O'Dowd brings a little Irish soul to Aboriginal musical drama

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ORLANDO, Fla. — “You know,” the Irish actor Chris O’Dowd says of his new film, “The Sapphires,” “I agreed to make this sweet little movie in Australia, hoping against hope that it’d make it, maybe, as far as the shores of New Zealand. But the premiere in Dublin was WILD. And here it is, opening wide in the States. Who knew?”

“The Sapphires,” a musical set in the 1960s, is about Aboriginal soul singers from Australia who take their act (and their piano player, played by O’Dowd) on tour in Vietnam, entertaining American troops there. It certainly didn’t have the whiff of a hit when it played at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. But now it does. And a lot of that has to do with O’Dowd.

O’Dowd is a leading man on the rise these days. “Bridesmaids” led to “This is 40” and “Friends With Kids,” and convinced HBO to back a series Christopher Guest co-created, in which O’Dowd stars (“Family Tree”). Other projects are lining up to get the 33-year-old on board.

The actor, who got his first big break with the British TV series “The IT Crowd,” is taking an unusual path to stardom — doing yet another British TV series (“Moone Boy”) and an American series, simultaneously. He’s joined Judd Apatow’s extended comic family, but took the time to study piano for a little Australian movie that seemed to have limited prospects, because “I was into this whole Sam Cooke / gospel / soul music listening phase when they called with the offer. I thought, ‘Why not?’”

He was intrigued by the film’s story, which touches on Australia’s “stolen generation” of Aboriginal children, removed from their families and raised “white.” “I knew little about that history, and I like the idea of a movie that teaches you something didn’t know about.”

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