From The IT Crowd to Bridesmaids, Chris O’Dowd has tended to be cast as straggly-bearded scruffs. In the flesh he scrubs up nicely, today sharply suited and slimmer than he looks on screen—like he’s just walked off a GQ photo shoot. Not that he’s flashy. You get the feeling he hasn’t quite worked out what to do about his new sex symbol status. If you missed the memo: in the past year Chris O’Dowd has become big news. He’s gone from being the Irish one in The IT Crowd (fanbase: standard-issue nerds) to hot Hollywood celebrity (fanbase: women, lots of us). All thanks to Bridesmaids, the hit comedy that came out of nowhere to make nearly $300 million last summer.
O’Dowd, who is 33, goes all mumbly on the subject of heartthrob-dom. "I’m far less appealing in real life, as you're learning," he deadpans. "I really don’t know what to say about it." He slips into defensive humor, telling me what a gawky teenager he was—six foot by the age of 11. "Look. I’ve never been lavished with female attention. My mother used to say: 'You just haven’t grown into your face yet.’" Big grin. "When I hit 60 I'm going to be a real stunner."
He adds that it’s probably no coincidence he got engaged to the TV presenter Dawn Porter "almost immediately" after Bridesmaids came out—"from fear of having to deal with crazy, single women." He’s joking. He and Porter got hitched last summer in a three-day "wed-fest," a low-key bash—friends and family sitting around in a garden eating Magnums.
He might be an accidental sex symbol, but O’Dowd has worked hard at success and happily admits to being ambitious ("It doesn’t mean that you need to be ruthless"). He got his first break in 2006 on The IT Crowd after dropping out of a politics and sociology degree in Dublin and moving to London to study at drama college. On the set of Bridesmaids he knew he was on to a winner—"But I had no idea that it would suddenly take off and be part of this golden age of female writers." He’s talking about Kristen Wiig, who co-wrote Bridesmaids, and Lena Dunham, the creator of Girls: he pops up later in the series as a sleazy banker-boss-type.
O’Dowd is not remotely insulted by the suggestion that he’s man-candy to Hollywood’s funny women. "I’m Goldie Hawn!" he jokes. What does that mean? "That I play the put-upon woman part." He’s definitely the butt of the joke in his new film The Sapphires. When the script landed on his mat last year, he was being sent loads of "dodgy romcoms."
The Sapphires isn’t quite a romcom, but it is feelgood. The story is based on a real-life group of all-girl Aboriginal soul singers who played to American troops in Vietnam in the late '60s—escaping ugly racism at home in Australia. O’Dowd is their drunken and hilarious Irish manager.
I loved The Sapphires. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Some film critics have accused it of being cheesy. I can forgive the sticky bits, because it’s a film made with real heart. The mother of scriptwriter Tony Briggs was one of the real-life Sapphires (there was a standing ovation at the premiere when we see her photo in the end credits).
Briggs, the director and all four leading ladies are of Aboriginal descent. Which might explain why The Sapphires is surprisingly hard-hitting and honest about racism and Australia’s ‘stolen children’ scandal (when Aboriginal kids were taken by force from their parents). O’Dowd says he liked the script because its "victims are not victims." His character is hopelessly in love with the group’s feisty leader—the running joke is that she could floor him with a single punch.
Being picked on comes naturally to O’Dowd: "I grew up in a house full of women, so being ridiculed, tortured and molested is normal," he says. Home was Boyle, a small town in the west of Ireland where he lived with his parents and three big sisters. If you’ve seen his nostalgic sitcom Moone Boy (series two is in the pipeline) you’ll have a picture of his childhood: "It’s 60 or 70 percent autobiographical," he reckons. He says he toned down the worst of his sisters’ meanness to make the script believable. So he left out the times when they’d pin him down and force him to wear make-up or spit in his mouth. "It doesn’t fill me with pride to admit it," he says cheerfully.
Maybe not, but you do wonder if those sisters gave him an insight into women. I’ve never heard an actor talk so glowingly about the actresses he’s worked with—and not in a creepy "I’m a man-feminist" way. The Sapphires is another film that throws him in with a group of strong women. "Maybe I’m just so insecure that I don’t like being on screen with alpha men," he jokes. So, he’s not holding out for the call from Scorsese, then? O’Dowd looks fake-crushed. "I can’t see it. It would be weird." Could he play tough? "I don’t know…"
In the meantime, it looks like he’s trying his damnedest to mess with his ladykiller reputation. His credits include This Is 40, Judd Apatow’s sequel to Knocked Up. He plays, in his words, a "Shoreditch douchebag." "I’m a bit of a dick-end in my last three or four roles," he says. "That’s how uncomfortable I feel with female attention. I’m basing my career on stopping it." Will it work? I doubt it.
The Sapphires opens Friday, March 22.
RECOMMENDED: Interviews with Los Angeles' tastemakers