“Bridesmaids” actor Chris O’Dowd stars as a jobless, recently dumped 30-year-old on a genealogical journey in HBO’s new comedy series, “Family Tree,” from creators Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock.
The eight-episode series kicks off tonight at 10:30 PM on HBO, when O’Dowd’s character, Tom Chadwick, receives a chest filled with family mementos (some inspiring — like a photo of an unknown soldier, others, less so — like used underwear), and it kick starts his quest.
A similar thing happened to Guest in his own life, which prompted the idea for the show.
“My dad, when he died, left dozens of boxes and I still haven’t gone through all the boxes. There’s so much stuff. It kind of mirrors what happens in the story,” Guest told AccessHollywood.com. “I found military photos, I found diaries, a bayonet, medals from World War I, just toy soldiers, just crazy stuff.
“I didn’t have the same [situation as] Chris O’Dowd’s character, where his girlfriend’s left and he’s been sacked from his job,” Guest, who is married to actress Jamie Lee Curtis, continued. “That kind of puts him in this place where he thinks, ‘Well, what else am I gonna do?’ and it kind of coincides with that and that’s what gets him into this. I wasn’t in that literal situation, but once you get drawn on to this it’s pretty interesting, I think. I think a lot of people are doing it.”
Although this is Guest’s first television series, he kept up the same improvisational style of his films like “Best In Show,” and “A Mighty Wind.” That meant he needed to cast someone in the lead role of Tom who was worth watching for the length of the show’s run, and more importantly, someone who could improvise in the style Guest had already established with his other projects.
“There’s no dialogue written for the stuff I do, films or this. At all. It’s all improvised, so I meet with actors and just talk to them. … And then I just have to kind of have this intuitive feeling about whether they can do this kind of work,” Guest explained.
“This character is someone who has to be really likable, who people can relate to in an emotional way and he should be charming and funny and that’s Chris. That’s just totally who Chris is, and not just as a person, but he’s funny and he’s smart and it just fits so well,” Guest said of his comedic leading man. “And the fact that he could do this kind of work was this huge bonus, obviously, because if he couldn’t, then none of it would have worked.”
Guest said it was his daughter, Annie Guest, who actually first turned her dad on to the funny Irish actor.
“She was the first one that mentioned him and [it was] way before I was gonna do this. This was when ‘Bridesmaids’ came out,” he explained. “She’s said, ‘I saw this movie and there’s this great guy.’ And I saw the film and I said, ‘Wow. That’s kind of insane.’ And then I saw his English TV [comedy series], and then a year went by and we were working on this and then I met him in London a year ago and here we are.”
“Family Tree” co-creator Piddock plays one of the characters in the series – Mr. Glenn Pfister – someone who provides some historical advice and puts O’Dowd’s Tom in touch with unique people who can help him out on his quest. Michael McKean, Guest’s “Spinal Tap” co-star, plays O’Dowd’s father – Keith Chadwick, Nina Conti plays Bea Chadwick, his accidental ventriloquist of a sister, and Tom Bennett plays his best friend, Pete Stupples.
One of the journeys coming up (Episode 2 — “Treading the Boards”) takes Tom and Pete to the theater to look into a branch of his history that involves a long lost late relative who was a thespian of sorts. Since the show wrapped, Guest told Access that Piddock found something very similar while researching his own family tree.
“He’s continued now to look into his family and has found, literally, in the last two weeks, an aunt of his died and left a box… this was after we finished shooting, and she left a box filled with hundreds of photographs, which show his relatives as vaudeville entertainers,” Guest said. “It’s totally crazy. He knew he had some family in the theater, but now seeing these photographs and the articles and the reviews of these people, [it’s] pretty crazy.”
Although “Family Tree” is filmed in a documentary style fashion (like Guest’s films), Guest took no inspiration from the slew of reality shows on television. In fact, he’s never even seen one.
“I’ve never seen a reality TV show,” he told Access. “Not one. Nope. Never.”
Asked how he’s managed to steer clear of the genre, the writer/director/actor said it comes from avoiding the TV almost entirely.
“Well, it’s incredibly easy when you don’t turn on the television and that’s kind of what I do,” he said. “I’ve seen the ads when I watch sports. … I see the ads for shows that have been on for 10 years or more, but have never seen them, so it has no real connection to me.”
“Family Tree” airs Sunday nights at 10:30 PM on HBO.
-- Jolie Lash