If a Magical Machine Could Tell You Your Life Potential: Chris O'Dowd and Josh Segarra Chat 'The Big Door Prize'

Big questions sit at the heart of this dramedy, which feels perfectly timed for the pandemic era — and, two seasons in, two of its stars tell us about getting existential.
Sarah Ward
Published on May 13, 2024

Potential is such a loaded term. Everyone is meant to have it. We're all petrified that we're not realising it. Chasing it, searching for it, grappling with it and coming to grips with possibly not living up to it — and that it can change and evolve as well — can all knock a person off-kilter. That's true of life, and also within Apple TV+ dramedy The Big Door Prize in both its 2023-premiering first season and now 2024's second season. Lead Chris O'Dowd, like everyone, knows that the baggage that comes with the word is inescapable.

"I think you're right in that potential is such a loaded term and such an arbitrary one, really. We've just decided that this could be a thing. There isn't any proof for anything, if we want to buy into the premise that a potential is something that exists at all," The IT Crowd, Bridesmaids and Juliet, Naked talent tells Concrete Playground. "So I shudder to think, but it's probably true that it comes from some sense of entitlement to something better than you have or you are. And I think that keys into all of our egos. And, I suppose as a structure for a series, therefore it makes a lot of sense."

Adapted from MO Walsh's novel of the same name, with Schitt's Creek alum David West Read bringing the text to the screen, The Big Door Prize pushes the concept of potential in more than just a general sense. At its heart is a machine that could be magical and is definitely mysterious: the Morpho, which turns up in the fictional US town of Deerfield out of the blue to spit out blue cards with white text proclaiming what everyone should be. Dusty, O'Dowd's high-school teacher character, is told by the contraption that "teacher/whistler" is his destiny — once he slowly warms up to giving the gadget a go after being the local cynic at first. But for him, as for his loved ones and neighbours, receiving a piece of paper that proclaims to inform you of your life's purpose doesn't provide all of the answers.

Big questions sit at the heart of this thoughtful and contemplative dramedy, clearly. Also navigating how to react to the Morpho — and, of course, to the idea that anything can advise you what you should be devoting your existence to — is Deerfield's resident ex-hockey player-turned-Italian restaurateur Giorgio. As played by Josh Segarra, he's a dose of almost-constant optimism, as the Scream VI and She-Hulk: Attorney at Law actor also was in now-dearly departed comedy The Other Two. Giorgio doesn't share Dusty's uncertainty about the Morpho, but a card announcing "superstar" doesn't set him on a straightforward path, either.

Getting existential comes with the series, then — a show that feels perfectly timed for the pandemic era, O'Dowd notes, as everyone reassesses what they want out of life and who they want to be after such a jolt of a period. But when you're starring in The Big Door Prize, your job is to take the audience on that journey, Segarra advises. "We just have to play each moment to each moment and make it as believable as possible, and then allow the viewers to ask the questions," he explains. Acting in the series doesn't stop you wondering what you'd do if a Morpho appeared in front of you, though, or what you'd want your card — or vision, the machine's next level, which features 32-bit clips instead — to show.

With season two of The Big Door Prize now streaming, plunging back into a community that's flocked to a clairvoyant console to give them the answers that everyone wants, we chatted with O'Dowd and Segarra about their first reactions when a series about a mysterious machine that tells everyone their life potential crossed their paths — and also their dream Morpho fortunes, the show's mix of comedy with hope and tragedy, what gets them excited about a new project and more.


On O'Dowd and Segarra's Initial Reactions to a Show About a Small Town That's Upended by a Mysterious Machine That Tells Everyone Their Life Potential

Chris: "I was intrigued. I read the book first — because I always find if you have that opportunity, and sometimes that's not the case, but if the opportunity arises where you can read the book first, I think it's a better process of doing it. Because it means that you first find what the intention of the writer is, and then the person who's adapting, you know instantly what their intention is by what they've left out.

And I thought as a premise it was very intriguing and promising. Reading this mid-COVID, it kind of offered this reset to life that I think people were discussing anyway, and that something could act as a catalyst for that reset and this recharging of their new versions of themselves.

In a post-pandemic world, it felt very attractive to get on-screen. That's what I thought initially."

Josh: "I love what you said about that because that's the truth. The way the book reads, MO Walsh's book, it reads very spiritual — and it's fiction, and you're still following these characters, but in a way, it also felt like a self-help book, because as you're reading it you are in your time with the characters asking the same questions.

So then you get to our show, that's no longer our job to ask the big questions that we're delivering. We just have to play each moment to each moment and make it as believable as possible, and then allow the viewers to ask the questions."


