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A Chat with Chris O’Dowd (“The IT Crowd”)

You lot over the UK may have been well familiar with “The IT Crowd” for quite some time now, but here the States, we’ve only just recently gotten the opportunity to be introduced to it. First, we had the Independent Film Channel (IFC) to thank, and now MPI Home Video has released Season 1 of the series onto DVD. Actually, there had been talk that the set would be released quite some time ago, but, then, that was back when NBC was still threatening to give us an Americanized version of the show. After those plans were canceled, so was the release of the set…’til now. We had a chance to chat with Chris O’Dowd, who plays Roy on “The IT Crowd,” about his experiences on the show, and we took the opportunity to quiz him a bit about a couple of upcoming film roles, including the re-telling of “Gulliver’s Travels,” starring Jack Black and Jason Segel.

Stay tuned for…

Chris O’Dowd: Hello, Will!

Bullz-Eye: Hello, Chris! How are you?

CO: I’m really well. I’m walking on the beach in Venice.

BE: Now that’s a nice place to be. I’m stuck in Virginia, and it’s definitely not beach weather.

CO: Well, may I gloat as I walk. (Chuckles)

BE: Oh, please do, I’d appreciate that. (Laughs) Well, it’s a pleasure to talk to you.

CO: Thanks very much.

BE: I’m glad the “The I.T. Crowd” has finally gotten a DVD release over here. They put it off forever, but it’s here at last.

CO: Yeah, it’s terrific. I guess they kind of, you know,they’ll wait for more series to come out before they start releasing it around the world.

BE: Well, I know it was originally in talks for release as soon as they were talking about bringing an American version to air. But when that fell through, suddenly they yanked it from the schedule.

CO: Right, yeah. It always works like that.

BE: But it’s hilarious and, certainly, the comedy transcends British-ness…to say the least.

CO: Oh, that’s great. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

BE: So what was your IT or computer background when you first took on the job?

CO: Well, I mean, I knew a little bit about computers and stuff, and I have a lot of problems with computers. Not necessarily technical problems, more like spillages and dropping stuff on laptop. More like hand-to-mouth problems than Windows Vista or anything. My brother-in-law is an IT guy, so I kind of use him a little bit for research for it. And he’s also kind of a grumpy IT guy, so I kind of used him a little bit for the characterization.

BE: Excellent. So how much of a geek would you consider yourself to be?

CO: I’m, like, 18% geek. If I were to have to put a number on it, which I think I do, I’m going to go with 18%.

BE: That’s not really a bad geek to normal quotient, I think.

CO: No, I mean, I like a lot of websites and some nerdy websites, but I’m also able to play tennis.

BE: Just going outside is half the battle.

CO: Yeah, there you go. I’m not afraid of the sun.

BE: So how well developed a character was Roy when they first handed you the script? I mean, did he evolve considerably from script to first filming?

CO: I mean, I guess the bigger change was that, in the script, he was English. So then to make him Irish, because I ended up getting cast in it, was the biggest change. But other than that, it was pretty much there. Graham (Linehan, who created the show) likes to say that the characters essentially…both Roy and Moss are versions of him at a different time of his life. So Roy is Graham at 25 and Moss is Graham at 15. So there’s a lot of characterization there. The writer is kind of basing it slightly on himself.

BE: So does Graham get out much these days?

CO: No, he’s got two kids, so he hasn’t left the house since ’98. I think.

BE: How quickly did you feel the show became a hit in the UK? I mean, I got the impression that “Have you tried turning it on and off again?” became a catch phrases almost right out of the box.

CO: Yeah, I mean, it did. And it had a very specific audience very early on, and there was a lot of people that really, really loved it. But I kind of feel that it really took off, in terms of the whole country, after the second series came out. People had watched the repeats of the first series, and then the second series, we kind of ventured out of the office a little bit more, so it became a bit more universal. I think around then, people really, really took to it.

BE: We did a review for the first season set for our site, and the fellow who did the review observed that he didn’t feel like it really took off as its own series until the fourth episode.

CO: Yeah, and I think that’s probably fair. Like I said, I think for me it was even the seventh or eighth episode, then it really kind of came into its own.

BE: Well, I think that he felt it was more of a traditional office comedy in the first three episodes, but then when you got the kind of surreal bit of bringing the Goth employee into the picture…

CO: No, I think that’s a really good point. It’s the reality of the show that kind of permeates all of the normal, standard sitcom kind of stuff is what makes the show individual. The more of that that we throw in, I think the better.

BE: Now you had plenty of television experience prior to coming aboard to this show. You had worked on “The Clinic” and “Roman’s Empire”.

CO: That’s right. Well, “Roman’s” is actually after “The IT Crowd”.

BE: Oh, okay. Sorry.

CO: No, that’s alright. I guess I did it after we shot the first season of “The IT Crowd.” But, yeah, for three years, I had done kind of like a medical drama in Ireland. But I was essentially playing the comedy character, I guess. So I would just be kind of wheeled in to do a couple of gags and then leave again, never leaving the comfort of my chair. It was a great ground in. It was a nice way to learn how to shoot very quickly, which you generally have to do on a sitcom set.

BE: So when did you first get into acting? I mean, were you someone who did a little bit of stage first and then moved into television beyond that?

CO: Yeah, I went to university and got a degree in politics. While I was there, I got really involved in the drama society and everything. I did a lot of plays, then decided to go to drama school in London. I went and did that, then shuffled around doing some terrible part time job for a year or so until I got a break. And that was maybe seven or eight years ago.

BE: How often does the degree in politics help you out these days?

CO: Not once yet. I imagine it’s only a matter of time.

BE: Surely any day now.

CO: My major was in Northern Irish conflict, so I just need for that to kick off again for me to really come into my own. So hopefully there will be a bit of terrorism up north soon, so I can look clever.

BE: I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.

CO: Yeah, thanks.

BE: So how well did the cast of “The IT Crowd” gel when you all first got together? Had you known either of the two?

CO: Yeah, I knew them both, actually. We all kind of…it was a very organic process of getting together, because Richard and I had done a film together called “Festival”, where we didn’t actually have much stuff together, but we hung out a lot. And so he was the first one cast, and when they were stuck looking for my character, he suggested me. So it was him that put me up for it. And then I got cast. And Katherine I had been in drama school with, and I thought she would be great. So I asked them to audition her for it, and she got the job. So it kind of worked like that. So we all knew each other and we got on really well. And we get on so, so well now. It’s amazing.

BE: I actually was familiar with Richard before I was familiar the rest of you, I guess courtesy of…

CO: Oh, “Garth (Merenghi’s Darkplace”)!

BE: Yeah, absolutely.

CO: Oh, yeah, it’s such a great show, isn’t it?

BE: Yeah, they played it over here on the Sci-Fi Network, but they didn’t know what to make of it, so they moved it over to Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network. I don’t think they knew what to make of it, either. But I just thought it was hilarious.

CO: Oh, yeah, I think it’s such a great show. He’s such a clever guy. He wrote and directed that as well, you know.

BE: I did. And “Dean Learner”, I’ve seen some clips of that as well.

CO: Yeah, there’s some funny stuff in “Dean Learner”.

BE: So although I haven’t actually seen his episodes yet, I knew that Matt Berry is also on “The IT Crowd” as well.

CO: Oh, you’re going to love it. He does such a great job in the show.

BE: Yeah, his song “One Track Lover” from “Darkplace”…

CO: Oh, God, that is the funniest, funniest thing, isn’t it?

BE: I’ve actually got an MP3 of it on my iPod.

CO: Lovely. He put out an album you know.

BE: I did not know that.

CO: Oh, you’ve got to check it out. Check out…I want to say it’s called “Witch Hazel” or something. So maybe Google “witch hazel.” (Writer’s note: I have no clue what O’Dowd was thinking about, because it turns out that Berry’s album is called Opium.) It’s a whole album…because he kind of tours singing songs and doing a very odd comedy performance.

