In the Epix adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s 1990 novel Get Shorty , actor Chris O’Dowd plays a decidedly un-Chili Palmer-like character, trading sheen for grit as a hapless henchman in search of a way out and a way back to the family he’s already lost because of his violent job. The change diverged dramaticaly fram an earlier adaptation, the flashy and beloved John Travoltya-starring, Barry Sonnenfeld-directed film from 1995. But despite those differences, O’Dowd was still apprehensive about jumping into a story with so much history.
We spoke with the Irish-born actor about those worries, his past aversion to violent roles, the deep Irish roots of his character’s love for movies, what made The IT Crowd work, and the blurred lines between comedy and drama.
Do you get offered these kinds of roles often? The heavy, the muscle, the mob tough? I haven’t seen you do that kind of thing before.
This is probably a first. No, I don’t get offered guys whose physicality is of huge import to them. I think I’ve used a gun once in a movie, in a movie called Calvary. But it was quite an intense drama about a pedophilic priest, and it wasn’t treated casually. So it’s not something I’ve ever even necessarily wanted to do, or looked to do, until it suddenly came across my desk and I was like, “God, that feels difficult and scary and I’m really tempted by it.”
What was it about that kind of role that you didn’t want to do in the past? Was it just that you didn’t find the right project, or was it that you didn’t really want to hold a gun and be part of a violent story?
I’m not a big gun guy. I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to come home at the end of the day and be like, “Hey, I got to shoot a gun today!” That’s not really my vibe. And more than that, even, I generally find that the characters in those kinds of things aren’t particularly well-drawn or significantly interesting enough to play. But I felt like this character had more dimensions and that he had a genuine purpose. That he wasn’t violent for the sake of violence. He was, if anything, trying to get away from it. And he was a lover of movies and was a lover of family, and stuff that is probably more relatable to me.
Did you help to make the role your own or was this all kind of there — the family aspect and his personality?
I think those elements were pretty much there. In terms of where he was from, I’m genuinely not sure if he was Irish before I signed on. It was never something that I had even asked them about. They just said, “We want you to play it Irish.” I think they probably wanted to accentuate the fish out of water part of it, so even if they hadn’t gone with me, they may have gone for a non-American actor.
In terms of other things I would’ve brought to it, I did bring in… we kind of talked about why this guy is such a lover of movies. And I remember reading some articles about Northern Ireland during The Troubles in the ’80s and ’90s, during the darkest days of terrorism over there, and nowhere was safe. Pubs weren’t safe and libraries weren’t safe. But for some reason, cinemas had become somewhat of a safe haven for Catholics and Protestants and they knew that they wouldn’t get attacked there. And it did strike me that if this guy had gone there a lot as a young kid, it would seem like quite a magical place, and I’m sure would have given him an intense love of movies. So we did end up shooting that kind of thread in the later episodes.
Was there any hesitation approaching something that had been adapted already? A kind of worry about the preconceived notions of what this would be? Because I know when I first heard this was coming, I thought it was going to be a lot closer to what the film was. It’s clearly not.
I was very hesitant. I was even skeptical that it would work, if I’m honest. It feels somehow ungratifying to re-adapt something. But I didn’t go into it with any preconceptions because I hadn’t seen the movie. Which probably helped.
I actually watched the movie for the first time last week, or maybe two weeks ago now. But at the time, I thought it might not be useful, creatively, to watch somebody else take on that world. But I had read the book, and really enjoyed it, so I felt like there was enough in that world that I could get my teeth sunk into.
Having watched the movie, I feel like [the show] is a very different portrayal of the writing than the movie was. I think they both work great, but this is certainly… you could put them side by side and if they didn’t have the same title and a similar premise, they would feel like entirely different entities.
Yeah, I definitely agree with that. I think the family part alone… there are differences in what the character’s motivations are.
Yeah, I feel like Chili Palmer, in the book and in the movie, is so much higher up the food chain. That ingredient makes it a very different characterization. The desperation that my character [Miles Daly] has, I would find much easier to play.
I don’t know if I could do cool and slick as well as Travolta. I don’t think anybody could at that time.
Are we going to see this character get influenced by success at some point? He’s kind of in the grind of trying to get the movie made, are we going to see him deal with that at some point? I know it might be hard to answer that without spoiling anything.
Yeah, it’s definitely something that we’re talking about now, as we’re trying to have early talks about what we want to do in season two. You want to see him struggle for a little longer. And I think you probably want to see how he deals with success, which hopefully will be not be too smoothly.
But one of the things that drew me to the whole project was, in a way, because we’re opening the boundaries a bit, there’s no reason that this guy can’t end up running a huge studio. Like at the end of season four or whatever, this guy could be running — through vicious and normal means — he could be running Universal by season three or season four. Or be on his ass back in Nevada trying to get things back up again. It kind of depends, I guess, what we feel is working.
Was Ray Romano signed on when you agreed to do this, or did that come later?
It was in and around the same time. I can’t remember if it was in my first meeting, but if not, very, very close. I was excited by the prospect of that. I’d just been watching him in Vinyl and really liked what he was doing. I could tell that he was trying to make really interesting work, and I had been a big fan of Men of a Certain Age, so I was delighted. And he has a great screen presence. There is something very empathetic that he portrays, even when he’s doing dastardly things, which is actually a tougher trick than you would imagine.
Do you think we’re moving past that… I don’t want to say it’s a stigma, but there’s always that view that there’s a novelty to comedic actors doing drama. Do you think we’re moving past it?
I think so. I feel like as the lines between comedy and drama have become thinner, that’s also helped. I mean, we don’t live in a big sitcom world anymore, necessarily. It’s not a multi-camera genre. When you see shows like Louie or Veep or whatever, it’s hard to tell sometimes if it’s… there are much less kind of big laugh-inducing shows. So I think actors are fleeting between the genres much more swiftly.
Were something like The IT Crowd to come back, would that be a detriment? Because of the fact that we’re moving away from those kinds of sitcom worlds?
I mean, to be honest, when we were doing the show, it felt like we were very much going against the grain, because The Office had just come out, and… It kind of reminds me of what I’m going through right now, weirdly, because when you’re in pre-production, before anybody has seen the show, and we’re like, “Oh, we’re kind of making this office-based show. It’s three people who are kind of disenfranchised,” and everybody’s like, “Oh, it’s just like The Office!” And before anybody has seen it, it feels like such a ridiculous comparison.
But I always thought that that show worked well because it was a big laugh show. It was an untraditional studio sitcom, so it worked quite well. It felt quite subversive like that. It was big set pieces and fires, and it was almost winking at the audience that, “We know that this feels super traditional and we’re not doing that version of it, at all.”
So I think if it were to come back, it would always be a studio sitcom, because it’s in the very DNA of it.