CBR TV presents the final installment of Mark Waid’s three-part interview with “Torchwood” star John Barrowman, with the comic book writer speaking with the fan-favorite actor about his popular BBC series, the character of Captain Jack, how he landed the now-iconic role and much more.
Barrowman starts by looking back at his failed audition for “Will and Grace,” a role he was turned down for being “too straight,” before trying out for the part of Captain Jack on “Doctor Who,” a role he has since turned into a career-defining one involving his own spinoff series, toys, comics and more.
The actor reveals the mixed emotions he felt on the day he found out about headlining his own series, “Torchwood,” the changes and growth the Captain Jack character has seen over the course of his existence, working with Starz and how the deal with the pay cable network made continuing the series possible. Barrowman explains how much of himself he pours into the character on-screen and his theory that by approaching the character from such a personal level adds to the inherent likability of Captain Jack.
Barrowman discusses his documentary, “The Making of Me,” and how it caused him to look at his own sexual orientation and the belief that homosexuality can be “cured,” his love of “Archie” comics (he’d cast himself as Archie if asked), co-writing novels and comics with his sister Carole, kissing James Marsden during his “Torchwood” guest shot and much more.
Mark Waid: So, first off, you auditioned for “Will and Grace” and that, thank god, you were too straight for Will?
John Barrowman: Well, apparently. No, that was a long time ago. Also, I don’t like talking about it that much anymore because a newspaper in Britain tried to make out that I was telling a huge lie and I absolutely was not. In those types of instances, I don’t tell lies like that. They dug into the records of the studio that did the audition — now, no studio’s going to put that into writing. That was what I was told from the word of whoever told my agent at the time, they told me I was too straight an actor.
Well, water under the bridge. So, how did you come across the Captain Jack role or how did it come across you?
Oh, well I was doing “Anything Goes” in the West End and I remember vividly my niece was visiting with me and I had been told about this character that Russell T. Davis had written. They wanted to meet with me, he was a rogue American swashbuckler — that’s what they thought — but I read him as an American but also as a Brit and also as a Scot. After my meeting with Russell and Phil Colinson who was one of our exec producers at the time and I sat with them. The meeting was only supposed to be 10 minutes, it lasted for about 45. I told them about my passion for “Doctor Who,” about the dream I had as a kid. I never thought that an American speaking guy would be part of the TARDIS and if they would take a chance because I was in musical theater — a lot of musical theater people don’t get given chances to be on television, but they’re good enough to do it — and I left that meeting and literally 10 or 15 minutes of getting back to the West End, I got the word that that was it and they wanted me to be Jack. That was when my career and my life went in a different direction.
What was the first scene you filmed in that role?
The first scene I filmed was on top of the spaceship in front of a green screen. It was my first introduction to green screen, standing in front of Big Ben and I was wooing Billie Piper’s character of Rose and I was on top of my spaceship. I was so chuffed that I had a spaceship. [Laughs] I had my own spaceship and they even made a toy out of it! I have one of the toy.
Of course you do! I would too if I were you.
That was it! It was a thrilling sequence. Everybody was ready to break for Christmas and they were all ready to finish and I was the last scene up that day, so I knew I had to get it all right. I had to dance with her to hit all different camera angles. Knowing dance and choreography, I just said to them, where do you want our faces facing when we do this and I will make sure it works. So, that was it! That was my first sequence that I filmed.
That’s a good story. That’s great. So what was the reaction when they came to you and said, “Good news, we’re going to spin you off into…?”
