In 'Moone Boy,' Actor Chris O'Dowd Shares Memories Of Growing Up Irish
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our 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")
KRISTEN WIIG: (As Annie) I didn't know that you could be a cop here if you weren't a citizen.
O'DOWD: (As Officer Rhodes) You can't.
WIIG: (As Annie) No?
O'DOWD: (As Officer 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 Officer 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 "Cavalry," "St. Vincent," "This Is 40" and "The Sapphires." He's been in several British TV series, including "The IT Crowd." Last year, he earned a Tony nomination for his performance opposite James Franco in the Broadway revival of "Of Mice And Men." He created and co-stars in the British TV comedy series "Moone Boy," which is shot in his hometown in Ireland and is based on his memories of growing up there. The third season was recently released on Hulu. We spoke one year ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Chris O'Dowd, welcome to FRESH AIR. 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 to 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 OK?
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 (laughter).
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: That’s "Unchained Melody" playing in the background, which is funny – like, they're falling in love.
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.
GROSS: 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 (laughter). 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 sleepy, too.
MCDONALD: (As Liam Moone) Penises - vaginas.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) 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 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: That’s not a good recipe, right?
>>O’DOWD: It’s terribly awkward. There’s nothing worse.
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 - and the violence (laughter).
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 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: And - I know. That's (laughter) - 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. And so he shows up with makeup on his face. And everybody's kind of doing the oh-la-la thing (laughter) 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, I would - 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.
>>O’DOWD: I don’t know.
GROSS: 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. And…
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 were 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: (Laughter) 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 salesman 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: So you mention that you had - you have four siblings and you grew up with three older sisters. Who was the fourth sibling?
O'DOWD: Oh, then there's my older brother who's 10 years older than me, who I didn't put in the show because at that age he was gone. So I didn't really have anything for him to do in the show, if that makes sense. He would've been just too old. He's actually in the TV show, though. He's an actor as well. And he plays one of the dads in that scene, the Dads Anonymous.
GROSS: So in your series - I guess - is it one of the sisters? I think that's maybe one of the sisters says to Martin, the main character, the 12-year-old, that he was a mistake. I mean, accident, is what she says.
O'DOWD: That's right.
GROSS: So do you think you were an accident?
O'DOWD: Every Irish kid is an accident.
O'DOWD: This is - and I remember asking my mother about that 'cause that was another thing that came out. Essentially what she says in that scene is - the sister says to Martin, mom says that you were a mistake. And Martin looks really sad and I say to him, listen, don't worry, buddy. You weren't a mistake. You were an accident. And I remember my sister saying that to me when I was around that age. And I went to my mom years later and I said, listen, Mom, I want to get to the bottom of this. Like, I'm happy with the way that things have worked out. You know, we've a great relationship and I love you terribly. But was I an accident? And she said, you were all accidents. It was the '70s...
O'DOWD: ...Which actually made me feel much better bizarrely.
GROSS: My guest is actor Chris O'Dowd. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Irish actor Chris O'Dowd, who was in "Bridesmaids," "This Is 40," "Cavalry" and "St. Vincent" and had a reoccurring role on "Girls." He created and co-stars in the British TV series "Moone Boy," based on his memories growing up in a small Irish town. The third season was recently released on Hulu.
"Moone Boy" is shot in your hometown in Ireland. Are many of the people who were there when you were growing up still there?
O'DOWD: A bunch of them, yeah. And it's very - it's a bizarre experience kind of filming. And it's a very small town, maybe 1,500, 2,000 people. So I kind of know everybody there, really - anybody over the age of 20. And so it is - it's lovely kind of filming on the streets and having people coming up and not necessarily knowing the way that filming works. They just kind of walk up and say hey and start passing the time of day while you're in the middle of a scene. And it feels very horrible to go, I can't actually talk, I'm working right now. It feels very vague 'cause they're all these streets that I've been walking on since I was a bawbag.
GROSS: Do some of those people hate you now because maybe they don't like the way the town and the people are depicted in "Moone Boy?"
