliver that in a way that's not going to break me in half. So I spend a lot of time on the masseuse table.
GROSS: So what's the place of John Steinbeck in the literary curriculum in Ireland?
O'DOWD: Yeah. And what's weird is my - the first book that we read in high school, as it were, was "The Pearl", when we were maybe 13. And then, when we were 15 or 16, we did "Of Mine and Men." So there definitely is some correlation between - my feeling on it is that Steinbeck's work seems to be so much about chasing the American dream, and so many Irish people have chased the American dream. You know, I'm an economic migrant myself, and I can definitely relate to in that way.
GROSS: Did you like "Of Mice And Men" when you read it in high school?
O'DOWD: I don't know necessarily if I took as much notice of it. You know the way that sometimes when there's a book that is prescribed - I don't know if I would say was my - I don't think I liked any books in school. I think I liked girls in school. I think - I'm not sure I liked - I think I liked making people laugh in school. I don't think I came to literature until much later on.
GROSS: So when you're an actor in the United States, you're supposed to dream of someday your name being in lights on Broadway. (Laughing) Is Broadway an ambition for you, growing up in Ireland?
O'DOWD: No, I don't think so. I didn't know that I wanted to be an actor until I was maybe 22 or 23. I was going to...
GROSS: That's kind of old to figure that out.
O'DOWD: Yeah. I didn't know - I didn't really know what I wanted to do, to be honest. I remember, as a kid, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, because I loved watching "L.A. Law", the TV show.
GROSS: What better reason, right?
O'DOWD: And then I realized that - I started looking into what a lawyer does, and it sounded terribly boring, to be honest. And I realized that maybe it was just the L.A. bit that I like, so I just did that instead. I certainly wanted to carry out the lives of the characters of "L.A. Law", in some regard.
GROSS: You wanted to play them. You wanted to play a lawyer.
O'DOWD: I want to live where they lived, as it turned out.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is actor Chris O'Dowd, who became popular in America through "Bridesmaids" and his role on "Girls." And now he's on Broadway, starring in "Of Mice And Men." You have a series that's on television in Ireland and in England, as well?
O'DOWD: Yes, it's on Sky TV in England.
GROSS: Right. And here, in the United States, it's available on Hulu, on the Internet. And it's a semi-autobiographical series about a 12-year-old boy growing up in the town where you grew up in Ireland. Describe the character of Martin.
O'DOWD: Well, he's an idiot.
O'DOWD: I mean, if I'm honest, what I like about our show is that I find that kids on television are often precocious. And they always seem to be teaching the parents something by the end of the episode. And that is not my experience of kids. Most kids I know are dumb.
O'DOWD: My nieces and nephews have never taught me anything, other than how to find my keys when they've hidden them somewhere. So I - essentially, it's a very semi-autobiographical show. The kid is really me growing up. It's in my hometown. We shoot some of it at my mom's house. And he has an imaginary friend, who I play in the show.
GROSS: Did you have an imaginary friend when you're going up?
O'DOWD: I actually didn't. It's the one part of the show that is completely fictitious. I like to say - well, I'm the youngest of five kids, and I like to think that there just wasn't room in the house for an imaginary friend.
GROSS: (Laughing) Not your size.
GROSS: But I keep wondering, watching it, would a 12-year-old kid have an adult as an imaginary friend or another kid or maybe an animal?
O'DOWD: Well, this is part of the thing. He's a very unimaginative kid. Like, some of his other friends have wrestlers and dogs and fairy god princes and things as imaginary friends. And his imaginary friend is a mid-level insurance salesmen with the most common name in Ireland.
O'DOWD: His name is Sean Murphy, and he essentially is - without looking too deeply into it - he essentially is the personification of how he imagines himself in 20 years time. So he doesn't have very lofty ambitions for himself, either.
GROSS: You know, it's funny - the character of Martin is really, very small. And it's partly because his young, but he's one of the smaller kids in his school. And you're so tall. Were you small when you were his age?
