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Before he became famous as the alien-fighting, time-traveling bisexual hero of Torchwood and Doctor Who, John Barrowman was bicultural, born in Scotland and raised from age 8 near Chicago. He returned to England to pursue performing in his early 20s, with a career on stage, screen, and film that included Megalodon: Shark Attack 3, the TV soaps Titans and Central Park West, and singing “Springtime For Hitler” in Mel Brooks’ musical film remake of The Producers. While he’s openly gay, he lost out on the lead role in the sitcom Will & Grace for supposedly seeming “too straight.”
He found no such problems when he was cast in his breakthrough role on Britain’s Doctor Who as Captain Jack Harkness. A charming rogue and con man from the 51st century, Harkness developed from an antagonist to a close ally of The Doctor; his willingness to flirt with anyone, man or woman, human or alien, was part of the open attitude toward sexuality that producer Russell T. Davies brought to the series. Barrowman went on to star as Harkness on the Who spin-off Torchwood, in which Captain Jack leads a covert team of agents who protect Earth from alien menaces, though his personal foibles are often as much a source of danger as the aliens themselves. The show has grown progressively more popular, and it jumped to Britain’s largest channel, BBC1, for the new Torchwood: Children Of Earth, a five-episode miniseries which broadcasts in the U.S. starting July 20 on BBC America. Barrowman recently talked to The A.V. Club about Torchwood, the future, and getting inside his character’s head, even if it’s giant, disembodied, and in a jar.
The A.V. Club: How did you become an actor?
John Barrowman: Well, first off the bat, I don’t call myself an actor, I call myself an entertainer, because I don’t just do one thing. If you put a label on yourself, people will pigeonhole you. My first professional job was actually at a place called Opryland USA, which no longer exists, but I’ve been performing since I was a kid. In the living room of my parents’ house in Glasgow, Scotland, I would sing to family parties and stuff like that. [As for] my first drama job, my television work—I had done stuff prior to Doctor Who, I’d been in a couple of small parts in some musical films, and prior to that, B-rated stuff like Megalodon: Shark Attack 3. [Laughs.] But it wasn’t until I got involved in Doctor Who that I started doing dramas on television.
AVC: The role of Captain Jack was written with you in mind, right?
JB: According to Russell [T. Davies, Doctor Who and Torchwood executive producer] and [writer and incoming Who producer] Steven Moffat, who created Captain Jack, they had me in mind. Russell wanted to have the meeting with me so he could see, and I’m quoting here, these aren’t my words, “to see if he was still as handsome as ever.” They told me later that when I walked in, I had the job, and they just wanted to hear what I had to say and what my passion for what I did was like. I was a big fan of Doctor Who, so it would have been a dream job. I think all of us who are involved with Doctor Who or Torchwood, it’s our passion. We’ve grown up loving science fiction, and to be part of it is just a dream.
AVC: You were a fan as a teenager of Doctor Who, weren’t you?
JB: I was. After we left Glasgow, when I was 8, I went to the U.S. I used to stay up on Sunday nights and watch the marathons of Doctor Who. I would go to bed at about 1:30 in the morning and I would end up getting up late on Monday, and I would fail my spelling tests every Monday. And so I always say that Doctor Who is the reason I’m a shit speller.
JB: How alike are you and Captain Jack?
AVC: Well, no pun intended… [Laughs.] There’s a lot of John Barrowman in Captain Jack, and there’s a lot of Captain Jack in John Barrowman. I find with television, you have to play personality, whereas onstage, everyone talks about “the character,” and what you do. It’s a very different thing, because stage is much bigger, but on television, for things to come across to the public, I think you have to play a bit of your personality. Jack has the same sense of humor that I do. He’s a bit naughty. We’re very different in that he’s immortal, and I’m not. We’re also different in that he is ruthless; I’m not. I’m like Captain Jack in the sense that I’m passionate about things, as he is passionate—but I think that’s where it ends, really.
AVC: You recently wrote a Torchwood comic, “Captain Jack And The Selkie,” for Torchwood Magazine. Is that the first time that you’ve written for this character, not just played him?
JB: It was, actually. My sister and I collaborated, because we both had this idea for the story, and we hooked up with Tommy Lee [Edwards] for the graphics. I’ve got some stills framed that Tommy Lee has done for me. I’m really proud of that. I trust the writers when I’m filming, because it’s interesting for me to go in every week and see what’s going to happen, and the challenge for me as the actor is to make it work. But I was thrilled when I was able to write for Captain Jack. I think I know the character well. She and I are also writing a Torchwood novel, so it started a process.
AVC: Do you think you know things about Captain Jack that his TV appearances haven’t shown?
JB: I wouldn’t say that I know things about Captain Jack, because I learn things about him every day because of what’s written. There are things that I would like to explore with Captain Jack that haven’t been done yet. And we are touching upon those in the novel. So that’s what’s exciting for me, because I can have him do things. Of course we have to run things by Russell and the other people involved, but generally, they know my passion for the character and for, I’ll say, the “product.” They know I’m not going to do anything detrimental to it. So I’m exploring things in the novel that hopefully might one day be explored in the television series, or in the future, in film.
AVC: Do you think there’s going to be a film?
JB: Well, I’m not saying there is going to be a film, but I would love for Torchwood to be made into a movie, because it seems to me, they’re perfect characters. They are much more worldly, in the sense that they represent society much better than a lot of other TV series and science fiction that is out there, if that makes any sense.
