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Words by Mr Dan Davies
If Mr O'Dowd is to be believed and his beard a reliable barometer of how busy life is, there's not been much in the diary of late. "I generally have a beard when I'm not working and always have," explains the 31-year-old Irish actor and comedian, stroking a facial covering that can only be described as mature. But don't be fooled by today's luxuriant whiskers; they're the product of his first decent stretch of downtime in nearly two years.
You'll be seeing a lot more of the genial giant from County Roscommon, Ireland, in the months ahead. Having made his name in the Emmy award-winning British television comedy The IT Crowd, Mr O'Dowd's career has moved on to a new level since deciding two years ago to uproot his life and try his luck in Los Angeles. It was, he reveals, a move that owed as much to heartbreak as it did to potential career advancement.
"I'd just come out of an eight-year relationship," he says. "I was a bit lost and felt like I had to get out of London for a while. There were too many memories around every corner. I'd been over to LA for a week on a couple of occasions and I'd liked it. I knew I had to do something drastic, to occupy myself as much as anything, so I took the plunge."
He wasn't sleeping on friends' sofas or drowning his sorrows for long. The success of Mr Ricky Gervais and Mr Sacha Baron Cohen had created a receptive environment for British comedic talent, and within three weeks Mr O'Dowd landed his first major part, playing a Lilliputian General opposite Mr Jack Black in Gulliver's Travels. It was a big gig for him, he recalls.
"I remember that time being really exciting and a lot of fun," says Mr O'Dowd of those first weeks in LA. "After moving from Ireland to London, I was conscious that nothing is ever like it is in the first month you're living in a new city. Even if you're terrified about not knowing anyone or anything, there's an exhilaration that comes with that - it makes your heart skip a beat. Luckily, I arrived in LA and hit the ground running."
He found work, then love with London-based journalist and documentary maker Ms Dawn Porter, and now says he's as happy as he's ever been. And with three Hollywood movies under his belt since Gulliver's Travels, his star is rising. Next up he'll be seen in the BBC's lavish four-part dramatisation of The Crimson Petal & The White, adapted from Mr Michel Faber's acclaimed novel set in Victorian London.
Mr O'Dowd stars as William Rackham, the indulged, morally-bankrupt son of an industrialist who seeks salvation through an enigmatic prostitute named Sugar. "He went with hookers throughout his life," says Mr O'Dowd of his character. "But then he meets this one prostitute who is unlike all the others. She's clever and instills confidence in him. He sees her as the antithesis of his own life and finds that incredibly alluring."
Following this no-holds-barred tour of Dickensian society's seedier side, Mr O'Dowd will be back on more familiar ground in the summer with the Mr Judd Apatow-produced comedy Bridesmaids. Billed as 'the female Hangover', it features one of the funniest food poisoning scenes ever made, and working with Hollywood's reigning king of comedy was, he says, an invigorating experience.
Recently, Mr O'Dowd confided to his 30,000-plus Twitter followers that Mr Apatow had revisited him in a dream. "My old maths teacher and Judd Apatow had a karaoke battle over my naked sleeping body last night," wrote @BigBoyler, before adding the hash tag 'cheesedreams'. "It was exactly that," he laughs, "although I might have just seen Judd in LA so he was probably fresh in my mind." He has yet, however, to reveal who won the karaoke face-off in his subconsciousness. "Much to my frustration, I woke up before the final result," he laughs. "I can only hope that there might be some kind of sequel, and that Jonah Hill will be in it."
In person, Mr Chris O'Dowd is as funny, warm and engaging as his musings on Twitter suggest (sample Tweet: "Time flies. I can't believe 2011 is the year my Pokemon gets his driving license"). As for his beard, its days are surely numbered; he is already onto his next project, a television documentary he's writing and presenting about whisky. I put it to him that this sounds suspiciously like a cunning ruse to exploit his new-found status for the purposes of a single-malt fueled busman's holiday. "I'm not a whisky aficionado," he protests, "but I'm very willing to learn."