NEW YORK — Chris O'Dowd knows the value of hard work: Before he became a star in Bridesmaids, the actor lugged bricks up and down ladders at construction sites in London.
"I can understand being wanted for your body rather than your mind," says the stocky, 6-foot-3 Irishman with a full bushy beard and a smile. Then he deadpans: "And I've found that in every role since."
O'Dowd, 34, is doing some heavy lifting now on Broadway, playing Lennie, who has an unspecified mental condition, to James Franco's George in Of Mice and Men. He's even walked away with a Tony Award nomination for his Broadway debut.
"I don't know if it's totally sunk in, if I'm being honest," he says.
Franco and O'Dowd play two tragic migrant workers trying to make their way through the Depression. O'Dowd beautifully conveys Lennie's innocence, his tics and his frustrations.
Playing someone with mental disabilities has been a huge challenge. "You don't want to get that wrong," he says.
For the role, O'Dowd shaves his head once a week — between shows on Saturday — and has found himself crying backstage.
But O'Dowd will clearly never lug bricks again: His list of credits include a stint on HBO's Girls, roles in big films like Thor 2 and This Is 40, his own charming British TV series Moone Boy (available on Hulu) and upcoming parts in the movies Calvary and St. Vincent De Van Nuys with Bill Murray.
O'Dowd recently talked about whom he based his Lennie on, why John Steinbeck is popular in Ireland and what Franco is really like.
Question: What's a nice Irish boy doing in a quintessential American play?
Answer: First of all, this is not an American thing. This is a universal story. Look, of course, it's about chasing the American dream. I totally get that. But Steinbeck is really big in Ireland for that reason. Irish people have chased the American dream more than anybody else. Just look at the name of every pub in town. And I'm one: I'm chasing the American dream, selling my wares.
Q: Have you much stage experience?
A: I would say I've probably done 30 or 40 plays, but mostly in college and in pubs, as you do when you're working for free when you've finished drama school. It is slightly amateurish, but it's a great way to learn about an audience and how you are on a stage.
Q: Has the Broadway schedule taken a toll?
A: I definitely have found it harder on my voice and my body than I was expecting. I always somewhat guffawed at the idea that it could be a tiring job to work three hours a day, but I'm going to the doctor twice a week with various bangs and bruises and swollen vocal cords. I feel like I've been through the wars.
Q: Did you base Lennie on anyone you knew?
A: A neighbor of mine in London. His name was David. Though I never asked him, I would say he had mild Down syndrome and he had certain tics and stuff.
Q: Many people have been struck by your left hand, which seems to flit like a butterfly.
A: I did some research into this, and very often people with various cognitive disabilities have a part of them that's always moving. David would count on his fingers. That's kind of where the hand thing came from. I decided to experiment further with it and maybe make it part of the play. Lennie is obsessed with hearing George tell a story, and it's almost like I'm a conductor and he's the orchestra telling the story.
Q: What's Franco really like?
A: I'd heard great things about him as a person, and that's really been the case. He obviously works really hard and shares himself a lot, but his heart is really in it all. Even though he might seem from the outside like he's some kind of enigma, he's not. All of that kind of goes away once he comes into the rehearsal room.
Q: The scene when you're shot is startling, even if you know it's coming.
A: During matinees, when there are loads of kids in, they go bananas. A whole bunch of them go, "Oh, my God!" And then everyone will laugh at there being such a big reaction. And I'm just lying there, dead, as this ripple of laughter takes over. It's surreal. But it's very alive.
Q: Would you ever do a musical?
A: Never say never.