In the first of CBR TV’s 3-part interview between Mark Waid and John Barrowman, the acclaimed comic book writer and mega-popular “Torchwood” star bonded over a shared love of geek culture, namely Mego action figures and meeting Stan Lee.
In this, our second installment, the pair return to their childhoods, reminiscing about life as a kid and the messages they’d leave their 10-year old selves if they could. The actor also looks back at his family upbringing and career path as he and Waid discuss the difference between ego and self-confidence before Barrowman delves into his personal life, relating the undeniably unusual way he met — and was initially afraid to ask out — his partner of (around) 18 years.
Mark Waid: Now, a story I tell frequently is that I went back to this house that I lived in when I was 10 years old — this was a few years ago — and now I’m really successful at what I do and I’m very pleased and very happy to be in that position, but I went back to that house and nobody was there. I just walked around this house, it was the first time I had been there since we left and at that moment, there was nothing in the world I wanted more than to walk in the backyard and see a 10-year-old Mark Waid sitting back there so I could tell him, “Don’t worry. You’re going to get everything you ever wanted out of life.”
John Barrowman: Yeah, there’ll be some bumps along the way, you know what I mean? There’s a book that was done, it’s — what was it? “Notes to Myself” or something it was called, and I had to write a page where I was giving a message to 10-year-old or early teenaged version of myself.
So what did you say?
I said exactly the same kind of thing. “Don’t worry.” You know, everything’s going to be fine and there are people out there who will help you. I can’t remember the exact wording, it was very much a “Don’t worry” kind of thing, but at the end of it, I put, “and also, tell dad to buy stock in a product that has an apple on it, because it will do very, very well.”
So, it was fun, too. But yeah, we all look back on our — this is going to sound really morbid — but we look back on our lives as we get older, we look and we think, “It’s not going to be an easy ride, but you know what? If it’s not an easy ride, it’s going to be a much more fun ride than anything.”
Yeah, a more interesting ride. You learn so much from the knocks as you do from the things that go well. Were your folks and your family supportive of your career choices?
Yeah! I don’t think they had a choice because I knew what I wanted to do.
[Laughs] Well, okay!
I was very determined and my brother is an executive for — the company’s changed its name, so I don’t know the name off the top of my head — it used to be Northern Illinois Gas, Nicor. My brother works for them and my sister is a professor of English literature and journalism. My sister was the academic, my brother was the sportsman. He was on the American Olympic soccer team the year they boycotted. He was the first non-American citizen to play for the U.S. — he was a resident at the time. I was the entertainer. We were all very different, very diverse, but all very good — that sounded really egotistic.
No, no, no, you were all driven.
We were driven and our parents allowed us to feel we were good at what we did and to achieve the things. Also, my dad’s biggest word of advice to all of us was, “Don’t give up.” Don’t do anything half-assed. Do it with the utmost commitment, try to be the best you can be at what you do and people can’t deny you things. If they do, they’re going to have a hard time. You won’t get everything you want, but when you’re denied it, you can put up a good fight.
Absolutely. What kept you going in the early days of acting when it couldn’t have been easy?
I have to be really honest.
Yes you do. There’s a camera on you; you have to be honest.
I know. I didn’t struggle very much, and I have to say that with my hand on my heart. I have had times in between where I’ve had some struggles, but at the beginning, I landed a lead role in the West End opposite of Elaine Paige and my career started. I didn’t have to climb the ladder in the sense of starting in the ensemble, which was a good thing in a way, but it was also a difficult thing because a lot of the people who were my age were all in the ensemble and I was thrust into this leading role and a lot after that. So I feel like I kind of missed out on a lot of it.
What did you learn from yourself during this time? What did you learn about yourself as you were being thrust into that?
I learned your game has to change. Again, it’s like your tennis game becomes better if you’re playing with people who are of that caliber. I remember Elaine Paige saying to me the night before I made my debut in the West End — I was standing off to the side of the stage taking a deep breath and she walked past me and said, “Well, honey, you’re either going to sink or you’re going to swim.” Again, some people would collapse at that, but I thought, “You know what? I’m going to swim and I’m going to swim right up with you.”
Seriously, you exude this confidence — not confidence in terms of cockiness or not confidence in the sense of ill-deserved — just a driven sense that you clearly have a vision of what you want, what makes you happy. Whether or not that’s really at your heart —
I’m a good actor! [Laughs] No, I’m passionate about what I do, I’m very opinionated, I’m very driven, I have an ambition — I have a healthy ambition. I’m not rude to people, I know what I want, I’m generous — these are things I’m saying I feel I am that I’ve also been told I am. I don’t want it to sound in any way egotistical.
No, not at all.
But there’s a fine line between ego and confidence. When confidence becomes ego and egotistical, you can tell it right away. I’ve always said to people around me if ever that verge goes across, smack me.
My friends are all instructed the moment I become an arrogant jerk, just pull the plug.