O'DOWD: No. I was massive. I was six-foot when I was 12.
GROSS: No. Really?
O'DOWD: Yeah. Which I think is actually - not to bring it back - but it's a lot - I kind of relate to Lenny, in that way. I remember, at that way...
GROSS: In "Of Mice And Men."
O'DOWD: Yeah, sorry. In "Of Mice And Men." I remember having this discussion with the director, when we were talking about doing the job. And, you know, Lenny, in "Of Mice And Men", hurts people and causes harm to things without knowing it, because he doesn't know his own strength. And I can relate to that because at the age of 12 when you get to little school yard scraps and stuff, you hurt people accidentally where you don't know your own strength or whatever. But, yeah, I was a big kid. And I grew really quickly one summer. And I had a somewhat arched back, big nose and little eyes. And essentially I would have to ring a bell to let women know I was coming.
GROSS: (Laughing) Chris O'Dowd is my guest. We'll talk more after break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Chris O'Dowd. He's nominated for a Tony for his starring role in, "Of Mice And Men." When we left off, we were talking about his semi-autobiographical TV series, "Moone Boy." So I want to play a clip from the first episode of "Moone Boy." And so, you know, the bullies have been, like, picking on him. And then, you know, the 12-year-old Martin gets a gift from his parents. And it's the gift he's most wanted. It's a brand-new bicycle. And the first time he takes it out, the bullies find him. And they absolutely destroy the bike. And Martin goes home - he doesn't really want to tell his parents what happened 'cause he's so embarrassed, but his parents figure it out. And his father decides to go to the bullies' home and have a talk with the bullies' father. The bullies are brothers. In case he needs a weapon, he puts a hammer in his pocket. And the father, you know - Martin's father is a kind of - you know - mild-mannered, get-along kind of guy. But - but he's got the hammer in his pocket. And he goes the bullies' house, rings the bell, and the father comes out. And here's the father speaking first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MOONE BOY")
SIMON DELANEY: (As Gerry Bonner) Hello there.
PETER MCDONALD: (As Liam Moone) Are you Mr. Bonner?
DELANEY: (As Gerry Bonner) Gerry Bonner? Yes, indeed.
MCDONALD: (As Liam Moone) Right. Well, my name is Liam Moone.
DELANEY: (As Gerry Bonner) Hello, Lee Moone.
MCDONALD: (As Liam Moone) Hello. Now listen. My son goes to school with your boys, and they -
DELANEY: (As Gerry Bonner) Oh no. They're awful, aren't they?
MCDONALD: (As Liam Moone) Sorry?
DELANEY: (As Gerry Bonner) I mean, I love of them - of course I do. But they're awful. Let me guess, now, you've come over here today because Connor and Jonner have done something rotten to your boy. Am I right?
MCDONALD: (As Liam Moone) They broke his new bicycle.
DELANEY: (As Gerry Bonner) Oh. They're awful bullies. I'm so sorry. Is he okay?
MCDONALD: (As Liam Moone) Yeah, well, he's a bit shaken up. Yeah.
DELANEY: (As Gerry Bonner) Of course he is, the poor lad. I don't know what to do with them anymore. I mean, you probably come over here now, expecting me to be some horrible, angry brute who bullies his kids - who, in turn, go out and bully other kids. Am I right?
MCDONALD: (As Liam Moone) Well, kind of, yeah.
DELANEY: (As Gerry Bonner) Well, I'm not. I'm a good person.
MCDONALD: (As Liam Moone) You seem like a good person.
DELANEY: (As Gerry Bonner) Thank you. You seem like a good person, too.
MCDONALD: (As Liam Moone) Thank you.
DELANEY: (As Gerry Bonner) God, I hate my kids.
MCDONALD: (As Liam Moone) I'm not too crazy about my own.
DELANEY: (As Gerry Bonner) They're awful, aren't they? Children? I mean, here we are, two decent fellows, full of compassion and willingness to love. And what do we get in return?
