Johnny O’Callaghan was your typical Irish actor trying to make it in Hollywood. Then his life changed on a chance trip to Uganda, where he met a little boy he knew was meant to be his son. Who’s Your Daddy, his one man play running now at the Irish Rep, tells his extraordinary story. Interview by Patricia Danaher.
Johnny O’Callaghan’s moving and hilarious hit play Who’s Your Daddy, which is currently playing at the Irish Repertory Theater in New York City, had a rather uncharacteristic gestation, to put it mildly. Seven years ago, the Dublin-born actor had little more on his mind than his next audition, when the breakup of an engagement sent him into a tailspin that resulted in him becoming an adoptive father to a Rwandan refugee. He hadn’t particularly planned to become a dad, in fact he was more focused on pursuing his Hollywood dreams of becoming a movie star and was already living as though he were one, when he inadvertently set a legal precedent in Ugandan law by adopting as a single, gay man.
He hadn’t planned to turn the heart-warming story into an award winning play, but then again, Johnny O’Callaghan has always danced to his own particular tune.
Standing six feet two inches tall, blonde, blue eyed and very handsome, Johnny was like any another actor in Hollywood, living in the Hills, starring in commercials and TV shows, dating stars and starlets, getting wrecked in the Chateau Marmont. Then it all changed, after an engagement got called off and he agreed to take his mind off the heartache by accompanying a friend to Uganda, where she was making a documentary about an orphanage.
“I honestly had no desire to become a parent, let alone adopt a child on my own, but when I met this boy, Odin, I felt something for him that I’ve never felt before, and I knew I had to become his father,” he told me over green tea at his Los Angeles home last week.
“I was very naïve about what becoming a parent would entail, but adopting Odin made me grow up in ways I could never have imagined.”
The process of adopting Odin, a Tutsi born in Uganda, where his Rwandan parents fled 11 years ago, was a long and complex one. The boy’s father, a shepherd who is HIV positive, is still alive, but his mother died of AIDS shortly after Odin was born. He was being cared for in the most primitive of circumstances when Johnny and Odin first met.
It took a combination of bureaucracy, back-handers and a very tense court hearing in Kampala before custody was finally granted to Johnny in 2007. He had to become a US citizen and be vetted by the CIA and assorted social workers before navigating the delicate and sometimes hostile waters of being a white person attempting to adopt a black child in Uganda. Trying to get a passport for a Odin, who had no birth certificate, was a fresh nightmare, and involved having to get rubber stamps from seven different tribesmen in and around Kampala.
“In one scenario, I had to ride a cow across a river to reach one of the tribal leaders”, recalls Johnny. “It was insane! Obviously most of them don’t speak English and there’s no real tradition of adoption, so it was very hard to try to explain what I was trying to do. There was one leader who was vigorously opposed to the adoption and who initially refused to give me the stamp.”
Showing a combination of the determination and charm that had got Johnny that far in the process, he persevered in the search for the seven stamps and then went before the judge.
“I grew up putting pennies in the poor box for the black babies in Africa, but when I met this boy in the orphanage with a birthmark in his eye in the shape of the map of Ireland, I knew I had to do more. I know it sounds weird, but I just knew he was my son.”
It took nine months before a court in Kampala finally granted Johnny custody of the boy and permitted him to be brought to Los Angeles.
“It felt like being pregnant,” he jokes. “I had all the cravings, I put on weight and I never went to the gym!”
Six years later, Odin is thriving, is HIV negative, speaks English with an American accent and considers himself Irish – all quite a long journey from his benighted beginnings.
“Adoption is not part of Ugandan culture and there was all that controversy about Madonna adopting a child from Malawi at the time”, recalls Johnny. “My mother in Tallaght was among many people who asked me if I thought I was Angelina Jolie, adopting a child for celebrity reasons. It’s hard to believe but was soon as I met Odin there was an instant bond that I’d never felt with any other child anywhere before or since.”
“Who’s Your Daddy?” is a one-man play, which Johnny wrote and in which he stars, about the circumstances that led to him first going to Uganda in 2005 and his follow-up visits which finally led to the adoption of Odin. A very dark and funny iteration of Johnny’s journey from a working class home in Tallaght to the Hollywood Hills, via Kampala, the play has been a huge hit in Los Angeles, Edinburgh and now New York, where the sellout show has just had its run extended until the end of May.
Producers in Europe and in Hollywood have shown interest in turning the story into a movie and Johnny is working on a screenplay of the story.
“It took me a long time to get around to sitting down and telling this story,” he says. “I had no idea how demanding it was going to be, becoming a parent by myself, and that it was going to be such a full time 24/7 job. I had really missed performing and I felt a strong need to get this story of finding my son and learning to grow up as a result, out of me.”
The reactions from the audiences and the public have also surprised him, with people embracing this iteration of a modern family.
“Conservative men in particular have reacted very strongly to it, as have African Americans and very religious people,” he says with a bemused shrug. “I suppose it reflects how non traditional families have emerged over the past few decades and that there’s no one “right” way to be a parent.”
Although he’s been represented by the same agent as Jack Nicholson since he was spotted in Conor McPherson’s play Rum and Vodka in New York ten years ago, Johnny’s career as an actor has been somewhat fitful, with a lot of work in theatre and film in Canada, before he landed a recurring role in the TV show Stargate Atlantis.
“I thought my life as an actor was going to be completely different after I got signed by Bresler Kelly, but trying to make it as an actor in Hollywood is totally random and unpredictable,” he acknowledges with disarming frankness.
Instead of just becoming a full time stay at home parent/actor waiting for the phone to ring, Johnny spent two years doing a Masters Degree in Spiritual Psychology at the University of Santa Monica, where he was a classmate of Roma Downey. He now has a therapy practise and counsels many actors and artists, among his other clients.
“I always wanted to have a career alternative to acting and I suppose in a way, doing this master’s degree sort of brought me full circle from where I grew up in Tallaght, where I always wanted to be of service and give something back.”
Born in 1975 to a taxi driver dad and a stay at home mother, who met at the Rowntree Factory where they both worked, Johnny studied computer science at the University of Ulster in Belfast after school, where he also dabbled in amateur dramatics. After graduating, he got a job in IT in Boston and within a year or so was taking acting classes and landing parts in plays on stage and on radio in New York. He quit the IT sector after two years and moved to New York, where, to his surprise and delight, he found it easy to make a living as an actor.
“The reaction to the play amazes me. People have compared it to Angela’s Ashes, but one of the things which most people say to me is that “Who’s Your Daddy?” is one of the most uplifting Irish plays they’ve ever seen. It seems that many Americans associate Irish theatre with misery and gloom, so at least people are coming away from my show with a few good laughs.”