Holt McCallany , who had just come from appearing on Good Day New York to talk about the award he received last week from the American Ireland Fund, swaggered into Cassidy’s Irish pub and restaurant on 55th Street with an air of confidence and presence on Thursday, March 10. He saluted the Irish waitresses one by one before taking his seat for the interview.
Wearing a pair of stone wash jeans and a t-shirt that had the words Irish Boxing blazed across the front, McCallany, 46, looked as handsome in person as he does on television, where each week he stars on the FX show Lights Out as Lights Leary, an aging former world heavyweight champion boxer who is diagnosed with pugilistic dementia and struggles with supporting his family.
McCallany’s American accent was garnished with a tint of an Irish brogue, but when passion consumed a topic, particularly about time he spent in Ireland, his accent became stronger and his expressions more intense.
The 6’2” actor, who was born in New York to an Irish father and American mother, spent a considerable amount of time in Ireland as a child. His mother, Julie Wilson, and father, Michael McAloney, felt it was essential for him to get a “good Catholic” education.
His father, who passed away in 2000, spent most of his childhood in Ireland but returned to the U.S when he was an adult. He joined the marines and eventually became a highly successful Broadway actor and producer. His father’s play, Borstal Boy, was the first Irish play to win a Tony award.
“He brought the show and the entire cast over from Dublin in 1970,” McCallany said proudly while sipping a black coffee.
Why do father and son have slightly different surnames?
“Yes I know, I changed the spelling of my name a few years ago so people could pronounce it better,” explained McCallany.
“My father always said our name different to the way it was spelt, so I changed it to sound more phonetic. It’s important to be understood in my business.”
McCALLANY admits straight out he was a troubled teenager. Because of his parents’ hectic acting career he went to stay with his maternal grandparents in Omaha, where his mother once held the Miss Nebraska title.
The slow pace of life in the Cornhusker State didn’t impress the aspiring actor, so he soon began to defy his new situation. He was expelled from school, became extremely rebellious and difficult to handle.
Ready for change, 14-year-old McCallany decided to chase his acting career and ran away from Nebraska. He caught a Greyhound bus to LA and found work in a screwdriver factory.
“At that time I already knew I wanted to be an actor, and Nebraska was not the place to pursue that sort of career, I knew where I had to be,” he said.
A windfall of $1,200 in a poker game gave him the change in his pocket he needed to get set up in LA.
“I had a fake ID to say I was 18. I got a studio apartment in LA, and with the gift of the gab I got a job,” he said.
He had just settled into the Californian way of life when his disgruntled father tracked him down.
Feeling the need to instill manners and discipline his son, McCallany’s father knew there was only one thing that could sort him out -- a strict Catholic education.
“He was determined I was going to have an Irish education so he sent me to a boarding school in Newbridge, Co. Kildare, the same one he himself went to,” McCallany said, admitting it was the last place on earth he wanted to be.
McCallany was familiar with the Irish school system by then. When he turned five Holt and his brother, Michael, were sent to Ireland to attend primary school.
The McCallany brothers lived with Irish family. Their primary education in Ireland lasted three years, and finally his mother sent for her sons.
Jumping forward to his time in the boarding school, McCallany remembers all too well his first few days in his new environment.
“Listen,” he sort of whispers moving closer. “I went over with long hair. I was used to hanging out on the beech in LA smoking weed and having a great time, and now I’m in the middle of the Irish countryside with nothing around for miles,” he said frowning.
His long hair wasn’t tolerated by his new educators. They chopped it short and cleaned him up to their standards.
“I wasn’t long being taught manners,” admits McCallany, who whipped out his reading glasses to peek through the menu at Cassidys.
Pausing the conversation for a moment, he ordered meat loaf.
Getting back on track, McCallany rewound 34 years to his first day at his new Irish school.
“My father said to me, ‘Whatever you do, keep a low profile,’” he laughed.
However young McCallany, an American with a chip on his shoulder, chose to ignore his father’s advice.