MCDONALD: (As Liam Moone) Hassle.
DELANEY: (As Gerry Bonner) Hassle.
DELANEY: (As Gerry Bonner) You know. Listen, there's nobody in at the minute - you want to come in for a quick cup of tea?
MCDONALD: (As Liam Moone) Well, I don't know.
DELANEY: (As Gerry Bonner) You have the look of a man who wants a cup of tea, now.
MCDONALD: (As Liam Moone) Alright, then.
DELANEY: (As Gerry Bonner) Good man. Is that a hammer in your pocket? Let me guess, you were planning to beat me to death with it, weren't you?
MCDONALD: (As Liam Moone) I was, indeed.
DELANEY: (As Gerry Bonner) Bloody kids.
DELANEY: (As Gerry Bonner) Did I say tea? I meant gin.
GROSS: Les's "Unchained Melody," playing in the background, which is funny - like they're falling in love.
GROSS: Go ahead.
O'DOWD: (Laughing) Whenever we're at the end of the show, my - the producer's always pulling his hair out because I'm always asking for panpipe versions of songs.
O'DOWD: (Laughing) The oddest one that we've got in the newest series - we do the panpipe version of the "Mission: Impossible," theme.
GROSS: (Laughing) So I really like the father in this. And so much of the contemporary Irish literature that comes to the U.S. has this, like, abusive, or alcoholic, or totally absent father. And the fathers in your show - they're, like - they're responsible. They're intimidated by their own children. (Laughing) Who is the father - who is Martin's father based on, in this? Was your father like that?
O'DOWD: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, he's very sensitive. He actually came to see "Of Mice And Men," the other night. And they flew over from Ireland. And the tears - I mean, he's a very sensitive soul. And most of the men that I do know are very sensitive, and I do like exploiting that for humor. Essentially, what happens after that scene is they join a group of men called Men's Anonymous - which is, essentially, just men who hate their kids. And they all get together once a week and pretend to play poker - even though none of them know how to play poker - and try and do some new agey talks, like, be dad not sad.
GROSS: Do you think your father was intimidated by you and your siblings?
O'DOWD: It was a very maternal house. So - or a very matriarchal house, I suppose. It was - I had three sisters. It's incredibly close to the show. My father is a sign-writer, like the guy in the show. And my mother was a Weight Watchers instructor, as my mother was at the time. And I have three older sisters. So I feel like he - he definitely felt out of place as a man.
GROSS: Did you feel out of place as a boy?
O'DOWD: I like to think that it was how I learned the mysterious ways of the woman.
GROSS: Well, Martin is learning the mysterious ways of women. He's 12 - puberty is starting. And, you know, he's just starting to have what we would call, on broadcasting, nocturnal emissions.
GROSS: And he's- he's terrified about what he's been finding on his sheets in the morning - he's been hiding the sheets. And his parents figure - well, it's time to have a talk with him about the facts of life. And his mother's dealt with it with his older sisters, but now it's his father turn to deal with it with Martin. So in this scene, Martin's father and mother are seated side-by-side, and they've just called in Martin for the - for the big discussion.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MOONE BOY")
MCDONALD: (As Liam Moone) What's happening is perfectly natural. Listen to me.
DAVID RAWLE: (As Martin Moone) But I'm sleepy.
MCDONALD: (As Liam Moone) Women. Men. What's it all about? Who knows? Well, you don't know - that's why we're doing this. So girls are, essentially, creatures of the night. They're fascinating, and alluring and...Take your mother here -
O'KANE: (As Debra Moone) Please don't.
MCDONALD: (As Liam Moone) Birds. Bees...And other winged creatures.
O'KANE: (As Debra Moone) Oh. Lord, I'm sleep, too.
MCDONALD: (As Liam Moone) Penises...Vaginas.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Marty. Do you want to come busking in town, buddy?
RAWLE: (As Martin Moone) Do I?
O'KANE: (As Debra Moone) That was...Something. Not quite as intense as me explaining periods to Sinead - but close.
