the sapphires

An Afternoon of Ping-Pong With the Deceptively Athletic Chris O’Dowd

Photo: Peter Hapak/New York Magazine

Here we are! In the autumn of our youth!” Chris O’Dowd shouts from the patio of the Bowery Hotel, sucking down a cigarette to steel himself for what promises to be a miserable afternoon running errands in downtown Manhattan. The 33-year-old, six-foot-three Irishman who won over Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids had grander plans for our day together—namely a three-and-a-half-hour Sex and the City bus tour—but we’ve scrapped them thanks to a surprise downpour. Instead, we’ll brave the rain and walk to an electronics store so O’Dowd can buy a power cord for his laptop.

His enthusiasm waxes and wanes: “I was up for walking and then I looked outside and uraghh! It’s so fucking horrible!” Leaning in, he whispers, “We could just do nothing and go to a bar and tell them that we did it all.” Deep breath. “Let’s do it! We have umbrellas.”

Actually, he has an umbrella, which came with the hotel room, in which he’s staying on Harvey Weinstein’s dime while in town from London for the New York premiere of his new movie, The Sapphires, a musical comedy about an ­Aboriginal all-girl soul group that performed for American troops in Vietnam in 1968 (O’Dowd plays the group’s manager). My umbrella comes from a pile left carelessly unguarded near the entrance. “Nick that one,” he commands, running interference with the doorman as I grab it.

“Wow! This is ridiculous! We should definitely nip in somewhere for a drink,” says O’Dowd, forging blindly through the deluge in what he hopes is the direction of the Soho Apple store. He still gets lost in Manhattan; most of his visits to New York have been spent in Queens, where one of his three older sisters used to live (O’Dowd is the youngest of five siblings). “I know Brooklyn a tiny bit from doing Girls—the show, rather than my misspent youth.” Playing a douchey finance guy briefly married to Girls’ Jessa (Jemima Kirke) gave O’Dowd his first-ever glimpse of hipsterfied Greenpoint. “There were a lot of mustaches. A lot of Woody Woodpecker T-shirts,” he observes. “And the color mauve is really big—whoops!”

O’Dowd squeals as he leaps over a huge puddle. “Did it. That was a strong jump,” he declares. He says he’s wearing sneakers instead of boots to maximize his jumping ability. “With me, athleticism always comes first. Always has. And always will.” How athletic is he? “I’ve just got really strong calves. When I go to the gym, that’s all I work on. I know what chicks dig, and it’s calves.”

We come upon a Best Buy. O’Dowd pops in and grabs his power cord, pausing to note a DVD of Glee, which he hate-watched when the cast included an Irish exchange student named, “like, Johnny Leprechaun” (it was actually Rory Flanagan). “I had to stop watching when one of the other kids was convinced he was an actual leprechaun,” he says.

Photo: Peter Hapak/New York Magazine

Back on the street, he sees a T-shirt bearing two beer steins and the slogan LOVE IS BIG IRISH JUGS—and considers buying it for his wife of six months, British TV star Dawn O’Porter, just in case she’s Irish. “I actually don’t know where she’s from,” jokes O’Dowd. “You know when you meet somebody and you forgot to ask their name and eventually it’s just too late? I celebrate St. Andrew’s Day in case she’s Scottish, St. David’s in case she’s Welsh, and St. George’s in case she’s English. It would be too awkward to ask where she’s from now.” Brilliant idea: “I’m going to Google it, now that I’ve got a power adapter.”

Next we stop at Walgreens, where O’Dowd buys an electric razor and offers to treat me to a bag of cough drops. “Come on! Harvey Weinstein’s paying for them!” He still wants that drink, so he hails a cab to Fat Cat in the West Village, where in his single days O’Dowd would sometimes play Ping-Pong until 3 a.m.

Back then, O’Dowd’s fans were mostly British teenage boys who knew him as a computer geek from the sitcom The IT Crowd. Then Bridesmaids happened in 2011, and overnight, “women knew who I was,” he says. Since then, he’s played Maya Rudolph’s sex-starved husband in Friends With Kids and an employee of Paul Rudd’s record company in This Is 40. Upcoming movie roles include a “yokel butcher” in John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary and Nick Frost’s nemesis in the salsa-dancing comedy Cuban Fury. “For some reason, which I can’t even remember, we end up fighting through the medium of dance,” O’Dowd says. Was salsa dancing a skill he already had? “It’s not even a skill I have now, and I’ve done the movie.”

If singing and dodging explosions in The Sapphires doesn’t make O’Dowd a household name, then maybe HBO’s Family Tree (premiering in May) will. O’Dowd stars in Christopher Guest’s unscripted series as a sad sack who inherits a box from a great-aunt and becomes obsessed with genealogy. For Guest, who’s cultivated a stable of skilled improvisers (Catherine O’Hara, Michael McKean) through the years, trusting newcomer O’Dowd to carry the show is a big deal. “It’s always a challenge to find new people,” says Guest. “You can’t just say to anybody, ‘Now just make this up.’ ” But after meeting actors in London, Guest says, “I thought about it, and he was the only guy.”

When he gets home, O’Dowd will direct the third season of Moone Boy, an Irish sitcom based on his childhood in which he plays an imaginary friend to his 12-year-old self. But he might be most excited about a possible part opposite Bill ­Murray’s curmudgeonly war vet in St. Vincent de Van Nuys. “I think it’s important to work with your heroes, not just because it’s a cool thing to do but it breaks down any inferiority complexes that you can very easily build up in yourself,” says O’Dowd.

His Ping-Pong game does not lack for confidence. Before we start, he brags again about his athleticism, especially before he started smoking and drinking. “Ping-Pong is one of those sports where you don’t have to have any fitness level, so whatever competitiveness I have left, I pour into that.” He warns me: “I’m going to ridicule you. It’ll be relentless. The more you fuck up, the harder I’ll play. I grew up with sisters. Until there are tears, we keep going.” When I lob a ball into my drink, he claps: “Well, you’ve mastered beer pong.” Our game is over in less than five minutes, even though O’Dowd gives me a four-point advantage and sometimes plays left-handed. “Great game. Congrats,” he says. “Same time next year for the 2014 Open.”

After narrowly beating me at shuffleboard, he leaves to meet O’Porter. She’s been out shopping for bras, and he’s eager to inspect her haul. “Judging by the way things are going, it’s just some sports bra, kind of a monolithic boulder holder,” he predicts. “If you can see any of her midriff, I’d be surprised.” They’ve taken to saying the words hashtag marriage to each other whenever they worry they’re becoming boring. “I’ll go, ‘Hey baby, how are you doing?’ And she’ll go, ‘I’m pretty sleepy.’ And I’ll go, ‘I’m sleepy, too.’ And then she’ll say, ‘hashtag marriage’ and we’ll fall asleep.”

The next night at The Sapphires premiere party, O’Dowd sings the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself” and dances till he’s panting and sweating. “I blame the smoking,” he says. “Because, as you know, I’m very athletic.” He spies O’Porter in the crowd and makes a beeline. “I’m gonna get me a piece of that.”

*This article originally appeared in the April 8, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

An Afternoon of Ping-Pong With Chris O’Dowd