Chris O'Dowd interview: 'Ambition? I have no idea what that is'
Chris O’Dowd has become a meme. His IT-worker catchphrase from the Channel 4 sitcom The IT Crowd – “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” – became the go-to social media gag as global finances struggled to recover following the pandemic. Even Elon Musk shared a still of the Irish actor, as slacker-geek Roy Trenneman, asking: “Have you tried turning the economy off and on again?” Satisfyingly, the meme later got aimed back at Musk in the early, glitch-heavy days of his Twitter takeover, including by O’Dowd himself (“C’mon fella, you know what to do,” he quipped).
But when O’Dowd took a couple of days off at the Edinburgh Festival last summer, he tells me it wasn’t the old sitcom gags people wanted to talk about. “No. Whether it was The IT Crowd or Bridesmaids [the 2011 Hollywood romcom that propelled him to stardom in the US], what they wanted to tell me is how [watching] those had brought them together. They said things like: ‘That was the only show I could watch with my dad after my parents split up.’ Or: ‘That was the only show we could all watch together without somebody going crazy.’”
He shakes his head. “When you’re making TV shows, the experience can feel quite disconnected from reality. Not least because you’re often shooting them in parking lots on industrial estates in the middle of nowhere. So I hadn’t really thought about the shows as part of a collective experience.”
Talking via video link from LA – where the 43-year-old lives with his wife, the writer and documentary-maker Dawn O’Porter, and their two children – O’Dowd tells me he believes that The Big Door Prize, his heartwarming new Apple TV+ comedy-drama, has “the same potential to unite and lift people who might be having a s--t time”. He hopes that in these divided times when “lots of comedians are getting better at aggressively pursuing whatever they think their enemy is, I just want to make people feel better for a little bit”.
To this end, the smart and affable O’Dowd refuses to be drawn on any of the potentially divisive topics of the day. When I ask whether he feels that the “Oirish” jokes made at the Oscars were offensive, he bats me off by saying that he was in Texas and missed the ceremony. When I mention that I’m juggling our interview with homeschooling because of the teachers’ strike, he expresses sympathy with me then swallows a comment with a shake of his head and a regretful “let’s not go there”. A question about his old IT Crowd colleague Graham Linehan, the Father Ted writer who last week spoke out about how his views on transgender issues had led to the breakdown of his marriage, the destruction of his career and left him “ghosted” by many of his old media friends, feels out of bounds. “We’re meant to be talking about this show…” O’Dowd says.
The Big Door Prize is based on MO Walsh’s 2020 novel, which explores how the residents of a small American town respond when a strange “Morpho” machine appears in their grocery store promising to reveal an individual’s “life potential”. All they have to do is drop two dollars into the slot, tap in their social security number and place their palms on the screen, and out comes a little card informing them they have the potential to become: a dancer, a biker, a hero,
a father or – in one case – royalty. The Morpho forces the characters to ask if they’re happy with the careers and partners they’ve settled for, and prompts several to upend their lives.
O’Dowd plays Dusty, a contented, happily married 40-year-old high-school teacher and one of the few townsfolk to express scepticism at the Morpho machine. The actor admits that his character’s lack of grand ambition reflects his own. “Goals and ambitions – people talk about those a lot in America and I have no idea what the f--k they’re talking about. It sounds arch to me. I just don’t have any of those signposts in my head. It leaves me feeling a bit directionless but then I’m never disappointed!”
Born in Boyle, County Roscommon, in 1979, O’Dowd abandoned a degree in politics and sociology at University College Dublin (“I liked the idea of becoming a political speechwriter, but I realised I didn’t want to change the world, I just wanted to change the room”) before getting into drama school aged 20. He was working in a bar at that point and realised that he would have to take drama school seriously: “Because it was expensive. I don’t come from money. I had a big bank loan. I thought: s--t! I’m going to have to do it. I suppose that was like getting my potential card. If I hadn’t got into drama school I don’t think I would have pursued acting. I may have become a teacher, like my sister, instead.”
He tells me that although The Big Door Prize was written before the pandemic, the show’s themes resonate more strongly now “because I think Covid left a lot of people thinking: am I doing the right thing with my life?” And in a world where the internet offers an almost infinite choice of new partners and new purchases, it’s a reminder of the anxiety that accompanies all those options. “There’s a brilliant moment in one of the later episodes where the town priest says that the first original sin was the choice of the apple. Because once people are told they could be something else, then the temptation to try that is so great. If you get a potential card that says you could be a blackbelt in karate then you’re going to take up karate. There’s a self-fulfilling energy to those kinds of ideas.”
Beady-eyed viewers will notice little nods to Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, in which James Stewart plays George Bailey: a man who’s given up his dreams to serve the community of the small town of Bedford Falls. “It’s a Wonderful Life is my favourite movie,” says David West Read, The Big Door Prize showrunner. “It’s all about developing a deeper appreciation for the choices that you have made, reminding you that you are who you are for a reason.” He also notes that O’Dowd is something of a modern-day Jimmy Stewart.
West Read adds that the cast talked a lot about Penny Marshall’s 1988 film Big, in which Tom Hanks’s wish to become a grown-up is granted by a “Zoltar” fortune-telling machine. “While the Zoltar looked like this primitive carnival machine, ours looks like an 1980s arcade game.” But both machines have a similar effect on users. “The Morpho allows people to tap back into their childhood dreams, so you start to see adults acting more like kids and kids more like grown-ups as the series progresses.”
Both West Read and O’Dowd are atheists. They’re reluctant to be drawn too far on what the show says about how faith works in American society. But West Read tells me it’s interesting how willing the characters are to allow themselves to be governed by a device which tells them what they want to hear. And how they welcome the structure it provides. He chuckles over the way in which “the townspeople are so ready to give up their social security numbers and fingerprints to the machine. That does reflect our ongoing sacrifice of privacy and security to get whatever we think we need to be happy”. O’Dowd shakes his head. “I mean, the idea that there’s this little box acting the oracle, dictating how people live… it’s an interesting show to be made by a mobile phone company!”
But O’Dowd doesn’t want to dwell on “the political ramifications” because after a run of more serious acting jobs he has relished the opportunity to just make people laugh again. “That’s an extraordinarily powerful thing. If I can make people hate each other a little less for a few minutes, if this show can help people who’ve had a s--t day feel a little better...?” Help people to switch off and on again? That feels like O’Dowd’s potential fulfilled.
The Big Door Prize begins on Apple TV+ on Wednesday