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Sat April 19, 2014
For Chris O'Dowd, 'Of Mice And Men' Is More Than An American Story
Originally published on Sat April 19, 2014 10:40 am
John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men — about George and Lennie, two laborers and unlikely friends during the Great Depression — may seem like a quintessentially American story. But Irish actor Chris O'Dowd, who plays Lennie in a new Broadway production the novella, says Steinbeck is "quite oddly" very popular in Ireland.
There's something about Of Mice and Men that appeals to the Irish people, O'Dowd tells NPR's Wade Goodwyn. "All of us have chased the American dream so there's something very universal about it," he says.
The production, which opened Wednesday, was directed by Anna D. Shapiro, and co-stars James Franco as George. O'Dowd talks with NPR about being Lennie — and about how in high school he fell asleep when the film version of Of Mice and Men was shown in class.
On signing on for the play
I had been looking for a play to do. I come from a theater background but I hadn't done a show in maybe five years or so. So I was feeling a little rusty and wanted to give it a go. I was familiar with this material, [but] I hadn't read it in a while.
On how he connected to the play
I come from an agricultural background so I feel I've been a laborer. ... I'm used to being around strong men who lift things a lot. Ireland is to a small extent still kind of an outlier ... out in the west coast of Ireland ... it's in a lot of ways a different kind of barren, but similarly barren to California as it would have been in the '30s. So I definitely feel that idea of being removed.
On the challenge of playing Lennie
It is hard of course, any time you're playing someone with a cognitive disability of any kind it's dangerous territory. ... I kind of based it on a guy I knew from London that kind of lived at the end of our road. I'm not 100 percent sure what was wrong with him. ... Steinbeck doesn't at any stage say what exactly is wrong with Lennie so it's very open to interpretation. By all accounts it's specifically about somebody that he knew.
On coming in without expectations
I feel fortunate in that I've never seen ... a production of it. I never saw the film. I think maybe they put it on in school but I fell asleep ... that's more about me as a student rather than the film ... I feel unburdened by any expectations of the play.
On appearing on Broadway
It's an absolute privilege. Every night I feel at various moments terrified that we have to go out and to this again but very confident because I feel the show is in a good place. In that last scene I feel very, very privileged to be able to do it — the writing is so good. Regardless of what we're doing with it — to bring it to people who have maybe never seen it before. I believe that this production will be seen by more people than have ever seen this play and that's absolutely exhilarating.
WADE GOODWYN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Wade Goodwyn. A new production of the classic John Steinbeck play "Of Mice and Men" opened on Broadway this week. Directed by Tony award winner Anna D. Shapiro, James Franco plays the role of George, and Chris O'Dowd is his pal Lennie. They're a pair of unlikely friends, laborers during the Great Depression.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OF MICE AND MEN")
JAMES FRANCO: (As George) We got a future. We got someone to talk to, gives a damn about us. We don't got to sit in no bar room blowing in our jackets 'cause we got no place else to go. If them other guy gets in jail, they can rot for all anyone gives a damn.
O'DOWD: But not us. And why? Because. Because I got you to look after me and you got me to look after you. And that's why. (Laughter).
GOODWYN: Chris O'Dowd joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome, Chris.
O'DOWD: Thanks so much for having me.
GOODWYN: You're known for your work in films such as "Bridesmaids" and "This Is 40." What drew you to this project?
O'DOWD: I have been looking for a play to do. I come from a theater background, but I hadn't done a show in maybe five years or so. So I was feeling a little rusty and wanted to give it a go. And I was familiar with this material. I hadn't read it in a while. But Steinbeck, quite oddly, is very popular in Ireland. I think the first book that I read in high school was the short book "The Pearl." And then we read - this was later on in the syllabus in our years - "Of Mice and Men" was on it. And there's something about it that I feel appeals to the Irish people. I think it's - all of us have chased the American dream. So there's something very universal about it.
GOODWYN: I'm interested in kind of your experience as an Irishman and what you bring as an Irishman to this play.
O'DOWD: Well, I, you know, I come from an agricultural background. I've been a laborer. I don't know whether that's necessarily specifically Irish, but I definitely am used to being around strong men who lift things a lot. And Ireland is to a small extent still a kind of an outlier society. I'm out on the west coast of Ireland. And it's in a lot of ways a different kind of barren, but similarly barren to California as it would have been in the '30s. So I definitely feel that idea of being remorse.
GOODWYN: And strong men who lift things a lot. Is that a particular kind of man, you think? A different kind of man?
O'DOWD: I think a man that is - who feels his use is his body rather than his mind is definitely a specific kind of man.
GOODWYN: What is it like to try to take on the role of a character like Lennie? What is the biggest challenge in doing that kind of acting?
O'DOWD: It is hard, of course. And any time you're playing someone with a cognitive disability of any kind - it's dangerous territory a little bit. But I felt like, as long as I was specific in my head, there was - I kind of based it on a guy that I knew from London, kind of lived at the end of our road. Steinbeck doesn't at any stage say what exactly is wrong with Lennie, so it's very open to interpretation. And by all accounts, it's specifically about somebody that he knew based on another story that Steinbeck wrote about a guy with a disability, who would get very angry and killed the boss with a pitchfork.
And by all accounts, that's who Lennie is based on. And I felt like that this character that I knew from where I was from had a lot of those kind of - he was in that area. So I just tried to embody him in what I was doing.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OF MICE AND MEN")
O'DOWD: (As Lennie) Once, we was to the fair. And we seen some of them long-haired rabbits. And they was nice, you bet. (Laughter). I'd even pet mice. Not when I had nothing better.
LEIGHTON MEESTER: (As Curley's Wife) I think you're nuts.
O'DOWD: No, I ain't. George says I ain't.
GOODWYN: This is a well-known piece of work. Did you feel that you had to bring something new out of it or did you not feel that burden?
O'DOWD: That's a good question I kind of - I feel people bring that to it. I feel fortunate in that I've never seen it. I've never seen a production of it. I've never - I never saw the film. I think maybe they put it on in school but I fell asleep. That's more about me as a student rather than the film, by the way. So I have no - I don't - I feel unburdened by any expectations of the play.
GOODWYN: What's it like for you to play Broadway?
O'DOWD: It's an absolute privilege. Every night I feel at various moments terrified that we have to go out and do this again, but very confident 'cause I feel the show is in a good place. And then in that last scene, I feel very, very privileged to be able to do it. It's - the writing is so good. Regardless of what we're doing with it, to bring it to people who have maybe never seen it before. And I can - I believe that this production will be seen by more people than have ever seen this play. And that's absolutely exhilarating.
GOODWYN: Chris O'Dowd. He plays Lennie in the new Broadway production "Of Mice and Men." He joined us from our New York bureau. Chris, thanks very much.
O'DOWD: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.