Well, actually, it was a very difficult day because I was doing a cabaret show, we had finished filming “Doctor Who.” Also, there was a period where I was told I wasn’t going to be in the second series. Then they said I would come back in the third, so there was a bit of a letdown for me. After the third series of being in “Doctor Who,” it was on 7/7, which was the London bombing, it was the terrorist bombings where they blew up the buses and the tube stations and a lot of people lost their lives — I was doing my cabaret and Julie and Russell were booked to come and see me that night. I think I was the only show in that part of London that didn’t shut down because I believe that we shouldn’t allow them to stop our way of life and stop how we want to live and we shouldn’t be dictated. I was adamant that people would still come and people did! People walked instead of taking buses because everything was shut down. Julie and Russell arrived. Russell couldn’t come, Julie arrived and on that night was the night that they told me — just before the show Julie had drinks with us and she said, “We’re giving you your own show. We’re spinning off Jack into ‘Torchwood.’ You will have your own team, you will have your own coat,” and I wanted to jump up and scream, but knowing the situation of what was happening outside, I had to keep my — and I couldn’t tell anybody. In a way it was a blessing in disguise because I went on and did my show that night with an extra verve inside me. When I was finished, I told Scott and I told my mom and dad — I was allowed to tell my mom and dad, I was allowed to tell my immediate family, my manager obviously knew the same thing. He’s also one of my good friends. When it came time to actually announce “Torchwood,” it was well on from 7/7, so I felt like I could celebrate it. So, on the day that something bad happened, something good for me happened but it was a very different kind of emotion for me.
Interesting. And the most recent incarnation was filmed — or it was set — in the Los Angeles area. It was a different brush, it was co-produced by Starz.
It was co-produced by Starz and BBC.
Right, so how did that impact any of the way you approached it or the production?
I still approached it the same way as I — I know Jack inside out. I feel I do. I think I’ve played him for six odd years. I know him well. [Singing] I know him so well.
So for me, it’s a challenge when they write something different. So when all of a sudden they wrote that Jack would be mortal, this is something that I had never experienced before. So Jack would always put himself in harm’s way to save the day and all of a sudden, here’s this man now who has to rely on other people to do other things for him because he has to keep himself alive. That was very different and that’s what part of episodic television is all about. I love doing it for Starz. Starz gave us a new lease of life on the show. I know there was a bit of controversy about it, but everybody again, is entitled to their opinion — but I have to say without the collaboration, we probably would not have had a “Torchwood.” So, I don’t care who we do it for. I don’t care who gives us the money to make it. As a fan of the show, and as that being my bread and butter and also I love the character of Captain Jack, if it’s decided to be done by a group of fans who put up the millions of dollars to do it, I will do it.
Exactly, that’s great! That’s the devotion of the character. It’s funny, you were talking about the way you approached the role in the most recent series and you can see it — and I’m not just waxing your car, this is a genuine observation.
Wax on, wax off, baby!
[Laughs] It’s a credit to what you do and your skill that you can see how the character had to struggle with being a very isolated figure to someone who over the course of those ten episodes had to learn to break some of those walls down and had to learn to…
Sure, but you also use it — I’m not one of those actors who goes into depth and discusses things. I’m very much a do-it kind of actor. I sometimes think if you overthink something, it becomes ridiculous. It’s a character you’re playing. But having said that, the character is a lot like me. There’s a lot of John in Jack and a lot of Jack in John and that’s just the way it is. I think in television if you put your personality into the character, it’s liked a lot more by the people who watch it. So, some of those angst and things were also personal things that I put into it because here was the actor who was having to take this step back and allow other people to be in the limelight and that was also — you know, I’m just going to be upfront and honest about it — that was also, in a way a little bit of a challenge for me because I had always been the one in front, so I used that as the character. I used it in the work.
I think your vulnerability and your willingness to put yourself out and blur the lines between the character and your own personality is what makes you as…
Any actor — and again this is my own opinion — but I think any actor who is really, I use the word successful, I don’t want to use the word good, but successful at what they do and the characters they play — and I’m talking about audience reaction to them, I think they would all agree that they put some of their own person into it. That’s why you find that I’m very much able to finish my work day and go home and leave it at the door. I know a lot of actors can’t do that. I don’t get it but — I think that’s why some other actors find it difficult is because they put a lot of themselves into it. They find it very difficult to disconnect so quickly. I have no problem because once you give me a vodka tonic and a little bag of potato chips and a dip, I can turn it off no problem! [Laughs]
That’s true on a weekly film series, talk about that process when you were doing your documentary.
