‘The Big Door Prize’s Chris O’Dowd on Luck vs. Potential and Season 2 Hopes

Apr 28, 2023

The Apple TV+ series The Big Door Prize shows what can happen when a mysterious machine shows up in a small town and starts telling its residents what their true potential is. Reluctant at first, Deerfield teacher Dusty Hubbard (Chris O’Dowd) eventually can’t help himself and gives in, only to be left without much of a revelation of something bigger out there and instead begins to question everything that’s going on around him.

During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, O’Dowd talked about whether he has the whistling talent of his character, the appeal of telling a big story in a small town, how people can upend their lives for an idea, playing a man having a midlife crisis, how he feels about his own potential, whether he personally would like to know where the machine came from, getting to inhabit the fictional town of Deerfield, finding the right tone, and whether he’d like to continue telling this story for a second season.

Collider: So, I’d like to start with the most important question, can you really whistle?

CHRIS O’DOWD: You know what? I think they ended up using a professional whistler for the tricky stuff. I liked the idea that he would be like an extraordinary whistler because they mentioned it so often, but that really is a skill that takes years. I was like, “We’ve got three weeks, get a whistler in.” I purse my lips a lot in the background.

Image via Apple TV+

I can’t do it at all, so I was curious. There’s never been a sound that’s come out, when I’ve tried to do it.

O’DOWD: Really? You can’t whistle.

No, not at all.

O’DOWD: Wow.

When this came your way, what was it that most appealed to you about it? Was it the town and these people, or was it the unexplained mystery element to it all?

O’DOWD: Those are literally the two things, and I’m not being facetious. The idea of a big story in a small town was very enthralling to me. And I like that the character is a guy going through a bit of a midlife crisis, in a very noticeable way. I also liked the slightly deliberately unrealistic world that (show creator) David [West Read] has created in Deerfield. There doesn’t seem to be any police or horses. I don’t know why the absence of horses bothers me, suddenly. Maybe it’s because there’s so many deer. I loved the big idea – the conceit and the concept – of the book. I loved that people could be drawn to an idea and upend their lives because of it. I think it’s fascinating because it can be very positive and it can be absolutely apocalyptic. Both of those things are interesting to play.

Is there some comfort in going through a midlife crisis when everybody in town is going through a crisis, in that way, or does it become frustrating because nobody is focused on just his crisis?

O’DOWD: Probably the latter. His crisis is really brought on by everybody else’s crisis, in a way. I believe, at the start, he really is fine. He’s calling himself the happiest man in the world. He says, “There is nothing else I could want.” And maybe he’s overstating it, but I don’t think he’s unhappy until it’s really plugged away at. Everybody else being untethered, at the same time, is probably not that helpful. There’s a funny Jim Gaffigan joke. He has a good few kids, and when he had like his fifth or six, somebody asked him on a talk show, “What’s that like?” He said, “Well, it’s like you’re drowning and somebody throws you a baby.” And so, I think Dusty feels a little bit like that, where he’s like, “Wow, I’m already drowning, and I’m not fully living up to my life potential. Fuck you.”

Image via Apple TV+

Are there ways that you found yourself relating to him? You’ve been an actor for quite some time now, so you’ve been pretty focused on what your thing is? Have you always known that’s what your potential was? Did you have moments where you didn’t know if you were doing what you should be doing?

O’DOWD: I’m still not sure of what I should be doing. I don’t know if I even believe in potential, or whatever that is. What I genuinely believe in, spiritually, is luck, absolute luck. If we’re breaking it down intellectually, it’s chaos theory. I never really wanted to be an actor until I got into drama school, and then I thought I probably should do it because it had been hard to get in. Before that, I wanted to be a political speech writer, at one point, and a lawyer. I think I only wanted to be a lawyer because I watched L.A. Law and I liked the look of L.A. And then, I found out what law was and I was like, “That sounds dull as shit.” So, I went on to do something else. I didn’t have the brain capacity to hold onto something like that. So, I don’t know what my potential is. I know when I’ve been happy and sad, and sometimes they’ve got nothing to do with how well I’m doing at work. What’s wonderful about Deerfield is that people aren’t tethered to their financial restraints. If I can become a swordsman, I’ll become a swordsman. You have to look at it that purity to make the concept work.

How important was it to you, personally, to know where the machine came from, why it’s in this town, and what its purpose is? Is that something that matters to you, or does that not actually matter to you?

