The Cork accent was the perfect finishing touch. When Innishannon actor Aidan O’Callaghan was cast in popular BBC soap EastEnders, the character he was to play was written as English. But O’Callaghan felt he could put his own gloss on the part – by giving barman Lewis Butler a Leeside inflection.
“The character wasn't written as Irish. He was written as kind of a newcomer. That for me was the perfect opportunity,” says O’Callaghan (33). “My agent saw it as a good opportunity to squeeze me in. The script itself is not written for an Irish character. But I have a close relationship with the directors. For example, if there’s a 'bruvver' or 'mate' in it, I speak to the director and they say, ‘no you can amend it’. It's such a collaborative process here at EastEnders. All the departments are involved in the process of building that character. For me, as an actor, it’s fantastic.”
Gazing down a Zoom camera from his home in London, O’Callaghan is relaxed and upbeat. And remarkably calm, given all that’s happened with his career in the past year.
He recently finished shooting The Witcher: Blood Origin spin-off of the Henry Cavill fantasy series for Netflix. And now he has achieved overnight recognition as barman Lewis, who pours the pints at Albert Square’s local gay bar, 'The Prince Albert.'
Manning the taps is not a new experience for the actor, whose parents own a bar in Tower, near Blarney. “My parents have a pub. And I worked in that.” He pauses to laugh. “It’s different to the Prince Albert.”
O’Callaghan is also gay and believes it important individuals of all orientations be represented on screen. That said, he feels Lewis should not be identified exclusively by his sexuality. Being gay is part of who he is – the challenge as an actor is to ensure it does not define him. Nobody in this world is just one thing: why should a character in a soap be any different?
“You want to have that representation. Because it's important to have it [on television]” he nods. “But in the same breath, you want to portray a character where sexuality is not a massive thing. You want to represent. You also want to portray the sense that: here’s Lewis and sexuality is one part of him. You’re constantly trying to juggle those things. As an actor, you are thinking about it all. Representing and what you want to show [of his orientation]. And the importance of showing a complex character and multiple parts of him.”
EastEnders' storylines are kept tightly under wraps. However, it has been reported in the UK press that Lewis’s storyline will involve him sexually assaulting series regular Ben Mitchell [Max Bowden] in a plot that delves into issues around consent and rape within the gay community. Obviously, there are limits as to what O’Callaghan can say. Still, he acknowledges Lewis will become enmeshed in a heavy storyline.
"I knew from day one,” he nods. “I had discussions with my agent and with EastEnders in terms of what the storyline would contain. And the mature sensitivity of it. We worked closely with various organisations, such as Male Survivors Partnership and Survivors UK. In order to make sure this story is told in an accurate way.”
The challenge is to ensure Lewis is not a one-note antagonist who exists to serve a particular storyline. Audiences must believe he is a real person, with all the flaws and contradictions that involves.
“You want to build up that character. You want to have an idea of the storyline that’s coming. But some parts of the building of that character mean you have to forget [what’s coming down the track for Lewis]. You want people to see depth to that character. We were working closely to ensure the arc is built. At the end of the day, I’m an actor. I can put it at the gate and forget about it. It’s my first experience of playing that genre of a storyline. With that depth.”
It’s going to be a busy 12 months. In The Witcher: Blood Origin, he stars opposite the likes of Michelle Yeoh, Jodie Turner-Smith, and Lenny Henry as a character named Kareg. And later this year, he is shooting a feature film in Northern Ireland, alongside Olwen Fouéré. “It’s very different to the character. I’m currently playing – any opportunity to work in Ireland, I jump over for sure.”
EastEnders commands an audience of over 2.5 million per episode in the UK. Back home in Ireland, it has always been a family favourite of the O’Callaghan's. When he was cast, he feels his family were just as excited – if not more so – than he.
“My dad was joking: ‘There’s no fear of you [becoming overwhelmed about EastEnders]. It’s your mum’. We’d be in a shop. And she’d be like, ‘You know Aidan is going to be on EastEnders’. And I’d be mortified. They’re big fans of the show. Every Christmas we’d watch it growing up. They are absolutely over the moon.”
It would be absurd to claim Ireland does not suffer from homophobia. Nonetheless, going to school in Bandon, O’Callaghan always felt supported by friends and family. “Growing up in Ireland, I was surrounded by family and supportive friends. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve never experienced any homophobia per se. I’ve been fortunate in that sense. In Cork, it’s been great. A positive experience.”
O’Callaghan attended Hamilton High School in Bandon and then studied pharmacology at Trinity College Dublin. A qualified pharmacist, he has worked in chemists between acting gigs – though with EastEnders raising his profile, those days are potentially now behind him. Acting was always a passion, he says. But he never seriously believed it could become his career.
“In secondary school, I joined a theatre company. We were involved in theatre classes. It was a hobby. Acting was very far from me: Cillian Murphy and Graham Norton were the only two people in the industry. I didn’t have it in my mind. I studied pharmacy. And then I did a master's degree in the Royal College of Surgeons. I was going down that career. I moved to London to pursue pharmacy. I picked up acting again as a hobby – joined some classes. And as I was working as a pharmacist, doing classes, I was like, ‘you know, I like this’. I started the audition process. You keep knocking on those doors and some opportunities open up.”
Soap opera characters can come and go – or be around for much longer. It depends. O’Callaghan can’t say how long he’ll be on EastEnders. The sense you get is that it is an ongoing conversation. “It can be either set in stone or it can fluctuate,” he says. “There are lots of variables.”
One thing is for sure – as a Cork actor on a British soap, he has brought some Leeside representation across the Irish Sea. That Cork pride goes beyond the accent on EastEnders, too. “I was joking ‘oh I must try to wear the Cork jersey',” he says. “I'll have to check if they’ll allow me. I’ll try my best.”
- EastEnders airs on BBC One and RTÉ One