Viva la vida: Mark O’Halloran explains the Cuban connection

Mark O’Halloran on how he and Paddy Breathnach wound up making a film about a drag performer in Havana – with a little help from Panti Bliss and her wig collection

Writer, director and arguably Co Clare's most glamorous export, Mark O'Halloran first captured the national imagination as the star and author of Adam & Paul.

The much-admired 2004 drama marked director Lenny Abrahamson’s feature-length debut and seemed to herald the arrival of a significant collaboration.

Sure enough, the chaps re-teamed for the 2007 Cannes prize-winner Garage, and both were possible Oscar-contenders earlier this year, when Abrahamson was nominated for his work on Room, and Viva, a new film written by O'Halloran, made it onto the Academy's shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film.

In the years between Garage and Viva, O'Halloran has spent more time in front of the camera, taking the romantic lead in A Kiss For Jed and smaller roles in The Guard and Calvary. He has written several plays: Mary Motorhead, The Head of Red O'Brien and Trade. He has co-authored others – notably Lippy (with Bush Moukarzel) and Too Much of Nothing (with David Wilmot) – and acted at the Abbey and Gate theatres in Dublin, the Lyric in Belfast and Druid Theatre, Galway. He also penned Prosperity, the 2008 four-part television series (made again with Abrahamson directing).


But those of us who, back in 2004, imagined that the Irish movieverse had found its superhero with a laptop, have had to wait more than we might have liked.

"I remember when myself and Tom [Murphy] sat down to watch Adam & Paul, I turned to him and said: 'I actually think we're going to get loads of film work out of this'," laughs O'Halloran. "And then I was unemployed for two years.

"I'm only semi-attached to the film world. If you can get a great part in the theatre, then why not? I suppose I am attached to film by my writing. I like to think of myself as a gifted amateur in various fields." O'Halloran's work has been powered along by his not inconsiderable observational skills. Today, we meet in the Gresham Hotel – not too far from Mountjoy Square, where he watched the drug addicts who would inform Adam & Paul.

Pale, slender, and dressed in a tracksuit from a play he's rehearsing, the Ennis-born actor couldn't look less Havana. And yet, that's where Viva, a stirring Cinderella story about the hairdresser who wants to become a drag performer, is set.

Such notions. But how?

“Yep,” says O’Halloran. “It’s the modern-day equivalent to running away to sea.”

Exotic culture
The talented actor-writer had wanted to see if he could transfer his skills "beyond what you'd see through a window on Parnell Street", but Cuba was Viva director Paddy Breathnach's idea.

“He was interested in doing a film there, so we went over for a holiday in Cuba and hung around with lots of drag queens – the drag queens that would allow us to hang around with them – and afterwards, I came home and wrote up a story that I heard from one of them.”

He had an idea; now it needed to be developed.

In an attempt to submerge himself in the exotic culture, he listened to every bolero and ballad, read as much of the literature as he could find and watched the greatest hits of Cuban cinema: Soy Cuba, Strawberry and Chocolate, Memories of Underdevelopment and even Cornetto Trilogy salute, Juan of the Dead. Returning to Havana, he moved into a gay B&B in the centre of the city.

"It was like living in the middle of a Mexican soap opera," he says. "There are all these big characters coming and going. I became fascinated by the telenovelas they watch. Well, not so much the telenovelas, which have such steroidal levels of soap opera I couldn't follow them at all. But their reactions to the telenovelas. Everyone has their own one that they love. They're all called mad titles. So, Pamela across the hall loves Doctors and Companions. So, you never call over while Doctors and Companions is on."

Viva's charming Cinderella story deserved a fairy-godmother. And it got the very best.

“So, Panti gave me 30 or 35 cast-off wigs and a few bits of female attire,” says O’Halloran. “And then I was able to go to the head of the drags. They can’t get wigs there. So, suddenly doors opened everywhere.

“I was allowed to sit backstage in the theatre. I was allowed to ask the performers in detail about their choice of song. With my wigs, I had my way.”

The fine and noble art of lip-synching is a rather different business in Havana.

“There’s no ironic detachment. It’s strangely un-camp. High camp. But un-camp. They believe every single word of those songs while they’re performing. And the songs are similar to the telenovelas: ‘I tore my hair out, I pulled the door off the hinges, I flung you out of the house, but now you’re back!’ So I tried to get that high melodrama into the writing.”

Line by line
O'Halloran – who continues to learn Spanish at the Cervantes Institute and describes his grasp of the language as "sometimes getting by, but shit" – wrote some of the screenplay in Irish colloquialisms and then went through it line by line. It helped that the film's assistant director was once a translator for Castro.

“Often you couldn’t do a direct translation,” he says. “You had to ask and discuss it. Things like: ‘She’s washing her box’. How do you say that in Cuban- Spanish? They don’t have as many names for female parts as we do.”

But, how do you say that in Cuban- Spanish?

“We had to go with: ‘She’s washing her ass’.”

The film's casting director, Libia Batista, would prove an invaluable asset. She was "brilliant and sensitive" when it came to recruiting a transgendered female performer and she would also introduce the Viva gang to Benicio del Toro, who came aboard as an executive producer. And more good fortune: the Ministry of Culture provided a police escort to aid the production as they battled though Havana's bustling, noisy streets.

Did they raise any concerns or quibbles?

“No. There’s such a need for hard currency on the island, they were happy to help. They only asked that the sex scene was done tastefully.

“So, you just get a bit of side-bottom from me.”

'Clapped out'
Ah yes. Mark O'Halloran does appear in Viva as an Irish sex tourist who haggles with the film's young hero, Jesus (the remarkable Héctor Medina). He can't have written that part with himself in mind, surely?

“The lads kept saying: ‘sure you’ll play Ray’ and I thought this was hilarious. But that’s the kind of part I get offered nowadays. I get: creepy sex tourist who haggles over the price of the sex he gets from a young fellah. Just not a nice man. The description in the screenplay was: ‘In his 50s. Clapped out.’ So, no. I wasn’t thinking of myself. Not yet.” Having been only “semi-attached” to the film world for much of the last decade, O’Halloran is back with a bang.

Stay tuned O'Halloran-watchers: Next year, his play Trade will be adapted for the screen by Hong Khaou, the Bafta-nominated director of Lilting.

Before then, he takes the central role of History's Future, the incoming feature from Dutch visual artist Fiona Tan, and also features in the Sligo-based culture clash comedy Halal Daddy, which he co-wrote with director Conor McDermottroe.

"Halal Daddy is more lighthearted than what I usually bring to the table," he says. "But it had something that interested me. There's a whole generation of young people who has grown up in small Irish towns. They or their parents come from Bosnia or Nigeria or Poland. They joke amongst themselves: 'You were born in Galway so you're the refugee in Sligo.' It's so unlike the experience I had growing up in a country that was monolithically Irish."

Meanwhile, back in Havana, Viva has found a wildly appreciative audience, courtesy of the paquetas.

“There are internet hotspots all over the city, but very few people have internet at home,” O’Halloran explains.

"A little man comes along with two terabytes of stuff every week. You pay him and you download box sets, and movies, and even complete libraries of books. So, Viva is really well known over there which is really delightful for us."

- Viva opens in Irish cinemas on August 19th