BE: Well, there’s a clip of a live version of him doing “One Track Lover,” so I knew he had done some concerts. But I didn’t know he actually had an album out.

CO: Oh, check it out. You know, it’s really well produced. It’s like a normal album, but it’s kind of funny and quite surreal.

BE: Well, having not seen anything from the second or third seasons yet, how does the dynamic change on the series between the first one and the second?

CO: I mean, in a way, I think we become more comfortable as performers. In terms of dealing with the audience and stuff, it becomes a bit more…not necessarily naturalistic, but a bit more like we’re in control. And we’re driving the comedy rather than the comedy driving us. Sometimes I felt in the first series that we just got caught up a little bit trying to make the jokes sound great, rather than making the characters look good and letting the jokes speak for themselves. If that makes any sense.

BE: Yeah, I understand that.

CO: So I think that, as the dynamic got a bit better, it became more character-based as a comedy, because we were doing it a bit better and he was able to write that in. So the relationships are stronger, and then once the relationships are strong and you believe them, the situations can become even more absurd. You know, in the first episode of the second season, I end up pretending that I’m disabled for the entire episode. There’s also a gay musical called “Gay.” I mean, it’s quite full on high farce but really natural and funny.

BE: Actually, speaking of gayness, a friend of mine over in the UK, when I asked her if she had any questions for me, said to ask you, “Did you enjoy your gay kiss when you became football hooligans for the day?”

CO: Oh, yeah, that was funny. I mean, I found it very odd that…Richard really got into it. I mean, a little bit more than I was comfortable with. You know, the kissing was fine, but when he dropped the hands, it was a bit full on for me. You know, we hadn’t even been out for dinner.

BE: Yikes. Well, I wanted to ask you a couple of things about some other stuff you’ve been working on.

CO: Sure.

BE: Now are you still working on “Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel,” or is that fully wrapped?

CO: No, that’s done. That’s out in a few weeks.

BE: Alright. Excellent.

CO: And a film of mine came out last week…or this week. Actually, it opens today in London, called “The Boat That Rocked”.

BE: Oh, okay. Right, I saw that on your IMDb page.

CO: Yeah, it’s a new Richard Curtis film. But it comes out stateside on the 28th of August.

BE: Well the time travel film, the concept alone had me immediately psyched.

CO: Sure, yeah, it’s really fun, you know? And we’ve got Anna Faris in it. It’s essentially about three guys…I’m kind of the leader, who is obsessed with time travel. Then we go to a pub and start drinking, and then one of the guys goes into a toilet and comes out and he’s gone 15 minutes into the past. So, like, it’s a really low key time travel movie where we never actually leave the pub, but we travel forward and back in time. And then towards the end of the evening, we’re not sure whether it’s really happened or whether we’ve just drunk too much.

BE: Nice. Yeah, I saw a description where they referred to it as a cross between “Dr. Who” meets “Shaun of the Dead”.

CO: Wow, that’s nice. I could live with that.

BE: You were in “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People,” albeit briefly.

CO: Yeah, very, very briefly. Somebody said that Bob Weide was making a movie in London, and they called me up, like, a couple of days beforehand, and asked if I wanted to go in and do, like, a day on it. I said, yeah. I’m a big “Curb Your Enthusiasm” fan, and he directs that, so I was there with bells on.

BE: And with “The Boat That Rocked”, I had actually read about it, I just didn’t realize it was coming out quite so quickly. What was your knowledge of the whole pirate radio scene from the ‘60s, before going into the film?

CO: I mean, my parents had told me a lot about it, and I’m really into the music of that time. So I listened to a lot of the recordings, and luckily there is so much stuff on YouTube and everything now. So to get the tone and the taste of it right, I just listened to a lot of stuff. And then we were all taught how to work the equipment of the time, which was really fun.

BE: Cool. So what’s the soundtrack of the film like? Is it a mixture of the popular and the obscure?

