15 April 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network

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"You don't have your expression, so you just have to throw your voice around!"; Emmy winning actor Chris O'Dowd discusses physical voice acting
08 Dec 2022 : Nathan Griffin
Irish actor Chris O'Dowd
Irish actor Chris O’Dowd took some time to chat with us from Los Angeles to find out more about working with Nora Twomey on My Father’s Dragon, his long working relationship with Cartoon Saloon, and the future of Irish filmmaking internationally.

A native of Boyle, County Roscommon, O’Dowd is a Primetime Emmy winning actor and comedian known for his role as Roy Trenneman in the Channel 4 comedy The IT Crowd and Sky’s TV series Moone Boy, which he created and starred in for Deadpan Pictures.

O'Dowd’s most notable films include BridesmaidsThis Is 40The SapphiresThor: The Dark WorldCalvary, and St. Vincent. He made his Broadway debut in the play adaptation of Of Mice and Men in 2014, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award.

In 2019, O’Dowd won his first Primetime Emmy in the Outstanding Actor in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series category, for his performance in Sundance TV’s State of the Union. He also picked up his first IFTA Award in 2011 for Bridesmaids in the Best Supporting Actor – Film category.

Most recently, O’Dowd stars in the Netflix’s new animated feature film My Father’s Dragon, from five-time Academy Award®-nominated Irish animation studio, Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers). Inspired by the Newbery-honoured children’s book from author Ruth Stiles Gannett, the film follows Elmer, a young boy who while struggling to cope after a move to the city with his mother, runs away in search of Wild Island where he meets a young dragon who needs to be rescued. Elmer's adventures introduce him to ferocious beasts, a mysterious island, and the friendship of a lifetime.

Last month, Screen Ireland and Enterprise Ireland led a animation delegation to Los Angeles to attend the World Animation Summit with a remit to showcase the work of Irish creatives talent, strengthen relationships, and increase collaboration between the animation industry in Ireland and L.A.  Having moved to the US over a decade ago, O’Dowd says the growth in Irish representation in Los Angeles has been incredible in recent yeaers and he can only see that trend continuing.

Yeah, I mean I have no doubt in the amount of Irish people here you'll meet, particularly within the industry, and then in the auxiliary industry. I think that a lot of it has been driven by the interesting people coming over and taking such a great route,” says O’Dowd.

“We did an animation panel recently with Nora and Meg who wrote film, and Glen Keane, who used to run animation at Disney and created the beast in 'Beauty and the Beast.' He waxed lyrical about them, and he could not be a more respected man in the industry, the way that he talked about Cartoon Saloon was with such joy. It would make you very proud.”

The actor’s relationship with the world-renowned Kilkenny animation studio goes back as far as the early days of the production house, having worked on several projects as a narrator and voice actor. However, O’Dowd and Cartoon Saloon’s roots run much deeper with himself and co-founder Paul Young both hailing from Boyle – and share a very Irish connection.

“I've always found them impressive,” O’Dowd tells IFTN, when asked about the studio’s progression. “I've known Paul since I was born probably, he is two or three years older, so I was closer with his sister, we were proper mates, and his dad was my football coach! So, I always kept an eye on how he was doing. Then he came into the animations for Moonboy whenever that was… seven or eight, nine years ago probably now.”

“Then Walter who did most of that work also did the illustrations for another three or four children's books that myself and Nick wrote. And so, then I narrated 'Puffin Rock' for a while. I kind of feel like I've been working with them on and off for the last 10 years and I'm always so impressed by the quality of their work and the way that they go about it.”

In My Father’s Dragon, O’Dowd plays the role of Kwan, one of Wild Island’s most feared members serving under the loyal rule of Saiwa. However, his loyalty and beliefs are tested as the island he inhabits continues to sink and with Kwan seemingly helpless to stop it.

