Written by Nick Hornby and directed by Stephen Frears, State of the Union explores the current relationship status of Louise (Rosamund Pike) and Tom (Chris O’Dowd) through ten 10-minute episodes. Their crumbling marriage has led them to weekly marital therapy sessions, and before each appointment, they meet at a pub to talk through how they ultimately got to this point, and if they feel that there’s something between them that’s still worth saving.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, actor Chris O’Dowd talked about how manageable this format of 10-minute episodes felt to him, the appeal of the State of the Union scripts, why he likes to think of himself as Nick Hornby’s muse, his character’s emotional journey, the experience of shooting 12 pages a day with one episode completed each day, having Rosamund Pike as a scene partner, whether he’s personally rooting for this couple to stay together, and what he looks for in a project and character, these days.
Collider: Do you feel like having them market this to you as ten, 10-minute episodes made it seem like it would be less work?
CHRIS O’DOWD: It certainly felt manageable, I suppose. And the unusual nature of its format was a big draw ‘cause I just feel like, in the future, television will be cut up into bite-sized viewing. There’s gonna be a whole generation of people who are coming from YouTube videos, so the 30-minute and 60-minute format, which is really just about advertising, probably won’t be something that we have in 20 years. So, it felt interesting to try a different format. We watched it at Sundance as a movie, and it worked better than I thought it was going to, really because, visually, it’s great, but it’s not that dynamic. It’s just a couple sitting at a table, so I thought that you might get weary of that, after a half an hour, but you can do nearly an hour of it before you’re like, “Why can’t they fuckin’ stand up?” But the nature and format of it was definitely a draw.
I would also imagine that knowing that you’ll be working with Rosamund Pike and Nick Hornby doesn’t hurt.
O’DOWD: For sure, yeah. He’s such a lovely writer. I worked with him last year on Juliet, Naked, so we’ve gotten to hang out a bit. This character is probably a little more specific and well-rounded, in a lot of ways. He still has a lot of the usual characteristics of Nick’s male characters, who have slight arrested development, emotionally, and who are slightly disappointing, on the whole. That’s something that I can relate to.
This character also has a bit of an emotional journey.
O’DOWD: For sure. He’s more mature than most of those kinds of characters and the problems that he has are heartbreaking. He comes from an industry where the opportunities are becoming smaller. He’s a music critic, and nobody fuckin’ hires those any more. It’s an odd situation, where these college educated people are trained in an industry that no longer needs them, and that’s quite a common thing now. So, there is a sense of disenfranchisement and regret and fear that he then brings into his marriage with his successful doctor wife. He feels inadequate. It’s sad. And when it happens to somebody in their 40s, there can be a sense of, “Do I have to retrain now? This feels late to be retraining to do something.” So, he’s been writing novels, or half-writing a few novels, and not getting it done. That’s worrying, when you’re still young, but have outgrown your own industry.
Do you feel like you’ve become a muse for Nick Hornby?
O’DOWD: The only one who thinks that I’m his muse is me. I was doing an interview with him recently, and somebody asked about a potential second season, and he said, “I’d love to see who Rosamund’s character ends up with.” I was like, “What?! I thought I was your fuckin’ muse!” I think he said that, after I called myself his muse. I do love Nick’s writing. I think in this, as much as anything that he’s done, it really speaks to how you can turn on a sixpence so quickly, between comedy and drama. He pulls you in with jokes, and then slaps you with drama, and that’s probably the truest representation of life that I know. I always find it weird when I’m watching drama and there are no jokes. Every fuckin’ funeral that I’ve ever been to has been funny, in some way, so it feels tonally right on the money, for what I like.
When you deal with scripts that are this good, does it make it easier to learn this much dialogue?
O’DOWD: Definitely! Learning dialogue was never an issue until this. This was so hard because we were doing 12-minute scenes, which is so unusual. And it’s just us. With Get Shorty, I’d have a pretty heavy workload, but the most I’d ever do was five or six pages of dialogue, in a day. This was 12 pages, every day, ‘cause we shot an episode a day. As an exhibition of memory, it was quite daunting, but we got through it. Truthfully, it is actually much easier when the words are good. If the words are memorable, then you remember them.