O'DOWD: I honestly haven't had anything but good feedback from it. I think it's a very loving look at it. I'm not trying to poke fun at small-town life or - I think it was - I do think it's a very fair depiction of it and a very loving depiction of it. And I try to shoot it in a way that it looks nice as well. So I feel people seem to really, really enjoy it. That's the impression I get anyway. I'm sure behind my back, it's very (unintelligible) otherwise.
GROSS: Now, you had a part in the Christopher Guest mockumentary series "Family Tree." And I know that you found out that your great-grandfather was a bigamist. I don't think that revelation had anything to do with being in this mockumentary about genealogy. But how did you find that out and how did that change your conception of what your family was?
O'DOWD: (Laughter) Well, I think I found out through somebody drunkenly telling me in a pub that - a person that probably had been sworn to secrecy about it. And it didn't change - it didn't really change the way I thought about my family at all. I kind of - if anything it made it feel more interesting. The show - the "Family Tree" show was essentially a parody of "Who Do You Think You Are?" And at the time, I would get asked a lot if I'd like to go and do the show "Who Do You Think You Are?" Like, celebrities and whoever go into their lives. They essentially look at their family tree. And they go off and they discover that their great-grandmother lost a child, and the child that survived was their great-grandfather. And then there's loads of tears. They'll end up in Serbia, where their ancestors used to live and all these kind of things. And they're - particularly because America is such a relatively new country, the tree would expand and expand into these - the furthest corners of the world. But when I started looking into mine, I found that the very first O'Dowds are from 20 minutes from where we live now.
O'DOWD: So I could never really do - that would be the worst television.
O'DOWD: You know, your great-great-grandfather is just sitting over there...
O'DOWD: ...Rather than he was a fiddle player in Vietnam.
GROSS: (Laughter) So it was kind of exhilarating to find out that your great-grandfather had a secret life?
O'DOWD: I'm glad that somebody got out.
GROSS: It sounds like you're glad you got out?
O'DOWD: (Laughter) Yes.
GROSS: But you went back. You went back to shoot there, so you're there and not there.
O'DOWD: I did. It's just - it's the gift that keeps on giving.
GROSS: So 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: But - 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. And I – (laughter) 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 that 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.
>>O’DOWD: I'm delighted. Do you want some extra bullets? Is that what we're paying - no? This newt in, you know, New Zealand - oh, good, 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: Oh, what’s some of the names that you’d make up?
O'DOWD: (Laughter) Well, the one that was 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 I would tell people this and they would say - they would say, I've - that’s – I’ve just never heard of it. And I'd be like, well, it's endangered. You know, 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 salmon.
GROSS: (Laughter) This is 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: We're listening to my interview with Chris O'Dowd. The third season of his British TV comedy series "Moone Boy" was recently released on Hulu. After a break, he'll talk about his roles in "Bridesmaids" and "Girl." Also, Ken Tucker will review the new album by the Welsh band Joanna Gruesome and David Bianculli will review some new DVD box sets. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Irish actor Chris O'Dowd. He created and co-stars in the British TV comedy series "Moone Boy," which is based on his memories of growing up in a small Irish town where the show is actually shot. The third season was recently released on Hulu. O'Dowd also co-starred in "Bridesmaids," "This Is 40," and "Calvary" and had a recurring role on "Girls."
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 Wiig 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 out 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 little 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 tail light 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 tail lights 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?
JOHN 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: 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?
ALLISON WILLIAMS: (As Marnie Michaels) 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 f****** 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 f****** day in the real world and I see all these stupid little daddy's girls with their f****** bowler hats - what are you doing with a f****** 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.
JEMIMA KIRKE: (As Jessa Johansson) Yeah, well, we're not laughing at your rug, trust me.
WILLIAMS: (As Marnie Michaels) We're not laughing - don't...
KIRKE: (As Jessa Johansson) We're laughing at your mash-ins.
O'DOWD: (As Thomas-John) It's mash-ups.
GROSS: (Laughter) 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 his money in an album intended to revive rocker Graham Parker's career. And you're 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 briefly 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. He's incredibly smart, but also very, very well-prepared. 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.
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 f*****.
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 in 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 me 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 it's OK to fail sometimes. That's how art works.
GROSS: Chris O'Dowd created and co-stars in the British TV comedy series "Moone Boy." The third season was recently released on Hulu. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album by the Welsh band Joanna Gruesome. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.