SARAH WHITE: (As Sinead Moone) What do you mean the moon's going to make me bleed? I'll make the moon bleed.
GROSS: The father's obviously so uncomfortable in this conversation. And that was the uncle coming in and interrupting mid-way, and asking to the kid to come out busking with him and relieving the tension of the conversation. Do you remember what it was like when your father sat you down to tell you the facts of life? Or was that not necessary - did you already know them?
O'DOWD: I think it was mixture of both. And I don't think, looking back, it was my father at all. I think my mom did it. And I think it was - she did it a little too late - where I still felt compelled to listen to it, but I knew a lot of it. So, essentially, then, you're just a 12-year-old talking to your mother about sex.
GROSS: What did you find most baffling about your sisters - your older sisters - when you were young?
O'DOWD: The moods. The moods were something. The violence. (Laughing)
O'DOWD: We all get on very, very, very well. But at that age, when - we didn't have an awful lot of money, so it was - we would all, kind of, we were sharing a room. And for fun, one of them would hold me down, and the other one would tickle me until I was laughing - and the other would spit in my mouth.
O'DOWD: I know. (Laughing) That's - it's grim, Terry. I'm really - I'm not painting a beautiful picture, but this is - I'm going for honesty.
GROSS: In "Moone Boy," your TV series that's on Hulu - your surrogate, Martin - your autobiographical character. Martin, when he's a boy, the - his older sisters put makeup on him while he's sleeping. And he's in such a rush to get to school 'cause he's always late - he's not washing his face. He's not looking in the mirror. So he shows up with makeup on his face. And everybody's, kind of, doing the oh-la-la thing to him, and he has no idea why. Is that something that happened to you? Did your sisters...
O'DOWD: Yeah, that one did happen to me. My sister would put makeup on me, and then - essentially, when you're the youngest of five, it's often left to some of the elder siblings to have parental duties, like waking the young kids up in the morning. And so they would deliberately wake me up really late so I didn't have time to wash or anything. And then, when I got to school, there would be some laughing and snickering. And I would run into the toilet and find that I had been given smoky eye or some blusher during my sleep. And when they were being particularly cruel, they would make it very subtle so it looked like it was a choice I was making.
GROSS: So this happened more than once, I take it?
O'DOWD: I think this happened three times, to me. And I think it's - I think it's character building.
GROSS: Chris O'Dowd will be back in the second half of the show. His series, "Moone Boy," is available on Hulu. He's nominated for a Tony for his starring role in, "Of Mice And Men." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with actor Chris O'Dowd. He's nominated for a Tony for his starring performance in "Of Mice And Men." The award ceremony is a week from Sunday. American audiences know O'Dowd for his roles in "Bridesmaids" as a police officer and "Girls" as the finance guy who marries Jessa. He co-created and co-stars in a British coming-of-age comedy series called "Moone Boy", which is based on his memories growing up in a small Irish town, where the show is actually shot. Seasons one and two are on Hulu. The main character is a 12-year-old boy named Martin. O'Dowd plays imaginary friend, who does the voice-over narration. Here's how the first episode begins.
(SOUND BITE OF SHOW, "MOONE BOYS")
O'DOWD: Ever wanted to be the imaginary friend of an idiot boy in west of Ireland? Me neither. But there you go. Allow me to introduce Martin Paul Kenny Dalglish Moone.
GROSS: How popular is "Moone Boy" in Ireland and England?
O'DOWD: It's pretty big. In Ireland, it's on a cable channel. And it was the most-watched show in five years on the channel, which is nice.
GROSS: Wow. Wow.
O'DOWD: So, that's great. And we've been kind of winning a few awards here and there. So, it's terrific. So we've actually - we've shot a second - there's a second series just starting on Hulu and I've shot a 3rd one...
GROSS: ..When you say series, you mean an American parlance season.
O'DOWD: Exactly. Yes, a season. And also its only like six episodes - each season.