CO: Yeah, it’s incredible. I mean, there’s just so much great stuff on it. You know it’s The Kinks and The Who. I think there is some Hendrix on there. It’s really, really great. It’s just every track is a classic track.

BE: And then you’re also part of the TV series “FM”. Is that right?

CO: That’s right, which is a show that I think airs its final episode of the first season tonight. Where I play a modern Indie DJ.

BE: You’re just making the radio rounds.

CO: I’m just trying to free myself from being a nerd. So I go to play DJs and sportsmen.

BE: Well, with that series, who was responsible for picking the artists who performed on there?

CO: On “FM”? I guess the producers were, you know.

BE: Okay. I didn’t know if the cast themselves got to have any say or not.

CO: I mean, we kind of…I think I vetoed a couple of bands, but that’s as far as it went.

BE: Well, I saw that Hot Leg, with Justin Hawkins singing, was in the first episode.

CO: That’s right; he is in the first episode.

BE: I have yet to hear his new band, but I was a huge Darkness fan.

CO: Yeah, I was a Darkness fan. I haven’t heard his new band, either. He’s a nice guy, though. He was really fun.

BE: So where do your personal music tastes lie?

CO: Oh, I mean, I go through phases, you know? I listen to a lot of Indie music, a lot of new bands and stuff. But then I’ll also listen to…I like a lot of Gospel stuff. Sam Cooke and Al Green, Dorothy Cole, and stuff like that. And then I’ll go into a bit of a Dylan phase for awhile, and then people who are trying to imitate Dylan. You know, it comes and goes.

BE: What’s the word on “Gulliver”?

CO: “Gulliver’s Travels” starts in three weeks time. I actually fly back to London this weekend to start learning how to ride a horse.

BE: Oh, nice.

CO: Yeah, so that’s going to be interesting.

BE: I take it you have no equestrian background at all?

CO: I really don’t. I’m fucking shitting myself. And I’m a big guy; I’m, like, 6′ 4″, so I have no idea what size this fucking horse is going to be. So I’ve decided on day one, I’m just going to let him know who’s boss.

BE: Probably the best way to handle it.

CO: Which will consist of me quietly whispering into his ear, “Mr. Horse, you are the boss.”

BE: So when you found out who all was going to be in the cast of the film (Jack Black, Jason Segel, and Emily Blunt), did you just completely shit yourself? /strong>

CO: Yeah, I mean, it was really exciting. I went to see “I Love You, Man” last night.

BE: Oh, that’s great, isn’t it?

CO: I loved it. I kind of fell in love with Jason Segel a bit. So I’m really looking forward to working with him. During the audition process, I did some stuff with Jack, so I got to meet him and he was really nice. So I’m really excited about it, they are great people.

BE: Be sure to quiz Jason Segel all about his Muppet movie he is writing.

CO: He’s writing a Muppet movie?

BE: Absolutely. He has apparently finished the script.

CO: I didn’t know about that. Wow, how exciting!

BE: So back to the “The IT Crowd.” I know you were not cast within the American version that was planned, but how much were you all involved on the backend? I mean, were people coming to you to find out how to play your character in the American version?

CO: No, I never talked to any of them. I mean, they did ask me to be involved quite early on, but I was shooting that “Roman’s Empire” thing, so I couldn’t do the pilot. But I haven’t seen it, I don’t really know anything about it, to be honest.

BE: Okay. Yeah, I mean, I know the situation was that the network changed presidents and the new guy was less thrilled than the old guy, but…

CO: Yeah, yeah, that’s what I heard.

BE: Did you ever hear any reports from Richard about his experience working on the pilot?

CO: I think he had a good time, you know. The only problem, I thought, was that it was the same script and it was the same blocking, so it might have been a bit boring. That was the only thing that struck me about it.

BE: Well, that’s what they kind of did with “The Office” in the States, too. The first couple of episodes were identical to the original, and then they expanded.

CO: Yeah, it’s surprising that they didn’t really learn from it. Because I really thought the American “Office” just really took off when they stopped worrying about the British one. I don’t know why they didn’t try to do the same.

