He’s 40, bisexual and single. In 2006, he adopted a three-year-old boy, who spoke no English, from Uganda, in a complicated saga that he has adapted into a one-man show. It wowed theatre audiences in LA, and opens Thursday for a 25-day run at Edinburgh’s Fringe festival. It is set to become a film, with Michael Fassbender or Colin Farrell among the names touted to play him.
Life seems pleasant in the Hollywood Hills, where O’Callaghan lives with Odin, 10 minutes from the city. Deer amble about. Humming birds riff.
O’Callaghan grew up in Tallaght, Dublin. After school, he completed a degree in computer science at Jordanstown. In Boston, he did a two-year course in acting. After a few years grinding it out in New York, he drifted to LA in Feb 2002, lured by his manager, Jack Nicholson’s agent Sandy Bresler.
O’Callaghan got good theatre, television and film notices. He acted alongside Anne Bancroft in the film Deep in My Heart and played Niam in the sci-fi TV series Stargate Atlantis, but his life had become listless. He wasn’t hitting the mark in auditions. The call for work gigs was intermittent.
“I got kinda burnt out,” he says. “I wasn’t booking. I was very privileged in many ways — living in the Hollywood Hills, but I wasn’t really appreciating my life. I was navel-gazing a lot; I was very self-absorbed — getting massages, going to parties, having a great time but not thinking I was; clueless, living the life, but a very shallow one.”
On a Wednesday in Jan 2006, he met a friend for coffee. She was heading to Uganda to shoot a documentary about children living with AIDS.
Did he want to come along, she asked?
The timing wasn’t ideal: it was in the middle of “pilot season” — when actors get cast for TV shows. It was an exciting proposition, but a dodgy one. At the time, the US government was warning citizens not to travel to Uganda.
O’Callaghan was up for the adventure, though. Good, she said — a psychic had told her that an angel would go with her to Africa. O’Callaghan got his medical shots at a travel clinic the next day. On the Saturday, they set off for the three-day journey to the House of Hope orphanage in Uganda. What met them was an eye-opener — people living in huts, children walking around with rifles, coffins lying on the side of the road.
At the orphanage, the children sang and danced for them on arrival. “There were no books, no toys, no toothbrush, no soap, and no toilet paper,” says O’Callaghan. “It was very basic, and this little kid just plopped on my lap; he almost nestled into me like he was home.
“Without making it sound too weird, I kept hearing these thoughts in my head: ‘he’s your son’. How can he be my son? He’s brown. He was very weak. I kind of laughed it off. I had no intention of going there to adopt a kid, to be a dad. I didn’t feel I was in the right place, but over the six weeks I was there, I went on this journey of discovery.
“I enjoyed being with him. One day, we went into the village. I was thinking ‘I’ll find him a bottle of Coca-Cola or something sugary.’ I brought him into this store, but he pointed out this white, stale bread. He didn’t want the coke at all; he took one sip of it and spat it out. He held onto the bread really tightly. I took him back to the orphanage. He broke up the bread and put it on the other kids’ cots. I remember being profoundly affected by how he shared when he had absolutely nothing.”
The boy had a birthmark in the white of his left eye, which is the shape of the map of Ireland. Family and friends were dubious about O’Callaghan’s adoption plan. “Who do you think you are, Angelina Jolie?” asked his mother.
“I was at a Rose of Tralee festival in LA and I was telling an Irish-American girl I was very excited — I was renovating and getting ready for the child,” he says. “She said, ‘Does that mean you’re a paedophile now?’ I was very clear, so people’s reactions [didn’t matter]. I was on my mission.”
O’Callaghan honed up on Ugandan law. He hired a lawyer and a social worker in Uganda. He took out US citizenship, which was a way around having to reside in Uganda for three years. A single man can adopt in the United States. His plan was to take Odin back to America and be his guardian and then adopt him. Odin’s mother died in childbirth, says O’Callaghan. She was HIV positive, from what O’Callaghan was told, as was Odin’s father, whom O’Callaghan met on that first trip to Uganda. “He gave me his son and said, ‘He is a child of the nation.’ It was a very beautiful experience, a gorgeous moment,” says O’Callaghan. “He just couldn’t take care of the child. I had a lot of respect for him. He was very sweet and didn’t ask me for money or anything, which was unusual over there, because people are just trying to survive.”
In Oct 2006, O’Callaghan got a call to return to Uganda to complete the adoption, which started with a court case. Odin sat on his lap in court.
When the judge found out that O’Callaghan was an actor in America, he asked: “What have I seen you in?” After being granted custody, O’Callaghan’s biggest hurdle was Odin’s passport process, which amounted to extortion and involved traipsing around the Ugandan jungle to get stamps from seven tribesmen to vouch for Odin.
O’Callaghan took him back to Dublin to get christened.
Then came the hard bit, back in California — fatherhood. “It was a 24/7 job,” O’Callaghan says. “He’d be waking up at 3 or 4 o’clock wanting to play. He would put his dishes in the toilet bowl as opposed to the kitchen sink. It was magical, but also the most difficult thing I’ve done.
“He’s got a great zest for life. He’s strong. He’s a great laugher. He loves Ireland. He loves his cousins. When he was at school, he was trying to pronounce the word ‘wallflower’ and finding it difficult. He told his teacher: ‘English is very difficult for me because I’m Irish’.”
The pair hasn’t been back to Africa. It’s a conversation for later, when Odin’s maybe 16 or 18, when he can “grasp it”, says O’Callaghan. “Right now, he needs to be a kid.”
* Johnny O’Callaghan’s Who’s Your Daddy? runs at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Rainy Hall, The Assembly Hall, 10.30pm, Thursday, Aug 2 — Sunday, Aug 26. For more information, phone +44 131 623 3030 or visit www.assemblyfestival.com