GROSS: Yes, I've noticed that seasons keep getting shorter and shorter. It's soon going to be like - it's one episode per season.
O'DOWD: Well, the British model and the Irish model has always been six.
O'DOWD: Yeah. So even going back to "Monty Python" and things like that - "Fawlty Towers" was six a season- and "The Office" and all of those shows. They're always six a season.
GROSS: So - and how did you end up on Hulu in the U.S.?
O'DOWD: I think we just - we're actually - we're also PBS, which I should probably...
GROSS: ...Oh, I didn't realize that.
O'DOWD: Yeah. I think we just sold the distribution at some stage along the way. That's above my pay grade.
GROSS: Right. OK. When are you on public TV?
O'DOWD: I'm not sure. I think it changes...
GROSS: ...Then how my supposed to know, if you don't know?
O'DOWD: Well, I don't - I'll check your listings, everybody. Is that what you say here?
GROSS: One of the economic centers of the town that you grew up in was a call center? Which, I believe, you worked at for a while before becoming an actor?
O'DOWD: That's not quite right. I worked at a call center, for sure, but that was when I was living in London.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
O'DOWD: So yeah, I worked at a call center for different charities. So essentially, we would be calling up people, who had subscriptions to whichever charity and asked them to increase it. (Laughing)And I - this is pretty terrible - but I worked for a very famous wildlife charity for quite a while. And we would call up people and tell them the different species were being eliminated and becoming extinct. And we were trying to raise funds to protect them from that. But very often, these species would be like bats and - like newts. And I would call up and I'd say, oh this bat in Papua New Guinea is going to become extinct. And the person on the other end of the phone would be like great, that sounds like a pain. I'm delighted. Do you want some extra bullets - is that we're paying for? No? This newt in, you know, New Zealand - oh good. Who wants newts? So eventually, to get any money- oh, this is bad - I would start - I would make up endangered species, so - that seem more palatable.
GROSS: So, you'd make up...
O'DOWD: (Laughing) Well, the one those most successful is - I would tell - I told people for maybe two months up-and-down England that the tiger swan was in danger. The tiger swan was essentially a swan with the markings of a Bengal - you can visualize that in your head. And then I would tell people this and they would say - they would say, I've just never heard of it. And I'd be like, well, it's endangered. (Laughing) If it was in common, I wouldn't be calling. So, it was the tiger swan. There was some kind of flying dolphin or something but like a flying...
GROSS: ...That's terrible.
O'DOWD: Not like actually in the air, but like - oh yeah, it was poor behavior. But we made quite a lot of money. So, a lot of newts were saved.
GROSS: If you're just joining as, my guest is Chris O'Dowd. And he's now on Broadway starring with James Franco in John Steinbeck's "Of Mice And Men." His semi-autobiographical TV series, which is shown in England and Ireland, is now on Hulu. It's also shown on public TV. He doesn't know when and neither do I.
GROSS: And he's also...
O'DOWD: ...Just watch PBS constantly. And like a broken clock it will pop up.
GROSS: And then he's also known in America for his roles in bridesmaids and girls and "This Is 40." Think a short break and we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Chris O'Dowd, who's now staring with James Franco on Broadway in John Steinbeck's "Of Mice And Men." And he also has a semi autobiographical TV series, which is called "Moone Boy." That's popular in England and Ireland. It's shown on Hulu and on public television here in the U.S. And I'm going to ask you about the movie that made you famous in the United States. And that's "Bridesmaids." Your breakthrough role here in the U.S. And this is a Judd Apatow produced film. Why don't we start with a scene 'cause people who've seen the movie will certainly remember this scene. So Kristin Wiig plays Annie, the bride's best friend and maid of honor, but the wedding's creating a lot of friction between them. And the Kristen Wig character Annie has started to go with your character, a police officer named Officer Rhodes. And they met after he pulled her over because her tail lights were out. And he agreed to tear up the ticket if she agreed to get the lights fixed, which she didn't do. And then they spend the night together, but after that she kind of freaks and rejects him. So he's very hurt. And in this scene, Annie's just had a huge fight with her friend at the friend's bridal shower. And while driving home she totals her car. She needs a tow truck. And you come by in your official capacity as a cop. And as you're talking, a later in the scene, John Hamm drives up in a sports car to pick her up. So you speak first in this scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRIDESMAIDS")
O'DOWD: (As Officer Rhodes) Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to see you night by night drive past me with your taillight still broken? You have any idea how crazy that makes me? It's a simple solution. Your problem, Annie, is that you just don't understand that you can hurt people with these broken lights. Don't you see how irresponsible this is?