On Dusty's Journey From Being a Cynic About the Morpho to Using It as a Guide — and What That's Like for O'Dowd to Play

Chris: "Poor old Dusty is clutching his straws. Emotionally and mentally, he doesn't know how to deal with these huge upheavals in his life. He felt fairly settled, so it's fun to play somebody who goes from probably the biggest cynic in town about this new machine — they put up a kind of ideological forcefield against the idea of it being anything — and then becomes really the rabble-rouser for it and the Pied Piper, leading people back to. It speaks to how much upheaval it has had on his own mentality.

So there's a lot of nice little meandering changes going on for Dusty, so I feel very lucky for that."


On What Appeals to Segarra About Playing a Character with Such Outward Optimism in The Big Door Prize – and in The Other Two as Well

Josh: "Probably the way that it makes me feel after I'm done every day. I like playing positive characters because they allow me to put their shoes on for a day and allow me to feel pretty positive.

I feel like it always feels better when you're putting out love, when you're putting out kindness — so when I play characters like that, it makes me feel like I went through like a like a flight simulator. I was in the flight simulator, I didn't have to fly the plane, but it sure felt like I did.

And I like finding the heart of the characters, so sometimes they might be written one way and I'm going to try my best to figure out what makes them tick, what makes them move. But these, thankfully, are written with a lot of heart, both Lance and Giorgio."


On Contemplating, or Not, the Human Need for Answers and for Validation When You're Making a Show About a Magical Machine That's Giving Life Advice

Josh: "I try not to think about it too much. It was Chris yesterday that said something that I've been thinking about. He dropped so many gems on me. Yesterday, he said 'our jobs are playing the triangle in an orchestra, and we can't concern ourselves with what the drums are doing'.

So the drums in our case are David and our writers room. They're taking these ideas, these big questions and making sure that they're seamlessly strewn about. But our jobs are to take the moment and make it as believable as possible, get from A to B and tell the story the way it needs to be told."


On Finding the Balance of Comedy, Hope and Even Tragedy in The Big Door Prize

Chris: "There's so much pathos going on with Dusty, and a lot of ups and downs. And tonally, it can be tricky sometimes, because you want people to be invested in the sadness of a breakup while also not letting the laughter completely die out.

I think it's important for us to always keep those balls in the air. Otherwise, you're just watching a single ball — and that's the worst job I've seen."

Josh: "The worst."

Chris: "I'll watch it for a while just because I like seeing people do stuff with their hands."

Josh: "That would be a funny act, if you never added the second and third ball. It'd be like an Andy Kaufman bit."

Chris: "Yes, it would really depend on how it was lit."


On What Gets O'Dowd and Segarra Excited About a New Role, and a Project Like The Big Door Prize, at This Point in Their Respective Careers

Chris: "For me, this one was fun because it was such a big idea. And I think getting inside the guts of that can be very satisfying. Because you're really just trying to make a lot of it — when you're playing the kind of role I am, anyway — relatable. You're the audience, really.

When you're kind of the grounded person in a show saying 'this doesn't make sense, guys' a lot and then become romantic about what would happen, actually, if it were all true — that's probably how we want the audience to feel.

You want them to feel a little cynical at the start so you have to somehow reel them in. I was interested by the prospect of that.

And I grew up if watching those Amblin movies where you tell very detailed truths through a very high concept. In the same way that ET was about divorce and Jaws was about getting old, this is in many ways about the great reset. And so to be part of the big idea like that was enticing."

Josh: "Exactly that. Plus the idea that I'd get to work with Chris. I'd get to play a former professional hockey player."

Chris: "Woo!"

Josh: "I'd get to wear track suits for my entire wardrobe. And we got to live in Atlanta while we did it. All pretty good things.

I'm still asking Apple to let me jump to the front of the line at the Genius Bar, but they haven't really approved that that request quite yet."


On Whether O'Dowd and Segarra Would Use the Morpho If It Was Real — and What They'd Hope Their Card Would Say or Vision Would Show

Josh: "Absolutely."

Chris: "Oh yeah, I'd do it. I'd do it. In like Flynn, why not?"

Josh: "In a heartbeat."

Chris: "Rich poet."

Josh: "That'd be fun."

Chris: "I don't know what, maybe it's inherited — but you know, it's a magic card, so it doesn't really matter."

Josh: "I like that. I'd like to go with a chef. I wish I knew how to cook better. I can cook a couple mean meals, like I make a nice chicken parmesan, I make a good breakfast. But I'd like to be able just to kind of — you know those people that can look in their fridge and see what's left and then throw together an amazing meal? I'm not one of them and I wish I was."


The Big Door Prize streams via Apple TV+. Read our reviews of season one and season two.

Published on May 13, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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