"You know," Irish actor Chris O'Dowd says of his new film, The Sapphires, "I agreed to make this sweet little movie in Australia, hoping against hope that it'd make it, maybe, as far as the shores of New Zealand. But the premiere in Dublin was wild. And here it is, opening wide in the States. Who knew?"
Indeed. The Sapphires, a musical set in the 1960s, is about Aboriginal soul singers who take their act (and their piano player/manager, played by O'Dowd) on tour in Vietnam, entertaining American troops. It certainly didn't have the whiff of a hit when it played at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. But now it does. A lot of that has to do with O'Dowd.
His character, as co-star Deborah Mailman says, "was English in the stage version" of The Sapphires, in which she starred in 2005. "But our director (Wayne Blair) knew Chris would bring that Irish sensibility into the story, the Irish being kind of downtrodden people, connecting to soul music, connecting to oppressed Aboriginal people in Australia. That was a stroke of genius."
O'Dowd is a leading man on the rise. Bridesmaids led to This Is 40 and Friends With Kids, and convinced HBO to back Family Tree, a series Christopher Guest co-created that stars O'Dowd; it premieres Sunday. Other projects are lining up to get the 33-year-old on board.
The actor, who got his first big break with the British TV series The IT Crowd, is taking an unusual path to stardom: doing yet another British TV series (Moone Boy) and an American series, simultaneously. He's joined Judd Apatow's extended comic family but took the time to study piano for a little Australian movie that seemed to have limited prospects, because "I was into this whole Sam Cooke/gospel/soul music listening phase when they called with the offer. I thought, 'Why not?'"
He was intrigued by the film's story, which touches on Australia's "stolen generation" of Aboriginal children, removed from their families and raised white. "I knew little about that history and I like the idea of a movie that teaches you something didn't know about."
He customized the Sapphires role, that of Dave, a drunken piano player relegated to playing the backwaters of the Outback. That's where he meets the girls who form, with his help, the Aboriginal "girl group."
"I was a teenager when The Commitments came out, and in Ireland, it seemed to change everything," O'Dowd says of the 1991 soul music comedy based on Roddy Doyle's novel. "We all understood where we Irish fit in with soul music. And this film brings the Irish and the Aboriginal peoples of Australia together under the banner of soul."
O'Dowd, who does a little writing and has experience on the "best line wins" style of improve-by-improv screenwriting of the Apatow films, tinkered with his lines and wrote some winners.
"Country music and soul music are both about loss," Dave says in The Sapphires. "But with country and western music, they've suffered loss and they've given up. They're drinkin' and cryin' about it. With soul music, they're still struggling ... to get back what they've lost." O'Dowd saw "that we hadn't quite justified the reasons Dave turns this group away from country and western music (which they had been performing) and onto soul," and whipped that up.
He plays leading man to the feisty leader of the group, played by Mailman (Bran Nue Day, Mental). "If we had chemistry, it's all from her," he says.
And he got to sing onscreen — I Can't Help Myself by the Four Tops. Does that make O'Dowd the "Irish Levi Stubbs"?
"The Irish Levi Stubbs. Now that, my brother, that is a compliment I'll take to my grave."