Whether you know him as the charming cop from Bridesmaids or the grumpy computer technician from “The IT Crowd” (“Have you tried turning it off and on again?”), Chris O’Dowd has become a character actor fixture in the last few years. Now the 34-year-old Irishman is taking a bold leap from more comedic roles into darker territory for John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary.
A potent blend of dark comedy and intense existential drama, Calvary follows a well-liked priest in a small Irish village (played by the great Brendan Gleeson) who becomes the target of someone who was molested by another priest and wants to get revenge by murdering a good one. While Gleeson’s character secretly knows who it is that confessed the threat, the audience is given several plausible candidates including O’Dowd’s shifty, wifebeating butcher named Jack Brennan.
We had a lively conversation with O’Dowd about getting serious for Calvary, his acclaimed role with James Franco in Broadway’s “Of Mice and Men,” the Lance Armstrong biopic in which he plays a reporter uncovering the juicing scandal, and the chances of O’Dowd’s character from Thor: The Dark World popping up in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
ComingSoon.net: Are you aware of just how many professional outlets, and even ticketsellers, have been misspelling the movie’s name as “Cavalry”?
Chris O’Dowd: (laughs) I don’t know if I’ve noticed that. People do keep asking about the movie and they say, “You know what? I really liked the movie, what a real good story, but I feel the title isn’t quite true because there wasn’t a single horse in it.” (laughs) A lot of people just think it’s about the Winter Olympics.
CS: This is a much darker role than we’re used to seeing from you, yet it’s only a hair removed from the type of sad sac characters you’re known for. How would you define the “Chris O’Dowd” type?
O’Dowd: I hope that there isn’t a Chris O’Dowd type otherwise I’m getting a lot of bad career choices. I try to play characters that I feel I have a take on, that I can relate to, have a voice that I understand. Other than that I don’t really know. In the last four or five years I’ve been trying to do very different things. Between “Girls” and “Mice and Men” and “Calvary” and “Bridesmaids” those are all different types of characters, so I don’t know if there is necessarily a type.
CS: So what did you do in this movie with the character of Jack Brennan to break the mold of what you’ve done before?
O’Dowd: A much deeper film. I think it deals with themes that aren’t as simple as finding a partner or getting laid. In a funny kind of way it deals with a whole country’s relationship with its God, and that was something I was very drawn to.
CS: Obviously the Catholic Church plays a huge role in Irish culture. How do you think the movie would have been different if it had been set anywhere else in the world, say the United States or Italy?
O’Dowd: It’s a good question. I think our relationship with faith and organized religion are all at different stages. Obviously there’s a big religious movement in America right now, and I think the movement in Ireland is going in the opposite way. I think the similarity in Spain or Italy and those kinds of countries is they are probably becoming less controlled by the church. It’s hard to say. In all these countries the relationship with organized religion is somewhat different because the people inside are different. I think we felt oppressed by Catholicism for a very long time and we’re at the back end of a recession. All of those things lend themselves to an enlightenment and also a people losing faith with what they’ve been prescribed.
CS: Right. The priest that Brendan Gleeson plays is a good man. Is the point of the man that is going after him that the priesthood as a whole is culpable for the actions of the pedophiles that have been making the headlines?
O’Dowd: I dunno if it’s the priesthood as a whole. It’s an interesting kind of debate as to guilt and responsibility. I think there’s definitely responsibility on the church, the priests have been lied to by the church as well. The relationship I have with priests in my own life is very very positive. Even though I wouldn’t consider myself a Catholic anymore I wouldn’t have done this film if I felt it was a hatchet job on priests. I feel terrible for the really good men who have faith who have been tarred with same brush as the evil pricks who abuse people. I do think the church has a lot to answer for that. They’ve never taken proper responsibility over those things, and they have been telling people how to live their life for a very long time. The air of hypocrisy about it is really substantial.
CS: It’s my understanding that the whole celibacy thing came from the Church wanting to inherit the land of its priests, as opposed to their families.
O’Dowd: That’s right. I don’t think there’s anything in The Bible that says that priests shouldn’t get laid. I think that’s just a completely male construct based on wealth. Of course it’s gonna be a concern if your job says, “Okay, you can only come here if you’re willing to not have sex,” if you’re willing to not do the most natural thing that a human can do. You’re going to entrap some people who won’t know how to deal with that.
CS: Does your more pragmatic view of religion coincide with John Michael’s cynical, even nihilistic view of human nature in this piece?
O’Dowd: No, I think I’m attracted to it because my view of religion has formed as I’ve gotten a little bit older. I would have been prescribed Catholicism because I come from a Catholic family, because I didn’t realize there was any other option growing up. As I developed my own relationship -or lack of- with organized religion, scripts like this are very attractive to me. So I don’t know if the movie shaped my opinion but it was already there. I have to say I don’t know if I find it nihilistic, I don’t think that’s quite right. I know what you’re basing that on. I’m not sure if I would say he has a nihilistic view of human nature. There’s a lot of positivity in the character. Obviously there’s a lot of angry people in the film, but I think it’s very telling that the last image is one of hope and forgiveness by the two people who have been wronged most. I think there’s a cause for hope there.
CS: I understand you and Franco’s “Mice and Men” will be preserved on film forever soon.
O’Dowd: That’s right!
CS: What’s been your biggest takeaway from the show, and do you think Hollywood will see you in a different light now?
O’Dowd: Probably not. I don’t know if it necessarily works like that, but what I’ve taken away from it is it’s good to be brave. You end up doing a lot of projects where the tone of them are somewhat similar or you play characters you feel are different but are ultimately very natural characters for you to play, but to make big, brave, bold choices is incredibly rewarding. I’d imagine I’ll play less on-center characters as it were if the opportunities arise.
CS: There’s a rumor going around that your character Richard may have stayed in Jane Foster’s heart after your sparkling date in “Thor: The Dark World.” What are the odds of seeing you pop up in Avengers 2?
O’Dowd: I would be amazed. I would be amazed if that were true.
CS: NDAs being what they are, if you were theoretically competing with a norse God for the attentions of Natalie Portman, what would be your dating angle?
O’Dowd: If I was competing against Thor? I guess I would try to be the sensitive one. (laughs) I have a feeling he can benchpress more than I can. I bet I know better dirty jokes. (laughs)
CS: Being a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, are you impressed by the dedication Marvel has to keeping continuity throughout all these films?
O’Dowd: I dont watch a lot of them, if I’m honest, but I think it’s admirable even though I’m sure filmmakers find it frustrating- that they are certainly making sure that they are very close to the books. I think that’s great! I know they get flack every now and again for it, but if it was a novelist saying, “I want it to be kept close to my piece of writing,” I don’t think anybody would scoff at that.
CS: You played a comic book geek on “The IT Crowd,” I don’t know if you are in real life?
O’Dowd: Not as much. That’s mostly Graham Linehan, I think. I’m playing him.
CS: What was your experience on the Lance Armstrong movie?
O’Dowd: Really good! It was a world I didn’t know that much about. I saw the film a couple of weeks ago, a rough cut of it, and it’s looking great. It’s a very specific world, full of color, full of adrenaline, and full of drugs. I hope people enjoy it.
Calvary opens in limited release on Friday.