WIIG: (As Annie) Yes, I should have gotten my taillights fixed. But I didn't, OK. I didn't.
O'DOWD: (As Officer Rhodes) Listen, don't worry about it. Seriously. Your message was received.
WIIG: (As Annie) No, look, please - I just - I don't know what's going on with me right now.
O'DOWD: (As Officer Rhodes) OK, that's fine. Don't bother, really. It's - what's done is done.
WIIG: (As Annie) That's it? Where you going?
O'DOWD: (As Officer Rhodes) That's it. That's it. That's how this works.
WIIG: (As Annie) Oh, come on I didn't...
O'DOWD: (As Officer Rhodes) For the record, Annie, you flirted with me. You made me feel like you really liked me, which was really unfair. And then you came home with me and we did stuff - fun stuff - and then you just left. Just like it was nothing.
WIIG: (As Annie) Oh, please. I know how guys do this thing. I know how guys act. One minute it means something, the next minute it doesn't.
O'DOWD: (As Officer Rhodes) Oh, right. Yeah, you got it all figured out.
WIIG: (As Annie) Yeah.
O'DOWD: (As Officer Rhodes) How's that working out for you? Pretty good?
JON HAMM: (As Ted) Boom. What's up buddy? Call for some roadside assistance? Thanks, officer. I can handle it from here on out.
O'DOWD: (As Officer Rhodes) Oh, come on.
GROSS: And that's Jon Hamm driving up at the end of that scene. So you're such a really sympathetic character in this film. How did you get the part?
O'DOWD: I auditioned. I went in. Paul Feig, the director had known some of my stuff. I did a sitcom in Britain called "The IT Crowd," and he had been a fan of that. So I got in to the room and I improvised with Kristen for maybe 45 minutes. And we just had a pretty good time. And I kind of went in not necessarily - I didn't have a name or anything like that, it was going to be a very hard get. So I didn't go in with much expectation. I just really enjoyed myself and thankfully it all worked out all right.
GROSS: How well did you know her work from "Saturday Night Live?"
O'DOWD: Yeah, I know it a little bit and I'd seen her, I think, in "Knocked Up, but not hugely 'cause I had never lived in America and we don't really have "SNL."
GROSS: So you weren't living here yet?
O'DOWD: No. I was - I think I was coming over and back and taking the odd trip, but no, I was still living in London.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Chris O'Dowd, who's now nominated for a Tony for his role in - for his performance in "Of Mice And Men" on Broadway. Let's talk about your role in "Girls." And this was in the first season and you played a finance guy named Thomas-John, one of the few guys who made a fortune on the recession. And you meet Jessa and Marnie at a club. You buy them a drink and then invite them home. And your character's really excited at the prospect of a three-way. That's what he's really hopeful for, which is what Jessa and Marnie kind of lead him to believe is going to happen 'cause they start kissing each other. But they won't let him kiss them. And as he grows more frustrated, Marnie knocks over a drink on his very expensive rug. And then he just kind of blows up in frustration. Here you are.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GIRLS")
O'DOWD: (As Thomas-John) Do you even know what it's like to work hard?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS 1: (As character) No, tell us.