BE: Right, exactly. And actually, on a related note, when “The IT Crowd” originally premiered, were “The Office” comparisons…did you just get tons of those from the critics immediately?

CO: No, I mean, because the tone of the show was so strange. I remember before anybody saw the show, everybody was, like, “Oh, God, another show set in an office.” But then once you watch the show, I mean, it’s just so completely different in tone and characterization. I can’t remember any critic mentioning “The Office.” They are just so completely different.

BE: Right. I just didn’t know…the mere fact that they were set in an office, a lot of critics enjoy using the easy crutch.

CO: Yeah, absolutely. I guess they did before they saw it. But also Graham, you know, is a very renowned comedy writer in Britain, so he would generally miss all of that kind of crap. Do you know what I mean?

BE: Oh yeah, definitely. I’ve got the “Father Ted” box set, so I’m definitely well versed.

CO: Yeah, I mean, anybody who decides to write a program about three priests on an island is never going to get hassled for doing nothing original.

BE: Oh, and something else I meant to ask about. Neil Hannon does some of the music for the show.

CO: That’s right. He does the theme tune

BE: Yeah, I’m a very big Divine Comedy fan.

CO: Oh. yeah, he’s a great guy.

BE: Do you have any idea how he got hooked up with the show? I know he had also worked for “Father Ted,” too.

CO: Well, he did a lot on “Ted,” I guess, so Graham and he must be kind of close, and he got him again.

BE: Does he, like, pop ’round the set or anything?

CO: We’ve played poker a few times, and he really likes the show.

BE: How’s his poker face?

CO: Pretty terrible. I think I actually won the Divine Comedy back catalog.

BE: Oh nice. Very nice. If you could get that reissued in the states, that would be great.

CO: I don’t even mean the CDs. I mean I think I won the rights. And it was just on a pair of queens.

BE: Well, that’s just ridiculous. So what’s your favorite episode from the first season, if you can think back that far, given how far ahead you are now?

CO: God, let me think. What is there? God, remind me what there was.

BE: Well, I have to admit, my favorite episode was when you premiered the Goth character. There is the episode about stress, the episode where Moss starts the fire.

CO: Oh, yeah. Actually, I think that’s the same episode.

BE: Actually, I think you’re right. Sorry, I forgot what was the A story and what was the B story there.

CO: You know what, I’m going to go with the Goth in the cupboard as well. Yeah, I think that’s really funny. Noel is so funny in that.

BE: Cradle of Filth does not get enough sitcom love, for my money.

CO: Oh wow, that’s amazing. The Cradle of Filth. The Funeral.

BE: Does Richmond continue to pop up during the show beyond the first season?

CO: He does. He’s in the second season, but not so much in the third season, because he did his own show. But hopefully he will be back for the fourth.

BE: I understand that Denholm has a bit of an issue where he, uh, goes to hell at some point.

CO: That’s right. That’s really funny. Matt Berry comes in and plays Denholm’s son. After Denholm dies, then he…at some stage, he blacks out and he sees his father down a very lightened corridor and thinks that it’s the doorway to heaven, but then Hitler jumps out. Chris Morris tells him it’s not Hitler, it’s just a fancy dress party in heaven.

BE: What’s your favorite absurd quirk about Roy’s character?

CO: Oh, it doesn’t really come to the forefront in the first season, but later on, we find out that he is really, really cheap. Somebody lends him 20 pounds, and he spends the rest of the episode trying to get it back.

BE: Do you have a favorite of the geek related shirts that you wear or have worn?

CO: Oh, yeah, I like the “Look at the fucking manual” one, with Chairman Mao on the front. What is it? RTFM, or something like that.

BE: Right. Yeah, “Read the fucking manual.” Excellent. Alright, well I think that’s pretty much everything I’ve got here.

CO: Great. Thanks so much, man. Hope you enjoyed the beautiful day on the beach.(Laughs) Thanks very much, and thanks for talking to me!

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