“During this film, this island is slowly being submerged and Kwan doesn't really know how to solve this problem. He puts all of his hope into Saiwa, and it doesn't pay off,” O’Dowd tells IFTN. “To me he feels like every person on the internet right now. I was just playing every person who's going, ‘the world is burning and I have no idea how to solve it. So I'm just going to be angry’.”

“He embodies this idea that fear and anger are two sides of the same coin. This is exactly apparent in somebody like him where he is channelling all of his fear into being angry with everybody else.”

O’Dowd worked closely with the film’s director, Oscar nominee Nora Twomey (The Breadwinner), who previously spoke with IFTN about making My Father’s Dragon and how O’Dowd brought real depth to the character of Kwan during the recording process.

From the first moment Elmar crosses paths with Kwan on Wild Island, it is immediately apparent to the audience that the problems being experienced by the island’s inhabitants have been going on long before Elmar’s arrival. In a sense, the audience catches Kwan’s disillusion reaching breaking point, as he begins to question the story he has been told his entire life, something O’Dowd enjoyed exploring as a character. “There's something cool about the fact that when Elmer comes to the island, they're in the midst of something, of chaos, already,” O’Dowd explains.

“It's such a fun place to join something, just on a storytelling point of view. You know that old trope of 'get rid of entrances and exits’. It's an extension of that, they're already in mad chaos, they've been through the wringer, and they've been lied to before. They believe the last false prophet and that's kind of where they're at.”

O’Dowd is joined by an exciting voice cast including Jacob Tremblay, Gaten Matarazzo, Golshifteh Farahani, Dianne Wiest, Rita Moreno, Judy Greer, Alan Cumming, Yara Shahidi, Jackie Earle Haley, Mary Kay Place, Leighton Meester, Spence Moore II, Adam Brody, Charlyne Yi, Maggie Lincoln, Jack Smith, Whoopi Goldberg, and Ian McShane.

Having worked extensively across live action, O’Dowd has found through his career that he “oddly” ends up being more physical during “blackbox” audio work than he would be when the cameras are on. “I think it’s because you need to force your body into it. It would look bizarre, compared to if you're on camera doing it!” O’Dowd jokes.

“There isn’t as much to work with because you don't have your expression, so you just have to throw your voice around a bit more, if you can. I think other than that, you really approach it in the same way as you would everything else.”

The film marked O’Dowd and director Nora Twomey’s first time working together, with the actor finding her guidance helpful and considerate. I found her so useful, she's very sensitive, understated, and humble. That's the right energy really, that you want if you want to let yourself go. She's very good at coaxing that I think,” he tells IFTN.

Produced by Mockingbird Pictures’ Bonnie Curtis, Julie Lynn, and Cartoon Saloon’s Paul Young, My Father’s Dragon is written by Meg LeFauve and directed by Nora Twomey. Executive producers on the project include Meg LeFauve, John Morgan, Tomm Moore, Gerry Shirren, Ruth Coady, and Alan Moloney.

The project follows the studio’s 2020 Apple Original Film WolfWalkers, directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, which was also Golden Globe, Academy Award, and BAFTA nominated and marked the studios second feature to win Best Picture at the 2021 Irish IFTA Academy Awards.

My Father’s Dragon is Cartoon Saloon’s first project produced for Netflix and sees the studio once again reach a global audience through a streaming giant. I think it's past time,” O’Dowd exclaims, when asked about the exposure. “They absolutely deserve and need proper audiences like that. I'm delighted for them to be getting out there properly.”

In terms of looking towards the future, O’Dowd has high expectations for the Irish screen industry and its potential to attract national talent back to Ireland for future international projects.

It's very exciting… Seeing more studios popping up and we're hoping to look at more studios in the northwest of Ireland. I'm currently trying to shoot a show in the Northwest next year,” says O’Dowd. “I'm very aware of the fact that there are so much more crew available now at an international level because they have worked through it now. Irish crews have always been great but now they are plenty experienced. That makes a huge difference.”

My Father’s Dragon is available to stream on Netflix globally.

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