O'DOWD: (As Thomas-John) I've been under a lot of pressure my whole life to succeed. Daddy didn't buy me this rug or this apartment or this nose. That's not your nose. There's no way that's your [bleep] nose. There's no cartilage in the world that exquisite. So it kind of ticks me off when I come to Williamsburg after working hard all [bleep] day in the real world and I see all these stupid little daddy's girls with their [bleep] bowler hats - what are you doing with a [beep] bowler hat, stupid. And then you come over and you flirt and flirt and flirt and kiss and kiss and listen to my amazing tunes, drink my beautiful wine and then spill it all over my gorgeous rug and laugh about it.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS 2: (As character) Yeah, well, we're not laughing at your rug, trust me.
ACTRESS 1: (As character) We're not laughing - don't...
ACTRESS 2: (As character) We're laughing at your mash-ins.
O'DOWD: (As Thomas-John) It's mash-ups.
GROSS: (Laughing) That's my guest Chris O'Dowd in an episode of "Girls." And you end up marrying Jessa. You end up being a really pretty sympathetic character 'cause at first you seem like a real jerk.
GROSS: But you're kind of insecure, you want to love and be loved. And yeah - like I said, you ended up being more likable than you initially seemed to be.
O'DOWD: Yeah, I mean, that was one of those - I was surprised to get asked back. I kind of - I had met Lena and she asked me to come and do an episode and...
GROSS: Lena Dunham, the creator of "Girls."
O'DOWD: Lena Dunham, sorry - who makes a show. So I went and did that, which is that kind of - the episode where that scene where you just heard. And I presumed that that would be that. And then she asked me to come back, and I was kind of reluctant because I was like - what else can you do with that character really, he's just such a douche. And she's like, oh, I want him to marry one of the girls. I thought she was joking. If I'm honest. But I think she was right - they had to probably make him a bit more sympathetic or otherwise it's just a - he's just a guy ranting for, you know, three or four episodes.
GROSS: So there's another scene that I want to play and this is from "This Is 40." And just in case it's not clear - "Bridesmaids" was produced by Judd Apatow, "Girls" is produced by Judd Apatow and "This Is 40" was produced and directed and written by Judd Apatow.
O'DOWD: I owe that guy a drink.
GROSS: Yeah, honestly.
GROSS: So in "This Is 40," Paul Rudd is the star and he plays a character who has this like fledgling indie record label, which is specializing in retro rock. And in order to stay in business, he needs an album that's actually going to sell some copies. And so he's invested all of his hopes and all of his money in an album intended to revive rocker Graham Parker's career. And your skeptical that anyone is going to be interested. And Lena Dunham also plays someone who works at the company and she's handling some of the publicity for the album. And she's just produced a promotional video which features archival footage of Graham Parker along with current footage and current interviews. And you do not like this video. You speak first.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THIS IS 40")
O'DOWD: (As Ronnie) What are you doing?
LENA DUNHAM: (As Cat) I'm contextualizing him as one of the great figures in rock history.
O'DOWD: (As Ronnie) You can't show him in his prime in '77 and then jump straight to him as he is now. It's terrifying. You've got to reverse it, you've got to show him how he is now very bristly and then show him in 1977. You got to Benjamin Button it.
DUNHAM: (As Cat) I don't know what you're talking about, OK. All rock stars are older now. Steven Tyler, David Bowie, Mick Jagger.
PAUL RUDD: (As Pete) Paul McCartney.
DUNHAM: (As Cat) Paul McCartney.
O'DOWD: (As Ronnie) OK, stop it. Everybody that you are mentioning looks like an old woman now. You're just mentioned a bunch of Jessica Tandys. Keith Richards gets away with it, but that's because Keith Richards looked 70 when he was 40. And now that he's 70, he looks 69. He's regenerating.
GROSS: That's my guest Chris O'Dowd in a scene from the Judd Apatow film "This Is 40." Since you've worked on several Judd Apatow projects and you were directed by him on this. What have you learned from him?
