Thursday 18 January 2018

The unlikely father

Johnny O'Callaghan was an out-of-work actor when a trip to Africa introduced him to an orphan he felt was destined to be his son.

Johnny O'Callaghan with Odin, the boy he adopted from an orphanage in Uganda.
Johnny O'Callaghan with Odin, the boy he adopted from an orphanage in Uganda.
Johnny O'Callaghan
O'Callaghan in the show based on his experience of fatherhood.

Eoin Butler

Seven years ago, when Irish actor Johnny O'Callaghan told his mother he had met his future son in a Ugandan orphanage, her reaction was somewhat less than ecstatic. "Who do you think you are?" she scoffed. "Angelina f**king Jolie?"

It was January 2006, pilot season in O'Callaghan's adopted hometown of Los Angeles. That is the time each year when US television networks cast parts for the next season's new shows.

O'Callaghan had appeared in three episodes of 'Stargate Atlantis', a handful of plays and a couple of TV movies. But despite sharing an agent with Jack Nicholson, his career had never really hit the heights of fame. Now he was out of work, depressed and dealing with the aftermath of a painful break-up.

Logically, he should have been in California, hustling for his next job. But on a whim, he accepted a friend's invitation to travel to east Africa, where she was filming a documentary about children living with Aids.

"I met my friend Stella for coffee one day," he recalls. "She told me about this documentary she was working on and invited me to travel with her. That was Wednesday. We left for Uganda on Saturday."

It was there in Africa, in an orphanage without electricity or running water, that O'Callaghan met Benson, a three-year-old boy who would change his life.

Both Benson's father (who is alive) and his mother (who died in childbirth) were HIV positive. But the boy himself, remarkably, is not.

"Instantly, I just knew he was my son," says O'Callaghan of that first encounter.

"I know it doesn't make sense on an intellectual level, but it's really what I felt in my heart. And that's the question this whole story asks: what happens when you follow your heart instead of your head?"

As he tells it in his one-man-show, 'Who's Your Daddy?' – which opens at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York on April 17 – the story of how O'Callaghan adopted little Benson, since renamed Odin O'Callaghan, is packed with, frankly tiresome, signs, omens and premonitions.

His friend's psychic had predicted an "angel" would accompany her to Africa. When O'Callaghan first encountered Odin, in the House of Hope orphanage in Uganda, the child had "a birthmark in the whites of his eyes the shape of Ireland". And during the nine-month adoption process, the Tallaght native insists he felt as though he were pregnant.

But what shines through is O'Callaghan's humour, his love for his son and single-minded determination to secure a better life for the child in America.

"Adoption in Uganda," he admits, "wasn't that common at the time. The fact that I was a single man was another difficulty. So the process was complicated in many ways."

Among those complications was O'Callaghan's sexuality.

He was a gay man in one of the world's most homophobic countries – a country that, in 2011, threatened to make homosexual acts punishable by death.

Were the Ugandan authorities, or the child's birth father, aware that he was gay?

The actor bristles. "No. The first complication for me was accepting that this child was my son and that we were going to go on this adventure together. In my head, I was thinking, 'He's brown. He doesn't look like me'. It wasn't what I imagined a family should look like. That was the first obstacle."

But if the Ugandan authorities had known O'Callaghan was gay, presumably the adoption wouldn't have gone ahead?

"My sexuality was very fluid at the time," he replies.

"And to be honest, this wasn't a subject that came up in Uganda. The question of a person's sexual orientation wasn't something that popped into people's heads there."

It is plain that he is annoyed. He cuts across my next question. "Why is my sexuality relevant?" he asks. "Does it seem relevant to you?"

It doesn't, I assure him. But race and sexuality are the two central planks of his show.

And even if Uganda's attitude toward homosexuality is bigoted and misguided, mightn't the authorities there, as well as the boy's birth father, have a right to feel deceived that this information was withheld from them?

"I'm not sure that I follow what you're saying," he fumes. I tell him I regret that he has taken offence where no offence was intended. Then I attempt to change the subject, asking if, as a single man in an unstable profession, he was concerned how he would support the child growing up.

But O'Callaghan isn't willing to move on just yet. "It's really quite an interesting line of questioning you're pursuing," he says.

"Look. This boy was starving. He had nobody to take care of him. His father had dumped him in an orphanage...

"And you're asking me if they had concerns about my sexuality?"

It appears, at this point, that he may be about to terminate the interview. I tell him that he has misunderstood me. That no judgement was implied in any of my questions. I was merely playing devil's advocate. He mulls that over for a moment, before deciding to continue.

Despite the outspoken nature of his work, it is obvious O'Callaghan is sensitive, even to implied criticism.

"I did an interview with Marian Finucane years ago," he recalls. "And all she kept asking me was, 'Oh, isn't your son missing his native culture?' But his culture over there was very limited. He wasn't looking at giraffes or elephants. He was living in a concrete box. That was the extent of his culture."

What about today? In previous interviews, O'Callaghan had described how Odin initially struggled to adapt to Western life, once memorably stacking dirty dishes in the toilet bowl.

Now aged 11, O'Callaghan reports his son is your average American kid.

"He's totally American. He loves basketball. He has very few memories, if any, of Uganda. And he loves Ireland, too. He's always in Ireland."

As for parenthood, the biggest shock for O'Callaghan was coming to terms with how instantly and absolutely it transformed his life.

"I think I went into shock," he says.

"I don't think I had any understanding of the 24/7 nature of the responsibility I was about to take on. Even divorced parents tend to have three days on, three days off."

Compromises were necessary, and O'Callaghan hasn't shirked making them.

"When I adopted Odin, I realised I wouldn't be able to travel as much as I had done. I needed a steady income. So I went back to school, did a masters in psychology and now have a therapy practice as well."

'Who's Your Daddy?' has already had successful runs in Los Angeles and at the Edinburgh Festival last year.

Now, a film adaptation may be in the works with New Line Cinema. O'Callaghan has a screenplay and there's even been talk of Colin Farrell or Michael Fassbender taking the lead role, although O'Callaghan would prefer to play it himself.

The most surprising bonus that has come with fatherhood, he reveals, is that it has forced him to make peace with himself and his own sexuality.

"Odin has been a real healer in that respect. Because I never want him to be ashamed of who he is, or what his background is, or the colour of his skin. Therefore, the only way I could be a role model for him, in that respect, was to be comfortable in my own skin."

As for parenthood's biggest reward, well, that's an easy question to answer.

"I can sit on the couch and watch a movie with him and feel totally at peace," he says.

"Being a father, you start to enjoy the moments of life: celebrating Christmas, celebrating his birthday, wearing green, white and orange on St Patrick's Day. The experience – taking care of another person – brings its own rewards."

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