Yeah, my partner Scott will sometimes say to me if I’m being adamant about something and I think I know I’m right, he will actually just grab my hand and he’ll go, “Take a breath.” I realize then, I’m either being a jerk or I’m on the verge of being one and I check myself. But there’s nothing wrong with confidence. There will be critics out there of myself that say, “It is arrogance.” That’s your opinion. You know what? You have the right to your opinion and it doesn’t bother me because I was raised to be this way. I was raised a confident individual. My parents are very confident — now that’s not to say that when I’m at home — I’m very quiet. It might seem unbelievable but I like to just sit. When I’m on a plane, Scott will sit across from me, he’ll lean in and he’ll say, “Are you okay?” and I’ll go “Yeah, I’m fine.” I’ve been known for an 8 hour, 10 hour flight just not to talk. I will sit and I’ll just sit. I think about stuff and I think about what’s coming up, what I’d love to do. People ask me why I’m like that. You know what? This life is not a rehearsal. We’re all on this planet for a specific amount of time and you make it what you want. Again, if you have hard times and troubles and struggles — I don’t like to go into it, but I’ve had my share of letdowns and I’ve also had my share of, shall we say, tragedies in my life but you know what? Everybody has ’em and there’s always somebody out there who’s worse off than you are. If you can keep that in mind, it just helps you get past yours at that time in that give moment.
This is like an episode of “Oprah!” Jesus!
I know! [Points] You get a car and you get a car and you get a car!
One of the cool things that’s really coming across here, too — and I want to ask you about this — how lucky you are to have found someone like Scott who you can have that bond of trust.
[Laughs] He would probably say to you, “Jesus, it’s a nightmare!” [Laughs]
[Laughs] No, but I love that idea of that bond of trust — I have it with my girlfriend as well — the bond of trust is there enough that — the code is there. You don’t need to say anything. You can put the hand there —
Or it’s a kick under the table.
Exactly — I get that a lot.
His foot will press and if I’m in a mood, like I want to be sassy to him I’ll go, “Why are you stepping on my foot?”
[Laughs] How’d you guys find each other?
I was in an alley… [Laughs] No!
I was doing — this is going to sound really awful, but it’s not.
Oh, much worse than an alley!
I was doing a show in a place called Chichester, the Chichester Festival Theater down in the south coast of England. I was doing a play called “Rope” and for the first seven or eight minutes of the show, I was naked. This friend brought Scott to see the show and I was naked and — you know, everything was right out in front! So, the person knew what they were getting right off the bat.
[Laughs] Full disclosure, right off the bat.
All joking aside, I was told by the friend that he was bringing this guy and I thought it was almost like setting us up, but when he came to the dressing room — and I kid you not and this is going to sound corny, but it’s the absolute truth — when I turned around and looked at him, I looked at him and I thought, “That is the person I am going to spend the rest of my life with and I have to pursue that person.” I didn’t know how I was going to do it. He said when he first saw me, he said he looked at me and he thought — actually when he saw me on stage he thought, “He’s totally out of my reach.” But, I thought he was much younger than me. Turns out he’s older!
[Laughs] Cut him open and count the rings! My girlfriend, by the way, just melted into a puddle with that story.
But it took a year before I went out!
Yeah, I saw him that night and I spoke to him.
And he saw you!
That’s right, he certainly did. It was a year until we went out on our first date after that — I used to drive and see him at a bus stop or I’d see him in the street or I’d see him going to the gym and I never had — and this is funny, here it is — I didn’t have the confidence enough to go up and talk to him.
That’s really fascinating. Was that a common problem with you and dating in general or just with him?
[Laughs] First answer to the question, “No.” Because I’d only had one boyfriend prior to that and without going into too much detail, I had a good time when I was younger — a very safe time, also, just for all of you out there. I think it’s different when you find the person who you know is that person because something different happens to you inside and I think that’s what it was. There was a lack of confidence but I knew what I wanted but I didn’t know how to approach and get it without seeming like a bullsy, aggressive kind of…
Yeah, but inside stuff was going on, too, in the sense that you’re right, what you want — you have to address things that you didn’t realize you had to address.
I’m also a firm believer in that if it’s meant to happen, it’s meant to happen. So the more I kept seeing him, I knew this was meant to be. There was an instance later when I was doing Sunset Boulevard in the West End and I instigated another meeting with this friend of ours and Scott and then we went out to dinner. The whole night at dinner, we were back at this friend’s house, he just couldn’t look at me in the eye. Eventually, I, without going into any more detail, the other friend went for a walk. [Laughs] And I made my move. That was it. It’s now — we’re coming up for 18 years.
Don’t quote me on that because Scott knows the years. I don’t. I’m rubbish with years, but it’s a long time.
That is awesome.
Between 16 and 18 years.
Check back Friday for Part 3 of Mark Waid interviewing John Barrowman on CBR TV.