Before "Get Shorty," Chris O'Dowd was known for his comic work in the likes of "Bridesmaids," "The IT Crowd," and many other, mostly nice-guy roles. Thus, his casting in the Epix series as a murderous thug breaking into movie producing (insert Hollywood joke here) caught some off-guard – including the 6-foot-3 O'Dowd himself.
"Initially … I was a little surprised because it's not what people generally know me for, but at the time, I was looking for something which didn't feel very familiar," he said during a chat at The Envelope video studio.
But there's plenty of dimension to his Miles Daly (the series protagonist, in place of Chili Palmer from the Elmore Leonard novel and the 1995 film). Everything he does, including his attempted career change, his constant hustling and the sometimes-brutal actions that follow, is rooted in his love for his wife and daughter.
"He's almost got a bit of a Willy Loman quality, this Miles character that I play," O'Dowd said, invoking the "Death of a Salesman" character.
How did the makers of "Get Shorty" settle on you for the role?
That's a good question. I'm not sure they're totally settled on me. I think that idea was initially Allen Coulter's, who directed it. He's a terrific director who did lots of genres of this ilk … and knew what people needed to look tough. I think he was taken by my sheer mass.
I understand you studied politics and sociology at the University of Dublin?
Yeah, then I went to drama school in London right after, and I was there for like two years. I thought I was going to be a classically trained Shakespearean actor. Never too late. It was a drama school that really taught through very traditional methods, so we would do quite straight plays. For two or three years after I'd finished I had been going for auditions and auditions, and the thing that seemed to be sticking was comedic in nature. But it would be kind of nice, scratching the itch of doing more straight-up drama roles.
Give Kenneth Branagh a call.
I auditioned for him once. They were going to do this adaptation of ["The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society"]; it's a very popular book. Kate Winslet was the female lead, and Kenneth Branagh was going to direct it. And they were looking at people to play the male lead. They had narrowed it down to myself, Damian Lewis and Dominic West. And we were all going to go and audition with Kate in costume on the same day. And whenever I see Dominic West or Damian Lewis, we always bring it up, because the day after we all tested for it, they decided to just not do the movie. [laughs] Such was the quality of our individual auditions. [The film went on to be made with Mike Newell directing, and Lily James and Matthew Goode starring.]
What are some of the specific physical things you look to bring to Miles Daly? You talk about standing up straight, for instance.
Yes, posture. But also, I used to get in fights a lot as a kid. And you find that getting hit, it's not that bad. You can tell people have been hit before if they're in a situation where that looks like a possibility, and how close they stand to the other person. If you're not afraid to be hit, you don't mind being close to someone. And also, if you're close to them, you can't get hit that hard. So taking things like that into it, getting close to people without ever feeling like you're intimidated was a large part of it, being still in those moments.
When did you feel like you were on the right track there?
You can feel it within the scenes. You can tell that working with Ray [Romano]. Initially, I could tell that he felt uneasy around me when we were doing scenes, which is kind of what I wanted.
He seems like such a sweet guy.
He's the loveliest man. Making him feel uncomfortable is a real joy.
The show has incorrectly been called a reboot of the book and film.
It's like visiting a bar at a different time. The book is a wonderful kind of source material, and the film, which I really enjoyed, is kind of like visiting the bar on a Saturday night at 8 when everybody's dressed to the nines. They've got all their best lines. And our show is like visiting the bar at 3 in the morning, when a couple of barstools have been knocked over, there's blood on the counter, and your girlfriend hates you. But it's essentially the same bar. I don't know why all of my analogies have bars in them, that's disappointing.
We see so many different dimensions of him, this relationship with his wife and his daughter …
I'm a family man who's trying to keep my family together, and maintain a relationship with my daughter, who is Shorty. And while also being something of a crude manipulator, trying to guide us to safety and to a better life, while also having to do horrible things to achieve that.
The fact that she's Shorty is also symbolic of the difference between your show and the film. In the film, it's Danny DeVito.
We should point out that Danny DeVito plays my daughter. What a wonderful performance, though. You would never know.