“There was this Dublin guy, Fr. Connolly, who was standing beside me in the queue for lunch. The dinner was absolutely disgusting and I turned to the priest and said, ‘I bet this isn’t what you are served in the rectory.’”
Apparently Connolly wasn’t impressed with the young American’s quick mouth. He pushed him so hard he slid 12 feet across the school canteen.
“I was so mad. Everyone was looking at me. In my mind I was going to go for him but I knew it wasn’t the best thing to do at the time,” said McCallany.
Things went from bad from worse the following day.
Trying to maintain his bravado, McCallany took on one of the local boys in a fistfight.
“I fought the toughest kid in the school, he was a black belt in karate and I got all my front teeth knocked out,” he laughed, thinking back at it.
“What a start! I was in Ireland two days, toothless, knocked down by a priest and lost my first fight.”
McCallany wasn’t long changing his tune. He became a whole new person with a new set of values within a short few weeks at that Irish boarding school.
“I quickly realized that these priests knew much more about me than I realized and understood me. They were in my corner,” he says.
He only stayed a year and returned to the U.S. to finish his education.
THE burly actor visits Ireland at every given opportunity. Sometimes it’s for research for a role. A few years ago he was given the part of an Irish gangster on the television series Heroes.
“The character I was playing was a Co. Cork man, so what better way to learn the accent than to go to the place,” he said.
McCallany worked hard to perfect the “high pitched” accent, but soon realized there would be a problem.
“I was able to get the Cork accent down but I knew very well that no one in America would understand it, so I went back to the producers and said, ‘Guys this isn’t going to work. If I do a Cork accent people in Oklahoma and Kentucky won’t understand a word I say,’” McCallany explained while giving a very-good example of his Cork brogue.
The producers finally settled on an “identifiable, but not specific,” Irish accent.
McCallany has appeared in a number of movies and television shows. He most recently appeared in the Warner Bros. feature The Losers. Other films include Men of Honor, Three Kings, Fight Club and many others. Among his television appearances are such notable shows as CSI Miami, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Burn Notice, Criminal Minds and Heroes.
An accomplished writer and producer, McCallany co-wrote a film, Mother Justice, based on the extraordinary life of Doreen Giuliano, a Brooklyn mother who risked her life to free her son from prison.
After playing the legendary boxing trainer Teddy Atlas in the HBO film Tyson he became a supporter of the Atlas Foundation Charity, a grassroots organization dedicated to helping children and families with medical and financial hardships.
Although single at the moment, (and probably not for long if his good looks and Irish charm have anything to do with it) McCallany was quick to admit he thought his co-star and wife on Lights Out, English actress Catherine McCormack, was “very attractive.”
“She is a lovely person and a very good actress. She helps me look forward to every scene, especially the bedroom ones,” he laughs.
The best thing about being the leading man? “Now I always get the girl,” he smiled with a cheeky twinkle in his eye.
McCALLANY, who lives between his apartments in LA and New York, has been boxing all his life. Little did he know that a lot of his future aspirations to become an actor would tie in with the skills he was learning in the ring as a child and young adult.
McCallany in many ways has a lot of things in common with his character Lights Leary, but there are also some traits they don’t share. Both men are boxers, Irish American and would go to any lengths to pursue their dreams, but Leary has a very passive streak and McCallany admits he is much more short tempered.
“In my own life, being a runaway, I became a kind of suspicious guy, a bit skeptical, and Patrick Leary is more trusting, always giving everyone the benefit of the doubt,” said McCallany, who worked seven days a week for five months to produce the first season of the show.
His aspirations for the future of his career? To see the continuation of Lights Out and to eventually star in the leading roles of big blockbuster movies.
His final words before he dashed off to another interview? “I’m just very happy that I’m having this opportunity to play this amazing character on a wonderful show that’s been really embraced by critics and audiences alike.
“It’s my opportunity in a small way to continue along and proud tradition of Irish boxers that include J.L. Sullivan, Jack Dempsey, Barry McGuigan and Andy Lee. Hopefully I’ve done it justice.”
Lights Out airs every Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX.