CCI | John Barrowman, Mekhi Phifer Talk Torchwood: Miracle Day

A day after attending a premiere screening of the third episode of Torchwood: Miracle Day at Comic-Con International, the stars of the sci-fi series met with reporters to discuss the move from BBC to Starz, the introduction of new characters and the aspects of the show that will, and will not, change with the shift from British to American television.

Torchwood spun out of the second series of Russell T. Davies' relaunched Doctor Who, which introduced the titular organization responsible for combating alien threats. Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), a man from the 51st century who cannot die, leads the team through extraordinary situations and is regularly faced with impossible choices that will shape the fate of humanity, while Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), a rookie in the first series, provides much of the show’s heart but has developed a toughness required of her role.

By the end of Children of Earth, the five-episode third season, the two are all that remains of Torchwood, and the agency disbands. Moving to Starz for the new season, Torchwood: Miracle Day introduces several new characters and transplants much of the action from Wales to the United States. The series explores what happens one day when the human population is no longer able to die — all but Jack Harkness, who suddenly finds himself very mortal.

The incredibly personable and enthusiastic Barrowman said many of the actors hadn’t seen Episode 3 before the Thursday screening. “We decided as a team to watch it because I think it's important to let everybody know we are passionate about it,” he said. “We love the show. We actually do sit and watch it. I have photographs of us, going all the way back to the first series, in my place in Wales or Eve’s, sitting there eating pizza. So, yeah, it was nice for us to see it, too.”

Addressing the concerns some fans have expressed that the move to America might lead to the toning down of the show’s homosexual content, Barrowman said there's no reason to worry. “American television has the most gay characters represented worldwide on the networks,” he said. “Now, they might be stereotyped, but that's OK, because we're not stereotyping on our show, and we have to have that diversity in programming.” Barrowman is gay, and the bisexual (or omnisexual) Jack Harkness and had been most closely romantically linked to male colleague Ianto Jones. “What I'm saying is, the fans don't need to worry, because you've got an openly gay man playing the main character, and I'm not going to change. If it does happen, when they're not going to do that stuff with the show, I'm not going to be part of the show. Because that's part of what — and Russell feels the same way — that's what we began with and represented. If we keep going on about it we tend to sound old-fashioned, because things are moving forward, and we just have to help move forward even more. Fans don't need to worry.”

In fact, he said, “There's a really big episode coming up where you see a beautiful love relationship between two men develop.”

“You go back into Jack's past and you learn a lot about Jack,” he continued. “That's the episode that Russell wrote, and he said, 'This is a gift for you guys, for all the work you've done bringing the words to life.’ So we were really pleased, it was an honor for him to do something like that for us.” Barrowman called the episode “a beautiful story” that will also shed light upon the relationship between Gwen and Jack. “You find out truthfully and honestly how they really feel about each other, which is really not what you'd expect.”

Asked whether he's interested in writing more Torchwood comics, as he has done for the Titan magazine devoted to the show, Barrowman said, “I really want to do more.” “In fact, my sister and I have written a Torchwood novel. We've also done four fantasy books for children between the ages of 8 and 13. It's a story about a brother and sister team. We've finished the first book, we're actually working on the second one,” Barrowman added. “So I am getting involved in stuff like that. The graphic designer Tommy Lee Edwards, who is a big fan of Torchwood and has done all the graphics for the comics, I would actually love to do another comic.

“I would love there to be graphic novels of Torchwood. I love this show. I love this character. I'm over the moon about its success, and I want everyone to be a part of it. That sounds really, really ... like a child, doesn't it? But you know what I mean. You want more of a good thing.”

Speaking on his character's complex continuity, which loops back and forth through time and includes potentially thousands of years' worth of stories, Barrowman acknowledges it can be difficult to keep everything straight. However, he said he and the other actors play well off each other and can bring past events to bear on current story arcs. “That's a thing with Eve and I, I might turn to her and say, 'Do you remember that episode where this happened? Where does that leave us here?’ We actually discuss with directors when we're working with them, especially these new directors who are American, they trusted us an awful lot. They said, 'You know these characters inside-out, would they do this?' And we would either say yes, they would, or no, they wouldn't,” the actor said. “It's hard to keep them all straight in your head, particularly since I've been playing Jack now for almost eight years, having come from Doctor Who and having been in Doctor Who and having that arc there, and then the arc with Torchwood. But I love all that stuff, I love when I play something and I see another script and I go 'Ooh, how does that work out?' Because he's the Face of Boe and he's this and he's this. ... It's all those kind of things, all those little bits and bobs.”