O'DOWD: Quite a lot. I mean, as a - he's incredibly smart, but also very, very well-prepared. Like in that scene that you just had, I was just brought back into the memory of shooting it, which I had kind of forgotten about. And the way that he'll do things is he talks to you during the take. So he'll have maybe five or six really funny lines up his sleeve if he feels like the one that he's written isn't working. And I guess what you learn from that is just don't be too precious about what you've written on the page yourself. You know, he just wants the funniest line. He doesn't want to make sure that the line that he wrote originally makes it to the cut.
GROSS: So when you say he's feeding you lines - as he's talking to as you're shooting - is he talking to you on a hidden earphone or is he actually...
O'DOWD: (Laughing) No, he's just shouting from his seat.
GROSS: How come we're not hearing it on mic?
O'DOWD: Well, he'll kind of - he'll say whatever he's saying. And then I'll go, OK, cool, I'll try that.
GROSS: So do you remember any lines from the scene we just heard that he told you to say as you were shooting?
O'DOWD: I say the line there, you've got to "Benjamin Button" that [bleep].
O'DOWD: That very much sounds like a Judd line. And I'm sure the Keith Richards thing about him regenerating, he looked 70 when he was 40, definitely sounds - 'cause I can't remember it being in the script either. It's the same with the "Girls" clip. I find it hard to remember what was in the script, what I came up on the day, or what they came up with on the day. And I kind of like that about it. I never feel - when I do loads of improv on a scene and it doesn't make it, I'm never hurt by that because I can barely remember doing it afterwards.
GROSS: So if you don't mind my bringing this up, you had a part in the movie Gulliver, which I did not see - the one starring Jack Black, you know, the remake.
O'DOWD: You are not alone, Terry.
GROSS: Yes, I know. It was an expensive film that, you know, very few people saw. Did you have a sense when you were making it that, you know, either it wasn't good or it was going to be a flop? And if so, what's it like to want to give you all, but to at the same time know that it's not going to be a great work of art?
O'DOWD: Yeah, it's tricky. I mean, to be honest, when you're starting your career out, you don't mind so much. And you don't know that things aren't going to be great because there's so many great people involved, you presume, oh, they're going to fix this in some stage by magic or something.
O'DOWD: You don't know. And you're having such a good time at the time, you just try and do your job. And that happens still, you know. I'm still involved with projects sometimes where I'm like, I'm not 100 percent sure this has ever got to the place that we thought it was going to get to when we're shooting it. And it's difficult because there's obviously a reason that that's the case, that the director or the star or whoever just has a different vision of it than you do. And that's how art works, and that's kind of fine. And it's OK to fail sometimes.
GROSS: So we are recording this interview on a Thursday, and I assume you're performing at 8 o'clock tonight on Broadway in "Of Mice And Men."
O'DOWD: Seven, yeah.
GROSS: Wow. That's early.
O'DOWD: Yeah, 7 on the Thursdays.
GROSS: So I know some performers - obviously not you - like, try not to talk on the day of the performance and, you know, won't eat anything with dairy in it, you know, any kind of milk thing 'cause that could create, like, mucus. And how careful are you about those things? Do you feel like you need to do the super protective things that some people do?
O'DOWD: Yeah, I'm pretty protective. You know, I try to not talk too much on a Monday, on my day off. And over the course of that, I have been surprised how much a bettering your voice takes. I've had to have steroid injections and different kind of vitamin injections at various times. But for the last 10 days or so, I think my muscle memory has caught up with me. And I'm doing OK now.
GROSS: Oh, I'm so glad to hear that.
GROSS: And I didn't realize what a strain it would be on your voice. And that makes me even more appreciative that you've used some of your voice today to share with us and to talk with us. Thank you so much.
O'DOWD: You're very, very welcome.
GROSS: Chris O'Dowd is nominated for a Tony for his starring performance in "Of Mice And Men." His British TV series "Moone Boy" is available on Hulu and is carried by some PBS stations.
There's a good story we didn't have time for about an O'Dowd family secret. You can hear it on SoundCloud at soundcloud.com/freshair. Coming up after a break, Lloyd Schwartz reviews an exhibit of modern art that the Nazis considered degenerate. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.