O’DOWD: It’s one of those where you have to allow yourself to be not too curious, or everything falls apart. Initially, Dusty is centered on that, and goes into this place to ask, “If six pinball machines just turned up, you’d wanna know where they’re from. This machine just turns up, and you’re not gonna ask any questions?” It’s interesting that there isn’t an answer because he’s making money off it. You just don’t ask any questions then.

If a bunch of pinball machines just showed up, I don’t think I’d ask any questions about that. I’d just take advantage of them being there and play them.

O’DOWD: I’ve had many an evening when I’ve asked a pinball machine what my true life potential was. Sometimes you just bang around and try to get the score as high as you can.

Image via Apple TV+

I did find it a little unsettling that in order to learn about your potential, it requires your social security number and fingerprints, especially because I feel like I’ve been taught to be suspicious of anyone ever asking for my social security number. Did you ever wonder why no one was questioning that, and that everybody was just giving this personal information so freely?

O’DOWD: I would, if I wasn’t aware that every time I look at my phone, it takes my eyes, fingers, and every fucking detail about me. I don’t find that too far-fetched, whatsoever. Dusty definitely has concerns, but not enough for him to stop. We do say the machine doesn’t have wifi, so it does feel like its own self-contained little beast.

Why do you think it’s so hard for human beings to resist having a machine tell them what their potential is, instead of just trying to figure it out themselves?

O’DOWD: Because it’s easier. And it’s tempting to know the future. We read horoscopes. We don’t know what happens when we die, and that leads so much of our lives, in ways that we don’t really understand. I think that’s a big part of it. We’ve come up with endless answers for that question, without many facts behind it. I suppose the Morpho is just another way of doing that.

Another interesting element of this story is that everyone has secrets, even the people we think we know best, and even sometimes ourselves. How do you think that realization affects Dusty, especially when it comes to his own family?

O’DOWD: In fairness to him, he finds out, in the course of the show, things like his wife likes hot wings rather than garlic ones. He could keep his shit together a bit better. It’s not like, “I fucked your brother in Vietnam.” This is fairly low key information. But because he is already losing it, he suddenly feels like, “Oh, you like guys with tattoos and hot wings? Where are we, on Mars?!” There is something wonderfully over-the-top in Dusty’s reactions. He’s untethered. He doesn’t understand why his parents have stopped being his parents, and why his wife doesn’t like him anymore. It’s a blue Coke machine. Will everybody relax? But no.

Image via Apple TV+

What was it like to actually get to inhabit the town of Deerfield? How cool is it to be a part of something that can transform a town and create a little world while you’re telling a story in it?

O’DOWD: I really dig that part of filmmaking. I love a night shoot at 1am, when you’re the only people there, and you’re making stories that people are gonna watch in their beds. And Deerfield is around the same size as my town in the west of Ireland, so it felt very normal, actually. Being in Deerfield felt like being at home.

This show is very in line with my sense of humor. There were a number of times, watching it, where I laughed out loud. What was it like to find the tone of this? Did you ever find it difficult not to crack up, especially when you’re doing a scene where you’re trying to explain having blue spots on your butt?

O’DOWD: You’ve just gotta buy into it all. My job, as an actor, is always the same. My responsibility isn’t to my employer. It’s not even to myself. My only responsibility is to the audience, and to make whatever I’m doing believable. If it’s funny, great. If it’s dramatic or tragic, hat’s usually down to the writers, and I’ll try my best elevate it where I can. Really, I just wanna talk to the viewer and say, “Believe what I’m saying to you.” Dusty is given a lot of opportunities where it would be hard to believe it, but that’s the job. That’s the challenge, and I love it.

When you’re turning one book into a TV series, you have to expand things, and you have to add and divert in different directions, if you’re going to keep things going. That also means you don’t want to provide all the answers or wrap everything up by the end. How do you feel about where things are left, by the end of this season? Do you feel like there is still story to keep telling, and that you want to keep telling with this?

O’DOWD: I think David has constructed a world that feels self-contained, but has so much potential to grow because he’s got all of these characters. There’s a moment when Damon Gupton, who plays the priest really beautifully, learns of his potential, and the way that he plays it and the consequences of that potential, absolutely killed me. I was gone. I was like, “Okay, I wanna watch what’s going on with this guy, for three seasons.” And then, the next episode is somebody else’s, and I’m like, “I wanna watch what’s going on with them.” I feel like the concept keeps going because the machine is gonna need to give us more information. If Apple are smart enough to recommission, I’m sure we’ll find out what that is.

The Big Door Prize is available to stream at Apple TV+.

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