This led to the question of whether Barrowman keeps a character diary for Jack. “No, no. Nonononononono,” he laughed. “It's all in my head. I'm not one of those actors, what I call a wanky actor. I totally understand, I get it. When I get a script, I will take the script and make my notes.

“Actually ... I tell a fib. My scripts, then, and my notes. I have every script from my first episode of Doctor Who and I have all my notes. It's not really a diary, but I've kept all my notes.”

But does he refer back to them? “I haven't looked back at them, no!”

Barrowman also discussed Jack's conflict in Miracle Day. “Here you have a man who is now mortal, who for a long time was struggling with his immortality,” he said. “But here he learns a lot about his immortality and who he really is and what he really wants during this series. And it's not what you expect.”

Jack will also have to trust and rely upon his team. “Whereas before, he would do anything to save somebody or save the planet, now he has to be a little more cautious because he can die. So he has to rely on Gwen, he has to rely even on Rex,” Barrowman said. “So there's that vulnerability, that fear that is there. He does trust, but he also still puts himself in the middle of the situation. Remember he's got the weight on his shoulders from what happened, having to sacrifice his grandson. You've got another character, Oswald Danes, who killed a child but for a very different reason, for a selfish, evil reason; Jack sacrificed a child [in Children of Earth] to save humanity — they're very similar.”

Joining Captain Jack Harkness and Gwen Cooper for Miracle Day is CIA agent Rex Matheson, played by Mekhi Phifer. Rex is mortally wounded early in the first episode, but because of the “Miracle Day” phenomenon, continues to live on. He's less than impressed with the mysterious Torchwood Institute, but realizes he will need its expertise to get to the bottom of mankind's new immortality.

Phifer described joining the series as “wonderful,” adding, “It's great to be part of a show that already has a huge success. It's already got a huge fan base and all that kind of stuff.”

“But it's also little nerve-wracking because you don't want to go in there and screw it up. You want to keep the integrity of what the show has already established,” he said. “I felt great about it, but you never know until you get on the set and work with everybody. It so happened that they were so wonderful, and John and Eve welcomed me with open arms.”

Phifer said he also appreciated Torchwood's devoted fan base. “People were so happy before it even aired, they were so wanting, looking forward to it, the new characters and things like that,” the actor said. “It's interesting, you get people [who] don't like me yelling at John and Eve. They don't like that too much. But that's what it is! They've got their loyal fans, 'Who is this new guy yelling at everybody? What's going on?' But that's the dynamic of those characters. Obviously, as we get thrust closer together, we all become part of the same team. I become part of their team.”

Like Barrowman, Phifer too finds the on-set experience to be warm and rewarding. “This is the first time since ER I've felt such a friendly atmosphere. It's such an intense show, but on set you wouldn't know it because we laugh a lot, Kai [Owen] and Eve are always singing and dancing around. And John, you never know what to expect,” Phifer said. “So it's intense, but when they yell 'cut' we're hanging out, telling stories, telling jokes, it's the greatest feel. Just like on ER. ER was extremely intense, but that set was bananas. Everybody was in on it, the cameramen, the DPs, we had a wonderful time on that show as well, but this is a wonderful experience.”

The fact that resolving the “Miracle Day” mystery may well lead to Rex's death bears heavily on the character, Phifer said, but not so heavily that he's willing to shirk his duties as a CIA agent — or deny his own drive to solve the case. “That's a great thing about this character and something he battles with. He wants to solve this thing, he needs to. He needs to know what's behind this thing, he needs to know who's behind it, that's just a part of his make up,” Phifer said. “But yeah, there's a thing in the back of his mind that, if I solve this thing, will I just fall down and die? That's something that Rex is definitely battling.

“His priority right now is to solve this thing, and see how he meshes his world with the Torchwood world. The main thing is finding out this miracle, and him dying is more of a lone afterthought. He's not running along saying, man I don't want to solve this because I'm probably going to die. He really does want to get to the bottom of it.”

Check back later for interviews with Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper) and Bill Pullman (Oswald Danes)!

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