As the youngest of five in a household dominated by women, tormented by three sisters who would pin him down, spit in his mouth and force him to wear make-up, Chris O’Dowd escaped reality through drawing. “I used to doodle and talk to myself,” he admits. “A lot.”
Those schoolboy sketches anticipated the animated daydreaming of Moone Boy, the autobiographical sitcom set and shot in his hometown of Boyle in north-west Ireland. He plays Sean Murphy, the goofy, misguided imaginary friend of young Martin Moone.
“I feel, in a funny kind of way, that Martin has an imaginary friend because I wish I’d had one,” he smiles. “Even though ours was a very full house, he has Sean essentially because he feels like this lonely skiff in a sea of mad, violent women, these menstroid maniacs. He doesn’t have any strong male companionship. And I was very much the same.”
Ultimately though, “all that persecution paid off” for the 34-year-old, who cuts a relaxed figure in a pale blue shirt and jeans, his erstwhile scruffy beard looking trim as he lounges in a London hotel room. Since his first significant role as a stand-up comic in Annie Griffin’s 2005 film Festival, O’Dowd has been at ease in comedy written, directed and dominated by women, from his US breakthrough as the affable traffic cop in Bridesmaids, to his protective turn as the manager of an Aborigine girlband touring war-torn Vietnam in The Sapphires.
“I’m drawn to female-driven stuff and feel very comfortable with women because of my upbringing” he ventures. “Maybe there’s something they see in me too for the same reason. When women write well, it’s particularly special, the characterisations are so much richer.”
Bridesmaids bestowed international sex symbol status on the strapping, 6’4” Irishman with the self-dismissed “teddy bear” looks. But that hasn’t dissuaded him from playing “absolute arseholes”, such as venture capitalist Thomas-John in the US series Girls.
Only a “genius” like the show’s creator Lena Dunham, he maintains, could have surprised everyone by bringing the character back to triumphantly marry Jessa after his pathetic, aborted threesome attempt. Dunham gave him plenty of scope to improvise Thomas-John’s bitter rants, which were “tremendous fun. It’s not particularly in my nature to be nasty. But there’s a small part of all of us that wants to be a dick.”
Although it’s unlikely that he’ll return to Girls, “though never say never”, he plays another sleazy lothario in the salsa comedy Cuban Fury, in cinemas now. As the backstabbing Drew, attempting to shimmy Rashida Jones away from lovable loser Nick Frost, O’Dowd was surprisingly “snake-hipped” according to his co-star Kayvan Novak, which will astonish anyone who catches Moone Boy’s forthcoming Dirty Dancing homage.
“He’s being kind,” O’Dowd grins. “I did maybe three months of dance training and didn’t really use any of it. I actually felt like I was going to have an aptitude for it because I was sporty growing up and thought that hand-eye co-ordination would just translate into being a good dancer. But every day was a fresh reminder of how wrong I was. Often it was a case of making sure I was doing something with my face so that people weren’t looking below my waist.”
He had envisaged the salsa as a chance to get in shape and impress his wife, the journalist Dawn O’Porter, with whom he currently lives in LA. “But I tended to go drinking afterwards, so it didn’t really work out like that.”
The couple plan to have children as soon as his schedule relents, “because I want to be available for my kids”. He jokes that he’s slipped “anti-growth hormones” to Moone Boy’s child actors to keep them looking young enough for more series.
In reality, he feels extremely protective towards the first-time actors, “very conscious that I’ve changed their lives forever”. David Rawle, the wide-eyed 12-year-old who plays Martin, is from a matriarchal home too and they’ve grown close. “Our families are very similar,” he says. “His town is just up the road from mine.”
Rawle is currently advising him and his co-writer Nick Vincent Murphy on their Moone Boy spin-off books. “I’m sending him pages and he’s kind of editing it, which is really fun. Obviously, he’s just a kid but you can tell he’s a really lovely person, very kind, funny and smart. I know that’s going to disappear when he becomes a teenager. So I’ll enjoy it now as I’m sure he’ll be a nightmare in two years.”
Preadolescence, O’Dowd wistfully remembers, was an “incredibly spongy” time that he recalls “very vividly… I was very open to the world, before I discovered drinking. And girls. And all that.”
A third series of Moone Boy has already been shot, with O’Dowd stepping behind the camera for the first time. “It’s been a real eye-opener, showing me my future. I definitely want to write and direct a lot more and probably act a bit less as time goes on.” He anticipates future storylines embracing Britpop, “which was really big for me growing up, I was a huge Oasis fan. I definitely want to keep it going so I can write Martin being a big Blur fan and [his friend] Padraic as a big Oasis fan, with them duelling and perhaps falling out.”
The understated, BBC/HBO joint-production Family Tree that gave O’Dowd his first lead role on US television last year was criminally cancelled but he hints that there could be similar developments on the big screen soon, “a few things that will probably happen in the autumn”. He’s already shot an untitled Lance Armstrong biopic, playing the Irish journalist David Walsh. And he was delighted to perform alongside Bill Murray in the upcoming St. Vincent de Van Nuys. “A very bright, ethereal, spiritual and hilarious dude. Just goes round on a scooter. I liked him a lot.”
Rehearsals for his Broadway debut in Of Mice and Men with James Franco start in a couple of weeks. He will channel his memories of being an ungainly six-footer at the age of 11 to play the childlike Lennie, a giant oblivious to his own strength. “I’ve a few people I might base it on though,” he muses. “It’s a massive challenge to play someone mentally disabled. I’m going to have to just let it develop.”
He also pops up in his friend and former IT Crowd co-star Richard Ayoade’s The Double as a nurse. And this April he portrays a cuckolded “yokel butcher” in Calvary, the latest black comedy-drama from The Guard’s John Michael McDonagh. A dark, thoughtful film that focuses on Brendan Gleeson’s good-hearted priest, condemned to die by one of his parishioners, it’s “exactly the sort” of project that O’Dowd wants to direct himself one day. He and Murphy have written a screenplay about the Celtic Tiger property boom but he feels he’s “too young” at the moment to play the corrupt developer, “a chancer who winds up as part of the government”.
The committed manchild also wants to make a Moone Boy film, returning the series, which started as one of Sky’s Little Crackers strand of shorts, to its festive origins with a Christmas movie arriving in cinemas at the end of 2015. Before that, “the next thing I’m going to do in America is probably sell this format and do a US version”. Likening it to the Alaskan series Northern Exposure, “I’m thinking maybe Minnesota. Setting it somewhere snowy should be all kinds of fun.”
Series two of ‘Moone Boy’ starts tonight at 9pm on Sky1. ‘Cuban Fury’ is in cinemas now