AVC: The show is about people who are screwed up, and that makes them human.
JB: They’re real. And I think that’s where the popularity comes from, because the audience can identify with them. They are people who screw up, who make mistakes. They’re people who love. They’re people who have passion about their jobs. They’re people who have problems. They deal with them, and sometimes deal with them incorrectly. This show mimics life, even though one character is kind of a superhero.
AVC: Do you find the more outlandish aspects of Jack’s character tough to deal with or relate to, as an actor? You know, for example, that he is fated to become The Face Of Boe, a giant disembodied head in a jar.
JB: [Laughs.] And how he becomes that, I would like to know. There was a line; I can’t remember if it was series one or series two, he says something to the extent of, “I’ve died in so many ways, except to have them put my head on a railway track.” [Laughs.] That’s ironic. I am not one of those actors who dwells on the histrionics and the subtext and future text of the character. I deal with the scenes that I’m doing at that specific time, because if I do that, they play in more of a real way. I only play what is in the moment, rather than in the future, but sometimes the past is more important than what is coming up in the future. You have to bring in certain elements of the past in order to make it work. And that’s all done with the blink of an eye, a facial expression, or some subtle movement of the eyes, so people can go, “Oh, he’s thinking about that time he jumped onto the TARDIS,” something like that. And people will pick up these little nuances.
AVC: The new Torchwood series is moving to BBC1, the largest of the BBC channels.
JB: It means a different audience. It’s a big move for the show.
AVC: How does this affect the tone of the show? Did you have to change any of the racier aspects?
JB: Oh God, no. In fact, there’s full-frontal nudity of me in episode two. There’s full rear-view nudity of me in episode—I think it’s two again, maybe one. We still say “shit.” We still say “fuck.” Just because it’s BBC1 doesn’t mean you have to change what you do. It’s just “the bigger channel,” the more prestigious channel. Fortunately at the BBC, we are the publicly owned broadcasting company. We are allowed to do a lot more than other networks, as long as it is after 9 o’clock in the evening, which makes perfect sense.
AVC: How did the dynamics of the show change with the loss of two major characters in the previous season?
JB: In practical terms: it’s a hell of a lot quicker to film. [Laughs.] And I say that jokingly, because there were times when we would be doing sequences with the five of us, and they would take three days, because you’ve got so many different angles and shots. Dynamically, you have quite a few moments of the team finding their feet without the other two.
AVC: There was talk of the characters Martha Jones and Mickey Smith from Doctor Who moving to Torchwood.
JB: I think some of that was fan rumor. There was talk of Martha coming into the show at one point. I don’t know if that was as a team member or a player, but Freema [Agyeman], the actress who played Martha Jones, took a job with ITV, so that didn’t happen. [Laughs.] There is no sign of Mickey Smith or Martha Jones coming in. She is mentioned in episode one of this series. Gwen says, “Don’t call her, she’s on her honeymoon.” And that’s it.
AVC: Were you disappointed that the new Torchwood season is only five episodes long?
JB: I was, actually. Because as we moved from BBC3 to 2, we were a huge success. We were also the number-one show on BBC America, and we’re also going to be launching their HD channel. We moved to BBC2, and we had great ratings. And then we moved to 1 and we only had five episodes, and I felt like we were being punished… We were told it was to “make an impact.” And I understand what they are saying. The difference is—and this is what Americans won’t understand—we have over here what we call “event” television. Families will sit down every night at the same time to watch a program over the course of a week. They will not do that in America. It’s like a miniseries.
AVC: One of the most notable elements of Torchwood is the open attitude toward sexuality; not just Jack, but each of the regular series characters have bisexual experiences. How do you think the way that British viewers accept Captain Jack’s sexuality compares to America’s acceptance?
JB: I think both are quite exceptional. The Brits, there is no issue made about Captain Jack being bisexual, or omnisexual, as we call him. It went over everybody’s head. And to be honest with you, I think it was a breath of fresh air in America, because he’s someone who represents a lot of people out there. When people try to make an issue out of it, my comment is, “Fuck off, it’s 2009!” [Laughs.] And if you have a problem with this kind of real person, then don’t watch it. Go watch something else. Over here, it’s not even an issue or a question. I don’t know if it is in the States or not. I’ve never come across any kind of press about it.
AVC: With a new production team taking over Doctor Who, do you think Captain Jack will still be making appearances on the show?
JB: I met Matt Smith [who’s taking over the title role in Doctor Who] while we were both doing press at BBC. I made the comment that I felt like I cheated on David [Tennant, the current Doctor] after he left the table. I think he is a great guy, and I would love if Captain Jack would be involved in his Doctor Who episodes. It’s up to the producers and the new team. I think, personally, that Captain Jack’s popularity is massive over here right now. It would be great to see him with the new Doctor. And I would be happy to do it.
AVC: What would you like to do after Captain Jack?
JB: I do loads of other things. I just came off of a three-week UK concert tour which I did for my current album release. I’ve got another album in the pipeline. I’ve got a new book that comes out in the fall. It’s not an autobiography, but it is a sort of “world according to John” sort of book, called I Am What I Am. I’m going to the West End to play the lead in La Cage Aux Folles. So I’ve got other irons in the fire. Torchwood is hugely important to me. And I want a series four, definitely. If series four comes around, I want more than five episodes. But if someone were to say to me “John, you are only going to play Captain Jack for the rest of your career,” I would be completely content and happy.