These also seem like natural conversations that people would have.
O’DOWD: Yes, that’s right. You naturally repeat yourself in life, and you have the same conversation, over and over again, in your relationship, because that’s how relationships work, but you can’t do that in a script. This is a couple who are having the same fight, over and over, in a way, but the assuredness of the writing certainly made it easier to ingest.
Were there ever days when it just seemed impossible?
O’DOWD: There was one that was tricky, that I’d learned last. It was a bit of a slog, but you win some, you lose some.
What was it like to have Rosamund Pike to do these scenes with?
O’DOWD: It was a lot of pressure, but we got on great. She insists that we met at a party, years ago, but I can’t remember it. She said that we were both a bit of a mess, but I think it was somebody else. I genuinely do. It was quite a lot of pressure that we got on well, and we really did. We would shoot this long day and try to get everything done, and then we would sit at the bar with a glass of wine and learn the lines for the next day. We spent a lot of time in each other’s company, for a few weeks, and we got on great. She’s so talented and smart, and has a lot of humility and class. She’s a good person to be around.
Did the wine make it easier or harder to memorize lines?
O’DOWD: It made it easier going in, and tougher coming out. Life is a series of self-placed obstacles.
How was it to have Stephen Frears direct this?
O’DOWD: Great! I’d worked with Stephen before. I’m not sure if Ros had or not. He doesn’t say an awful lot, until he does. He’ll set the camera up, and then go and do his crossword, and bark something occasionally, like a military officer in India. When he does say something, you know that it’s important. He hasn’t got that thing, that some directors have sometimes, of feeling like they have to say something, even if it’s in support. He will never say anything purely in support. That’s just not really his style.
Did you ever feel a bit like these conversations were more therapy sessions than the therapy sessions that we never actually get to see?
O’DOWD: I think that’s probably right. There is an openness that comes when there isn’t another person involved. Even though therapy is supposed to be the most open that you get, there’s always a barrier of somebody’s non-shared experience. This couple probably get more from the sessions in the pub than they do in their therapy sessions. But if they didn’t have the therapy sessions, the sessions in the pub probably wouldn’t work as well. It’s the catalyst to honesty.
It’s funny how well they communicate, when part of the problem is that they weren’t communicating.
O’DOWD: Yeah, but it takes them a while. The first episode, as an acting exercise, was tricky because it’s essentially two people who are not behaving like themselves. We haven’t set them up yet, to allow us to play them out of character, if that makes sense. It takes awhile for them to start opening up and being truthful with each other, but once they do, it really does flow. Whether the relationship continues or not, you know that they’re in a better place now for it because they’ve opened up that line of communication.
Would you like to think that they ended up staying together?
O’DOWD: Yeah. I don’t know how he’d do in the real world now. I don’t know if he’s still got game. I think his game was relatively small before, so I don’t trust that things would go great.
Was this guy someone who you enjoyed playing?
O’DOWD: I understood him and I related to him, but I don’t know if I liked him. Did I like playing him? I liked the dynamic in the relationship, probably more than I liked him, himself. I find that I end up playing loads of characters that have some kind of arrested development, and I don’t feel like I do, but maybe I’m deluded. I just look like somebody who can’t speak about his emotions. I play a lot of man-children, for some reason. I feel like the Get Shorty guy was a grown up. For all of his faults, at least he’s a grown up.
At this point in your life and career, what is it that attracts you to a project and character?
O’DOWD: I like working with Nick Hornby because he’s a great writer. Of course, it’s a comfort, working with people a few times. That’s lovely. I like being part of an ongoing family. But really, it’s the quality. For the most part, I do try to do things that I haven’t done before, which is hard, as time goes on and you feel like you’ve done a lot of different kinds of things. This felt different because the structure of it felt so odd that it was a draw. I’m really fascinated about how people will engage with it. I think that people will probably watch two or three episodes, at a time, but we’ll see.
The ten 10-minute episodes of State of the Union air on Sundance TV, as well as through streaming at Sundance Now, SundanceTV.com and the SundanceTV app.