For Chris O'Dowd, 'Of Mice And Men' Is More Than An American Story

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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.

Interview Highlights

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.

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