Oh, “The Making of Me!” Well, the difficulty of that is I went into that program — here’s the difficulty, I’m just going to say it out here — I knew exactly who I was. I knew I was born this way. I knew I didn’t wake up one morning and decide, “Okay, I’m going to be gay.” It just doesn’t work like that. And for anybody out there, I don’t care who you are, anybody out there who says that, you are wrong. I’m living it, you’re not. Unless you’re living it, you know. So, I had to approach this because they said, “What if we find out that the DNA, that it’s not? What if we find out with these tests that it is a choice?” And I had to think, “Okay, well if you can prove that to me, I will have to rethink who I am as an individual.” Consequently, the things that happened in that documentary proved to me that it is a makeup in your physical, the way you’re born, it’s in your brain, it’s a chemical thing. Whether it’s DNA or chemical, it’s different for different people. We are all very different in who we are and what makes us individuals sexually is not the same as somebody else. It was a good show for me to do, I learned a lot about other people, I also learned — in fact, one of the gentlemen I spoke to and he was a cured gay. He was cured of his homosexuality. The more I spoke to him, the more I realized that he is not cured. All he’s doing is denying who he is. His belief system, which he believes in, wants him to deny that. That’s what he chooses to do. That is his choice. Who I am is not my choice.
It’s really interesting that here you are, a guy whose entire career is built on playing roles that aren’t you and all of this feeds into really helping you at heart discover who you are.
Yeah, but that’s life. No matter what job you’re doing, you find out who you are as an individual I would think.
I would think.
I would hope.
If you do it with zeal, if you do it with honesty and integrity, it will. If you’re begging groceries when you’re 50 years old and you wish you were doing something else — not to put that down — but I’m saying if you’re not invested emotionally in that job, then you’re not going to learn anything.
Yes but there’s a difference — sometimes people have to do things, and I’ve had to do things, because you have to.
Oh yes, of course, and I wasn’t meaning to be denigrating.
Oh yes, I understand, so the best way to do those things is to find the thing in it. Do you know what I mean?
We’ve all done those — I’ve shoved coal into a furnace before I was — between high school and college. I did that for a summer and I hated every minute of it but what it made me realize is that I need an education. I’m not saying that shoveling coal is a bad job. I didn’t want to do it. Somebody else wanted to do it because there were guys there who loved doing it.
Yeah, you find the part that works for you. I’ve written everything from Spider-Man to Superman to Archie to everything over the last 20 years or so.
[Laughs] I love Archie!
I love Archie. Which Archie character do you feel — if you had to cast yourself right now…
Archie, of course!
The main character! Duh!
I’m more of a Jughead myself, but even writing all those characters, what I had to learn is even if it was a deal where I didn’t have any affection or immediate emotional connection with those characters, I had to find what was in there that I could connect to. Even the tiniest bit, the tiniest sliver of myself in there that I then could pull out.
And that’s what makes it interesting. That’s what makes the characters jump off the page in a comic book because you know that every comic book that yourself or Stan Lee — whether it’s DC or Marvel, the guys that create those characters, there’s part of themselves in them and that’s what makes it exciting. That’s why when Carol and I have written a book like “Hollow Earth” and we put the characters — there’s a little bit of all of us in the characters. Emily and Zach and Matt, the characters who are the main characters in it, Em’s nickname is Em and what is “Em” spelled backwards?
Off camera: Me?
The first word she’s spoken the whole time! But that’s right, and those are little things because there’s a little of Em in me, my sister’s middle name is Emily, there’s a bit of Matt in my sister and in me, so there’s bits of us in all the characters.
What was it like working with your sister on that? You worked with her on the “Torchwood” comics too, right?
We did. We did the Selkie comic which is right here [Grabs a copy of “Torchwood” comic with Captain Jack on the cover], there we go. Tommy Lee Edwards did all the graphics and there’s the other cover. It was a very popular selling comic. Carol and I, we’ve written a lot together. Carol always says that she’s now got a gay man living in her head.
And there’s a lot of things we’ve written — my autobiography is another thing. Carol, when we write together, she lives with me for the duration of the time, about three months, four months, and there’s some things we’ll talk about and we’ll do and she’ll go [Shakes head] “Eeeww! I didn’t need to know that!” We have a good working relationship. Actually, it brought us closer as adults because as adults, you tend to with your siblings, you grow apart a little bit, but what our work together has done is it’s brought us closer together.
It’s really good.
So, “Torchwood” was the first collaboration and “Hollow Earth” is a full-blown novel, right?
“Hollow Earth” is a full blown novel and then we also have “Torchwood” — I keep forgetting the name of that, and I’m not going to tell you the name. Just bleep that out. We’ve changed the name a couple of times. But the “Torchwood” novel that comes out either before “Hollow Earth” or after — I think it’s after “Hollow Earth” — and it’s fantastic. We’ve built on the knowledge of Jack and my sister spent a lot of time on the set with me for “Torchwood.” It’s a good relationship. She’s also a sci-fi — she wrote a thing for Chicks Dig Sci-Fi, so she’s very good at what she does. I’m rambling now.
No, it’s great to bond as adults with your siblings.
But isn’t that what sci-fi does for people? Sci-Fi makes you bond with people you never really thought that you had. That’s what I love about this whole kind of — whether it’s comics, science fiction, TV shows, whether it’s memorabilia — the people you are introduced to and that you start meeting and talking to, it’s really great to know there are all those other people out there who are like yourself and like the same kind of things and that’s the beauty of science fiction, it brings people together.
My girlfriend and I met James Marsden not too long ago. Fantastic guy. In the quest to ask questions that you don’t normally ask celebrities because you’re tired of hearing them and hearing the same question over and over again, Christi pops out, out of the blue with, “So, you kissed John Barrowman. What was that like?”
[Laughs] Like he’s never been asked that before.
To his credit, he said that you did have very soft lips. I guess the question was, what was it like to kiss him?
What was it like to kiss him? It was good. I found it very interesting after every time — and I joke with him about this and I have spoken to him about it — but after we kissed, he would go over to his girlfriend and give her a big snog.
And just as a joke, I had them do take after take after take so he had to kiss me more and more and more and every time he would go over to his girlfriend and start kissing her again. By the end of the day, she was chapped all around her mouth.
But yeah, it was the first time he had ever done something like that, so — not the first time for me. And anyway, and I said to him, “What’s the difference in kissing a woman than kissing a man? They’re just a different gender. You’re an actor, you have to do it and I have to do it.” So we had a great time! That’s one of the most iconic sequences in “Torchwood,” that walking through the — it’s an old gunslinger movie.
And to his credit, I would interject that when answering the question, he didn’t roll his eyes, he didn’t give a shiver, it was like we were asking him what it was like to kiss Marlena Dietrich. It was just — boom.
And he was very into it and very gracious, but I think he enjoyed it more because I used tongue.
[Laughs] Lastly, we’ve heard you do a little bit of the “Doctor Who” in a singing voice, it’s a theme that lends itself to a musical quite well. Are you little disappointed that “Torchwood” does not lend itself?
“Torchwood” the musical? No, it wouldn’t work, I don’t think. Torchwood, we always change every time we do something and every time it comes back, we have to morph into something new, we have to do something that’s going to make a huge impact. Musical version of it? I don’t think so. I think that would be a bit of a stretch.
Can I press upon you to give us a few seconds of “Doctor Who?”
You mean “The Doctor and I?”
[Sings to the tune of “The Wizard and I” from “Wicked”] When I meet the Doctor and once I’ve proved my worth, when I meet the Doctor, what I’ve waited for since birth and with all his Doctor wisdom by my looks he won’t be blinded — do you think the Doctor is dumb or like Oods, he’s so small-minded, no! He’ll say to me I’ll see who you truly are Jack, a man on who I can rely. And that’s how we’ll begin the Doctor and I.
Well done, sir! Thanks again, John, we’ve taken much more of your time than I intended to.
Don’t worry, I’ve got to go sign autographs for everybody. There’s a huge crowd of people waiting.
Well, starting with these right here.
Yes, so as they say in television, “That’s a wrap!”